Monthly Archives: June 2014

James Baldwin: Until white people understand their history, they cannot be released from it.

The following is from the end of James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew and namesake (published as “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time).

You were born where you were born [that is, in a ghetto] and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in so many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, as I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine – but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumberable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You, don’t be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

This reminds me of a passage near the end of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations“. He recommends the passage of John Conyers’ legislation that would commit the government to a study of reparations for African-Americans. He says that such a study may or may not come up with an adequate number:

But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.

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The problem with the middle ground on LGBT rights

I’ve recently come across stories (for example, here and here) of Christians trying to stake out a middle ground, or pursue a third way, or agree to disagree on LGBT rights issues. They see that these issues are tearing their churches apart and they want to pursue unity and peace. Those are admirable goals, but the middle ground is problematic.

Christians seeking a middle ground are usually uninterested in the hard-line, culture warrior position that comes across as homophobic. Some want to take the “pot calling the kettle black” position which refuses to judge another’s “sin” on the basis that we’re all sinners. Some want to emphasize love as the main duty of Christians and refuse to engage in culture wars. Some want to change the subject altogether and focus on whatever they perceive as the real mission of the church. All of them want to progress away from the hardline position into a middle position that still maintains fidelity to their interpretation of the Bible.

Which reminds me of this famous line from Malcolm X:

Straight Christians can attempt to stake out a middle ground precisely because it’s not a fundamental aspect of their humanity that’s being called into question. Their stake in the issue is low relative to LGBT Christians. Middle ground Christians say they want peace, but don’t realize that their peace comes at a price paid by LGBT Christians suffering from biblically sanctioned spiritual, emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical violence.

Furthermore, those who occupy a middle ground are advocating a position in favor of the status quo. Only the affirming position actually takes the knife from the back of LGBT Christians and attempts to heal the wounds we inflicted.

I don’t want to give the impression that people of different opinions cannot live together peaceably. They can and they must. And I’m thankful for everyone who has backed off the hardline position. But we have to be honest about what the middle position does: it preserves institutions but does not heal wounds.

Did lynching give way to more justice for African Americans?

In Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, Manfred Berg gives an intriguing and depressing explanation for the decline of lynching in the 1930s.

Lynching was possible because of weak (or, in some cases, colluding) law enforcement and community support for the lynch mobs. Apart from the obvious racial hatred, the motivation behind it was the belief that the justice system was lenient and slow, that the community needed to enforce justice themselves.

Several anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells risked their lives to oppose lynching. Other groups like the NAACP and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching also led the fight by promoting education, compiling statistics and case reports, and pushing for anti-lynching legislation on both the local and the national level.

But the moral appeals were relatively ineffective and the few anti-lynching laws that were passed were not enforced. Not that these efforts were useless. The anti-lynching cause mobilized African Americans and the threat of federal intervention may have encouraged local law enforcement to prevent lynching. Around 1920 the number of prevented lynchings finally overtook the number of completed lynchings, mostly due to the efforts of sheriffs. Why the change in behavior?

Part of it may have been public pressure. Part of it may have been pressure from planters who were losing cheap laborers to the Great Migration, which was itself a reaction to lynching and the Jim Crow regime generally. Part of it may have been advances in radio technology which facilitated law enforcement.

But Berg says we must not attribute it to a fundamental change in race relations. The specter of the “black beast” who presented an imminent danger to white women continued to haunt white minds.

Berg contends that the key may be the correlation between lynching and capital punishment. If one of the motivations for lynching was the belief that the justice system was lenient and slow, then an increase in speedily executed death sentences could quell that anger. Thus legal executions arguably became a substitute for lynching. There is indication of this in the statistics. The ratio of lynchings to legal executions moved from 2.1 in the 1890s to 0.4 in the 1920s. In the 1930s there were 60% fewer lynchings than in the 1920s, but a 44% increase in the legal executions of African Americans. By the 1940s lynchings declined to a total of 30, but African Americans represented 61% of all victims of legal execution. These numbers become even more stark when you consider rape alone, which was the most often cited cause for lynching.

