Columbus Day is Racist. Columbus Day was Created to Fight Racism. Wait. How Does that Work?

Happy Belated Columbus Day. Or Happy Belated Indigenous Peoples Day. Or Happy Belated Thanksgiving, if you happen to be Canadian.

Now I’m done with Canada for this post. Back to the United States.

Monday, of course, was Columbus Day in the United States — unless you happen to live in St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Ore., Albuquerque, N.M. or several other cities in the United States. Then it was Indigenous Peoples Day.

So what is going on here?

Well, in addition to finding an excuse to sell mattresses at half-price, we Americans use our holidays to remember history in particular ways. For about two centuries, we told the story of Columbus as a way to try to explain something about American character, even though Columbus never set foot on any territory that would eventually become the current 50 states.

(Columbus did land in Puerto Rico, so we do have a US territory to geographically connect us to the man. Interestingly, Caribbean and Latin American nations have not historically honored Columbus like the United States has. But that’s a different post.)

Columbus in our nation's capitol, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Columbus, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Americans have honored Columbus for quite some time. Since 1792, in fact. Columbus symbolized progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions. So, rightly or wrongly, he entered our historical consciousness as someone fundamental to American identity.  In 1836, for instance, Congress commissioned a large painting of Columbus’ landing for the US Capitol building. You can still see it there.

In the late 19th-century, Catholics had additional reasons to praise Columbus. Christopher Columbus was Catholic, a historical fact rarely highlighted by wider American society. This was important because at that time, Catholics were seen by many Protestants as a threat to American democracy. They argued that the Roman Catholic Church was hierarchical. It did not believe in the separation of church and state. Catholics believed that only priests could interpret the Bible properly. Because the nineteenth century was an era when the Bible was frequently read in public schools, Catholics often set up their own private schools, rather than have their children subject to instruction and biblical interpretations from Protestant teachers.

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don't be silly. Look closely. They are Catholic cardinals. Ah, yes. That makes sense. (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don’t be silly. Look closely. Those are Catholic cardinals creeping up the beaches. Well, now. That makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

In response, Protestants believed Catholics were undermining public education and, with it, the character of the American republic. Many Protestants formed organizations to limit Catholic immigrants. Anti-Catholic Americans even formed a political party in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party, to try to keep Catholics out. The Know-Nothing party dissolved in the sectional conflicts that led to the Civil War, but by 1890s, the impulse was back. The American Protective Association was established to limit Catholic immigration.

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.

And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.

The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”

This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.

So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?

In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.

Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.

Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

Columbus is inside. But that's Mary up there at that top.

Columbus is inside. But that’s Mary up there at that top.

Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.

The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.

OK, that’s enough of that.

Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).

I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America.  They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.

Plus, we’ll always have Columbus, Ohio. Just like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” will always have Paris. Only not quite as romantic.

There is a historical and theological point here, too. Indigenous Peoples Day would remind us of our national sins, while recognizing the dignity of a segment of American society that has often been pushed to the side. Confessing our historical sins can be a healthy thing, provided we also accurately recognize our historical virtues, which does not seem to be a problem for most Americans.

In fact, it can be a virtue to honestly and soberly face and admit our national sins.  Those of us who are Christians ought to understand this on a deep and profound way.  As with individuals, nations that fail to admit their sins end up falling into disordered, harmful behaviors. Ignoring our historical sins can lead us to imagine ourselves to be a people without fault. Having mis-diagnosed the past and our national character, we can end up blaming problems on something or somebody else. Believing that we pretty much have everything together, we can fail to take seriously those who point out issues of injustice.

This is actually a difficult thing to do as a nation — most nations only face their historical sins when they are forced into it politically (more on that in my next post).

We’ve overcome racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Italian-Americans. Great.   So throw out Columbus Day. Let us face the more difficult cause of overcoming racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Native Americans.  Bring on Indigenous Peoples Day.












