The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

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To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

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I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

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In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

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It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

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I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

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Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist, the young activist, decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink. I accept cash though!

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I thought the cash line was a joke so I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) After the talk, I went to the ATM and got out $20 to give him because I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned my white guilt cost $20.”

He screen-shotted it and posted on his Facebook page and it became open season on me from his fan base. But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

Reparations site asks people to ‘offset your privilege’ with acts of kindness

I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

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In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

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It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?

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Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.

PODCAST EPISODES ARCHIVED HERE

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Join the discussion on the Recovering Asshole Facebook page.

 

Chuck Berry told Jim Crow to roll over

March 18, 2017

Many times over the last several years I’ve reminded my friends that we live in the same world as Chuck Berry. Like people who lived in the time of Beethoven, we lived in a world where Berry still walked among us. Now some kid will have to sing, “Roll over, Chuck Berry.”

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There are people (and one President) who think America was great in 1954. We call these people “racists.” America was in the wicked grip of Jim Crow, slavery’s bastard offspring. Then on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court decided the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case and institutional racism of “great” America lost one important pillar. And three years later, skinny Dorothy Counts would be escorted into a high school in North Carolina while white students spit on her. But the writing was on the wall.

The summer of 1955 Chess Records released a single by an R&B singer from St. Louis named Chuck Berry who played guitar and wrote his own songs. He sang confidently and black legs spread wide. “Mayballene” hit #1 on the R&B charts and was the #3 song for the year on the Billboard chart. The world BCB (before Chuck Berry) was over. White kids were buying “race” records like there was no caucasian tomorrow. The children of the Baby Boom were smashing the wall of American segregation and “Johnny B. Goode” was their battle cry. I bet even some of those kids in the “White Citzen Council” who spit on Dorothy Counts would, sooner or later, own some Berry records.

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And it it wasn’t just American kids. The lads in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sold their Anglican souls to become like Chuck, so much more than Elvis. Both played sets heavy in Berry-penned songs, including his B-sides. Listen to the Beatles’ version of Chuck’s “Rock and Roll Music.” John Lennon slyly changes the line, “It’s got a backbeat” to “It’s got a black beat” as they played in places where promoters wanted their audience to be racially segregated. (They refused to play segregated shows. They were playing a black beat, after all.)

Without Chuck Berry, there would be no Beatles or Stones, and perhaps no 1960s as we know it. Those 1950s white teenyboppers who snuck copies of “Sweet Little Sixteen” on to their parents’ hi-fi became the countercultural rebels of the 1960s, listening to John Coltrane albums and heading to Mississippi to register black voters that “Freedom Summer” of 1964, and then on to join SNCC and the whole movement to deconstruct the immoral order. You don’t have Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 without “Mayballene” in 1955. And you don’t have anything that comes after. It would be 60 more years of the same, Truman to Trump.

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I was reflecting on this shortly after I heard the news today that Chuck has left us. As I am sometimes compelled to do, I scratched out some words as his first 1957 album, After School Session, blasted on from my turntable.

Earth BCB

There was a wall

Created by slave traders and Indian killers

One drop plus

The world was black and white

White against black

There was a wall

A partition between the waltz,

even the hillbilly one

and the boogie woogie

and a midnight rendezvous out back

One nation

Two halves of a whole

One race

Two people trapped

Walled off in a divided land

Then a back beat came

and the wall cracked

It had a black beat

and the white kids saw him

A brown-eyed handsome man

Out of a St. Louis shack

Give me Memphis Tennessee

Down to the delta

Then across the nation

A sound as black as coal

The wall fell

There would be no more before

The century turned on a dime

dropped right into the slot

Hail, hail rock and roll

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Chuck Berry goes back as far as I can remember.  My dad had a copy of “Johnny B. Goode” and I would visualize this strange character who could play a guitar just like ringing a bell. When I was 8, Chuck was back on the radio with his novelty hit, “My Ding-a-Ling,” but I already preferred his back catalog. I watched Chuck on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon, who said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” When NASA launched Voyager 1 into deep space forty years ago, I remember how smart they were to include a Chuck Berry record to demonstrate to some alien race that were an evolved species because we had Chuck Berry. (Leading to the hilarious Saturday Night Live Weekend Update tagline, “Send more Chuck Berry.) By the late seventies, Chuck’s music was rediscovered by punk rockers. His “School Days” was a favorite moment in the Ramones’ movie, Rock n Roll High School. And then in the 80s, thanks to Back to the Future, we learned that Chuck was first inspired my Michael J. Fox. Chuck Berry is the eternal time loop, up in the morning and off to school.

