Friday, November 16, 2018

Pity for 45

The other day, as I read the news reports of our president's brooding bitterness and fury in the wake of the midterm elections, I found myself feeling sad. I cannot help but see in our president a deeply unhappy human being who has all his life been groping for happiness in things that don't provide true satisfaction: power and authority, money, fame, bodily pleasures, the accolades and praise of others (real or feigned).

And when he is inevitably thwarted in his pursuit of them--or worse, when they fail to satisfy, fail to fill the void that he believes this new thing will finally fill (a gorgeous porn star! a lavish penthouse! a hit TV show! winning the most powerful office on planet Earth!)--he becomes furious, smearing his distress onto anyone near him, calling names, blaming others for that dark emptiness in him that he doesn't know how to fill.

Maybe you don't see him this way. Maybe you see him as someone to be envied or someone to be hated. But what I see fills me with neither of those things. What I see fills me with that species of sorrow we call pity.

Some of us try to bring the world under our thumb, only to learn that this just makes our world as small as we are. The path to real meaning, real joy, lies in the other direction: appreciating how much greater than ourselves the world is and making ourselves greater by loving that world, by opening ourselves up to that which is not us, those who are different, those who are other, and by feeling the ultimate humility as we brush up against the infinite creative love that lies at reality's heart.

My prayer is that every living soul will discover that truth and be transformed by it. Including our angry, unhappy president.

Monday, October 29, 2018

"Do not fight hate with hate": A Reflection on a Saying

The Don't List:

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse hate with anger, with the indignant cry of the victims or the protective fury of those who love them. Some anger is the anger of love, and this anger is an essential tool in the struggle against hate.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not create false equivalences between the hate in the heart of anti-Semites and the reactive hate of those who have been brutalized by anti-Semitism. The call not to fight hate with hate is a reminder of how best to fight the evil of those who swim in the waters of hate. It isn't a tool to re-victimize those who have been splashed by these waters.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse the act of hating people with the act of hating injustice, hating evil, hating hate. While hating people is a poor weapon to fight hatred of people, hatred of hate is essential. We fight hate because we hate hate. We grope for ways to love the human filled with hate because we hate the hate that has consumed then and twisted their humanity.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not let this mantra block empathy for the victims of hate. Do not speak it from a place of privilege, where you sit untouched by hate and tell its victims to be saintly while you wag your finger at them. Do not use this mantra as a test to judge which victims of hate are worthy of your compassion.

Do not fight hate with hate.

The Do List:

Fight hate by loving its victims, all its victims, including those who have been eaten up by it from the inside, including those who have chosen to live in hate as a way to find meaning, including those who have been murdered or orphaned or brutalized by those it has possessed, including yourself.

Fight hate by groping for the words and actions that will lift up the humanity of the person before you.

Fight hate by recognizing its seeds in your own heart: the disdain, the condescension, the dismissal of others based on where they're from or what they look like or what they believe or how they respond to the struggles of life. Forgive yourself for those seeds. Forgive others for those seeds.

Fight hate with the angry love that will not stand idly by while there is preventable suffering.

Fight hate with the mercy that can crack walls of defensive intolerance--mercy for the trembling child huddled beneath the layers of ugliness.

Fight hate with the grace that prevents minor failures from blossoming into larger ones.

Fight hate by screaming "No" to the darkness, and then by shedding what light you can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shoplifting: An Analogy

I believe we should have laws against petty theft, and I believe we should prosecute those who break these laws.  And I believe sensible steps to prevent petty theft should be taken.

But I do not believe that petty theft is such a serious threat to our country that it should be a felony, that police should devote detectives and forensic scientists to tracking down shoplifters the way they track down murderers, or that shoplifters should be sentenced to prison and separated from their families.

And if my local department store decided to spend millions to build the most high-tech state-of-the-art surveillance system throughout the store and to fill the store with dozens of security personnel, all to stop the occasional shoplifter, I'd advise them to think about whether their plan makes sense financially and in terms of creating a humane shopping environment that their paying customers would feel at home in.

Oh, and if there's a sudden uptick in shoplifting groceries because (a) the major employer in town closes down, resulting in hundreds of people suddenly without jobs or the ability to pay their bills, and (b) the town has no food pantries and provides no unemployment benefits to help the unemployed through this difficult time, then the major problem here is not the petty theft. And it would be inhumane for the town to address the issue by ignoring the economic problems caused by the factory closing down, ignoring the lack of food pantries or other supports systems, and instead spend hundreds of thousands of dollars ruthlessly policing the grocery stores and filling up the local jail to overflowing with shoplifters who were just trying to feed their families.

Not only would it be inhumane, but it would be counter-productive. A more human approach would probably cost less and do more for the town in the long run. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if the laid-off workers started marching and protesting. And if the protesters became a mob that started to riot, I would not condone the rioting but I would encourage the town government to think about how they'd contributed to the crisis.  I'd tell them to refocus their energies on fixing the root problems, instead of treating those hungry people who shoplift canned tuna for their kids as if they're murderers.

All of this is common sense. Just plain common sense.

And everything I just said about petty theft can, with slight alteration, describe my views on illegal immigration.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Do Not Return to Silence: A Plea

It's a lot to ask, I know, but still I beg it: Do not return to silence.

Christine Blasey Ford didn't want to go public because she didn't think it would do any good. She feared she'd expose herself and her family to all manner of pain and hardship, and it wouldn't make a difference. The engine had been gathering speed for a long time, and her voice would not be enough to stop it.

She was right.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

There are many who say it's a good thing that her voice didn't prevent Kavanaugh's confirmation. They speak sincerely about witch hunts and the presumption of innocence, about attacking the integrity and honor of a man who has hit all the career milestones and achievements of someone striving to earn a seat on the Supreme Court. They speak of the hardship he and his family must endure because a woman shook off years of silence, stepped hesitantly into the public spotlight, and spoke with credibility and earnestness about a distant memory in which only a few things were utterly clear: his face, his name, the pressure of his body and his hand over her mouth, and the laughter.

We cannot let that be enough, they say, or we open a Pandora's Box of false accusations. We must make an example of her--show the world that her voice alone cannot derail this man's career trajectory--so that men like him do not need to fear.

And so, in the name of keeping men safe, the old social forces grind on, demanding silence.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

Her words, spoken with such conviction and such power from a place of humanity and pain, were offered without the benefit of the kind of sustained investigation that might turn up corroboration. Never mind for the moment who is to blame, but her words were delivered in a context and with a timetable that guaranteed there could be nothing else, that it would be her words alone, her naked words against a man with the brass ring of a Supreme Court seat almost in his fist, a political party with the brass ring of majority control of the Supreme Court almost in its fist. And the decision-makers went through the ritual of listening to her bare words before delivering their inevitable verdict: "Yes, a credible witness. A sincere voice. No doubt something happened to her. But it's her words alone."

