Category Archives: Social justice

“White supremacy” as a strategy for racial justice

“White supremacy” has become a new catch-phrase among those who are trying to fight racial injustice, replacing “white privilege” as the catch-phrase du jour. I think it’s worth asking: will the phrase “white supremacy” help us succeed in combating structural racism, where “white privilege” seems to have failed us? Here are three reasons why I suspect “white supremacy” will fail to make much of an impact:

1. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of social work at the University of Washington (and a white woman herself) wrote an influential paper in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in which she defines a phenomenon which is relevant here: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.”

DiAngelo goes on to propose a pedagogical approach to help white people understand whiteness and racism: “It is useful to start at the micro level of analysis, and move to the macro, from the individual out to the interpersonal, societal and institutional.” This approach, claims DiAngelo, “allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.” DiAngelo advocates for an “ongoing process” rather than an event. By contrast, I believe anti-racism catch-phrases tend to trigger “white fragility,” which has the unintended effect of shutting down an ongoing process of antiracism.

2. Most of the white people I’ve heard using the phrase “white supremacy” are college-educated professionals; that is, they are upper middle class whites. And all too often, they manage to use the phrase “white supremacy” so that it sounds like they are directing it at others; I mean, if I’m enlightened enough to use the phrase “white supremacy,” then I must be halfway to embodying righteous racial justice in myself, right?

As someone who spent the first dozen years of his work life working in a lumberyard and then as a carpenter, I know I got tired of being condescended to by self-assured upper middle class college-educated professionals who seemed always to assume that they knew more than I did about everything, simply by virtue of the fact that they were professionals and I was working what they considered to be a crappy job. When I hear white college-educated professionals making public statements about white privilege, I hear the same tone of voice I heard when the same class of people condescended to me in the lumberyard. In short, I don’t think the phrase “white supremacy” carries well across the class divide between college-educated professionals and everyone else; nor does it carry well across the many gradations of class that exist within the ranks of college-educated professionals. None of us likes to be condescended to.

3. Finally, it has been my experience that systems change does not happen in a linear fashion. I was first introduced to systems theory by Jay Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics. Forrester was the first one to model systems change as a non-linear mathematical function, and I remember going through the FORTRAN code he printed in the back of that book and realizing that he was modelling systems as interconnected feedback loops represented by GO TO commends. Forrester’s mathematical model provides a couple of useful insights: ordinary cause-and-effect causality does not work with systems; and because of their interconnected feedback loops, systems tend to return to a stable state, except if they suddenly make a leap into a new stable state. Since then, I have found that non-linear models work very well in describing and effecting change in systems like family systems and congregational systems; and I am pretty confident that larger-scale human systems also are best modeled as non-linear.

That being the case, I am skeptical of the efficacy of “white privilege” as a useful tool for systems change in the area of racial justice, as if the simple linear act of naming the problem with linearly effect positive change. Based on past experience with attempts to use linear models to effect change in non-linear systems, I would expect the initial use of the phrase “white supremacy” to provoke strong reactions which effect short-term change, followed by a backlash, and an eventual return to the previous equilibrium. (And this is pretty much what I’ve seen happen with the old catch-phrase “white privilege.”)

How, then, can we effect positive change in the non-linear system of structural racism?

Well, if I could answer that question, I’d already be working on implementing positive change. But I think Robin DiAngelo is onto something when she argues for beginning with the individual. When I look at the astonishingly effective playbook of the same-sex marriage movement, this turns out to be one of their most effective strategies, what Freedom To Marry calls “values-based conversations”: “In California in 2008 and 2009, volunteer-collected data shows that values-based [face-to-face] conversations were moving 25% of all undecided and opposed voters to be more supportive of [same sex] marriage, with half these moving towards undecided and the others moving to be new supporters.” Obviously, the political battle for same-sex marriage differs significantly from structural racism that is cultural and social as well as political (and we can’t ignore the racial make-up of the same-sex marriage movement). But perhaps one thing we we can discover in the success of the same-sex marriage movement is the importance of direct one-on-one conversations between individuals; if us white people can start talking as individuals to one another, perhaps without relying on the current catch-phrases, we might find that we are making some non-linear progress towards out goal.

Not that I believe that values-based conversations will be sufficient to end structural racism. But I do think that some kind of individualized, non-condescending, non-linear approach is about the only kind of approach that will effect permanent and positive change.