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It seems like he’s always been there. I was born in 1964 (shortly after his release from prison) so I guess he was. Anyone born after today will will have never shared the planet with Chuck Berry. How will they know that this wasn’t just a guy with a guitar? How will they know that his black beat changed a nation still chained in Jim Crow apartheid? How will they learn about the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA?

It’s not a tragedy to die at 90, especially if some of those years were spent locked up. There will be plenty of salacious details rehashed. Maybe they’re relevant. I just know this world would not be as it is if not for one brown-eyed handsome man named Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Hail, hail.

(Photo:  Jazz Fest, New Orleans 1994 by BP Fallon)

Note: This isn’t meant to a feminist analysis of Chuck Berry’s life or his music. That can come another day. The father of rock and roll is dead and the mother was never even named.

Interviewing Neo-Nazis has taught me how to talk to Trump supporters

March 9, 2017

Riding on a Portland bus one time, I was talking to one of my PSU students and said, “I was at a Klan rally once…” and I think all talk on the bus stopped. My student knew I was referring my years of undercover work in the white supremacist world, but the passengers on the Number 8 likely thought I was one of the racist recruiters that pop up in the city looking for fresh cuts for the coming race war.

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It’s impossible to count the number of white supremacists I’ve interviewed over the last 30 years. Over 200, for sure. Some of that was at covert Klan rallies in Georgia, in dark strip bars in Oregon, and in the bright light of the mainstream media. (Somebody please put my appearance on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on YouTube. It’s a Klanriffic hoot!) I’ve interviewed anti-government militia members in a cabin in Montana and Aryan murderers in a Texas prison where I had to wear a Kevlar vest (to protect my vital organs, the guard said). And I’ve interviewed grandsons of real Nazis in Berlin, standing next to the rubble of the wall.  And I’ve heard it all.

In qualitative research we call it “data saturation.” When you start hearing the same thing over and over again, you’ve probably got enough information to start building a theory. Did you know the world is controlled by a secret Jewish cabal? Did you know that Jews in the music business want white kids to listen to rap music so they won’t listen to their own “white” music? (Yodeling, perhaps.) Did you know that if a white woman has intercourse with a black man, his sperm is so potent, any child she has after that will be part black? (I always thought that one was a pretty good case for black supremacy.) These people were mastering alternative facts before Sean Spicer knew how to chew gum.

People often ask, “How can you sit down and talk to these Nazis?” Well, beer helps. And growing up in a Klan town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, doesn’t hurt. Many of these “extremists” are a lot like the people I grew up with, a few who went off and joined the Klan or other racist groups. They are, at their core, human beings who are trying to make sense of the world with the tools they’ve been given. And that’s why there is hope.

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When I started interviewing racist skinheads in the 1980s, people would ask me, “What happens to these people when they grow up?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. Talk to me in 30 years and I’ll tell you.” Now there is a whole world of former racist activists who are actively engaged in the other side, working to undue the hate they once spread. They have written amazing books, like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, and formed vitally important organizations, Life After Hate. Individually and collectively they talk to young people about the mistakes and thinking errors they made that caused them to burn up valuable time in their lives while undermining the essential peace in our communities. The best person to talk about the problems with living in the extreme right-wing is somebody who used to live in the extreme right-wing.

When Trump launched his political campaign in 2015, it was painfully clear he was borrowing the playbook from white supremacists. My blog post on the parallels of Trump’s rhetoric and what you’re likely to hear at a KKK rally has over 270,000 reads and has been posted across the world. (I was even interviewed by a newspaper in Spain about its assertions.)  In the time since then, I’ve written about how a good number of his followers share many qualities with the rank and file followers of neo-fascist subcultures.