The Confederate Flag vs. The American Flag

Recently, a former student of mine, Dale Swearingen, posted the following on Facebook:

“I just want to post this as a discussion point:  If the Confederate flag should be removed because it’s mostly being linked to racism and violence, then shouldn’t we also remove our current flag due to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans?”

Let me first point out that this is a fine example of how to approach a difficult and controversial subject.   How we say what we say is as important, I believe, as what we say. Dale’s post is not accusatory, insulting or overbearing. It invites discussion and reflection. Civic discourse — the way we talk about social issues in public — is actually quite important. As historian Tracy McKenzie points out in The First Thanksgiving, all too often we use history or civic discourse for the purposes of ammunition rather than illumination. I’m guilty of that too often, myself.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.  What flags do you see?

Selma, Alabama, 1965. What flags do you see?

Second, a short answer to Dale’s question is that while it is true that both flags point to a history linked to racism and violence, there is still a significant difference between the two. The American flag has been used to justify unjust situations, but it has also been used, historically, by the oppressed in American society to remind Americans that we are still not as just as we could be. It was carried by black civil rights leaders in all the key civil rights moments, including the march in Selma. Native Americans commonly fly the American flag at events tied to their identity, such as Indian rodeos. Cesar Chavez, who worked for the rights of poor Mexican-American farm laborers was often pictured in front of the flag. It is a flag that has been embraced by just about all American communities. (Jehovah Witnesses and the Amish are exceptions, for theological reasons.) Some members of these communities have protested against the American flag or seen it as a sign of oppression, but they tend to be minorities within their own communities.

However, when have blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, religious minorities or other “outsider” groups working for justice flown the Confederate flag? What causes for justice has the Confederate flag stood for? Some fly it for the cause of states rights, or the cause of southern whites who feel marginalized, or vague principles of being a “rebel” against the establishment. But these have been narrow and limited causes.  And they have all been bound up in racism.  Am I missing a bigger cause that the Confederate flag stands for that includes all Americans?

So there is, I believe, a qualitative difference in the ways the two flags have been used in American society. When the day arrives where whites and blacks march together with the Confederate flag for causes against some sort of evil or injustice — particularly against racism –then I will start to change my view of the overall cultural meaning of the Confederate flag.

But even that response, while valid, does not get at all the issues.

There is another, deeper, more sobering point that all Americans need to consider. Dale’s question gets at a hard but an important historical question for all of us who are Americans: what about the injustices that have been tied to the actions of the American nation? It’s possible for white northerners to argue about the Confederate flag in a way that puts all the hard ethical, social and relational work on someone else. But addressing racism and race relations in our society is hard work that applies to all Americans.

What is included and excluded in "heritage?"

What is included and excluded in “heritage?”

One way to think about Dale’s flag post is to consider the way that the word “heritage” is often used. Some have argued that the flag (and this applies to both the Confederate and American flags) has been used for racism or hate, but that is not what the flag is really about. It’s really about our heritage. And heritage is about what is good in our past. Therefore, both the American flag and the Confederate flag are really about noble ideals.

That can be a tempting route to take because it is optimistic and easy to understand.

Too easy. That understanding of heritage produces national denial. It pains us to see a friend or a loved one deny that they have a problem when it is clear they are struggling with something like addiction. Similarly, it should pain us to see our culture in denial when struggling with a social problem like racism.

Slavery. Indian Removal. Discrimination against immigrants. Gender inequities. Segregation. Religious discrimination. These are inescapable aspects of American history. As such, they are part of our heritage, just as much as the Bill of Rights, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and votes for women are part of our heritage. Furthermore, the American heritage of racism would not be a great problem if we were at a point today where we have figured out racial problems. We haven’t. So let’s try to understand the problem better.  You can’t do that, fully, without understanding history.

Others have said that the flag is a sign of hypocrisy. American history is full of people in power who have preached justice, equality, and freedom, while denying it to those outside of their group. Therefore, the flag is about historic injustices.

