Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

Archive for August, 2013

Safety or Justice? : Refuse to Choose

Here is the full text of my testimony:

I am a New Yorker. I love my city. I served it for 20 years as a police officer. Now I am serving it again as a pastor.

Like all New Yorkers, I want two things for my city – safety and justice. I am troubled by what the mayor and the Police Commissioner are telling us, that we have to choose between safety and justice.

They tell us that, if we want a safe city, we have to accept that the price of that safety is that some New Yorkers will have to live under siege in their own communities, unable to even walk out their front doors without fearing yet another stop and frisk, not because of anything they have done, but because of who they are – black, Latino, disabled, LGBT, Muslim or poor.

We are told that, on the other hand, that  if we demand justice for all, if we want fair treatment for ourselves and our neighbors, the price will be skyrocketing crime rates, a return to the “bad old days” of the 1970s and 1980s.

Don’t believe it. We don’t have to make that horrible choice. We can have a city that is both safe and just. Public safety does not come from aggressive policing. It comes from good policing and good policing starts with a good relationship between the police and the communities they serve.

That relationship is horribly broken now. It will not heal overnight, but the community safety act is a step in the right direction toward restoring trust between the people and the police and leading us all toward a more safe and a more just New York City.

So I am urging all my fellow New Yorkers, particularly our City Council members – don’t give in to the fear-mongering. Do what you know is right. Overturn the mayoral veto and sign this bill into law.

Fixin to March: Normal No More

This coming week marks the 50th anniversary of the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the Lincoln Memorial, delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This event will be commemorated with more marches, more speakers, more new and deepening relationships, and hopefully a renewed sense of commitment to the ongoing struggle for peace and justice in our world. My husband and I plan to be part of it. I am looking forward to it. But I have to share with you, dear reader, that I am conflicted about it.

You see, ever since the morning I was sent home early from my all white grade school because people feared “what would happen” because this great man had been assassinated, I have been hearing many versions of “the dream” and not all of them ring true.

Just last week, I chose Jeremiah 23:23-29 as my preaching text. Verse five reads “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” See, apparently this “I have a dream” phrase has been used before and apparently false prophets use it too. How are we to know when what we are hearing is truly a word from God and when it is not? The answer is not easy. None of the Hebrew prophets brought messages of pure hope that were easy to hear. God doesn’t need to send prophets for the “feel good” messages. We get those. It’s when the truth is hard to hear, when it contains a message of judgment or condemnation, that the people turn away and God sends prophets to try, one more time, to tell them the difficult, yet saving, truth.

King was no different. Did you know that the original name of this speech was not “I Have a Dream.” It was “Normalcy No More.” Can you imagine a national holiday celebrating “normalcy no more?” I can’t. We like normalcy. In fact, we like it so much we have normalized King by revising, diluting and dismissing almost everything he had to say.

Every year, for at least one day, we all listen to snippets from this speech like “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” Isn’t that nice? Don’t you just love it? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe, now that we have a black president and everything, that this “post-racial dream” had been realized and all that was left was for us to hold hands and feel good about “how far we have come?” Me too. That would be a lovely normalcy.

But what about other parts of the speech? You know, the parts we don’t hear quoted quite so much like ” “In a sense we have come to cash a check… It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note… Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

In this era of mass incarceration of black and brown people, racial profiling by police, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the ongoing, oh so NORMAL racial disparities in economics, jobs, education and health care can we really claim this promissory note is now “paid in full?”

And what about King’s criticism of US militarism, and the call to faith leaders to oppose unjust wars? Consider these words from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech: “surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent.” That was the “first time in history” American leaders opposed unjust wars. Was it the last? Did we continue to speak up about subsequent US led invasions of other nations, or did we return to the NORMALCY of the “smooth patriotism” that is so much easier to proclaim in churches where the American flag flies right next to the pulpit?

And, speaking of normal, how about our economic system? In the same “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King told us that “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” In this era of the 99 versus the 1, when corporations have more rights as legal *persons* than most persons, and laws like “stand your ground” prioritize property over human life, do we really dare celebrate “King’s dream?”

OK, so maybe, as a self-proclaimed progressive faith leader I am on the good side of this, right? Surely King loved us liberal preachers, especially us anti-racist white allies, right? It would be a normal assumption to make. Even if we often have to tailor our message so as not to offend, still, we are NORMALLY the good guys and gals. Except, as it often happens in biblical interpretation, expectations of normalcy often crash when they hit the actual text. In this case, the actual text is “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in which King wrote ” First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” See my problem?