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She became a target and a pawn in a polarized political battle. Some surely saw her as a tool, as an opportunity to exploit. Others saw her as a threat to their political aims. For a few brief moments, perhaps, as she told her story, they saw her as a person. For an a hour, perhaps, it was about her humanity. But before and after that hour she was one piece to be played for political points, and her humanity was something to be buried by those whose political aims were threatened by her naked words.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

While some career politicians opportunistically exploited her, others opportunistically exploited the public's disgust with political opportunism and exploitation. They slathered this woman with all the ugliness of the partisan politics that swirled around her, as if she were to blame for it. It no longer became about her and her story and the question of Kavanaugh's character. It became, instead, about whether the Democrats were timing the release of her story for maximum political effect and asking for an FBI investigation to drag out the confirmation process until after the midterm elections. "Is she telling the truth?" was transformed to "Did the Democrats behave with propriety and decency in the confirmation process, free of manipulative tactics?" And the political cynicism that gives an inevitable negative answer to the second question was treated as, by default, giving a negative answer to the first. She was no longer just responsible for her own words, her own story, her own connection to the truth. She was made responsible for all the ways that others might use those words and that story and that truth.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

The very President of the United States of America mocked her testimony in public. In front of a crowd of cheering supporters, he made the most painful moments of her life into the brunt of a joke. He laughed along with the crowd.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She was forced into a room by two boys, overpowered, pinned by the weight of a male body and afraid for her life when his hand pressed down over her mouth to keep her silent. And when forced by the weight of circumstance and her own sense of duty to at last break that silence, she was subjected to harassment and death threats of such magnitude that she and her family had to move out of their home for their own safety. There was no evidence that she was anything but sincere in her reasons for breaking her long silence; but an entire movement built up around the notion that Brett Kavanaugh was the true victim in this case. Images sprang up on social media of him and his family along with the caption, "Pray for this family." Senators waxed indignant about the abuse he suffered, apologizing to him as if he'd been subjected to the moral equivalent of sexual assault.

As if his life would be ruined if he wasn't granted the most highly respected position it is possible for one in his field to receive, forcing on him the indignity of finishing out his career in a position that is merely one of the most highly respected positions someone of his career can receive.

As if it is an affront to his dignity and honor to be required to confront this story, this harrowing story of someone who said she had suffered by his hand (and by the weight of his body, and by the sound of his laughter). Not required to face trial (that would never happen) or even a full investigation unhampered by rigid timetables, but simply to be part of a proceeding in which both he and she are given equal time to state their accounts.

How dare they! How dare they subject him to this witch hunt, this violation, this assault on his good name. As if requiring him to do it is akin to pushing him into a darkened room, tearing at his clothes, almost choking him in the effort to keep him silent.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. I cannot demand it where the costs are so high. I can only beg.

I beg it because it is the only path that has the hope of bringing insight and understanding to a world so fogged by ignorance and confusion. It is the only path that has the hope of restoring balance and equality and the dignity of women and girls in a world that sits in the shadow of centuries of patriarchy.

I beg it because in a world where women and girls are silent, all women and girls are in greater danger of being victims (including the ones who hold my heart). In a world where men and boys can trust in silence, and in the forces that make examples of those who refuse to stay silent, men and boys will think they can get away with it. As they did with so many women I know (I name you in the silence of my heart, because it is not my place to break your silence).

As one of them might do, one day, with my daughter. And her classmates. And her gymnastics teammates. And her generation. Unless the forces meant to keep women silent are battered and battered again by women who refuse to stay silent.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. Still I beg it. 

And unfortunately I beg it in a world where false accusations of sexual harassment and assault do happen. They are far rarer than the routine reality of sexual harassment and assault, but the forces supporting the status quo have an interest in making those false accusations loom large. I beg you not to return to silence; I beg it so that the truth will loom larger still. If all the real instances of sexual harassment and assault are made evident in a litany of honest voices sharing honest stories without agendas, the fable that the biggest danger is the false accusation will be battered down. False accusations loom large only in a world where the chorus of true stories go unheard.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't hear the voice of the one who has been falsely accused. I feel I must say this to those who are prone to misunderstand. There is a difference between shutting down the lie that false accusations are more common than rape and shutting down the person who says, "I have been false accused." False accusations do happen, and it won't serve the cause of truth to deny this or to pretend that we should do nothing to protect the victims of false accusations. What will serve the cause of truth is to recognize what the existence of false accusations calls for.

It does not call for us to treat every person who comes forward to share the pain of sexual assault as if they were a liar bent on ruining lives. What it calls for is discernment, and wisdom, and compassion.

Acting with wisdom and discernment and compassion means that when we are talking about a criminal trial where the accused faces punishment if found guilty, we should presume innocence until guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But it does not mean that we must extend this "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard outside the courtroom. Depending on the nature of the case, a single witness, no matter how credible, may not be enough to send someone to prison for child abuse in the absence of any corroborating evidence. But one credible witness is surely enough to justify my decision not to hire that person to be my babysitter. It isn't wisdom or discernment or compassion to apply the standards fitting for the courtroom to every facet of social life.

And again, so that I am not misunderstood, I feel compelled to add that this doesn't mean there should be no standards at all. It doesn't mean we should be so credulous that any mean-spirited chronic liar can stop us from honoring a deserving person just by fabricating a story. It means that the standards should be determined by what is at stake, by what we risk by being wrong, by who is vulnerable and who is not, and by how likely it is that someone would, in the circumstances at hand, come forward as they have done if what they were saying was a lie.

Most of all, wisdom and discernment and compassion means this: in ordinary life, when someone speaks out about sexual harassment and abuse, we listen to them as we listen to others who share their stories: with a presumption of their innocence--a presumption that they are sincere and honest, not calculating liars aimed at unjustly bringing others down.

Of course that presumption can be defeated. We cannot ignore the character and credibility of those who speak, or close our eyes to the darker motives that may give them a reason to lie. But wisdom and discernment and compassion means we pay attention to whether there are such reasons to doubt credibility. It does not mean we permit sustained smear campaigns aimed, not at determining their credibility, but at undermining it.

What wisdom and discernment and compassion demand depends on context, on what is at stake, on who risks the most and what the harms of error will be. And the world will not understand what is at stake unless the victims of sexual harassment and assault refuse to remain silent, despite all the forces ranged against them.

And so I beg: Do not return to silence. A world defined by wisdom and discernment and compassion depends upon the voices of those with the courage to speak.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why We Must Take Christine Blasey Ford's Accusations against Kavanaugh Seriously

Just as Brett Kavanaugh looked poised to handily secure confirmation of his Supreme Court nomination, the news broke: Sen Dianne Feinstein was in possession of a letter alleging some kind of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school.

With nothing more to go on than that, I wasn't inclined to say much about the case. After all, whatever this was, it was something that happened decades ago while Kavanaugh was still a minor. I was imagining some kind of sexual harassment allegation. Sexual harassment of young women by young men in high school is a serious issue, but for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, I was hesitant to make too much of such charges when, it seemed, they were being dredged up decades later in an attempt to derail a political appointment.

But then the substance of the accusations came out. The accuser went public, taking ownership of the allegation and the risks that go with that. This wasn't a charge of sexual harassment but of attempted rape. And the way it came to public light didn't suggest a political motivation but a deeply personal one: a victim trying to find the voice to speak in a culture that too often shames and silences the victims of sexual assault.

Why We Shouldn't Support a Sweeping Policy of Smearing People for their Past Mistakes

Before turning to why we should take the Kavanaugh accusations seriously, I want to be clear about what I'm not arguing. I don't think it's useful for us to start digging through the pasts of every public figure, smearing them with the stains of long-ago wrongs--especially if our collective understanding of those wrongs has evolved dramatically over the time since they were done. When I say I think we should take these charges seriously, I don't want to be misunderstood as endorsing some sweeping principle of this sort.

