Come to think of it, my previous blog post on the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case left out my own personal and theological reflections on the subject of birth control and abortion. So, in the interest of fuller disclosure (What else do we do on the internet but make sure ALL our business is out there?) let me share my thoughts.
I am actually very sympathetic to the view expressed by the owners of Hobby Lobby that life begins at the moment of conception, meaning the moment sperm and egg unite. I personally share that belief. I take that position because I believe that human life is profoundly sacred and deserves to be liberally defined.
Some would say the Bible clearly supports the belief that unborn life is sacred. Those who hold this view have plenty of scriptures to choose from in which God expresses God’s love for humanity, including knowledge of and care for us while we are still in the womb. However, there are also quite a few troubling passages that seem to point in the opposite direction toward a devaluing of both female AND unborn life.
For example, the only time abortion itself is – arguably – mentioned is in Numbers 5 which describes a practice in which a wife suspected of adultery is made to swallow a “water that brings the curse” which ” shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. “(Num 5:27 NRS) In other words, at least in this story, unborn life is not so sacred when it comes to controlling women.
The Bible is also not at all univocal in its defense of all human life as equally valuable. For example, Leviticus 17 describes the lives of babies and children as less valuable than the lives of older people and the lives of women as less valuable than the lives of men. We read there that, when it comes to putting a monetary value on human life ” the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female.(Lev 27:3-5 NRS) Again, the devaluation of women goes hand in hand with the devaluation of children, both born and unborn.
In other words, this business of devaluing the lives of children, both born and unborn, tends to go hand in hand with devaluing the lives of women as well.
That is why I, as a Christian and as a feminist, espousing the values of nonviolence and equality of all persons, cannot take abortion lightly. In all fairness, I doubt many women Christian or otherwise do.
My own personal concern that I not destroy unborn life in my own body led me, during my own childbearing years, to refuse to use those methods of birth control that the owners of Hobby Lobby object to. If, as I reasoned, I believe life begins at conception, then the IUD and forms of the pill that interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg were not OK with me. For me, this was not a morally acceptable choice. When I tried to explain this to my gynecologist, she refused to respect my decision. So I fired her and found another doctor.
I insisted on my right to act in accordance with my own religious convictions. So, in that sense, I am sympathetic with the owners of Hobby Lobby and others in the “pro-life” movement. BUT, and this is a big but, I cannot go along with the idea that it is OK to force these views on others. We simply cannot champion the rights of the unborn by disrespecting the moral agency of women.
Religious freedom means having the right to form and act upon our own religious convictions. It does not include the right to impose those convictions on others.
Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a “family owned Christian” company named Hobby Lobby has the right to refuse to provide health insurance coverage to its employees that would include certain both abortion and some forms of birth control for women because to do so would supposedly interfere with the owner/employer’s religious freedom.
This decision is being hailed as both a “pro-life” victory and a victory for religious freedom. I say it is neither.
It is not a “pro-life” victory because nothing is happening in the lives of women as a result of this decision that will make abortions less likely. There are, to date, only two things that have been proven to reduce abortion – access to birth control and sex education, neither of which Hobby Lobby’s owners support and neither of which are promoted by this decision. So, while I can understand how some might see this as a victory for the unborn, I must beg to differ. Making life harder for women via coercive interference in their reproductive choices rarely has that effect. They simply seek these services elsewhere, in this case by utilizing federally supported health care.
This decision is not good news for religious freedom either, not by a very long shot. Religious freedom, as guaranteed by the first amendment of our Constitution, is based on the very good idea that the institutional power of government should not be used to favor one religion over another. So why is it OK for business owners to use their institutional power as employers to do exactly the same thing?
And then there’s the thing about the company itself being Christian. Really? Did it get baptized and everything? I mean come on. I know there is a lot of room for theological debate over what does and does not constitute a Christian but I thought we all at least agreed that you kind of have to be a human being first, right?
You also have to make a free choice.
We Christians, particularly us Baptists, used to respect that freedom to the point where we fought hard to make sure that there would be no state religion in America and every person would be free to worship (or not) as he or she pleased.
So now we have corporate religion instead?
Ruth Ginsberg was right. “The court has ventured into a minefield.” It is a sad day for freedom.