It’s like going to church and claiming to “follow Jesus.” I do love Jesus and I know Jesus is Lord. But I have read the book. It has a cross in it. There’s a price to be paid and a sacrifice to be made and I don’t kid myself. I may end up with the normalcy of Peter who, when faced with real danger, said “I never knew him” not the prophetic, life giving and ultimately resurrecting dream of Jesus. I just don’t know.

But something inside of me and, hopefully, something inside of you keeps speaking. The Dream, the real one, was the right dream. King did not get there with us. We may not all get there together. But, over that mountain of normalized evil, there still is a Promised Land. Even people like me who don’t know if we have what it takes to make it to the end, can at least take a step.

I am fixin to march. How about you?

My Op Ed Piece in the New York Daily News “Moving New York Past Profiling”

Prophets: True and False

so tomorrow is Sunday, sooo I am fixin to preach,  taking my text from Jeremiah 23:23-29 in which, once again, the hard yet saving message of the true prophet calling for true worship that demands justice for the widow, the orphan, the last and the least,  is rejected in favor of the soothing yet damning, revised version, watered down so as not to offend the military, religious, and political elite. In Jeremiah’s day, both true prophets and false prophets claimed to “have a dream” but not all of those dreams came from a just and loving God.  Fifty years after that first historic march on Washington, King’s  “I have a dream” speech is quoted by many, rarely in context, while true prophecy remains a costly calling.

More Clarification on Where I Stand on Stop and Frisk

As a retired cop who has performed a number of stop and frisk procedures, as well as a social justice activist strongly opposed to racial and other discriminatory profiling, I feel like I need to make my position clear on this. I do not oppose the stop and frisk law. I strongly oppose its widespread abuse.

First let me explain what the law is and how it came about. No, I am not an attorney, but I did graduate from the Police Academy back in the day and everything I am about to say comes, basically, from that curriculum. It’s what cops are, at least in theory, trained to do.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1968 on a case known as Terry v Ohio. An experienced Cleveland detective  saw two men going back and forth, six times each,  while peering into a store window in a way that appeared to be “casing” the store for a possible stick up. He did not have probable cause to arrest these people, but he did have what the court called a “specific and articulable suspicion.” Based on this suspicion, the detective followed them as they joined a third man, stopped them and questioned them about what they were doing. When these men gave the detective evasive responses, the detective’s suspicion was aroused further. Since the crime he suspected these men were planning involved the use of a gun, the detective feared one or more of them may be armed. Therefore,  for the sake of safety, he turned one man around and frisked him, meaning he patted down the outer layer of his clothing,  to see if he was carrying a gun. (He was.) The court ruled that, even though this frisk was conducted before the detective had probable cause for arrest, because of the over riding safety concern,  it was not a violation of the suspects’ fourth amendment rights because the detective had a specific reason for stopping these men, for questioning them, and for fearing that one or more of them may be armed.

This decision began what is now known as “stop and frisk” or, more properly (and significantly, in my view) “stop, question and frisk” There are several things that are important to notice about this procedure

1. It is a safety measure, not an “enforcement tool” or way of “getting guns off the street” as part of a sweep

2. It is only to be used when there is a “specific articulable suspicion” of a particular individual or group of individuals suspected of a particular type of crime that is being committed, or is about to be committed, at that time – not just a vague association between recent crime patterns in the neighborhood and general descriptions of suspects.

3. A frisk is an external “pat down” for weapons. It is not a search. If an officer feels a bulge that could be a gun, he or she can reach in and retrieve the weapon but things like turning pockets inside out? not so much. That’s a search. Searches can only be performed if there is probable cause for arrest.

4. It’s stop *question* and frisk, meaning talking to people is part of the procedure. These conversations can raise the level of suspicion, or lower it. In other words, just because a cop stops someone doesn’t mean he or she has to frisk them. Sometimes, when a cop is suspicious of someone all it takes is a conversation to clear that suspicion up.

5. Unless a person is under arrest, he or she cannot be forcibly detained. That means, someone stopped under this procedure is free to go. They do not have to submit to the frisk. They can just walk away if they want to.

That’s how the law reads. That’s how the procedure is supposed to work. When done “by the books” it is, in my opinion, a very good law that serves to protect the police and the public.

BUT anyone who lives in the black and Latino neighborhoods in NYC where people are being stopped and frisked in massive numbers knows that this procedure is being widely abused in a way that amounts to illegal racial and other discriminatory profiling.