To see why, consider an example from my own life. When I was in the seventh grade, I was standing behind a girl in the orchestra room before rehearsal started (I think we were standing in line to sign some kind of form), and one of the older boys swept past us both, slithered his arm past me, and "goosed" the girl. That's what we called it then: goosing. It was an innocent-sounding name for the act of pinching someone's buttocks.

The girl let out a gasp, turned around, and saw me. Her expression changed as soon as she met my eyes. Shock at having been pinched in the butt changed to a different kind of surprise. She said something like, "Wow, Eric, I never imagined you were the type to do that!" And she gave me a smile of a kind that I, being the smallest kid in my grade who still looked like a fourth grader, was used to. It's the kind of smile that the babysitter gives to the round-cheeked little boy who professes his love. She's letting him down, of course, but she finds it harmless and kind of cute and she doesn't want to hurt his feelings.

I blushed, but I didn't deny having groped her ass--because, although I'd never have done something so brazen myself, that had more to do with fear than a sense of its moral wrongness. I didn't see what had been done to her as a violation. I don't know how she experienced it--at least not before she decided that it came from a boy she classified more among those she'd babysit than among those she'd date. But I do know that years later, during my senior year in high school, my girlfriend arrived at school in tears, feeling violated and humiliated and furious. She told me that some guy had grabbed her butt on the bus.

It was the first time that I thought of that act as a violation. A part of me wanted to minimize it, to tell my girlfriend that she was overreacting, to say that the guy was just "being playful" or something like that. But instead I listened to her and thought, "Maybe I'm under-reacting." Others, predictably, called her hysterical.

I'm pretty certain that I never "goosed" anyone in the years between those events--but it was a common enough occurrence in the halls of my junior high and high school. It was usually the more confident guys who did it, the ones that looked older than their years, played sports, actually dated girls instead of pining for them while standing against a wall. The guys we were all supposed to admire and wish we were more like. And the girls would jump and then--in my memory of the events--would give the boys a "naughty-you" flirtatious look. And the boys would shrug and smile.

If I never goosed anyone myself, what held me back was not a sense that such an act was a form of uninvited sexual touching, and hence a violation of someone's bodily autonomy. What held me back was, in part, the near certainty that the look I'd get would not be a naughty-you-flirtatious smile but a look of contempt. Or, worse, the look the babysitter gives to the little boy when he professes his love.

When I think of it more deeply, there's another reason I didn't do it: I didn't feel entitled to. But this was a judgment about my own status: I wasn't an alpha male. I wasn't one of those guys we all admired, the guys who had tacit permission to goose anyone they wanted. In other words, I subconsciously internalized a worldview in which entitlement to touch women's bodies didn't come from women but from one's status in the male hierarchy.

If I had goosed someone in those years, it would've been because I'd finally decided to push myself off the wall, shake off my timidity, and "make a move." And I wouldn't have perceived that move as assault. It would have been a move up the ladder of male hierarchy, a move designed to show my confidence in myself and my worth. And if asked, I would've described it as a playful, flirtatious overture.

I don't see it that way anymore. In the years since then I've thought about the culture of patriarchy, a culture which socializes both boys and girls in ways that promote and facilitate the sexual exploitation of women. Seen through that lens, the practice of "goosing" is hardly innocuous. That girls are socialized to treat it as no big deal, to laugh off an uninvited touching of their buttocks, is not a harmless feature of their socialization. That young women like my high school girlfriend are characterized as "hysterical" when they respond as she did to being goosed--that plays a role in the creation of the culture of silence and shame that has enabled predators like Harvey Weinstein to get away with sexual assault for decades.

I don't remember ever goosing anyone. I'm sure that in many other ways I was enacting little rituals and ways of talking whose cumulative effect was to provide cover for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. But suppose I did goose someone and I don't remember doing it. Should that be held against me today?

I don't think so, but this isn't really about me. There are men and women who are far more effective agents of social change than I am who, years ago, were part of the problem they are now working to change, who routinely and without much thought acted out the oppressive and exploitative scripts they'd inherited. Back before they woke up.

If we hold everyone individually accountable for such things, we are in danger of dealing with our collective guilt by scapegoating individuals who may not only have been less responsible for our culture's wrongs but who may now be part of the effort to change it for the better. And it's fine to say that those people should come clean about their pasts and the things they used to do which now they stand against. But the deeper we are socialized into a pattern of behavior, the more invisible it is to us. I don't remember everything I did in high school, especially not those actions and events where everything conformed to the established social scripts. What I'm likely to remember the most are the moments that forced me to confront my socialization--the challenges to them, or those moments when the darkest aspects of my socialization became apparent. What I will remember are those events that called me to decide whether this was who I wanted to be.

The more routine expressions of our social scripts are likely to fall into the fog of our personal histories. If the things lost in that fog are held against us today, now that the wrongness of those things has become clear, it's more likely an effort to scapegoat individuals than an effort to take collective accountability for making things better. And beneficiaries of the status quo are more than happy to protect the exploitative regime by encouraging such scapegoating sacrifice of those who are fighting for reform.

This is why a sweeping policy of holding individuals accountable for mistakes made long ago, mistakes that express collective sins for which we should take collective responsibility, is troubling to me. Our decision to hold someone accountable for the wrongs of their youth cannot be based on such a sweeping principle. But it cannot be selective based on party affiliation or group membership, because then it's just partisan hypocrisy. It must be more nuanced than that.

Which brings us back to Kavanaugh.

It's Sexual Assault, Not Sexual Harassment 

The accusation leveled against Kavanaugh is not that in his youth he recited routine scripts of sexualized talk that we now recognize to be verbal harassment. It isn't that he participated in common rituals--such as goosing--that we now see as part of a deeply troubling pattern aimed at training women to quietly accept uninvited sexual touching (or to minimizing it on pain of being dubbed "hysterical").

The accusation is one of attempted rape.

Goosing, and the accompanying social pressure to treat it as harmless or playful, is part of what has come to be called "rape culture." As I understand it, that term refers to all of these smaller things that cumulatively both encourage patterns of sexual exploitation and make it easier for sexually exploitative men to get away with rape (and other crimes of sexual objectification and humiliation). It is one thing to be unconsciously complicit in such a culture, to blindly perpetuate patterns of thought and action that provide cover for sexual predators. In cases like that, what we need to do is cry out, "Wake up!" And if they've already woken up, then we must urge them to be part of the effort to change things for the better.

But it is one thing to be a banal and mostly oblivious participant in a cultural evil. It is something else to take advantage of that culture, to be among those who use it as cover to victimize and abuse. Even if it's a one-time offense. Here, it's important to distinguish between two kinds of one-time offenders: those who realize their error, repent, do penance, and forge a new path; and those who duck their heads and enjoy the advantages of a social system that hides their crime. Those who pursue the latter course have not merely violated another human being and gotten away with it. They are by their actions endorsing the social forces that enabled them to get away with it.

Even if they never again practice overt sexual assault, their relationship to the system that enables perpetrators has changed. As beneficiaries of that system, especially if they use those benefits to rise to success, they become its cheerleaders, however silently.

If you attempted to rape someone and then rose to power and prominence because the culture of shame and silence kept your crime a secret, you are wearing that culture of shame and silence like your own private invisibility cloak, valuing it the way the Harry Potter valued his. If you act as if it's just fine to enjoy your privileges, then you're acting as if the things that made those privileges possible are just fine, too. And if what made those privileges possible is a culture of shame and silence, then you're its secret fan.