In a comment, Alyson writes: “I was wondering if you had any practical input on how to teach this subject without making the non-white children in the congregation feel uncomfortable or singled out in the process. Our RE class is actually fairly diverse, more so than the entirety of the congregation, and I do not know how to broach this topic with them.”

Alyson, I’m facing the same problem: how to teach a group of Unitarian Universalist children who are not all white about white supremacy. Here’s what I’ve been thinking so far….

For initial inspiration, I start with Dr. Marcia Chatelaine and her crowd-sourced #FergusonSyllabus. Although Chatelaine’s Ferguson syllabus was mostly aimed at public schools and post-secondary education, this is actually incredibly useful for those of us working in Sunday schools that are at least somewhat diverse — because Chatelaine’s syllabus has to deal with far greater diversity than exist in most Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, it helped me see how to structure lessons that do not assume that everyone is white, that do not assume that everyone shares exactly the same opinions about race, etc. In other words, I feel that Chatelaine’s approach opens up a metaphorical space in which to explore the topic from diverse experiences and diverse points of views. This article by Chatelaine at The Atlantic has a good set of resources to explore, including links and children’s books; at least some of these resources could be useful in teaching a diverse Sunday school group about white supremacy.

As noted in an earlier post, Chatelaine recommends working in subject areas that you know something about. With that in mind, I’m working on some Unitarian Universalist-specific children’s stories from Unitarian Universalist history (based on serious historical research I did, including in primary sources). Two stories I’m working on right now are about nineteenth century African Americans, one a would-be Unitarian and one a short-term Universalist, that reveal how Unitarianism and Universalism were less-than welcoming places for non-white persons. One of these stories-to-be also touches on class bias in Unitarianism, so we can get into intersectionality at a kid-friendly level (one of the points Chatelaine made in a workshop that I attended is that intersectionality is a useful strategy in teaching this general topic). In the other story, the African American was a vital part of a local congregation, but only for a short time. Most importantly, the stories of these two people are complex, not simplistic, and inspirational: some white persons were moving away from white supremacist worldviews at the same time that some black persons were moving towards liberal religion, and all these persons had complex lives and motivations worth telling stories about.

If I manage to write these two stories, and I think they’re worth sharing, they’ll get posted here on my blog. But even if I don’t, maybe this can get you thinking about how you can take Chatelaine’s advice and use YOUR strengths as a Unitarian Universalist religious educator — what topic area do you know best, and how can you apply that to teaching about white supremacy? And then how can you use your expertise to open up a metaphorical space in which children with diverse experiences and diverse points of views can explore the topic?

I think it’s also important to acknowledge some of the resistance we will face when we try to create this open metaphorical space in which a diverse group of children can explore this topic. I think we religious educators will face strong and conflicting pressures: white parents who want to protect their children from this topic, non-white parents who don’t want their children to have to be in a white-dominated environment to learn about this topic, non-parent adults who want us to adhere to a strict party line, congregational leaders who want us to fit into what they’re doing (instead of asking us what we’re doing, and building something around the children) — and some of us may also have to deal with micro-managing parish ministers and clueless denominational leaders and busybody academics, all of whom think we religious educators are not competent to take on leadership in this area.

But acknowledging the potential sources of resistance helps me clarify three basic pedagogical challenges. First, we know there is always resistance to tackling tough moral and ethical issues; we have dealt with this before, in teaching comprehensive sexuality education, in teaching about death, in teaching children to think for themselves. Second, we know Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion devoted to open inquiry; we constantly challenge children to think deeply and openly about everything from the Bible and God, to masturbation and consent, and we constantly have to work to hold open that metaphorical space where children can enter the zone of proximal development in a learning community. Third, we know that race and racism are topics that make adult Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable, which means they will tend to judge us harshly no matter what we teach; but we’ve been through this before, when we religious educators quietly taught about sexism and heteronormativity in Sunday school classes, even though those topics made many adults uncomfortable.

I think the thing that makes me most nervous about this white supremacy teach-in is that so many people will be watching me, ready to judge my teaching inadequate. And I wonder if your question stems in part from that same feeling. As an educator, I know these one-shot teach-ins never accomplish much, so I know already that whatever I do in a one-hour teach-in will be inadequate. Teaching and learning are long, slow, mysterious processes; we will not achieve miracles in an hour; we need to be in this for the long haul. And that means that the most important thing I can do in this teach-in is to respect each individual who participates, listen with openness to what they have to say, create a supportive learning community — so that they will keep coming back. It’s just like teaching OWL for grades 7-9 — many of the teens don’t want to come to the first few sessions, so you have to build a supportive community where any question is taken seriously and everyone feels a part of the community. For this white supremacy teach-in, then, our most important goal will be to make people want more.