Police are stopping people with far less than the “specific, articulable suspicion” that is required. They are doing so as part of sweeps involving large numbers of people, in response to general crime patterns, according to very vague descriptions that often amount to discriminatory profiling, not in response to specific circumstances involving crimes in progress or about to be in progress. Police often don’t bother talking to people to see if a frisk is even warranted. People who are stopped as part of this procedure aren’t allowed to walk away, even though they are not under arrest and still have that legal right.

This abuse is widespread, creating an intolerable situation in which law abiding people, particularly with black and brown men, feel like they are under siege in their own neighborhoods. That is what needs to stop.

The Supreme Court will rule, perhaps soon, on whether or not Stop and Frisk will remain legal. If it does not, some will see it as a victory. I will see it as a warning about what can happen when police, who are entrusted with enforcing the law choose, instead, to abuse it.

How Big Is God’s Blessing?

fixin to preach tomorrow, Genesis 15:1-6 – in which God’s promise to Abram and Sarai to make of them a great nation seems to be seriously delayed. We all live most of our lives in that space between promise and fulfillment, but there’s another tension there – between wanted the blessing that comes TO us and the bigger blessing that comes THROUGH us. How Big Is God’s Blessing?

On Being a Cop, Stop and Frisk, Racial Profiling and Why I Support NYC City Council Bill 1080

Recently the New York City Council voted to approve what is known as the “End Discriminatory Profiling Act” or Intro 1080. You can read the text of this bill here:|Text|&Search=1080

The meat of the thing is in section 1, paragraph 1. Notice, if you will, there is nothing here that says police cannot use the race of a particular suspect of a particular crime as part of a legitimate criminal description. I say that because our mayor and Police Commissioner and all the line organizations keep claiming that it does but I have faith that my readers are literate enough to discern that the word “a” is different from the word “the” and stuff like that.

Mayor Bloomberg has vetoed this legislation. Sometime this month the City Council will likely vote to overturn that veto. Unlike most police, active and retired, I wholeheartedly support this legislation. Let me tell you why, by telling you my story.

I am often told “you don’t seem like a cop.” Depending on why is saying this, and how they feel about police, it is either a compliment or an insult. Either way, it is probably true. I don’t fit certain stereotypes. But, yes, I definitely was a cop and I will always carry that experience with me.

I first became a police officer in 1982. At the time, I lived on the Lower East Side of New York City, on East 3rd Street between Avenues A and B, having moved there from Ohio in 1977. If you are from NYC, you may now know this neighborhood as the “East Village” and think of it as an artsy extension of Greenwich Village, but, back then it was still the Lower East Side on the way to becoming the Punk Rock, un-gentrified, low rent, East Village. This was also the height of the heroin epidemic. Junkies from NYC and New Jersey regularly lined up on my street to buy dope. Believe it or not, I paid $100 a month for my studio apartment. (All New Yorkers just fainted.) Just a little bit east of where I lived, beginning on Avenue D were projects, the Riis, Wald, and Baruch Houses.

As a woman, living alone in a not-so-safe neighborhood, I was very concerned about both personal safety and the safety of my neighbors. To that end, I had become a student of the martial arts. I was also a graduate student in psychology at the New School for Social Research and a waitress serving up soy burgers at Dojo Restaurant, not making a whole lot of money, with no health care plan or other job benefits. So when an NYPD recruiter visited my Karate class and told us a little bit about the job (OK, a really romanticized version, like all recruiters tell) I decided to go for it. Aside from the money, I felt it was a chance to make this city I had grown to love a safer and better place.

Besides, dating back to the Vietnam War era I grew up in, with all the anti-war protests going on in Ohio (remember Kent State?) I had always been critical of the police, back then poetically referred to as the” f-ing pigs.” I always thought there had to be a better way of doing this job. Now I had the chance to find out. I have always believed that if you are the first one to criticize how somebody else is doing something you need to be the first to volunteer to do it yourself. So that is what I did. I took the test, went through the screening process, and became a cop.

At that time, there were actually three police departments in NYC, the NYPD (“big blue”), the Transit Police who worked in the subways and on the buses, and the Housing Police who worked in public housing “(the projects.”) Up until 1982, they also had their own police academies. My class was the first tri-department class to be trained together in the NYPD academy on 20th Street in Chelsea. All the rookies were hired off of one list of qualified applicants. Then we were divided up according to police department. Most recruits wanted “big blue” because it was the biggest and most prestigious department. I did NOT.