This is why what Kavanaugh did or did not do so many years ago matters so much. Because it's about who he is today. If he is guilty of the charges leveled against him, then he has been benefiting all these years from that culture of shame and silence that kept his crime hidden from the high school teachers who wrote his letters of recommendation, from the colleges that gave him his degrees, from those sitting on his confirmation hearings, from everyone who ever had a say in his rise to prominence and power.

You cannot benefit so much for so long from rape culture without a part of you being its silent cheerleader. And if Kavanaugh really did commit this crime so many years ago, then his current behavior--his unwavering denials--means that even now he is hoping that rape culture will come to his rescue, that it will help him rise even higher, to one of the most powerful positions in the world.

If Kavanaugh really did do this thing so many years ago, it is not an isolated aberration from his youth but something that he has continued to underwrite and support every day of every year since he committed that terrible crime. The choice to enjoy the protection of his invisibility cloak is an ongoing choice that he makes anew every day. If he did it and came clean all those years ago, repented and sought to do penance for it, then we could call it a thing of the past. But he's done none of those things. So either he is not guilty, or he has been benefiting year in and year out from social forces that have enabled him to get away with attempted rape. And he seeks to benefit from them now.

This is why we need to take Christine Blasey Ford's allegations seriously today. It would be different if the nature of the allegations had all the marks of a smear-campaign. But there is a clear history of Ford talking about this trauma from her youth in contexts that had to do with personal and relational healing, not political opportunism. And events unfolded in a way that indicates that Ford herself, after considerable struggle, had decided against going public for reasons of personal welfare. This narrative fits the profile, not of political opportunists, but of those who are struggling to stand up to a culture of shame and silence, one that has kept them from speaking publicly for a long time and that threatens to beat them down if they speak today.

It is a different matter whether political opportunism on the part of others played a role in these allegations becoming public when they did. I'm sure there is plenty of political opportunism to go around. But these allegations have their origins in something very different. They are serious. They speak to who Kavanaugh is today, not just to what he did so many years ago.

And so the allegations must be treated with gravity and attention, considered on their merits, before Kavanaugh is elevated to the highest honor attainable to any person in his profession.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

It's Not About "Redistributing Wealth." It's About Correcting Inequities in the System.

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is now worth more than $150 billion. Meanwhile, there are people in America who work two or three jobs and can't afford to cover their bare-bones bills.

You don't have to be a socialist or a Marxist or some kind of trenchant anti-capitalist to think that this sort of inequity is a problem, or to think that there is something amiss with a system that allows such extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, while others struggle and work in vain to dig their way out of poverty.

This is the point being made in a recent line of argument--its author obscured--that recently appeared in an image passing through my Faebook newsfeed. Here's the image:



Let us grant that Amazon contributes real value to the contemporary world and that its founder and CEO has worked hard and made risky choices and investments that justify him receiving very, very healthy financial rewards. In other words, let's assume that's there's nothing wrong with a system that enables some people to become filthy, stinking rich, maybe even LeBron-James-level rich. We're talking so rich that it's hard for any ordinary human being to imagine what to do with such abundance. Rich beyond what any human being needs for health and happiness and security. So rich that, to the extent that money can contribute to happiness, the person has enough wealth to buy the material contributions to lifelong happiness many times over.

Let's take that as our starting point.

The reality is that we live in a system where some people can come to possess personal fortunes so enormous that they numerically dwarf the unimaginable wealth described above. That is, we live in a system that allows wealth to keep pouring into the personal accounts of individuals who have long, long ago exceeded that point at which more money can do them any personal good in terms of human happiness. And the money keeps pouring in while single mothers are working multiple jobs to feed their children.

Sometimes, I suppose, this happens with people who are of such extraordinary virtue and wisdom that they regard this spigot of wealth as a source of enormous personal responsibility. They research how this enormous wealth can best serve the world, and then invest their money and give it to charities and causes so wisely and well that they make the world a better place for all.

I'm not going to remark on whether Bezos is such a person, because I have no idea. Maybe he is. But the point I want to make here is not about Bezos. He's just a convenient example because, at the moment, he's the richest person alive. The important thing for my purposes here is to note that our system is not designed so that only these paragons of wisdom and virtue are the beneficiaries of such wealth. Many who become exorbitantly rich channel their excess abundance in ways that are of questionable value at best.

Nevertheless, such disparity in wealth might be justified if (1) we believe wealth should be distributing in accord with merit, and (2) some people merit a personal fortune of $150 billion, while others merit $7.25 an hour, money that is gone before the end of each month meaning that they end up with no personal wealth, only debt.

While I'm not sure about a strict meritocracy (I'm too influenced by the Christian ethic of love and the call for charity and grace), I do think that merit should be rewarded. I think we need an economic system that does that. If so, we need some idea of how to measure merit. My guess is most of us would point to two things: how hard and diligently one works, and the value of what one produces through one's work. In other words, economies should reward labor and people's contributions to society--two things that are connected in complex ways.

Here's the problem. My wife is a public school teacher. Her salary would not be sufficient to sustain her and the children. We live modestly, but my income is essential for us to make ends meet, let alone build any personal wealth. In fact, if one weighs our assets against our debts, even with my salary in the mix, I'm not sure that one could say that we have any real wealth to sustain us should our salaries disappear. And if it were my wife's salary alone, her labor would at best generate a life of paycheck-to-paycheck penny-pinching with $0 in accumulated wealth--vs. Jeff Bezo's $150 billion.

But let's be generous and treat her yearly salary as wealth. Even on that assumption, Bezos's fortune is not hundreds of times or thousands of times greater than hers, or even hundreds of thousands of times higher. It's millions of times greater.

My wife works hard and diligently. I'm sure Bezos does, too. But does he work millions of times harder, millions of times more diligently? I know how devoted my wife is to her students, so let me just say I'm skeptical.

But what about the value of their respective contributions? We can't make the mistake of comparing the value of my wife's contribution to society against the contribution of the entire Amazon corporation, because there are more than 560,000 people working for Amazon to help generate its cumulative contribution. What we need to do is compare Bezos' piece of that cumulative effort to the value of the work my wife does.

But let me reframe the question in the following way. There are about 42,000 teachers in Oklahoma, and the average teacher salary in Oklahoma is about $38,000. That means teachers in Oklahoma are, taken together, receiving about $1.6 billion a year. Again, most of this goes to making ends meet rather than accumulating wealth, but let's treat it as wealth for the sake of argument. If we do, then Bezos has about one hundred times the personal wealth of all the teachers in Oklahoma combined.

So the question is this: Is the value of this one man's contributions worth one hundred times as much as the cumulative worth of all the teachers in the state of Oklahoma, diligently working to educate the next generation and make them ready to face the world, to contribute, and to succeed?

If you're as skeptical as I am about this, then we can agree to set aside the idea that, regardless of the inequities that exist, our system is a fair one because people are rewarded in proportion to the merit of their contributions. We don't live in a world where people's wealth is proportional to the merit of the work they do.