That’s all I’ve got for you right now. Not sure if I’ll post my lesson plans and supporting material here — Unitarian Universalists are far too prone to savage and destructive criticism when it comes to teaching about white supremacy, and I just don’t have the energy for that right now. But feel free to contact me through email.

Teaching about white supremacy

How can we teach young people about “white supremacy” within the constraints of a typical Sunday school? What are some of the theoretical considerations, and what are some practical considerations?

One of my professional organizations, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) has called on Unitarian Universalist religious educators to participate in a “white supremacy teach-in” in the coming weeks, to follow up on the denominational brouhaha which led to the resignation of Peter Morales from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

This is a great call to action, but where do we come up with pedagogical strategies to teach children and teens about white supremacy? I’ll get to practical suggestions after a brief review of theoretical resources; although if you’re a hands-on educator you may want to go straight to practical suggestions, skipping over theoretical considerations which may seem pretty remote from actual children and teens.

Theoretical resources
Practical suggestions

Theoretical resources

Let’s start with the obvious: with bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress, and with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both these books provide useful theoretical perspectives. However, in my experience these books are not very useful for children and young people since they focus on persons age 18 and up.

Lev Vygotsky is another obvious source of pedagogical insight. Vygotsky’s theories provide us with such well-known concepts of “scaffold-and-fade,” and the zone of proximal development. For a helpful summary of zone of proximal development, I like Seth Chaiklin, “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction,” in Kozulin et al., Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003]). Chaiklin makes a number of points that might prove helpful. Chaiklin points out “the zone for a given age period is normative, in that it reflects the institutionalized demands and expectations that developed historically in a particular societal tradition of practice,” thus implying a strong connection between institutional demands and children’s development. Chaiklin also carefully defines the technical meaning of “imitation” in Vygotsky, and then points out that “the main focus for collaborative interventions is to find evidence for maturing psychological functions, with the assumption that the child could only take advantage of these interventions because the maturing function supports an ability to understand the significance of the support being offered”; thus, there are definite psychological and developmental limitations to the amount of learning that can take place within the child.

And in a Unitarian Universalist context, I believe it’s helpful to connect Vygotsky’s collectivist understanding of learning and development with James Luther Adam’s theological conception of the congregation as a voluntary association in mass democracy. Adams’s conception of congregations as voluntary associations helps us understand that face-to-face and personal encounters within a congregation help prevent the atomization of the individual, which in turn can prevent mass democracies from hurtling towards totalitarianism. So Vygotsky teaches us that “a person is able to perform a certain number of tasks alone, while in collaboration, it is possible to perform a greater number of tasks”; and Adams’s work suggests not only that the congregation is a place where we can collaborate together to support a liberative and liberal democracy, but also that the congregation as a whole can support the developmental growth of children and teens towards healthy maturity.

Another useful theological resources is William R. Jones’s essay Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows. In this essay, Jones makes a very helpful connection between theism and the “left wing” of theism: both are humanocentric worldviews, in which it is up to humans to effect positive change. Jones help us see that we can’t wait around for some Daddy God to bail us out — for that matter, nor can we wait around for Big Daddy Science to bail us out — a humanocentric point of view acknowledges that it’s up to us humans to effect change. (Jones makes the same point in his book Is God a White Racist?)

For theoretical resources specific to religious education, I’d turn to my other professional organization, the interfaith and international Religious Education Association (REA), which includes both scholars and practitioners. Over the years, the REA has published or presented interesting scholarship on how to teach liberation and social justice; the most notable recent instance is REA’s 2012 conference “Let Freedom Ring”: Religious Education at the Intersection of Social Justice, Liberation, and Civil/Human Rights. So REA conference proceedings and the REA journal Religious Education have plenty of theoretical material that would help in teaching about white supremacy. The problem with the REA publications is that you have to read through a great deal of material to find relevant articles, and even then you often have to do some translation from another cultural contexts (e.g., figuring out how an article outlining teaching peace to Israeli and Palestinian youth might translate to a U.S. context).