I was determined that I would be a community-based police officer, serving the people who needed us most and that meant being a Housing Cop. The NYC Housing Police, like all Housing Police in major cities, began when “the projects” or public housing began, under FDR. They started out as security guards and, over time, became accredited police departments. Many African-Americans, denied entry into “big blue” became housing cops, working on foot, by themselves in the projects. As the city worked to “integrate” and eventually merge the departments that would change but, for a long time, the Housing Police was a predominantly black and Latino police department serving predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. In other words, for the wrong reason – racism – the city had the right thing – community policing.

I was trained by “old time” housing cops who knew the communities they served like the back of their hands. Unlike the NYPD which mostly did patrol with sector cars, most of these men (there were very few women) had spent most of their career on foot, alone, in the same project. If something happened and they needed backup, it often meant their friends from the surrounding projects would have to respond in their own private cars, if at all. Mostly they relied on the community itself as back up, and they usually got it because people knew them and trusted them and wanted to protect them. They made arrests, actually lots of them, but when they did arrest someone, it was usually with the community’s support. I am not exaggerating when I say these were probably the finest and most brilliant police our nation has ever seen. They knew how to get a very hard job done without destroying the faith or confidence of the community.

For example, I remember one “old timer” doing what he called “playing dial a collar.” He had a warrant for someone’s arrest. He could have just called for backup from “PD” (short for “NYPD”) gone to the person’s apartment and locked him up in front of his family. But that’s not how these guys did things. Instead, he went to the “record room” (the cop’s “office” so to speak) and picked up the phone and called him saying “hey, it’s me. Listen, we have a little situation, not a big deal. We can work it out. But I just got this warrant for your arrest. Don’t worry. I’m not looking for you now. Go out and have dinner with your lady or whatever. Tonight’s on me. But tomorrow morning, it’s on you. I need you here at the record room at 10 so we can take care of this. But, if you don’t want to come, remember I know where you live. I know where your momma lives. I know where your lady lives and I know where the other one you see on the side lives and I really don’t want to go looking for you. If I do, I will have to call PD and you know how they get.” click. Next morning, 10AM, in the record room,that collar was made with no drama.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it was always that smooth. It wasn’t. Sometimes force was used and once in a while things got ugly. But there was a relationship between the community and the police who served and, in many ways, were part of that community. It was, in the truest sense of the word, community-based policing.

But it ended.

Mayor after mayor (except, I think, Dinkins) vowed to merge the three departments. This was appealing to them because it meant centralized mayoral control. To that end, the tri-department hiring process continued. With each new class more rookies came in to the housing police who did not want to be there because they wanted to be “real cops” and work for “big blue.” To be fair, many of them were excellent cops, but fewer and fewer of them had any real ties to or respect for the public housing community – or people of color . Finally, in 1995, under Mayor Giuliani, the three departments merged. Most housing and transit cops hated it. I hated it. Still do in fact.

While there are many fine people in the NYPD, their overall ethos is very different from that of the “old time” housing police. They patrol mostly in sector cars, not on foot. They don’t have steady or “beat” posts. Because they are covering the whole city, not just a segment of it, they are deployed all over the place, often with very little chance of getting to know the people they serve and, also, because they are dealing with the whole city they are under pressure to give more attention to those people and communities who have money or power or influence and not necessarily serve the “last and the least.”

And then there’s COMPSTAT. If you don’t know what that is, it is short for “comparative statistics.” This program began in the early 1990s in several major cities. Crime rates, crime patterns, summonses issued, arrests made, stop and frisk reports and much more are part of it. Commanding Officers are routinely called to One Police Plaza for COMPSTAT meetings where they are sometimes commended but most often called on the carpet in a very adversarial way concerning “the numbers” in their command. In some ways, it is a useful tool in that it helps the police get an overall picture of what is happening and, used correctly, it can be a great way of holding commanding officers accountable for their command. But there is a definite downside to the “numbers driven” approach, particularly when used as a stand alone without other measures of police performance. In the pressure to get the numbers, much falls by the wayside, like community policing.