That can be a tempting route because it takes a strong stand on justice and is easy to understand.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America's past.  And feel self-righteous about it.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America’s past. And feel self-righteous about it.

Too easy. That understanding removes me from having to search myself for any connection to injustice. That makes it pretty easy to be self-righteous. You can do this if you are white, by the way. Just identify with the oppressed in America’s past in such a way that enables you to say that the collective problems of injustice in America are caused by other people, or groups that you don’t identify with. The historian Howard Zinn tended to write history this way. If you have ever run into his books you see he presents a searing critique of the United States. (Actually, his work is a bit more complicated than that because of his Marxist worldview, but I think the basic stance still holds). He was provocative, which can be helpful, but mostly I found it was too easy to agree with him in a way that produced self-righteousness.

Nobody likes to face sin within themselves. In the same way, we don’t like to face sin in those in history we identify with. And who, from the past do we identify with?   Southerners, blacks, whites, Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, workers, women, Indians, Democrats, Republicans, immigrants, business leaders — there are many, many options here. But we’ll instinctively and unconsciously want to defend those we identify with, while ignoring their sins. That’s one way we sin.

Christians ought to be good at confessing the sins of those we identify with. Alas, I confess that we are not always good at this. I include myself in this. We ought to be good at confessing the sins of Christians in the past because we believe that sin infects all of us. We Christians ought to be good at this because we should be humbly and sincerely confessing our own sins on a regular basis. And we Christians ought to be good at this because we know that, by the grace of God, we are forgiven when we confess our sins. And Christians we ought to be good at this because we know that through this grace, God transforms us into more of what we should be.

So where does that leave our discussion on history and the flag? I’ll say this about the United States: it is a land that has been deeply stained by slavery, segregation and racism, but it is also a land that has provided opportunities to address these evils. Democracy doesn’t make us good, but it can provide the freedom for good people to address injustices, sins, and problems within society.   And it can give us the freedom to try to change them. It’s not easy, but we have the freedom to do the hard work. The problem is that we also have the freedom to completely ignore the hard work. (Hey, do you want to play a video game or go the mall?)

A truly good patriot and good Christian, then, does not deny the sins in America’s history.   A good patriot and good Christian will soberly look at America’s history to gain deeper understanding about how past sins have been effectively addressed and what, historically, has brought about justice, freedom and equality in an American society stained by sin. And a good patriot and good Christian will then ask, how am I a part of a system, an institution, a way of thinking that is bound up in this?

Kenya, The Confederate Flag, and History

The first time I saw a Confederate battle flag up close, I was in Kenya.

(You know, you really can’t predict what you will run into when you become a missionary).

Back around 1990, I was teaching American history to high school students at a boarding school in Kenya. Most of my students, the children of missionaries, were Americans from both the South and North. But I had a few Africans, Norwegians, Koreans, and Australians in the mix. When I got to the Civil War section of the semester, a student named Scott brought in his Confederate flag to display in class, as a matter of pride. With his Yankee classmates in mind (and his Yankee teacher, no doubt), Scott presented the flag like he was wearing a college football sweatshirt on the Friday before the big game. It was if he were bringing an Alabama Crimson Tide flag to a classroom with a bunch of Ohio State fans in it.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught.  I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn't take a selfie of me and my class every thirty minutes, like I do now.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught. I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn’t take a selfie of me and my students every fifteen minutes, like I do now.

(I really don’t know what the Norwegians and the Africans thought of all of this. But in that boarding school setting most students were used to odd cultural juxtapositions popping up regularly.)

Scott was a good guy: earnest, hard-working, a bit squirrely at times, but someone who wanted to do what was right.

So we had a conversation about the flag in class. I explained that he needed to realize that many people look at that flag and see racism. As I recall, Scott replied that he didn’t see racism when he thought of the flag. He said he thought about his family, and barbeques, and enjoyable times he had back home in Alabama.