Having been told today that it is “not Christ-like” (and actually worse, but I won’t get into that) to be talking about “race and politics” during this holiday season, let me say this to “whomever it may concern” : I really don’t care if you say “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas” and I am not at all impressed by your Defense of the Faith that consists of making sure everyone uses the Christian greeting in this “Christian” nation. I am more interested in who you think Jesus was. Is he the one who “just IS white” just like Santa, according to a certain “news” caster? Is he the “just IS white” Jesus who sort of goes along with the “just IS white” Santa to the point where you can hardly tell the two apart? Is he the one who came to save us from our purely individual so called sins (most of which are sexual and committed by somebody else) to make sure we too have been “washed white as Just is white snow?” Is he the one who gets offended when people talk about oppression or poverty or, white heaven forbid, racism because it’s “just not holy” to do that? Because, if so, you can have him. Let his birthday be celebrated by malls full of people buying crap for each other that they don’t even need. Let his birthday be the time when people need to be extra careful of their belongings because theft goes up at this time. Let this be a time when so much expectations are heaped on to families and friends and lovers to have picture perfect relationships instead of letting people be who they are that depression, suicide and violence all increases. Let this be a time when one might, at best, volunteer a few hours in a soup kitchen to experience the “real meaning” of Christmas before heading back to a materialistic orgy. I think “just IS white” Jesus would like that because it keeps us all distracted from dealing with a much more difficult reality, like the fact that Jesus of Nazareth just wasn’t white. He was a Jew, not a Roman. His people were oppressed. He was born in a manger, among poor people who were exiles in their own land. He was persecuted all his life for daring to preach “good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and freedom for the oppressed” and saying bad things like “the last shall be first” and for claiming that what we do to the least among you, you do to God. He didn’t end up in the mall. He ended up on a cross, executed as a revolutionary enemy of the state. That’s my Jesus. He “just is” black and brown and queer and poor and, yes, sometimes female and all sorts of other things that get him thrown out of lots of “nice” places and he doesn’t give a shit if you say “Merry Christmas” or not and I love him and I am glad he was born into this, yes POLITICAL world because it gives a whole lot of us a whole lot of hope.
I actually wrote this in the spring, to present at the “Emerging Theologians” conference at the American Baptist Mission Summit. It has gotten some comments on my facebook page, so I thought I would post it here as well.
Whatever God’s future may be, it must surely be multicultural. For us, as American Baptists, that is very good news. As one of the most diverse denominations in the United States, deeply committed to global mission, we already have considerable experience crossing cultural borders for Christ. This experience places us in a very good position to begin to grasp the radically diverse and inclusive nature of God’s future. Nonetheless, multicultural ministry is still deeply challenging for us. Doing it well means moving beyond changes in music, food, and worship style – all of which may be challenging enough – toward a deep fellowship with one another that can only happen if we are willing to uncover, confront, and release our own cultural idols.
Cultural idols are partial and particular aspects of our own experience of God to which we ascribe a false universalism. God meets us where we are, in the context of our own cultural experiences. This is not a bad thing. All human experience, including the experience of God, is contextual. That is, it has a container. To put it in the language of biblical parable, whether it is “new wine” or “old wine” it is in some kind of wineskin. Otherwise it just spills on the ground! (Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37)
The problem comes when the wineskin is mistaken for the wine itself. When that happens, the cultural context in which we encounter the divine becomes more important than the content of that experience. This habit of treating the partial as if it was the whole is a form of idolatry. Like all idolatry, it stands in the way of a right relationship with God and one another, particularly when it comes to fellowship between people of different cultures. One of the biggest challenges of multicultural ministry, therefore, is learning to overcome this particular form of idolatry so that we all might be more united in Christ.
As Christians, we affirm that, through Christ, God is reconciling the world to God’s self. We also recognize that, through Christ, God is working to break down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) that stands between people who are separated from one another due to cultural differences, prejudice, and social oppression. Identifying and releasing cultural idols is, I believe, an integral part of this process.
As a Euro-American pastor-theologian whose ministerial experience so far includes service to an African-American church followed by service to a predominantly Latino church, I have personally been convicted of cultural idolatry many times. If I continue in multicultural ministry, as I believe I am called to do, I expect I will be convicted of cultural idolatry many more times. As a multicultural minister, over and over again, I have had to find ways of affirming my own cultural particularity within which I first encountered God while, at the same time, releasing my attachment to cultural idols that separate me from other Christians.
I would like to share two examples of idols I have had to recognize and confront as I try to live more fully into God’s future. While my experiences, no doubt, just scratch the surface of all that is needed to fully engage in God’s reconciling work through multicultural ministry, I hope that, by sharing them, I will help others to identify and overcome some of their own cultural idols and open up a wider conversation.
The first idol I discovered had to do with the way I saw the cross. In the white liberal churches I grew up in, the cross was mostly bloodless, gold, and gleaming, a symbol for the way Jesus overcame the power of death. The fact that the cross was bloodless was, for us, a sign of hope. Unlike the fundamentalists, with whom we were in constant and ongoing controversy and against whom we often defined ourselves, we embraced an Abelardian vision of Jesus as a great moral example, not an instrument of vicarious, blood atonement. No one sang words like “power in the blood” or “saved by the blood” or “nothing but the blood” in these churches. Our cross was bloodless, a symbol of victory, not suffering. Our Good Friday led very quickly to Easter morning. In this message of life over death, I did encounter God. It is still part of who I am. But I now realize, it was only a partial vision.