It has also led to the abuse of the “stop and frisk” procedure. If you are not familiar with what this is, legally, here is a good summary Note it was never meant to be used as a “sweep” tactic let alone a fishing expedition in which you throw everyone up against the wall who even vaguely fits the discrimination of a suspect in some crime in the area in hopes you will turn up some drugs or guns. Note also, that a stop and frisk is NOT an arrest and NOT a search. In other words, the cop is supposed to “pat down” the person, not go in his pockets looking for stuff. Note also, a person has a legal right to walk away from a stop and frisk because it is NOT an arrest. Does that sound like what is happening right now on the streets of New York? When numbers are all that matter, the Constitution takes a back seat.

I am not convinced that numbers alone – or even numbers first – is what quality policing is all about because so much of what I have learned about police work is intangible and can’t be quantified. More to the point, hardly anything that works about real community based policing will ever come up on a COMPSTAT screen. Take the “dial a collar” example. According to COMPSTAT that’s just a warrant execution. It doesn’t matter if it took ten cops to do it, traumatizing the whole family in the process, humiliating the arrestee in a way that made him have to lash out at the cops to save face in front of everyone or if it was done “old time housing” that takes one cop and a phone and doesn’t destroy community relations in the process. In fact, other than to say how many meetings were held with “community leaders” in the precinct, or talked about frankly as a “stroke job” I never heard community relations come up at all. COMPSTAT, by definition, deals only in numbers. To succeed in the COMPSTAT world you need lots of them. Precinct commanders who want to be promoted or even keep their command are forced to put pressure on cops to bring them these numbers.

Of course, quotas are illegal so the police department can’t admit to them but please. Ask any cop working the steady late shift in the worst part of the precinct because of lack of “activity” if there are, um, at least “performance objectives” that kinda work like, yeah, quotas. And, because the pressure is on in “high crime” areas and because that is generally where black and brown people live, guess who gets to live with all this ever increasing “activity” in their neighborhood.

Now, the NYPD will tell you all the “proactive” policing that comes from the COMPSTAT approach is stopping crime. They will point to the dramatic decrease in crime in NYC over the last decade for which we are all profoundly grateful. If only NYC or only cities that were using a similar approach had experienced this drop in crime, that might be a good argument. But, the fact is, crime is down nationwide, including cities that do the COMPSTAT thing as well as cities that are doing community-based policing. Let’s face it, like any organization, police departments like to take credit where they can and deflect blame where they can’t. When crime is down, the police take credit. When it goes up, they cite other factors. I say that, again, not to caste aspersions on all the good work many police officers do. I am just saying, please. Let’s be real. Police work is only part of the picture. Ask any reputable criminologist.

But that still begs the question of why all this “activity” like stop and frisks, is focused on people of color. They will tell you that they are just stopping people according to the description of “perps” they get from victims and that most of these descriptions are of black or Latino males. At least that second part is true. Most criminal descriptions I heard over the air for 20 years did begin with “male black” or “male Hispanic.” There are lots of reasons for that (and no “they are just bad people” is probably not the best theory.)

But this argument misses the point that “numbers” alone don’t tell the whole story. COMPSTAT will never tell you what it feels like to be a law abiding and decent black or Latino man who can’t even walk down his own street without being looked at with suspicion just because, lo and behold, some other black man is doing wrong and he is, after all, the same color as they are so, even absent any other evidence connecting him to this crime, he has to undergo a pretty humiliating procedure, over and over again. COMPSTAT can tell you about numbers, but it can’t tell you what it feels like to BE just a number. It can’t tell you how, after a while, people who are targeted like this start to hate everything blue. It can’t tell you why someone who witnessed a crime won’t tell the police about it because he no longer trusts them and neither does his community. It can’t tell you the way the “snitches get stitches” ethic, born of distrust of police, slams up against the “blue wall of silence” in a way that threatens the safety of all concerned. In short, COMPSTAT can’t tell you what COMPSTAT costs. It can tell you arrests are up, including arrests for some very minor violations, but it can’t tell you how the “collars for dollars” (policing making arrests, often for minor infractions, particularly in the last hour of their tour, just for the overtime) approach may help a cop pay a few bills, but ruins another person’s future and it can’t tell you what it’s like to live in a world where, in some neighborhoods kids committing minor crimes are taken home to their parents while others end up with arrest records and worse. In short, it doesn’t tell you a whole lot of what you need to know about street reality in order to make intelligent decisions about police work.

So, back where we started. Hope you are still with me. The “end discriminatory profiling act” is not going to solve the problem of a city in a nation dealing with the effects of hundreds of years of chattel slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws and other forms of legal discrimination against black and brown people. I think anyone who has been in the anti-racist struggle for more than five minutes knows that and certainly and black or brown person knows it way better than I do. BUT, it will push back, just a little bit, against the Juggernaut of “numbers only at any cost” policing. .