Beyond REA publications, there are plenty of progressive religious educators who have written books that offer resources for this kind of endeavor. A couple of books that come immediately to mind are John Westerhof’s book Learning through Liturgy, and Robert Pazmino’s Foundational Issues in Christian Education; Westerhof’s book helps usnderstand how learning takes place in and through worship services; and I have found Bob’s book extremely helpful in confronting my own internal inclinations and biases. A few Unitarian Universalists with anti-Christian biases and prejudices might be repelled by these books; but I’d suggest that the exercise of tamping down anti-Christian biases long enough to find the good in those books could be a useful preparatory exercise for those who have a serious desire to teach against racial bias and prejudice.

As an educator, I have been greatly inspired by Marcia Chatelaine’s workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson,” given at Ferry Beach Conference Center in July, 2015. Chatelaine, a professor of history at Georgetown University, helped me understand how intersectionality could be a useful pedagogical strategy. Her workshop also helped me to understand how to get past the strong emotions elicited by Ferguson; she suggested addressing Ferguson from within one’s own area of disciplinary expertise. Thus, as a historian, she could talk about the history of Ferguson as a white-flight suburb, using her are of disciplinary expertise to generate insight.

Finally, I would also turn to the works of educational philosopher Maxine Greene. In particular, I have found her short essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings” to be foundational for the kind of liberative religious education I hold us as an ideal. I’ll give one brief excerpt from this essay that might serve as an inspiration for a suitable pedagogic practice for teaching about white supremacy:

“[T]here has been a prevalent conception of the self (grand or humble, master or slave) as predefined, fixed, separate. Today we are far more likely, in the mode of John Dewey and existentialist thinkers, to think of selves as always in the making. We perceive them creating meanings, becoming in an intersubjective world by means of dialogue and narrative. We perceive them telling their stories, shaping their stories, discovering purposes and possibilities for themselves, reaching out to pursue them. We are moved to provoke such beings to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move towards others, as they try to see through other’s eyes. Thinking of beings like that, may of those writing today and painting and dancing and composing no longer have single-focused, one-dimensional creatures in mind as models or as audiences. Rather, they think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose.”

I wanted to end with that passage from Maxine Greene because it points the way to the kind of flexible, learner-focused teaching that I want to do.

Practical considerations

When I translate these (and other) theoretical resources into practical pedagogy for young people in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school setting, here are some of the things I think about:

1. My teaching will be centered on activities that allow learners to be “selves in the making.” And, given my own strengths as a teacher, this means I’m going to use the arts; and knowing my limitations as a teacher, I’m going to do best with telling stories (I could see other people using dance, drama, etc., but those are not in my skill set). [This point inspired by Maxine Greene.]

2. My learners are going to be at various points in their development. I would love to be able to do some kind of formal pre-assessment, but that’s not realixtic in the context of an hour-long Sunday school session. Therefore, I’ll have to be a flexible teacher, willing to adjust my lesson plan to accommodate those who turn out to know very little, as well as those those who already know a lot. [See Bob Pazmino’s chapters on “Sociological Foundations” and “Curricular Foundations.”]

3. The educational goal of teaching about white supremacy is a BIG task. Since I have to be realistic about what can be taught (and learned) in a given limited time, I’m going to set realistic — and probably modest modest — educational objectives for one teach-in session. But for the long term, I will also continue the liberative educational praxis I’m already using and committed to. [See bell hooks about the realities of teaching.]

4. Anybody who has taught knows that teachers have to regulate the emotional temperature of a class. The phrase “white supremacy” will obviously generate strong emotions in many people; in fact, that’s the whole point of using that phrase. But I don’t want to limit my educational objective to merely eliciting emotions of shame, anger, guilt, and/or hatred, because from experience I know that too much of those emotions can stop the learning process temporarily (e.g., white people can shut down due to shame, non-white people can shut down due to anger, etc.). So I’ll need to balance how these emotions are elicited in the short-term, against a long-term goal of liberative educational praxis.

5. Oversimplification is always a temptation in teaching, and I think it’s a particularly strong temptation when teaching about white supremacy. To avoid oversimplification, I’m going to take inspiration from Marcia Chatelaine’s advice on teaching about Ferguson: use intersectionality. Intersectionality asks: how are different oppressions linked? (I suspect this will be an especially useful approach for adult Unitarian Universalists, because so many of them are already doing significant work and learning in sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, etc.; thus intersectionality can connect what they’ve already accomplished and learned about to the topic of white supremacy.) [This point inspired by Marcia Chatelaine.]