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I’ve been honored to help many people leave the world of hate. They use their experience as both a source of reflection and advocacy. I have to think the same will be true with many Trump followers. That as the true agenda of his administration becomes clear, many of those people who voted for him, including people in my family, will see the thinking errors and reject his dangerous demagoguery. The best people to talk about the dangers of supporting Donald Trump will be people who used to support Donald Trump. Just like inside every white supremacist is a potential committed anti-racist activist, inside every Trump supporter is a potential social justice warrior. The threat of Trump to core American values is just too serious to not try.

I want to briefly outline a few traps that both white supremacists and Trump fans (and plenty of liberals) get caught in. Maybe these issues can be addressed when attempting to appeal to the humanity of either. (By the way, I could write a book on each of these. But here are 3 quickies.)

Low-Effort Thinking

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When we are young we learn in opposites. Up/down, good/bad, hot/cold. It’s been something of a miracle that I’ve convinced my 2-year-old daughter that there is a category called “warm.” But when we’re kids, the Good Guys are always good and the Bad Guys are always bad (and look it). Similarly, we think of gender as “opposite sexes.” As we get older, things become more nuanced and endlessly shaded in grey, depending on context. Are those guys terrorists or freedom fighters? It depends what side you are on. Is that person male or female? Try asking them how they identify.

Many of the people I studied never graduated to shades of grey. Figuring out the context was too much work. They’d say things like, “How come black people can use the N word but I can’t?” Everything associated with white was good, and non-white was bad. Men were men and women were girls. Their leaders were infallible (until they weren’t) and anything outside their tiny subculture was perverted and corrupt. Stereotypes were absolute and they actively looked for anything to confirm them (“Did you hear about that black guy who raped the white girl?”) and ignored anything that invalidated the stereotype (like their own white criminality).

Numerous studies have backed this up. Feminist Patricia Hill Collins has long examined how dichotomous thinking fosters racism and the research supports the idea that people who see the world in black and white have a hard time empathizing with people they don’t see as members of their group. A 2012 study found this type of “low-effort thinking” pushed people towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. It’s just easier. John Wayne never worried about “nuance,” right?

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Of course this is the hallmark of the Trump supporter who hates Obamacare but wants to keep the benefits gained under the Affordable Care Act. (Anything associated with Obama is “bad.”) In Trumpland, you are either with us or against us. America first! There’s no need for diplomacy when your arsenal is bigger than theirs. Trump was the guy who said the show Blackish was racist because you couldn’t have a show called Whiteish (which would be 98% of the shows on TV). And Ben Carson’s goofy comments about immigration and slavery are no different than Obama’s. Don’t ask me to look at the “context.”

On its surface, it seems moronic, but we all engage in some type of low-effort thinking. I still think anyone who plays for the New York Yankees must be care more about money than the game. Could I be wrong?

It’s a conspiracy, I tell ya!

That low-effort thinking paves the way for conspiracy theories. Nazis are the master of this. It all goes back to their hackneyed belief that events across the planet are controlled by a secret gang of Jewish rabbis. Why is circumcision the norm in the United States? Those rabbis want to lob off gentile foreskins to force the goyim into submission. They’ve got a million of these.

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The conspiracy theory orders their world and simplifies it. A white student fails social studies? It’s because he or she is being forced a “multicultural curriculum meant to make whites feel guilty.” A white dude can’t find a girlfriend? It’s because the Zionist Occupation Government gets non-white women to die their hair blonde so you can’t tell who is truly “white.” (A Neo-Nazi once shot up a bunch of beauty parlors for this exact reason.) The theory explains literally EVERYTHING. No context or thinking required.