The threat of mob violence during trials of African Americans accused of rape or murder often led to a complete disregard for due process. And legal executions were most effective as a substitute for lynchings when they were done publicly. Some of these executions drew massive crowds, just as lynchings had done. If legal executions did become a substitute for lynching, there was no appreciable increase in justice for accused African Americans.

Reformers who sought to arouse Americans to the evil of lynching entertained an optimistic faith in the power of reason, morality, and education. Social critics condemned mob violence as a blot on American civilization but continued to hope that Americans would eventually reconcile their practices with their ideals. The brave struggle of anti-lynching crusaders deserves admiration; whether their optimism was justified is a different question. The tireless propaganda campaign of the NAACP, the ASWPL, and many other groups and individuals probably contributed to the gradual change in public awareness. Yet lynching did not decline because American society generally, and Southern society in particular, underwent a moral catharsis. Rather, a combination of enhanced law enforcement, both against lynchers and criminal suspects, and the expansion of the death penalty gradually curtailed lynch law. For African Americans, the main victims of mob killings, the effects of this transition proved highly ambivalent. All too often a lynching prevented by the police merely presaged a legal lynching by a kangaroo court. Blacks thus faced a double bind: while weak legal institutions failed to protect them against lynching, strict and “efficient” law enforcement hit them harder than any other racial or ethnic group.

At the beginning of this post I characterized this explanation for the decline of lynching as “depressing”. I say that, first, because it appears that, while it had some effect, moral argumentation was not what led to the abandonment of lynching. It may have been the threatened application of federal power, or economic interests, or the simple satisfaction of mob anger with a more orderly, but equally unjust, legal lynching. We liberals want to believe that more education or moral exhortation will be sufficient to address social justice concerns – but it may not be.

Second, this is depressing because – one hundred years later – our justice system is still racially biased. Michelle Alexander calls the present mass incarceration of black men the “new Jim Crow“.

A new study by the ACLU clearly shows the racial disparity in marijuana arrests. That is, despite the nearly equal rates of marijuana usage by black and whites there is a remarkable gap in arrest rates.

Is our justice system any more just?

The astonishing scope of Jim Crow laws

The following is from The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, pp. 43-45.


Younger blacks could see the contradictions in their world [during the Jim Crow era] – that, sixty, seventy, eighty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction.

These were the facts of their lives:

There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn’t survive whatever was wrong with them.

There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor’s office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provide any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women. In 1958, a new bus station went up in Jacksonville, Florida, with two of everything, including two segregated cocktail lounges, “lest the races brush elbows over a martini,” The Wall Street Journal reported. The president of Southeastern Greyhound told the Journal, “It frequently costs fifty percent more to build a terminal with segregated facilities.” But most southern businessmen didn’t dare complain about the extra cost. “That question is dynamite,” the president of a southern theater chain told the Journal. “Don’t even say what state I’m in.”

There was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city limits by 8 p.m. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach.

Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer the shake a white person’s hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two white beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, in 1948, wrote the historian James C. Cobb, because the man “asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.”

It was against the law for a colored person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. White and colored gamblers had to place their bets at separate windows and sit in separate aisles and racetracks in Arkansas. At saloons in Atlanta, the bars were segregated: Whites drank on stools at one end of the bar and blacks on stools at the other end, until the city outlawed even that, resulting in white-only and colored-only saloons. There were white parking spaces and colored parking speces in the town square in Calhoun City, Mississippi. In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.

Acts of faith

For many people, faith is belief in spite of evidence; it is a belief in the miraculous.

I believe faith is that which enables us to face reality without giving in to despair. It is the way we orient ourselves to the universe, to what is real. It is a way of seeing, not a way of knowing.

I believe that if God is, then God is love. That is to say, I (who am a tiny bit of the universe made conscious) believe that reality is undergirded by love.

This faith does not require me to deny any part of reality, but it does change how I see it.

When I notice the homeless man, sign at his feet, sitting along Kirkwood Avenue, what will I do? I know, of course, that he could be mentally ill, or violent, or addicted. I know that if I engage him it could cost me a couple of dollars and a few minutes of awkward conversation. How does the belief that the universe is oriented toward love affect this interaction? It calls me beyond selfishness and into trust. It calls me to stop, look him in the eye, see him as a human being, acknowledge him as an equal, and risk something, however small.

That, and not a creed, is the true act of faith.