6. Chatelaine also suggests: focus on an intellectual discipline or subject area you know well, and delve into that. The intellectual disciplines where I have some level of professional knowledge and expertise — philosophy, liberal theology, religious education — aren’t particularly well suited to teaching children and teens about white supremacy. So I tried to think of a subject area where, although I don’t have professional expertise, I have enough knowledge that I could teach something to children — and I thought of environmental justice, a topic I have already taught to children and teens, and a topic that lies at the center of social justice concern in our congregation.

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The above are some preliminary considerations and practical ideas for implementing a one-shot “teach-in” on white supremacy. Note that what I am proposing does not necessarily conform to the teach-in called for by Black Lives of UUU. I’m specifically addressing the educational considerations of teaching young people in a Sunday school setting; Black Lives of UU has issued a broader call to include this topic in worship services, Sunday morning Forum, etc.

Furthermore, my practical ideas grow out my own congregation, here in the very specific cultural context of the Bay Area — a region where Cesar Chavez started his career, a region where Chinese immigrants at times lived in virtual slavery, a region where Japanese Americans were illegally (and immorally) interned during the Second World War, a region where one police force (Oakland P.D.) was under federal control because of racial prejudice. I could also mention Oscar Grant. I could also mention to overt sexism and racism of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., and of start-up culture, and of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. In terms of environmental justice, I might consider why it is that East Palo Alto, a historically black city, doesn’t have enough water supply to support the kind of development that could bring more jobs (and could also bring more gentrification that might drive out people of color). Bay Area racial history is complex, and your area will differ.

Take action on affordable housing

Housing advocates worry that funding for Section 8 housing may not be fully funded by the current Congress. Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing, a nonprofit that provides provides affordable housing in the western states of the U.S., writes: “A recent survey asked me what my biggest concern was for 2017 in regards to affordable housing finance. Without hesitation, I answered, ‘Section 8 renewals.'”

Graf suggests that if we want to keep Section 8 housing fully funded, we should contact our elected representatives in Washington to tell them this. Graf added that the National Housing Trust has a suggested message you can use to write to your elected officials, online here.

I used the Common Cause Web site — here — to find contact information for my elected officials. I modified the National Housing Trust talking points into a letter that focuses on my main concerns: housing for seniors, and housing here in Silicon Valley. I’ve included a version of my letter below, in case you share my concerns and want to save time by using my wording.

You now have no excuse. Take five minutes and use the online contact forms for your elected officials to express your opinion about Section 8 funding. Or take fifteen minutes, and send a physical letter.

Here’s my sample letter: Continue reading

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

New models of youth ministry

The old model of youth ministry — inward-focused intensive overnight experiences like cons or rallies, plus weekly youth groups focused on community-building — still serves a significant minority of youth in our congregations. We shouldn’t abandon it, but my observations seem to indicate this model is slowly declining. My guess is in our increasingly multicultural, market-fragmented world, we are no longer going to have one single model of youth ministry that will serve the majority of youth in our congregations.

Given that the era of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is probably over, what are some other possible models?

Continue reading

“Being Different Together”

Yesterday evening, seven of us from the UU Church of Palo Alto attended “Being Different Together,” a community forum sponsored by the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission.

Rev. Kaloma Smith, pastor of the University AME Zion Church in Palo Alto, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph Brown, a social psychologist who studies implicit bias, who currently works at Stanford University as the Graduate Diversity Recruitment Officer for the School of Humanities and Sciences and Associate Director for the Diversity & First-Gen Office. Dr. Brown’s doctoral research looked at how stereotypes and prejudice impacted minorities and women. Brown studied with Claude Steele, a social scientist who did research in stereotype threat, among other topics.

Brown said his goal was to find a way to talk about “getting into a more just community.” He said one way to do this is by using the concept of “microaggressions.” He acknowledged that the concept of “microaggression” as it has been popularized is controversial. But he approaches this from a social science perspective, where “microaggression” has been carefully defined and studied. Continue reading

Today’s lesson plan on Ferguson

Here’s today’s lesson plan, as taught in the summer Sunday school program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), Calif. We had about a dozen children in gr. K-8. The lesson plan was written to engage the older children (gr. 5-8), in the expectation that the younger kids would do their best to follow the lead of the older kids; this worked quite well, so even though the conversation was over the heads of the kindergarteners, they followed along as best they could, and at least understood that we were talking about something very important.