You have to think Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Donald Trump, the modern master of the alt-right conspiracy theory lifted straight from Alex Jones’ Infowars. From “Obama’s birth certificate” to “Obama tapped my phones!,” it’s an endlessly fact-free world and his supporters love it. The Mexican government is conspiring to send its rapists across the border and the “fake media” is conspiring to make him look bad. The definition of “fake news” has been repurposed to mean anything that’s not favorable coverage of his ego-driven administration, sending his loyal troops to get their information from “real news” sources, like Breitbart and the National Enquirer. Conspiracy theories about Muslims and refugees and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the dumbing down of America. Where have we seen this kind of cultural thinking before? Hint: You won’t find the answer at Breitbart.

Inside the bubble

All this leads to something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, life under the dome. (And not the cancelled CBS show I was briefly addicted to.) Hate groups work a lot like cults. The flow of information inside the bubble confirms all biases and anything outside the bubble must be avoided, including that gay uncle and cousin who dated a black guy, as well as the classmate who went off to college and was brainwashed by the liberal Jewish (or Jewish liberal) education system. Under the dome their is complete accord – that everyone outside the dome sucks.

That echo chamber is a powerful force on social media where it’s easy to mute a noisy neighbor who has upsetting viewpoints. I’ll admit I’ve blocked a few Trumpies this past year, mainly because I don’t want to waste time arguing. I’m happy to engage, but anytime I see the word “libtard,” I just close my laptop and make a sandwich. That’s not a person who wants a reasoned conversation.

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While there are echo chambers on both the right and left, research shows conservatives are more likely to seek out news sources that confirm their own political positions while liberals are more likely to seek out opposing views. (I always enjoy a quick dip in the Fox News crazy house.) Conservatives tend to be more distrustful of anything coming from outside their bubble. There’s little chance for an alternative perspective if your Trump-loving dad thinks the New York Times is “fake news” and would rather proclaim, “Ditto, Rush!”

Learning from ex-Nazis

The path out of the white supremacist world is often a very personal one. I’ve published about male racists connecting with females who impressed upon them the value of empathy and their own potential victim status as women. Frank Meeink, former racist skinhead leader, has written about how life routinely put people in his path who shattered all his stereotypes. One of my friends was involved in a notorious racist murder in Portland and her conversion started when she befriended her black cellmate and began listening to stories from outside her bubble.

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Even the most hard-core Trump supporter has potential of moving to a radically different position. We’re already seeing scores of disillusioned Trump voters who see that they’ve been duped. If we can help move others out of the black/white thinking, away from the simplistic conspiracy theories, and out of their echo chamber, the possibilities are endless. They’ll reflect back on the days when they were chanting, “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!” and shake their heads. Instead of pushing them further into a dark corner, we can walk them out to the light.

This piece is dedicated to my family and friends who voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016. It’s 2017 and the door is open.

Donald Trump’s Uncivil War on American Values and Human Decency

January 30, 2017

There’s been so much to write about in this new year, but last Friday’s immigration ban from Donald Trump was a call to arms to everyone in this country (and across the globe) who cares about the core values of American freedom and decency. Fortunately, thousands of Americans quickly flooded airports across the country to protest the ban and defend those trying to legally enter the country. Within twelve hours of Trump’s executive order, five federal judges (four who were female) struck down the provisions that detained individuals and families (including children) in several American airports. Many people are still stuck in limbo, but the pressure is on the goon squads.

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When he was on the campaign trail, I wrote more than one piece about how Trump represents a slippery slope toward fascism. A lot of mainstream folks poo pooed the seemingly alarmist concern. After he won the electoral college, his cabinet appointments, a motley crew of seemingly incompetent millionaires and Wall Street billionaires, began to worry voters. What does it mean when Rick Perry is the most shovel-ready guy in the room? And a waiver to have a non-civilian run the Department of Defense was certainly cause for concern. Then his dark inauguration address, where he painted a bleak picture of a ruined nation (actually in a bright economic recovery) brought a chill to all but the most gung-ho Trumpists. His “America first” refrain brought to mind for many another nationalist in Europe about 84 years ago. The silver lining was that Trump was coming in to record low approval ratings. The tide was already turning against him.

Friday’s executive order stopped cold immigration to the US from seven Muslim nations where no terrorists have actually come from. It excluded all the nations the 9/11 attackers came from (like Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and where Trump has significant business dealings. This meant that Syrian families escaping the hell in Aleppo are to be turned back, much like how we turned away Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1930s. Is this who we are as a nation?