To put it starkly, the rickshaw puller in Calcutta works harder than I have ever dreamed of working but makes the tiniest fraction of what I make--and in terms of quality of life, the difference between me and that rickshaw-puller is enormously greater than the difference between my quality of life and that of Jeff Bezos. This is because, the more money you have, the less it substantively contributes to your quality of life. Lots of middle income people are blissfully happy and could give lessons to some of the very rich. But the poor struggle, their poverty grating at their capacity to enjoy their lives, no matter how wise they are in terms of getting their priorities straight.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a system that does not distribute wealth in proportion to either human need or the merit of those who contribute to society through their labors. Wealth gets concentrated in ways that can't be justified by the greater merit of the wealthy. This means our system is prone towards unjust concentration of wealth in the hands of some while others who work hard and diligently and make valuable contributions get far less than they deserve--and, in many cases, far less than they need to live a decent life.

What causes this problem? There are many forces in play, and I won't claim to understand them all. Part of it, of course, is that luck sometimes rewards those who take important risks--and we need to accommodate that in our system if we want people to take those risks (although, for the same reason, we should also work to cushion the costs to those who take the risks and fail). But a non-trivial part of the problem is that those who get rich often do so at the expense of the poor, because the system is set up to exploit the labor of the poor, working them hard and paying them less than their labor is worth.

In other words, part of the reason why there exists such wealth inequity in our system is that our system is set up so that the "haves" can leverage their privilege into more privileges while the "have-nots" are left competing for scraps. And this is not a comment on Jeff Bezos as an individual. I'm not saying that he is in some unique and special way getting rich by choosing to exploit others. What I'm saying is that he is part of a system that works this way--that he doesn't need to deliberately scheme to be monstrous to his employees in order to pad his exorbitant wealth while they get paid less than the value their work adds to Amazon's success. The system is set up so that this happens, without Jeff Bezos or other corporate billionaires having to take any nefarious steps to make it happen. 

So how do we fix the system to remedy this? I don't know the answer, although I'm pretty sure it will involve the thoughtful use of such standard tools as income taxes and various regulations on business, including anti-exploitation laws like minimum wage laws. I'm pretty sure it will involve robust protections on workers' rights to collectively bargain, along with societal support for the efforts of those who work hard for a living to secure a living wage.

But my aim here is not to say that some specific combination of higher taxes on the very rich and a higher minimum wage, along with state protections of collective bargaining, is what is needed. Rather, I want to make the following more modest point: when people talk about raising taxes on the wealthy and raising the minimum wage, they are often painted as if they want to take money from the rich--money the rich have earned--and give it to others who haven't earned it. Thus, these measures are sometimes described as "wealth redistribution."

But if everything I've pointed out above is true, that's a misleading characterization of what these measures are about. The point of such policy proposals is to correct a systemic problem in wealth distribution, a problem that leads to wealth getting unfairly concentrated in the hands of people who haven't done enough to warrant getting THAT huge a piece of the pie.

Suppose there's a pie on the table, and four people around it who have worked hard to earn some of that pie. Suppose there is some machine set up to distribute pie according to what each person deserves. Imagine there's a guy who worked hard enough to earn half the pie on the table--but the machine gives him all but a sliver of the pie on the table as well as every single pie at every single Marie Callender's restaurant in the city (we're assuming the machine has supernatural powers). Meanwhile, the guy at the table who has done enough to earn a quarter of the pie gets the sliver, and the last two people at the table, who have done enough to get a slice each, get to fight over the crumbs.

Now suppose the owner of the house, seeing this happen, steps in. She sends the two hundred and ninety pies that are filling up her living room back to Marie Callender's, takes back a sliver less than half the original pie from the first guy, gives a quarter pie to the guy who earned that, and makes sure the last two each get their slice. Has she taken the first guy's pie(s) from him to redistribute to the others? No, she has corrected a glitch in a machine that unfairly heaped on him more pie than he knew what to do with while leaving others with less than their fair share.

When you're doing that sort of thing--when you are looking for ways to correct wealth concentration inequities but adjusting a system that is prone towards such inequities--that's not "wealth redistribution" in any problematic sense. It's not taking what the rich have earned to give it to the poor.

It's trying to make sure the system gives everyone what they've earned.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Pope Condemns the Death Penality--and thereby challenges us anew to rethink out partisan packaging

A few days ago Pope Francis declared the death penalty "inadmissible," thereby strengthening the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to to the practice. In the process, the Roman Catholic Church continues to defy America's partisan packaging of positions on social issues. Didn't Pope Francis get the memo that if you oppose abortion you're supposed to support the death penalty?

But seriously, I'm often puzzled by America's distinctive notions about what counts as a "conservative" stance and what counts as a "liberal" one. Although I don't agree with the Roman Catholic Church on many things (ordination of women, LGBTQI+ issues), and although there are terrible crimes on its record, the Roman Catholic Church at its best has much to offer the world, much of which is on display in the current Pope. And one of the things it offers is a challenge to dominant Western conceptions of "right" and "left."

That challenge is evident here. While there is no outright contradiction between opposing abortion while supporting the death penalty, the two things don't go together logically and inevitably the way one would suppose if one looked only at US political allegiances. The Roman Catholic Church's core ethic, combined with certain metaphysical beliefs, leads to an opposition both to abortion and to the death penalty. So does that make the Catholic Church liberal? Conservative? Moderate? Or does it, rather, expose the artificial and historically contingent nature of these labels?

I suppose that some forms of libertarianism--often described as "fiscally" conservative but "liberal" on social issues--teach the same lesson in a different way. Again, there is a core belief system from which this distinctive libertarian combination of "left" and "right" derives.

I'm not saying that conventional American conservatism and liberalism are incoherent and can't be justified by some unified philosophical commitments. What I'm doing is pointing out something about our distinctive American understanding of "right" and "left," which have so much power and influence and which both divide us from our neighbors and pressure us to conform to "our" side.

This way of dividing up positions on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, gun control, single-payer healthcare, etc., is not the only way. And I suspect that at least some of the sharp polarization in our country would be lessened of we kept this mind.

A Word of Appreciation for Journalists Today

I just want to express my appreciation for the devoted journalists and news editors who work hard every day to uncover and report the stories that matter, who strive to live up to the standards of journalistic ethics, who are devoted to checking their sources and correcting errors when they make them, and who face the risks linked to exposing the truths that people in positions of privilege and power would rather went unreported.

I'm talking about the reporters and journalists who investigate, who gather the news and tell the stories about what is happening in our world. I don't mean the pundits and op ed writers who give their spin on news that others have gathered. There's a place for them, too, of course. But right now I want to appreciate those who go where they might be unwelcome in order to hear what's being said and see what's being done, who ask the questions that some don't want answered, who keep pushing to get those questions answered even at personal cost, who demand transparency in government even when government doesn't want to give it, who immerse themselves in a community and interview diverse voices and travel to distant places to see what is happening with their own eyes. And who then put the pieces together and find the words to bring the story to life for the rest of us.

Like all of us, they are imperfect. Like all of us, they have points of view that inevitably impact what they focus on and what they overlook, which stories they tell and how they tell them. But like all of us, the vast majority are well-meaning and sincere and devoted to working hard and doing their jobs honestly and well. And like most professions, the news profession has standards of professionalism and responsibility and a collective commitment to living up to them.

Their job is not one I would want, especially at a time when they are being vilified with blanket put-downs and sweeping, undefended accusations, a time when pretenders uncommitted to the profession pump out vapid junk while too many consumers believe the junk and call the real thing fake news.