It also won’t bring back my beloved Housing Police or what they stood for. Sadly, that era is behind us. BUT it MIGHT give at least a little more breathing room to those cops who are out there who have grown tired of the “numbers game” and want to try something new – like working with the communities they serve and not against them.

Most importantly, it will make life just a little more bearable and safe for people who live in communities of color and the police entrusted to serve them.

Polite Racism

Yesterday I heard the term “polite racism” being used.  I know something about that. I was born in 1957. I grew up in various upper middle class white, mostly WASP, suburbs in Ohio. I did not see a black person until I was seven.  She was our housekeeper. Her name was Sophie. She was the first adult I ever called by her first name, not “Mrs.” anything. It wasn’t until I was an adult, actively doing anti-racist work, that it even dawned on me that this was weird. This happened in Rocky River, outside Cleveland.

The second time I saw a black people I was on a bus with my maternal grandmother. We were going on a shopping trip in downtown Cleveland. A black mother with her baby sat in front of us. Grandma said “oh look at that cute nappy headed baby.” Again, it wasn’t until I was an adult, actually doing anti-racist work, that it dawned on me that she was objectifying these people and, wow, the hair thing. That’s a whole other blog post.  Until I moved to New York City, at the age of 20, those glimpses were all I saw of black people.

Notice I said “I saw black people.” That is a lie. I did not SEE them at all. I looked past them, as I had been TAUGHT to do, all without a word having been said. Nobody ever said blatantly racist things. I never heard the infamous “n word.” Nobody ever said anything blatantly derogatory about black people. Nobody ever sat me down and said “Now, you know, you are better than negroes (we said “negro” then), cleaner, smarter, higher class, so be nice to them but don’t think of them as equals or, heaven forbid, authorities on anything.” I just KNEW it. Fish don’t talk about water. White people don’t talk about race. We just swim in it and, as we are swimming, we learn the polite racist gaze, the one that looks, but doesn’t see what is all around us.

Until it erupts in our face. I remember watching the March on Washington on the small black and white TV in the living room of my paternal grandparents’ farm house. The only black people (actually, they called them “colored”) in that community lived “down the road a bit” What road, I did not know. I just heard that they “made a lot of noise” in their church. That’s all that was said about black people in that house, until the day  they “made a lot of noise” in Washington DC, enough that it was on television, pre-empting Lawrence Welk. I remember my grandpa, who never rose his voice before in my hearing, slamming his hand down on the arms of his chair and saying “I just don’t know what the colored people want!” That is the problem. None of us knew. We were polite racists, too polite to realize we were racist at all.

When Martin Luther King died, four years after I met (or didn’t meet) Sophie, we were all sent home early from school, for fear of riots. My parents cried. They said he was a great man. They meant it too. They knew there was something really wrong about our country and they wanted to change it. But it’s hard to change what you cannot see and, like I said,  polite racists don’t see.

When I was a teenager, in High School, we lived in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. At the time, it was all white. There was one black face in my class, an exchange student from Kenya. That’s it. But nobody said the “n word.” In fact, no one talked about black people at all. We were too polite.

My dad worked for Ohio Bell at the time. When time came to hire a sales manager, he found the most qualified person was a black man. So, against great opposition, he hired him. The two of them looked forward to working together. Living in the same neighborhood was another story. There were houses for sale on our block but, strangely enough, none were “available.” It was then that I learned that even *our* home had been purchased under an illegal “restrictive covenant.” I always thought the block association was all about cookouts and stuff. Apparently there was more. Apparently, as we were swimming in our polite racism, looking past black faces, we also had been swimming past a whole lot of red lines, including the ones we drew ourselves.

Something in me knew something weird was happening, but politeness made it hard to see. Until the day, at age 16,  I picked up Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” All I “knew” or thought I knew about him was that he was a violent person who should be dismissed in favor of the much more “reasonable” King. Except that is not what I saw when I read his words. This black man, whom I never met, who never lived in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and who wasn’t even alive at the time knew more about my life as a young white woman than I did. Why? Because he was on the outside of the fish tank  looking in and he could see what we were swimming in and he named it – White Supremacy – and he said he would rather deal with the blatant southern “cracker” than deal with our polite racism. Hello.