That question is important.

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One of the people detained at JFK Airport (in handcuffs) was an Iraqi named Hameed Khalid Darweesh. He worked for the US government in Iraq for ten years as a translator at great risk to himself and his family. He was promised that for this sacrifice he would be granted a visa to emigrate to the United States. That was before Donald Trump arrived and killed all those agreements with our allies in the Muslim world. He reneged on America’s deal with Darweesh like he’s reneged on so many deals he’s made in the business world. But this betrayal has global impacts. Who in the Middle East will want to work with us now? (Is Trump for Russia and ISIS?) I think of the great shame America carries for all its broken treaties with Native Americans. How will history rank the shame we will inherit from the Trump Administration? Is this who we are as a nation?

It’s clear that the grown-ups have been kicked out of the White House. This executive order was probably the work of alt-right guru Steve Bannon and not any sane people in the State Department. Trump’s dismantling of the National Security Council was labeled as “stone cold crazy” by former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. His promotion of torture as an effective way to fight terrorism (when all evidence shows the contrary) rattled even his hand-picked generals. Besides the fact that all of this makes us less safe, is this who we are as a nation? This chaos?

The seeds of Civil War II

Just like Brits who regretted Brexit immediately after voting for it, there are scores of Americans who have had second thoughts about their vote for this madman. They were there with the millions who participated in the Women’s March and they were also some in the airports Saturday night demanding the release of immigrants who had followed all the rules. The civil rights movement was greatly energized by whites marching arm in arm with blacks in the 1960s. The anti-Trump movement to restore America is going to require conservatives joining progressives to try to make America great again. We will need our Republican brothers and sisters in this struggle.

The danger is in the fact-free environment that Trump and his alt-right cronies have fostered. There’s a certain chunk of the population that is easily manipulated by pressing a few racist buttons. They were the chumps that thought President Obama wasn’t legitimately American because Trump said so and they are the chumps that think crime by “illegal aliens” is a significant threat, despite the actual facts. Trump has said that he will publish a weekly list of crimes by “aliens” (which would include legal resident aliens, like my wife), stoking the fear mongering, negating the legitimate fact that most offenses in this country are committed by white male citizens. Facts don’t matter when fear of “the other” rules the day. This how fascism works.

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As more Americans come out to defy the unconstitutional and unAmerican actions of Donald Trump, how will his loyal cult respond to the assault on their Dear Leader’s campaign to remake America in his image? The great hope is that we can convince them that he is bat-shit crazy and a danger to the core values all of us share, even the guy who only listens to Lee Greenwood records. But there are a bunch of Trumpies that are even more bat-shit crazy than our celebrity president and they have a lot of guns. They live in Trump’s land of wacky conspiracy theories and think “real America” is closer to the empty wilderness of Wyoming than the world millions of citizens on the east and west coasts live in. And they are ready to fight with God and his orange son on their side.

Trump has divided this country in a way that makes national unity now seem like a far off dream. All he needs is one terrorist attack (real or contrived) or one heinous crime by an immigrant (real or contrived) to take the next step in his clampdown. He’s already floated the idea of immigrants turning over their social media accounts to the Feds, as well as just “closing up” the internet. No wonder Amazon has sold out of George Orwell’s 1984. We are living in a dystopia.

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The demagoguery has proven Trump cares more about his ego than the survival of the nation. From his obsession with the crowd size at his coronation to his inability to get off of unsecured communication platforms like Twitter (Does anybody remember Hillary’s emails?) and now to this gift-wrapped present he just handed ISIS, it’s clear he could give a rat’s ass about national security. Let’s just hope the NSA was smart enough to give him fake launch codes for our nuclear arsenal. Trump is rapist Alex in A Clockwork Orange who will lead his moronic droogs into a war against the rest of us just to prove his hands aren’t that small.