As a seminarian, I had the privilege of serving an African-American church. Although their theology was not fundamentalist, they sang lots of “blood songs.” One day, after I had worshipped with them for about a year, we were singing “Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord to the cross where thou hast died. Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord to thy precious bleeding side.” I was overcome with emotion and began to weep.
I asked my brother minister why he thought that song affected me so. He replied, as if it was a weird question to ask, saying “because it’s the cross! Why, what did the cross mean to you in the churches you grew up in?” When I described that experience, he was horrified. He said “You can’t have a bloodless cross. If you have a bloodless cross you are saying our blood, the blood of black people, poured out on the streets in our struggle to be free doesn’t matter to you. Now that you have worshipped with us as part of this community, you don’t have that right anymore.”
That experience led me to completely re-evaluate my theology of the cross and, in fact, provided the basis for my doctoral dissertation. More importantly, I was led to a better and deeper understanding of the saving power of the gospel. I am still working on the many dimensions of what the cross can mean as it connects with different communities.
This project of a lifetime began with this one experience of being confronted with a cultural idol and choosing to release it in order to see a wider view of God’s future. But that is not the only time multicultural ministry has forced me to recognize and confront my own cultural idols.
After graduating from seminary, I was called to serve as Interim Pastor to a formerly Euro-American church that is now made up primarily of immigrants from Central America. Just as service to an African American church led me to recognize the idol of the bloodless cross, service to this particular Latino community has led me to confront the idol of independence.
The culture I grew up in places a very high value on independence. Children growing up and moving away from the parental home is seen as a good thing, a sign of maturity and growth. This “leaving of the nest” is something we celebrate in our homes and in our churches as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood. In this context, God-in-family is one who fosters and encourages self reliance. So, when my son came home from his first mission trip, I was thrilled to find that his experiences of serving others, far away from his home, had made him more independent.
Therefore, when I began, for the first time, to set up a similar mission trip in my new church, I tried to encourage the families to support it by saying “It will be so great. You’ll see. Your kids will come back so independent.” I couldn’t believe it when I got a really negative reaction to this. It was only after some very difficult conversations that I began to understand that I was being confronted with another cultural idol. While independence may be a prime value in some cultures, loyalty to the family is more important for others. For me having a kid come back “so independent” sounded good. For them, it sounded more like “this trip will take your kids away from you.” No wonder we were not connecting!
While God, for some, may mean one who helps us have the strength to leave the family nest and establish a new one, for others God is the one who holds the family together and protects the nest from harm. I have since learned to minister in this context by preaching about the family of God, and the way being part of that family helps us to love and help others. I have also re-evaluated my own ideas about what family can mean and the ways God helps us to have healthy families. Independence has its place. I still value it. But I now believe that inter- dependence and loyalty also matters. Both are important aspects, not only of earthly family life, but, I believe, of the larger family of God that the future is shaping.
These are only two experiences I have had of confronting and releasing cultural idols. I am sure that, as I continue on my own journey in multicultural ministry I will encounter many more, as will anyone who engages in this work. Although the way we experience God in each of our cultures is good, it is not everything. Sometimes we need to let go of our old wineskins in order to experience something new.
To be clear, however, I am not saying that everything about everyone’s culture is good. Saying “it’s cultural” is not the same thing as saying it is good. There are aspects of all of our cultures that directly conflict with the gospel. When that is the case, Christians are called to be counter-cultural as we resist the evils that are found in all of our communities. There are non-negotiable fundamentals of the faith about which we cannot compromise, regardless of context.
So, where must we stand fast and where can, and must, we bend? These are not easy questions. They need to be prayerfully answered along the way, with a deep sense of humility. There will be times when we need to say no to certain aspects of certain cultures, beginning with our own. But there will be many more times when we will be called to release our cultural idols in order to be part of a larger fellowship with God and one another. The challenge of multicultural ministry is finding new ways to affirm all that is good about the cultures we come from, so that we can be different together in a way that does not require anyone to sacrifice her or his particularity while, at the same time, not making idols out of these cultures in a way that prevents us from real fellowship with one another.
I am reminded of the story of Jacob’s ladder found in Genesis 28. While in a strange new place somewhere in Haran, Jacob has a vision that leads him to declare “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16 NRS) I can’t help but wonder, what other places there are, what other peoples, what other cultural contexts about which we too might one day declare “surely the LORD is in this place and we did not know it.”
The places we first meet God are sacred spaces, but they are not the only spaces. There are other places where God might be found. This is God’s future and, being that this future really does come from God, and not just our limited imaginations, it just might be a little bigger than we think.
In light of the way the gospel is, once again, being misused to justify oppression of the poor I am revisiting some earlier writing.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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 http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Stop+and+Frisk 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.
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,
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?
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
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
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