That they persevere is a testament to the human spirit. So today I want to say thank you.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Anti-White vs Anti-White-Supremacy

Here's something I find quite interesting. The last blog post I wrote, "White Innocence: A Confession," was one I worked on especially hard because of how important I took the topic to be. In that post, I took care to explain myself as clearly as I could manage. At no point in writing it did I feel bad about being white, nor did I at any point say I felt bad about being white (or say I should feel bad about being white). After all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having the skin that you have. In fact, the evil that I was focusing on in that blog post was nothing other than the system of White Supremacy, which treats skin color as a measure of worth. My post was a repudiation of that kind of thinking.

And yet the only comment on that blog post comes from someone who describes the post as among "the most cringy anti-white screeds" they've ever read.

What's interesting here is thinking about why a post that says nothing bad about having light-colored skin could inspire someone to label it as "anti-white."

Just to be clear, my wife and children and parents and other beloved relatives are all pink-skinned. All of my extended family is descended from (or still lives in) the very pale country of Norway--and I love them all and think there is absolutely nothing wrong with them having the skin color (and hair and eyes) that they have. Nor do I have anything against a Nordic heritage or Scandinavian culture, which I love. As I wrote my "White Innocence" piece, the very notion that I might be seen as in some way denigrating these things was so far removed from my consciousness that it never even occurred to me to mention this.

In that post, I never say there is anything wrong with pale skin. I never say there is anything wrong with the art and music and literature and philosophy that is the rich cultural legacy of Europe. I never say that having Scandinavian or Germanic or British or French heritage (etc.) is bad in any way. Nothing in the post attacks any of these things, either directly or indirectly.   

What the blog post does attack, and rather unrelentingly, is White Supremacy, which I see as something of an infection in Western societies, interfering with our ability to live up to the highest ideals of our cultural heritage--you know, those ideals of liberty and equality and justice. My confession in that earlier post is that I could do far more than I do to fight against racism--especially that "structural" and "implicit" kind that is essentially invisible to those who are advantaged by it and is most clearly seen and felt by those who are disadvantaged (meaning that those of us who are advantaged will really be able to see that it's there only by listening with compassion and empathy to those who are disadvantaged, namely people of color).

That it is so easy for some people to experience an unrelenting attack on White Supremacy (paired with a confession from a white person about their unintended complicity) as anti-white tells us something. Our culture's racial categories have nothing to do with biology or anything "real" apart from culture--which is the reason why we ought not to judge anyone by the color of their skin, since that tells us nothing. These categories were, rather, created to justify systems of oppression and domination: such things as the slave trade and the institution of slavery.

They were invented hundreds of years ago to create categories of people who were dubbed "other" and hence could be exploited without the exploiters having to feel bad about it. "Whiteness," as originally conceived, was not a name for pink skin but a name for those taken to be superior, those to whom equal respect and full moral consideration is owed. In other words, "whiteness" as a category was just a name for the judgment, embedded in White Supremacy, that the physical trait of light skin is a mark of human superiority. To attack White Supremacist ideology does involve attacking "whiteness" in this sense. It does involve attacking the idea that there is a class of persons marked by their pale skin who are superior to other persons because of that pale skin.

So what does it mean when someone calls a blog post anti-white when that blog post says not a single thing bad about having pale skin--or about having European heritage, or about the art and music and literature and philosophy that emerged out of Europe, or anything like that--but the post strongly attacks White Supremacy? I think it tells us how easy it is for some people to confuse "anti-White-Supremacy" with "anti-white."

But how does such a confusion happen? And does it only happen to people who are proudly and overtly racist? In other words, is it always a deliberate conflation of the two?

I don't think its always deliberate. I'm sure that overt White Supremacists will quite consciously identify whiteness with the White Supremacist understanding of it, and so label an attack on White Supremacy as anti-white. But others might do so too, precisely because White Supremacy is an infection that can come in more subtle forms. Implicit racial bias--bias that people don't mean to have, bias hat goes against their own overt beliefs--is one of the harms caused by the disease of White Supremacy. But another may be linked to our unconscious sense of self.

While white people don't generally define themselves explicitly as white--since being white is treated as the norm, the standard that does not even need to be named and so isn't even noticed. But that doesn't mean that being white hasn't created some implicit sense of self, an unstated sense of belonging that exists because White Supremacy has staked out whiteness as the mark of chosen-ness. According to White Supremacy, those who aren't white are "other": they don't quite belong; they aren't owed all the privileges of society. But those who fit White Supremacy's category of whiteness do belong. And that sense of belonging can become real even if a person disavows White Supremacy.

I think it is clear that many have a sense of identity that has been shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by experiencing oneself as a member of the chosen group. The sense of belonging that comes from such an identity, even if not explicitly and consciously tied to White Supremacist ideas, will feel threatened in the face of a clear and sustained challenge to White Supremacy.

The solution, I think, is to nurture resources for belonging and identity that aren't premised on hierarchy and marginalization. We need to drive home the idea that belonging does not require the existence of a class of people who are deliberately excluded. We can embrace a heritage without denigrating other heritages. We can affirm and uplift who we are without needing to beat down those who are different.

The idea that affirming who we are depends on diminishing others is an illusion. But if you are in the grip of that illusion, you won't be able to affirm who you are apart from some ideology that diminishes others. And so an attack on that ideology will seem to you to be the same as saying you have no right to affirm yourself.

This is a tragic cost of oppressive ideologies infecting people's thought-processes. But it doesn't need to be that way. We can  and we must nurture conceptions of identity and community that defy the in-group/out-group structure. We can and we must remind each other that we can say yes to ourselves and to our distinct heritage without saying yes to an ideology which privileges "our" group over others.

It is possible to say no, emphatically and remorseless, to such ideology while still affirming ourselves.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

White Innocence: A Confession

Here is an unsurprising fact about me: I am imperfect.

I won't give you a comprehensive list of my imperfections, but I do want to talk about one that I have in common with other people like me: white men who have stable careers and comfortable incomes.

I like to enjoy the privileged life I have without being pressured to reflect on all those people in the world who don't enjoy the same advantages, without being called to think about all the ways I could (but don't) use my privilege to make things better for them.

To put the point in less precise but more common terms: I just want to enjoy my life without feeling guilty about it. 

I want to be "blessed." You know what I mean: I want to look at my beautiful home and my beautiful family and my fulfilling job and say, "I'm blessed." And then just be thankful for that.

I don't want to consider the possibility that systemic injustices routinely bestow people like me with blessings while others labor and suffer and strive and still can't hope for the comforts I enjoy. I certainly don't want to make substantial sacrifices to my comfort and advantages for the sake of those who suffer, or challenge the status quo in ways that might make my life less comfortable.

I want to sit back and enjoy my blessings while still being innocent--or at least without being called out for my lack of innocence.

Take a specific example. I am in a position to indulge my kids' passions. I can pay for expensive extracurricular activities--gymnastics and dance and music lessons--that cultivate their talents, develop life skills, and enrich their lives. And why am I in a position to do that? Some of it's luck. Some of it's hard work. But a lot of it is because my parents were able to do that for me.

My parents could afford to pay for the expensive extracurricular activities that enriched my life--in my case violin lessons with the best and most expensive private violin teachers in town. So much of what I know about how to focus and succeed at things can be traced back to what I learned as I was guided through the difficult task of mastering the technical challenges of one new piece of music after another.

Of course I took advantage of these opportunities. And then I went on to use the personal resources I cultivated to earn a PhD, get a tenure track job, secure tenure and eventually promotion to full professor. But first I had to have the opportunities. And there are others who likely would have done even more with them than I did, who would have had even more drive and determination and commitment than me, if only they'd had the chance.