It gets personal

This is just beginning. Out of this weekend’s chaos came the message that people from these seven Muslim nations with green cards shouldn’t expect to be admitted back into the country if they leave. That means, if your mother in Somalia is sick, you can’t visit her because the Trump kakistocracy thinks you might be a terrorist instead of a concerned child. And if you are student from Iran studying at an American university, you better hide in your dorm room for the next four years. (Again, no terrorist attacks in the United States have been committed by anybody from these countries.) Trump has stated his list of seven countries could be widened and what nation does he hold the most disdain for? Mexico.

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There are over one million lawful permanent residents in the US, known as green card holders, and 13% are from Mexico. That includes my wife who got her green card in 2010. We enjoy our trips to Mexico to see her family and immerse our daughter in her Latin heritage. I also teach a summer college course on a beautiful Mexican island each summer. If Trump widens his enemy nation list, that could all change. It’s already changing.

Reports are coming in of plainclothes ICE agents lurking in court houses looking for any potential “illegal” they can detain. Across America, immigrant communities from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Libya are in lockdown, off the streets, for fear that Trump’s gestapo will come knocking; afraid to leave the house, let alone the country. Many of these people went through the absolute extreme of human suffering to find sanctuary here in the land of the free. Additionally, Latino immigrants are now being told by bosses not to complain about working conditions or pay or be reported to ICE. Middle-eastern immigrant kids are being told by bullies (and some teachers) that their parents are terrorists and are going to be kicked out of the country. Trump’s crackdown on “sanctuary cities” has already violated the 10th Amendment (see Printz v. United States, 1997), but the wave of fear will have countless casualties before the issue is re-argued before his stacked Supreme Court. This is not America.

The good news is the freedom-loving world has condemned Trump’s fascistic chaos. The images of refugee children dying to escape actual carnage (not Congressman John Lewis’s wonderful 5th district in Atlanta) are forever burned in our memories. Real American Christians are strong in the opposition along with every other demographic who wants to stand up to this insanity, this anti-American obscenity. Unfortunately, this call to the defense of basic human decency is happening as his cult rips the country into bits. Is this who we are as a nation?

Americans cannot wait until this lunatic destroys our great nation. He must be condemned and removed now. For the sake of all that is sacred to us.

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Forsyth County, Georgia, January 24th, 1987: The day we marched for freedom and won

January 24, 2017

Millions of people marched last Saturday to stand up to Donald Trump and the ongoing war on women. The actual turnout dwarfed expectations and the global images must have put the powerful on notice. But still the naysayers chimed in, including other women. “What good does marching do?” “These people should have voted!” “Get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich!” And worse (or more stupid).

So here’s a short story. Thirty years ago today about 20,000 people marched on the tiny town of Cumming, Georgia and changed the world in an afternoon. I was there. I was part of the change just by being there, walking next to a guy in wig with a sign that said, “KKK – Drag Queens from Outer Space!”

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Forsyth County is just outside of Atlanta, and like many places across the country (including here in Oregon) was known to have a “sundown laws.” Sundown laws were informal but strictly adhered to. Everyone knew what they meant: if you were not white you needed to be out of the county before sundown or risk your life. In 1987, I was a graduate student at Emory University just starting my work looking at the rise of racist skinheads, but I knew about Forsyth and its county seat, Cumming. Cumming was most famous as the birthplace of Junior Samples, the extra-large hayseed “comedian” on the TV show, Hee Haw. But we all knew there was a dark side to the white people in Forsyth.

There had been a small freedom march to protest discrimination in Forsyth the week before. It was led by Hosea Williams, part of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. A few dozen marchers were met by 20 to 25 locals who pelted the marchers with rocks and drove the agents of change right out of Forsyth County. The attack made national news and plans for a second march came together quickly. Even Oprah came to Cumming to do a show on the local racism. It stands as the most uncomfortable moment on Talk TV and Oprah reportedly wasted no time of getting the fuck out of Forsyth.

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January 24, 1987 was cold as hell. There were busses and carpools headed up to snowy Forsyth for the second march. Rumors were that the Klan and the “Forsyth County Defense League” planned a countermarch. It promised to be explosive and historic. I wasn’t there for Selma but I would be there for Forsyth. I booked a ride with a bunch of sociology grad students and our fearless leader, the late great Professor Terry Boswell. I made a sign that said “Racism is Ignorance” on one side and “Freedom from Fear” on the other. I brought a date from our punk rock scene named Musey and we headed toward the frontline of history excited and a bit fearful.