That day, forty years ago, was my first step out of this thing that was killing my soul along with so many black bodies. The memory stays with me. I erupts anew when I hear words like “polite racism” and I have to confess, once again that, yes. I know something about that. I know those deadly waters. I am still trying to get out of them. That is what fuels my anti-racist work, the deep desire to do better, to live better, to be better.

On this anti-racist journey, there is so much I do not yet know. But this I do know – polite racism kills. It kills just as surely as blatant racism kills. In a way, it’s even worse because it is so easily disguised. Those of us who are swimming in it have a hard time seeing it, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t drowning in it and killing lots of black and brown  people in the process.

White people. We can do better.

Time to drain the swamp.

Dear White Women

Dear White Women,

Today’s racism 101 lesson is just for us. So get your pencils and paper ready and put on your big girl panties because this is a tough one. We’re moving past the bullet points now, into some deeper waters.

After the Zimmerman verdict, Facebook and other social media was full of the famous photograph of the lynched Emmett Till that first appeared in Jet magazine in September of 1955. (If you don’t know who Emmett Till was please do your homework now.)

What is the connection between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin that most black people understand while most of us don’t?

Well, for starters, both were black young men, shot down in their prime who should have lived, who should have had a future. But look deeper. What is an important common denominator in these stories that we need to talk about as white women ? It’s white women.

Emmet Till was lynched because he supposedly whistled at one of us. Trayvon Martin was denied justice after his death by a jury mostly made of us. (five out of six) Coincidence? Not. The relationship between black men and white women in the United States has been seriously messed up for centuries.

Consider the history of the lynching of black men in America. If you never considered this history, ask yourself why something so major was not part of your education and do something about that. Start with reading the work of Ida B. Wells. (If you don’t know who she was, again. Homework. ) What was the most common “charge” against these men? The alleged rape of white women- alleged – as in never happened. It was a fiction created by white men, many of which actually *were* raping enslaved African women on a very regular basis, as a way of dealing with their own fears, guilt, and whatever other strange emotions come up when you’ve been raping people you “own” and convincing yourself that’s OK.

On how many levels is that twisted? If it was just one man doing this, you would say he was sick. But when many men do it, it becomes normal and many men were doing it. Still, there had to be a pretext and, guess what, the pretext was US. Black men were tortured and killed in publically *celebrated* – as in pack a lunch and bring the kids – shows because why? The Defense of White Womanhood.

It was done in the name of “JUSTICE” and “Law and Order” by “good Christians” who saw no irony in crucifying people in Jesus’ name. There were all sorts of rationalizations but the one that worked every time to get a lynch mob going was to mention the “honor” of a white woman, supposedly besmirched by a black man. (You did read “To Kill a Mockingbird” right?? ) Something about us, white women, really gets them going. Our delicate “womanhood” our “virtue” our “honor” us ”up on a pedestal” to be defended with unthinkable violence – the very foundation of both patriarchy and white supremacy.

But is that who were are, or ever were? Is that what our womanhood is all about? A pretext for racist violence? You would think white women would have protested such an obvious okie doke. Sadly, we did not. According to the meticulous research done by Wells, not one allegation of rape that led to lynching was ever substantiated. In those very few cases where there was sex between black men and white women it was consensual. Never once did a white woman stand up and tell the truth. Never. Not one instance of any of our sisters saying “excuse me, what rape? He never raped me” and you can be damn sure none of them said “yes, we did have sex. I liked it.”

Imagine that. There were cases where white women invited black men into their beds and then stood by silent, not saying a mumbling word as they were castrated and murdered for this “crime.” Did I say there is some messed up stuff in our history? Yes, I get it that any white woman who told the truth would have really suffered for it but, really? not one?? when this much was at stake??

But what does this have to do with the Zimmerman trial. I’m fixin to tell you.

The idea of the black man as symbolic assailant and the habit of not seeing black men as full human beings is deeply ingrained in us as white women. Oh yes, I know. You think lynching is horrible. You are glad it doesn’t happen anymore (at least not as frequently) and, hey, you weren’t there. You didn’t do it. I get that. But do you really think the many levels of lies from the pit of hell that it took to support such a system just went away? Do you think time alone heals such deep wounds in the human spirit? It does not. Work does, hard gritty, grimy, hear-things-you-don’t-want-to-hear anti-racist WORK ends racism and that work always begins inside of us.