Let me be clear about something: I am not to blame for growing up in a world where those opportunities are unequally distributed. I didn't make that world. And it's hardly blameworthy that I used those opportunities to cultivate my talents and develop my character (it would've been worse had I squandered them). But here I am now, the beneficiary of privileges that most people don't have. It's the choices I make now, about how to use my advantages, that I can be properly praised and blamed for.

And the hard truth is this: I could be doing more, a lot more, to make those kinds of opportunities available to more people in the world. And so, as much as I wish I could be innocent, I'm not.

Some of the advantages I've had in life are tied to my race. They are tied to being white in a society that was created by white European settlers on the backs of black slaves, human beings kidnapped and born of those who were kidnapped and sold like cattle at auction; a society created at the expense of indigenous peoples who were systematically pushed into smaller and narrower reservations, driven along a deadly Trail of Tears into the Indian Territory that is now no longer Indian Territory but the State of Oklahoma, where I live.

All of that is history. But history casts a long shadow. History shapes the present moment. It forms the contours of our society, both for good and ill. The racial categories of whiteness and blackness were invented in the centuries-long era of forced enslavement. Our very concepts of black and white, understood as distinct "races," were invented to justify treating some people as animals to be owned and bought and sold and used.

Let me say that again in a slightly different way: the racial category, "black," was invented in order to justify treating some people (those with brown skin) as things to be used by other people (those with pink skin). The racial categories we have were created as an integral part of an ideological system called white supremacy.

I would be naive to think that the oppressive ideas that helped to shape our racial categories, oppressive ideas that survived the end of slavery and were refashioned into the more subtle oppression of Jim Crow, somehow died for good when I was a kid.

I see people as black and white. As much as I might wish I'd been raised in a world where nobody saw each other in this way, these categories exist. And I am very good at instinctively putting people into these categories. I'd be naive to think that, when I do place them in one racial category or another, my perceptions of them are in no way shaped by what these categories were invented to do, the oppressive meanings they were originally created to have.

History doesn't work that way. Culture doesn't work that way. And my black friends and neighbors, when they tell me of their experiences today, confirm that it doesn't work that way.

This becomes apparent to anyone who listens deeply to people of color, who hears or reads their stories with empathy and compassion. Doing that means looking beyond the comfortable space I inhabit--a space that has always been and continues to be overwhelming white.

When I do, I see that, simply by virtue of my skin, I enjoy advantages over my black peers.

No woman has ever clutched her purse more tightly when I walked onto the elevator. I have never been immediately followed by a security guard when I enter a store. In fact, I can't remember even noticing a security guard in any store I've ever entered, because I can afford to ignore them.

I certainly haven't found myself carrying the cumulative psychological weight of these sorts of suspicious and fearful gestures happening over and over again over the course of a single day (and then experiencing it again the next day, and the next). I've never experienced health problems caused by the long-term stress of carrying that weight.

I routinely go to meet people at coffee shops and wait for them at a table before ordering--and I have never thought twice about it, let alone had the police called on me because of it (or because I asked for plastic silverware at the Waffle House and then asked to contact the manager when I was told I'd be charged).

I have never felt the surge of bone-deep fear that every black friend I know feels when being pulled over by the police.

I have never picked up a book called "How to Draw Faces" only to find that every single face in the book is of a dominant race not my own.

When I was a kid and decided to dress for Halloween as a superhero or legendary wizard or other character out of my Geek Pantheon, they were virtually all white and so I had loads and loads of choices--and when I donned the costume no ever said, "Oh, look! I white Superman. How cute."

Sure, my hair was blond as a kid, not black like Superman's, but no one seemed to notice that. If you're the default race, not only is your race unremarkable but so, too, are those other little details.

I have never been one of only two white men in a room only to learn later that the choices and actions of the other white man, who looked nothing like me, have been attributed to me (or my choices to them).

I've never been slapped with the N-word.

I've never doubted that I would be treated as an individual, assessed on my own merits, and judged by my own failings and accomplishments. In certain rare situations growing up, I found myself called to my best behavior because I represented my school or my church youth group. I was never called to represent my race. I was never assumed to be a representative of my who race, with all the weight that carries.

Every day I make choices with the complete assurance that people will see me as a harmless, decent, well-meaning person who'll be treated with deference, politeness, and respect. This assurance is so routinely confirmed by experience that on those rare occasions when someone seems afraid of me or hostile to me, I am utterly shocked.

I don't have the experience of being an outsider in my society. Almost everywhere I go, I belong. And that feeling is rarely if ever challenged by the ways that people respond to me. And so I am relaxed and at home in my world.

And most of the time, I simply enjoy these facts about my life--without thinking about or wrestling with or doing anything about the fact that for so many people of color, none of these things are true.

This is why I am so grateful for an open letter that George Yancy, a fellow philosophy professor, wrote a few years ago. "Dear White America," the letter begins. And then, with sensitivity and a real effort to avoid being misunderstood, Yancy invites white Americans to really see and experience their privilege--to really see and experience the ways in which even the most well-meaning white people unintentionally participate in a system that disadvantages black Americans.

To capture the spirit of what he wants to express, he begins with a confession. He confesses that he is sexist. And he explains what he means by that. He makes it clear that he is not labeling himself as a male chauvinist who deliberately uses and abuses women. No, when he calls himself sexist he means something different: that he is part of a system that advantages men in a systematic way, and that he hasn't done enough to escape its influence or oppose its harmful effects. Yancy puts it as follows:
This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life. Please don’t take this as a confession for which I’m seeking forgiveness. Confessions can be easy, especially when we know that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming. 
As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life...I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.
When he calls himself sexist, he means that even though he thinks sexism is wrong, even though he wishes he were not influenced by sexist tropes and patterns in our culture, he remains a participant in social patterns of thinking and behaving that make women's lives worse than they could or should be. He is not innocent.

This is unsurprising. It is virtually impossible for someone in a sexist society to avoid altogether the effects of socialization, to avoid some level of complicity or seduction. But the purpose of recognizing this fact is not to inspire guilt but rather to motivate honesty and vulnerability. To see ourselves truthfully so that we can pursue that unattainable goal that Jesus talked about: Be perfect, as God is perfect.

When Jesus said that, it wasn't to make us comfortable. It was to make us uncomfortable. It was to remind us that the labor of becoming the best we can be is never-ending, and that although there is forgiveness for our failures such forgiveness is not a reason to stop striving, to stop repenting, to stop reflecting on our inadequacies and recommitting ourselves each day to being better than we were before. Success may be beyond us, and our salvation (thank God) doesn't depend on success, but the practice of confession and repentance and re-commitment to the good remains a lifelong calling.

This is what he asks of his white readers. When he calls himself sexist, he mean that he lives and breathes in a society that is shaped by social patterns and structures that invite men to objectify women in ways large and small--and despite his efforts to live against that tide, he falls short. This is what he means when he calls himself sexist.

But then he turns to the issue of racism. And he says these words:
This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. 
When I first read those words, it was clear what he was saying. He was speaking to me. He was inviting me to confront not just the fact that blacks are systematically disadvantaged in our society but the fact that I am not innocent. He was inviting me to tarry, to linger, with this unsettling question: where do I fall short in my efforts to repudiate these ongoing injustices? When am I silent about racist jokes for the sake of getting along or not making waves? When am I more concerned about my own comfort or the comfort of my white colleague than I am about racial injustice? Where must I make confession, repentance, and a re-commitment to the good?