And in that setting — a multi-national boarding school in Africa, with a framed picture of the Kenyan president hanging on the wall, jacaranda trees blooming outside our window, his parents 1400 miles away in Zambia, and his grandparents 8000 miles away in Alabama — I could see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in Scott warm, cherished memories of home.

But then I think of another southerner. A black southerner: John Lewis. Born in 1940 near Troy, Alabama, Lewis attended segregated schools. After hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, Lewis joined the Civil Rights movement. He participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joined the Freedom Rides on desegregated buses, suffered beatings by angry mobs, and was arrested more than forty times.

He also helped organize the famous march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, designed to insure that blacks in Alabama would be given their right to vote. In the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis was nearly beaten to death. Quite a few of the white state troopers who beat him had the Confederate battle flag on their helmets.

State trooper at Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.

In that setting, I can see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in John Lewis memories of inferior school facilities, police beatings, political resistance to equal rights, threatening epithets shouted by whites, and terrorists who killed blacks. The last of which, as the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina has reminded us, has not ended. (Actually, have any of them fully ended?)

Several observations. First, the Confederate battle flag is not one thing. I’ve seen people say it “is” racist and others say it “is not” racist. Strictly speaking, neither of those comments are true. The flag is a symbol, and symbols elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences. I associate the flag with a lot of things, including a classroom in Kenya, which I’m guessing is not a common connotation. I’ve only scratched the surface with Scott and John Lewis, for the associations are all over the map, so to speak.

The difficulty here is that symbols and images have power. This is why advertisers find all kinds of clever ways to stick scantily-clad women into commercials — those women will elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences (not necessarily healthy ones) in the minds of the viewer.  If the scantily-clad women provoke positive connotations in the viewer, the viewer will automatically (without even thinking about it) feel more positive about the product which has, of course, no real connection to the scantily-clad women. But the viewer will be more likely to buy the product. That’s how symbols work.  They influence behavior.

But not all associations are created equal. Some give a fuller picture of reality than others. Some — like Dylann Roof’s association of the Confederate flag with a race war he wanted to provoke — are quite dangerous. And whether or not the viewer realizes it or not, they are tied to history.

So how should we, as a society, handle these conflicted associations with the flag? It’s difficult. In the end, I think the problem with the Confederate flag is its history — a history that is tied too heavily to a burden of racial injustice.  When Scott told me what the flag meant to him, as I recall, he didn’t make any historical references, even though it was a history class that provoked his actions. While his individual conception of the flag was not much of a problem, the flag is a social and cultural symbol, which is a problem. So while individual associations elicited by the flag may be harmless and sometimes even admirable, the cultural and collective history of the flag has been largely one that has elicited, supported and promoted racist behavior and systems.

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

How?  Well, here is a brief history of the flag, in case you have not heard it by now. Many people today don’t realize that the Confederate battle flag had not been flown or displayed very much between the 1870s and the 1930s. During that time, it really was not a common symbol of the South. In 1948, some southern Democrats called Dixiecrats split with their party because they opposed civil rights legislation.  In the process they waved, and in many ways resurrected, the Confederate battle flag as a symbol for their cause. From there, it appeared in all sorts of public conflicts over civil rights.  Whites who burned civil rights literature waved the flag.  Whites who appeared at civil rights marches to protest civil rights flew the flag. Soon, the flag was popping up all across the South.  It spread into the white segments of southern culture.  So, it started with a political movement to oppose equal rights, maintaining racist connotations in many quarters, even as it also spread out to comparatively harmless uses beyond the South, as can be seen with the “Dukes of Hazzard,” NASCAR races, and tacky coffee mugs.

Some people will say that the original use of the flag was not tied to racism. This is the historical argument that the South was fighting for states rights, not slavery, in the Civil War.

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

This is not an accurate understanding of American history. The essential reason that the southern states supported states rights and turned to secession was to preserve slavery. In other words, slavery caused the states rights agitation and was the primary cause of the Civil War. I can provide mountains of evidence for this. Academic historians know this, but alternative interpretations of the Civil War have been around a long time, (think of “Gone with the Wind”) telling the story of the war in ways that divorce it from slavery. These stories are deeply flawed.