I can’t say what each of the women on the Zimmerman jury were thinking, but I can comment on the one who came forward – b37. When she spoke about how “confusing” the law was, how they all “cried” about it, when she talked about “George” as if the shooter was her son, and never even mentioned Trayvon Martin’s name, I heard the voices – or should I say the non-voices – of countless white women acting according to our training to not see black men as people, women who, when confronted with hard reality of race would rather “get the vapors” and pass out than woman up and deal with it.

Am I being too harsh? Am I misrepresenting the consciousness of far too many white women? Let’s test that. As another meme making the social media rounds puts it – imagine if your 17 year old daughter was walking home at night after buying candy at the store. She was followed by a strange man with a gun. When he came toward her, she tried to defend herself. He shot her. Then he was found “not guilty” and she was portrayed as the aggressor – now imagine it’s your white 17 year old daughter and the assailant is black. How do you feel about what happened to her? Is that how you would have ruled in this case?

Now, here’s the test question – Are you really able to identify with Trayvon Martin in the same way you are able to relate to this fictional white teenage girl? Because, if you can’t, you have work to do.

But here’s the good news – we are women. We are strong. We are able to figure things out, even when those things are hard, and we have the courage to act on the truth when we see it and, like I always say we can do better.

So how about it, white women? Are we ready to do the work?

Anti-Racism 101

White Anti-Racism 101

2013 July 23

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Posted by Karyn Carlo

Last week’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial gives those of us in the progressive faith community no choice but to get serious with our anti-racist work. To that end, I offer these reflections that first appeared as facebook posts that I call White Anti-Racism 101

OK white people, listen up. Class is in session.

1. racism is prejudice PLUS power. those who lack social
power can be prejudiced, hateful, and mean but, unless they have the power to
institutionalize their prejudices it’s not racism (and yes, I know that is
“not what the dictionary says” I am talking about critical race
theory here. google it.)

2. victims of racism
are not responsible for making us comfortable with it or finding nicey nice
ways to talk to us about it so we don’t get offended. They have other work to
do. Dismantling racism is our work. figuring out why we can’t hear black and brown
people when they are angry or in pain and learning to get over it is part of
that work. let’s grow up and do it.

3. racism is not
human nature. human beings are capable of much better.

4. The media did not
invent racism.

5. just because you
didn’t personally invent white privilege does not mean you don’t benefit from

6. whether it’s the
use of the infamous “n” word, or anything else, “but they do it
too” is a lame argument (see above re power)

7. no, black power is
not the same thing as white power (read a history book)

8. it’s too late to
“take the country back” We never owned it to begin with.

9. “I just
didn’t know” is not an excuse. There is a cure for ignorance. It’s called

OK, white people. It’s time for our next installment of
anti-racism 101 so grab a pencil. class is in session

1. black people who
protest state sanctioned or state excused killing of other black people are
usually *exactly* the same people who are hard at work in their own communities
with all sorts of anti-violence projects, so unless you are super duper active
in this area (and even then) you probably should leave the “aren’t you
concerned about black on black crime?” thing alone. really. you are just
embarrassing yourself

2. most crime in this
country is white on white. the biggest threat to the white race is white
people; let’s do something about that

3. white women, like
all women, are in more danger in their own homes than on the street. If they
are assaulted or killed, the perpetrator is likely to be an intimate partner or
family member, not a mysterious black stranger. so oppressing black people is
not the answer to violence against white women. not killing us works better.

4. it is possible for
“minorities” to be racist toward other “minorities”
“Zimmerman is half Hispanic” is as compelling an argument as
“some of my best friends are black” (and in case you didn’t know,
that’s not very compelling)

5. nobody in their
right mind goes into anti-racist work for fame and fortune. Trust me. the pay
stinks and you end up hated more than loved. so “they are just stirring
things up for their own benefit” is a questionable claim and not

6. black suffering is
not “our” suffering. we may, and surely should, care about racism
simply because we are human, but unless we experience profiling and
discrimination on a daily basis or fear for our children who do, let’s not
claim it for “our” own. do not confuse solidarity with appropriation.
We are not Trayvon Martin. at best, we are his white friends, or will be once
we do the work, and that is fine

7. the validity of
ideas is not measured by how they make you *feel* In fact, lots of very true
information, particularly about race, is pretty much guaranteed to make you
feel defensive and really piss you off at first. hang in there anyway. the
truth will set you free eventually

8. the fact that
there are black “conservatives” on Fox News proves nothing. please.
we all have issues

9. white anti-racism is
not white self hate. no liberation begins with self contempt. we do this
because we love ourselves too much to be cut off from the rest of humanity- so
we do the work