And to make that invitation, he used that word: racist.

Being a white man in America, I could've warned him about what that would do. But then again, being a black man in America, I'm sure he knew.

No matter how carefully he led up to the use of that word--RACIST--by invoking the analogy of sexism and offering his own confession about being sexist...

No matter how precise he was in specifying what he meant by that word--that he was referring to ways in which white Americans are "perpetuating a racist society," often unconsciously and absent any ugly intentions...

No matter how clear it is that nobody can live in a society and be entirely free from its socializing influence, and hence that the issue isn't about feeling guilty but about becoming self-aware and finding ways to do better...

No matter how obvious it was that he wasn't telling white Americans that all of them consciously hate black people or use the N-word or tell racist jokes or delight in social-media images of Obama being lynched...

No matter how cautiously he approached the use of that word, I could've warned him what it would mean to invite his white readers "to tarry, to linger, with...the ways in which you are racist."

I'm a white man in 21st Century America. One thing I know something about is how this class of people feels, in general, about being invited to wear the label "racist."

I'll quickly confess to being a bit sexist, a bit lazy, a bit too selfish. But racist?

White men like me have got all kinds of defense mechanisms to protect our innocence. Some are more subtle than others.

There's one strategy I knew would be quickly invoked to silence Yancy: the strategy of self-righteous deflection. It looks like this:

"Are you calling me racist? You don't KNOW me! You're calling all your white readers racist just because they're white! THAT'S what's racist! Slapping a negative label onto people based solely on their race is racism! Yancy's a racist! Racist Yancy!"

Yancy becomes the racist, and so we don't need to tarry with the question of how we contribute to the problem of anti-black racist systems in America. Because the one who's asking us to do it made the unforgivable sin of asking that question by using the term "racist."

This defensive strategy piggybacks on a more widespread one: a refusal to accept or even understand the sense of "racism" that Yancy tries so carefully to explain. Clearly, Yancy means by "racist" the propensity to consciously or unconsciously contribute to a system that disadvantages blacks and other races while advantaging whites. But if white Americans use the term in that way, it forces us to do the very thing that Yancy wants white Americans to do: to reflect on how, consciously or unconsciously, we are part of a systemic problem that continues to cause suffering.

We prefer to adopt a different meaning, one more narrow than Yancy's, more narrow than the generally accepted sociological understanding, more narrow than the one the black community generally has in mind. We prefer to reserve the term "racist" exclusively for individuals who harbor explicitly racist beliefs, who endorse white supremacist doctrines, who invoke the N-word, who wear white sheets on weekend cross-burning outings, who actively and intentionally discriminate against people of color.

If we do that, then--at least for those of us who aren't active with our local chapter of the KKK--racism is someone else's problem. It's not our problem. We preserve our innocence.

Of course, Yancy is very careful to specify, clearly and unambiguously, that when he invites his white neighbors to reflect on the ways that they are racist, he doesn't mean this sense of the word, the sense of "racist" that only applies to klansmen and neo-Nazis and their secret admirers. Yancy couldn't have been more clear that what he's inviting his white neighbors to do is reflect on how their lifestyles and choices play into the social structures and cultural patterns that continue to disadvantage blacks over whites in this country.

But such care and precision does no good if it threatens our innocence--a fact that is made blazingly apparent by the kinds of vitriolic responses to his letter that Yancy received. In fact, the urge to protect white innocence is so insanely strong that threats to it can, it seems, inspire in some people frothing displays of the opposite: N-word-spewing death threats in the name of rejecting Yancy's invitation to reflect on how we might be racist.

It would almost be laughable if it weren't so true and so devastating in its human toll. Yancy discusses that truth and that toll in a new essay, "The Ugly Truth of Being a Black Professor in America." It is adapted from Yancy's new book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.

What he describes is horrific beyond anything I could conceive.

The reason it is beyond what I could conceive is precisely because I routinely underestimate the force and power of racism in that overt, rabid, hate-spewing sense--not the broad sense Yancy was so careful to specify, but in that ugly sense that most of us can safely distance ourselves from. The kind most white people aren't guilty of--but also the kind that most of us can therefore pretend does not exist.

This is another piece of my confession: I live in a bubble-world where most of the time the racism that exists looks at worst like what Yancy was talking about: the unintended complicity of well-meaning people in a system that was forged long ago and continues to cast an ugly shadow.

But my black neighbors do not live in that world. They do not live in a world where that is the only kind of racism they face. They live in a world where overt, rabid, hate-spewing racism can rear up at any moment, especially as a backlash response to the kind of thing that Yancy did in his open letter: earnest efforts to invite the kind of soul-searching that is required to dismantle racist structures and systems.

Apparently, if you're black, the surest way to inspire overt racists to come out of the woodwork, displaying their racism in unfettered verbal abuse, is to accuse them of being racist. Their raging denials are like the abusive husband who, in response to his wife calling him abusive, beats her to unconsciousness while shouting, "How dare you call me abusive!"

My black neighbors and colleagues and friends do not live in my world. My world is one where racism--whether in its raging, spewing form or in terms of hidden structures and implicit biases--affect other people. That is not the world of my black neighbors. They do not live in a world where it is optional for them whether they face these things or not.

They have no choice but to face them, to live with them. What they have a choice about is whether to speak out or endure in silence. And when they choose to speak, even if they do so in the most carefully worded way they can, they make themselves the targets of a hate that transcends what I can tarry with, what I can linger with.

To imagine myself the target of what Yancy describes in his recent essay and book--at least to do so for more than a moment--is too much for me. And so I retreat. I pretend that sort of thing is safely in the past and that what we need to tackle now is something less horrifying: implicit bias.

And then, when I step back to that level of structural and implicit racism, I exempt myself in a different way.

This is the final part of my confession. When I first read Yancy's letter, I knew that these words were meant for me:
If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.”
You see, I'm always taking myself off the hook. My defense mechanisms are more subtle than the ones I've discussed above, such as defining racism narrowly enough to exclude myself, but they are just as real.

A few years ago I took Harvard University's online implicit bias test, which aims to determine the extent to which you unconsciously harbor racial prejudices (as well as other implicit associations and biases). The test, in my case, showed that I harbored no discernible implicit bias against blacks.

But here's the thing, my confession: I exulted in this result. 

I used this result to tell myself that I was not complicit. That I was not part of the problem. That I could rest on my laurels and enjoy my blessings and never need to confess, to repent, to re-commit to the good. Not only is overt racism a problem that only other people have, but so is implicit bias. Hah!

And so I put on my cloak of white innocence. And I've never taken the test again. Because I'm afraid that the comforting result was just a one-time fluke.

It is so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter does not apply to me. It is so easy to say that it applies mainly to those who responded to it with outrage, those who were so defensive in their reactions that they proved their racism in the frothing way that they rejected the racist label.

It's so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter doesn't ask anything of me, since I have already taken it to heart (even though Yancy's invitation is not a one-off thing but an ongoing part of a lifelong effort to be perfect in the ways we know we are not).

But Yancy's letter does apply to me. I know it does when I linger on his closing words:  "If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black."

Yancy's letter applies to me because every time I hear about another black child gunned down or read another page of Angie Thomas's extraordinary novel, The Hate U Give, I find myself confronting a terrible species of gratitude.

I find myself grateful that my children are white.