One unexpected benefit of this lesson plan: While most of the children knew what “Ferguson” was, they were pretty hazy on the details of the events of August 9, 2014. Going over the story three different times helped reinforce details of that day in their memory.

Lesson plan
Credits
Goals and objectives
Theological background
Notes and resources
Thoughts for teachers
Why isn’t —— in this lesson plan?

Continue reading

Ferguson, six months on

Six months ago today, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I did not then, and do not now, find this shooting to be astonishing. Brown’s killing was preceded by other, similar, well-publicized events. Most notably, in 2009, Oscar Grant, another young black man, was shot and killed by a police officer. And in 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by by a neighborhood watch coordinator. And on August 5, 2014, John Crawford III was shot and killed by police officers in a Walmart store. In the bare fact of Brown’s killing, there wasn’t much to astonish.

This kind of violence has been going on for a long time. W.E.B. DuBois, in his book Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, wrote about the “widespread violence in the South, the murder and mobs,” that occurred during Reconstruction:

“Probably in no country in the civilized world did human life become so cheap. This condition prevails among both white and black and characterizes the South even to our day. A spirit of lawlessness became widespread. White people became a law unto themselves, and black men, so far as their aggressions were confined to their own people, need not fear the intervention of white police. Practically all men went armed and the South reached the extraordinary distinction of being the only modern civilized country where human beings were publicly burned alive.” [p. 700]

The violence described by W.E.B. DuBois no longer exists in quite that form, but it counts as its direct lineal descendant the violence that killed Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, and many others. While such violence might surprise us, it has lost its power to astonish.

But there were things about Brown’s killing that did astonish me. The initial response of police and elected officials to the protests which followed Browns’ killing was astonishingly tone-deaf — it was almost as if police and elected officials were trying to say things that would inflame tensions. The grand jury investigation was similarly tone-deaf — I sometimes felt was as if the district attorney’s office did everything they could to erode my trust.

Further, I was astonished how many non-black people actually paid attention to Michael Brown’s killing. Whether they reviled him for stealing cigarillos, or lauded him for being a hero, it seemed to me that more non-black people noticed Brown’s death than noticed the death of, say, Oscar Grant or John Crawford. White people in particular seemed to pay close attention. What drew the attention of so many of us white people? Was it the militarized police response to the protests in Ferguson that drew white people’s attention? — with some whites fearing that such militarized tactics could well be used on them, and other whites feeling safer because the police had so much military gear with which to quash protests? I don’t know. I only wish more white people could express a more nuanced view of Michael Brown, making him out to be neither a one-dimensional saint, nor a one-dimensional sinner, but rather a complex human being living in a difficult and complex world.

And I admit I was sometimes astonished by the way some whites responded to Brown’s killing. I remember seeing a video of one of the Ferguson protests where someone who appeared to be white harangued a black police officer, telling the officer that he should get rid of his uniform and join the protesters. This seemed to be another response lacking awareness of the nuances and complexity of the issue at hand.

But it is not easy for us white people to talk about race so openly. White people rarely talk about race with other white people. I can tell you this from experience:— if you’re a white person and you want to end a conversation with another white person, bring up the topic of race: as often as not, the other white person will find an excuse to end the conversation; sometimes they just walk away from you, which can feel a little strange.

If the Ferguson protests do prompt conversations about race among us white people, I will consider that a positive result. Here is W.E.B. DuBois again, from the same book, a few pragraphs after the quotation given above: “The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.” If the Ferguson protests provoke a wide conversation about the importance of black lives, that would be an even better result.

Those wedges DuBois talks about are driven between other racial groups in the United States as well. Somehow we have to extract those wedges that have been driven between all the races in the United States.

P. G. Wodehouse on individualism

P. G. Wodehouse, a novelist of ideas? How absurd!

And it is true that most of his dozens of novels are bits of fluff, with no more intellectual content than the brain of Bertie Wooster, one of his most famous characters. But in some of his earlier novels, Wodehouse occasionally gets philosophical — as in this passage from the 1918 novel Picadilly Jim, where Jimmy, the wealthy twenty-something protagonist, comes to the sudden and unpleasant realization that he has been pretty self-centered for much of his adult life:

“…Life had suddenly taken on a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.” [chapter 6]

Of course, Wodehouse was writing nearly a century ago. We have progressed further in the development of civic spirit since then: the jig-saw puzzles of the wealthy and the rest of the world are no longer connected to one another. If he were alive today, Jimmy could enjoy his wealth without having ever to wake up.