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When we got off Highway 19 it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a small second march. The national media was there as well as 2000 National Guard members in full riot gear. I still remember all the helicopters hovering in the frigid January sky. And over 20,000 demonstrators arriving to tell the hicks of Forsyth to get ready for a new day in Georgia. We got their early, in time for the Klan rally that preceded our march. Because I was young and crazy, I took my homemade sign and pushed my way into the middle of Klan rally and held it over my head. I only remember a few grizzly Klansmen screaming at me before I felt a National Guardsmen grab me by the collar and drag me out of the crowd, threatening to arrest me for inciting a riot.

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When the march finally began, it wasn’t actually peaceful. White people threw rocks and spit on the protestors. A friend (and future screenwriter) was hit by a flying cinder block. I’ll never forget one zombie-looking toothless (literally) redneck with a sign that said, “Niger Go Home!” We all laughed at him and he couldn’t figure out why. I guess spelling ain’t too important to the master race. What I do know is that the white racists of Forsyth must have crapped themselves brown when they saw the mass of 20,000 marchers coming down the road into Cumming. And we were white and black together. I marched with my friends, including Jonathan Serrie, who now a senior reporter on Fox News. But I made more friends there and we sang, “We Shall Overcome,” knowing the arc of the moral universe is long, but, as Dr. King said, it bends toward justice.

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The spotlight of morality was placed on Forsyth County and those sundown laws faded. As Atlanta grew, those outlaying areas became suburbs of the city, and like any suburbs, were as diverse as America. These days in Cumming, your more likely to live next door to a Pakistani than a Ku Klux Klanny. The same thing happened to my hometown, Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the KKK. Stone Mountain is now a mostly middle-class black suburb of Atlanta. Where did all those racists go?

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Well, some of them just stopped being so racist. That tends to happen when you become friends and neighbors with the people you’ve been taught to fear and hate. Forsyth is still  a pretty white place but those marchers 30 years ago forced them to pick a side. They could either stay in their divided past and suffer with their hate or join us in the modern world of love where there’s a hot dance party and a good Thai restaurant down the street.

So don’t let anyone tell you that marching doesn’t change things. I saw it happen. I saw the lovers stare down the haters and then invite them to join their side. But little did we know that some of those haters have been hiding their hearts waiting for a leader to come and create an empire just for them. But we are ready to march again. The resistance is strong and growing. People are getting off the sidelines and ready to flood the streets with love. And we’ll make fun of your misspelled signs.

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Postscript: Women from Forsyth County were at the Women’s March in DC on Saturday. Change happens.

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children

Sept. 21, 2016

The beauty of privilege is that is invisible. If you’ve got it, it’s really hard to see. A right-handed person might not feel they have any unearned privilege but just talk to a left-handed person about that subject. Being privileged does not mean you are a bad person, it just means you have been given an advantage. And there is nothing more real than white privilege. It’s evidence is a dead father in the middle of a lonesome highway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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There’s a whole army of white people who want to deny the existence of white privilege. “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got!” they crow. “There are black people with a lot more money than me and a black man in the White House!” they’ll point out. “It’s a liberal plot to make me feel guilty!” they’ll bleat. These folks don’t understand the concept of white privilege. They may or may not be racist, but they’re definitely ignorant and ignorance can be fixed. We’re all ignorant about things, especially things that are invisible.

There are a lot of folks who have written about the daily experience of white privilege more eloquently than I have, people like Peggy MacIntosh and Tim Wise. Although my next book project is a tome on privilege called Recovering Asshole, so maybe I can join their ranks. The daily stuff is like just turning on the TV and knowing I’m going to see people who look like me or knowing that when people see me, my race isn’t the first thing that registers. This post is about the privilege that keeps me from being killed when my car breaks down.