Furthermore, the states rights dynamic lay behind the resurrection of the flag a century later. The state of South Carolina did not raise the flag over the capitol grounds until 1961, right in the middle of the civil rights conflicts. There were official pronouncements that this was to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Some people have argued, therefore, that the flag was not tied to racism, but to a war fought over states rights. Besides the flaw in this view of the Civil War, it masks another dynamic in the South in the 1950s and 60s.  Similar to the political forces that caused the Civil War, opposition to civil rights drove a lot of southern states rights arguments in the 1950s and 60s.

Selma, 1965

Selma, 1965

I understand that some people hold warm and rather innocent associations with Confederate flag. However, this is largely possible because these associations have erased blacks and race relations from the history or from current conception of the South. And that is a problem.

And yet, even as I believe that the flag should come down from governmental sites, and even though I care about this issue, I actually have little emotional investment in this conflict, compared to many blacks and white southerners.  As a white northerner, the flag neither forms a key part of my identity nor insults it. That makes it easy for me to take a stand. But there are historical and theological implications in an issue like this that are tougher to come to terms with.  And they apply to everyone.  So, for all of you non-southerners out there, I have more for you to think about, which I will get to in my next post.



My Family and the BBQ Place

A few weeks ago, my extended family took a little vacation together in southern Kentucky.  We had met in a small town and the decision was made to go out to eat together at a local BBQ place on the outskirts of town.  It looked interesting.  It was a low-lying wood structure painted in bright orange and black with a gravel parking lot.   You know what I mean — the type of place that probably had some unique local flavor, in both the food and the atmosphere.

As my brother’s family pulled into the BBQ joint, my twelve year-old niece turned to her mother and said, “Mom, you do know we’re black, don’t you?”

Oh.  I should point out that my brother married an African-American woman and has three bi-racial daughters.

My niece was half-joking and half-serious.  But because of her race, she felt a bit uncomfortable about entering this unknown place.  And I can’t say I blame her.  If you were black, would you have second thoughts about entering a local eatery in a small town in southern Kentucky?

As it turned out, they ate at the place and there was no problem, other than a few strange stares.

It is a very small incident, but it illustrates a couple of subtle but complicated dimensions to the way race works in our culture.

First of all, this little incident exemplifies one kind of white privilege.  My nieces and my sister-in-law automatically have to go through a series of calculations in a situation like this:  Am I going to be welcome? Am I going to be treated differently because of how people perceive me?  How should I respond if I am?  There are very few places where I, as a white person in America, have to make those calculations.  My sister-in-law, and nieces, (and brother, by association) have to make those kinds of calculations fairly regularly.

This particular incident isn’t exactly a question of great injustice.  There was not a question of the denial of economic opportunity, or whether rights would be violated, or whether my relatives would face violence, though the unknown can produce anxieties about such things.  But it does mean that it can be difficult for person of color to feel fully at ease in many places in American society.

However, it still raises questions of injustice.  If blacks still have to make calculations about how they will be treated (and due to the experiences they have, many and perhaps most African-Americans still do have to make these calculations), then we still have serious racial issues to face and address in our society.  Beyond being uncomfortable in restaurants, there are still complicated racial questions about how hiring processes, law enforcement, housing patterns, and a host of other issues that we still need to face and figure out.

There is yet another rather complicated issue here that pertains to all of us.  Should we try to be color-blind?  Is that the best way to resolve these issues?

Here is how it usually plays out (it seems to me) in my extended family:  most of the time we are color-blind. My sister-in-law is black.  My nieces are mixed-race.  My adopted sister (born in Korea) is Asian-American.  The rest of us are white.  We get together for holidays, vacations and other family events and we don’t think much about race.  We largely see each individual as unique people that we love.  We talk about what we do at our different places of work or school.  We see personality quirks.  We know what kinds of things each person likes for Christmas gifts.  We know what kinds of flaws we all tend to be guilty of.  We tell funny stories about each other at birthday celebrations.