I always tell my students about a local news broadcast I saw about two separate sexual assaults in Portland in which the attackers were still at large. In the first story, the wanted man was 6’1 with brown eyes and long dark hair. In the second story, the wanted attacker was 5’10, black with brown eyes and short dark hair. See the difference? The white man was colorless, because white is the “normal” race. You don’t even have to mention it. If you say “a person,” it’s just assumed to be a white person.

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There’s a lot assuming that goes with race. Assumptions that Asians are good at math, and Mexicans want to steal somebody’s job (How is that even possible?) and, of course, that African-Americans are naturally violent and animalistic. This last one has gotten a lot of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, because, well, you know, we don’t know what any of them might do. Meanwhile, there’s an “open carry” white guy on the side of the road who thinks cops are agents of the ZOG (that’s the Zionist Occupation Government for you non-right-wing extremists), but let him pass. He has rights!

White “Sovereign Citizens” are America’s top cop-killers.

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The shooting of Terence Crutcher by police last week next to his broken-down car in Tulsa is such a textbook case. We don’t know what the police were thinking as the father of four, heading home from a music appreciation class, held his hands up as instructed. But we do have audio from the police chopper as it circled over head. “That looks like a bad dude, too. He could be on something,” they said. Why would they say that? Because they were playing the race card. All you need to be a bad dude is black skin.

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If I were to breakdown on an Oklahoma highway, I am willing to bet my life that police would never unholster their weapons in the first place, let alone shoot me, even if I ignored a few commands. Because I’m white. Just because I’m white. My whiteness gives me the benefit of the doubt. And there are countless examples of this every day. Just ask how police dealt with Dylann Roof, the white guy that shot 9 people to death in a black church in Charleston last year. He got the benefit of the doubt. Instead of shooting him, the police got him some food from Burger King.

It’s called implicit bias and you don’t have to be a white supremacist to have it. Pretty much everyone does. Research has shown that white people have been successfully taught to fear minorities even though most crime is white-on-white and committed by someone known to the victim. African-Americans get the brunt of this insidious lesson. When I was a kid and we drove into Atlanta, as soon as my mom saw black pedestrians she‘d lock the car doors. “They will snatch you right out of this car, Randy.” (I grew up thinking black people collected white kids.) So I leaned that lesson, too.

CLICK HERE  to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test but be prepared for your results!

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Implicit bias is precognitive. It happens before you have a chance to think about it. As a criminologist, I know that the overwhelming amount of property crime is done by white people (especially in Portland) but if a black guy is near my car there’s a little switch that goes off in my head. It was put there by a nation steeped in white privilege that very clearly whispers in your ear, year after year, that black lives matter but just not as much. Police officers, being humans, experience the same implicit bias. Before any rational thought it says, BLACK MAN = THREAT!!!! When the officer has a gun, that message can have disastrous results, as we add another unarmed black man to the body count. “Well, we couldn’t be sure what the true threat was.”

Let me say that I know a lot of good cops and they will tell you that every police interaction is different and there are often factors in some high profile cases that the community doesn’t see. (Was Crutcher on PCP? Am I on PCP? White people need a defense!) I’ve also done a “use of force” training with the Mutlnomah Sheriff’s Department and know that a momentary hesitation can get innocent people killed. (I tried to tell a gunman that I was going to shoot him in the crotch if he didn’t put the gun down. Instead, he hopped in my police car with my rifle in and sped off to do more killin’. I should mention that this was SIMULATION.) But the reality is that even the most fair-minded police officer is up against the same racist messaging that says that, when it’s a black guy, better to be “safe” than “sorry.”

So here’s one example of my white privilege. I won’t have to explain to my light skinned children that the police, who are sworn to protect them, might accidentally kill them. Even if they have their hands up.

Again, if you want to say, “All lives matter,” you need to prove it, because it doesn’t look like it to me in 2016. The first step, if you are white, is stop being defensive about your white privilege. Secretary Clinton said this very clearly this week. “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face everyday. We need to recognize our privilege and and practice humility, rather than assume our experiences are everyone’s experiences.” I don’t care what you think of her. I want you to care about this truth, in this crossroads in our history. We can tear down this wall.

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