The color-blind ideal, right?

Hmm.  Here is the problem:  in our color-blind way of thinking, those of us who are white sometimes forget the calculations that other members of the family have to make.  So, we gather for vacation and we need to eat.  Somebody says, “Hey, let’s try out that very interesting-looking BBQ joint,” and most of the rest of us agree, because we are not used to considering whether or not we will be welcome at an unknown place like this.  And as several of our family cars pull into the gravel parking lot, only one vehicle contains somebody who is asking, “You do know we are black, don’t you?”  The rest of us have forgotten.

Being color-blind, however, can also mean we have a blind spot.  We fail to consider how things might look while standing in somebody else’s shoes.

Now, I don’t know how things would have played out differently if we considered race at that moment.  It is quite likely that if somebody had asked the black members of the family if they would enjoy eating there, my sister-in-law would have said, “Hey, it’s OK, let’s try it out,” because she is used to these calculations and she’s tough.   Or maybe she would want the rest of us to be comfortable and happy.  But we never found out how she would have reacted because we were behaving in our usually color-blind way.

I would have more faith in the color-blind ideal if all Americans knew and loved one another to the extent that members of my family know and love one another.  But the reality?  It is only possible to know, on this level, a small minority of people we come in contact with on a regular basis.  Furthermore, love takes work, even with people we know very well.  Even if they believe in the color-blind ideal, I just don’t trust people to uphold it simply because it is a good idea.  Shoot, I don’t trust myself on this matter.

What do you know about this guy?  Nothing.  But your mind will guess a few things....

What do you know about this guy? Nothing. But your mind will guess a few things….

On top of that, as my cognitive psychologist friend tells me, our brains are hard-wired to organize the world into categories.  So we distinguish among mammals and trees and birds.  We make distinctions among genres of music, TV shows and sports.  As we drive down the road, we unconsciously note the difference among stop signs, stoplights and billboards.  We assume certain things about people who are enthusiastic about NASCAR, or yoga, or Star Trek, or hedge funds.  It doesn’t mean we get it right, but our brains have to organize the world into categories, or the world will just be a mass of chaos to us.

....and do the same with these folks.

….and do the same with these folks.

It is unavoidable.  My friend Linda told me that a couple of decades ago, when she was living in New Orleans, her 2 or 3 year-old son asked her why all garbage men were black.  It was an innocent question that illustrates the point:  from the earliest stages of our lives humans make categories and connections to try to figure out the world.

Our culture has spent the last five centuries organizing people according to race.  Those categories are not going to go away easily, or any time soon.  We live with those categories and associations on a conscious and unconscious level.  Picture a wide-receiver.  Picture a CEO.  Now try to do it without race as a category.  You are probably able to picture either one as white or black, but I’m willing to bet that a black man popped up first in your mind for the wide-receiver and a white man popped up for the CEO.  And you probably didn’t think about a female for either.  Or a Latino.

So the color-blind goal?  If being color-blind makes it easier for us to ignore our blind spots, then we need to find a different way.


What Bill O’Reilly Ought to Argue

I hesitate to make suggestions for anybody (liberal or conservative) who appear on TV news shows.  Why encourage them?  That format usually promotes oversimplification and rarely encourages deeper understanding.

But I have a suggestion for conservatives.  And liberals, actually.

I argued in an earlier post that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t really understand what white privilege is.  He doesn’t get that he actually has benefited from being white, even if he grew up somewhat poor. And I have to confess that I found it hard to find any of Bill O’Reilly’s comments that I agreed with in his segment, aside from the fact that he probably does get sun-burned if he is out too long in the sun in Hawaii.

However, I think there is a valid objection to be made by some people who are critical of the idea of privilege.  On the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney argued that you don’t right wrongs by “guilting” the present.  Varney oversimplifies a complex issue, (see, there it is – oversimplification as a TV news epidemic), but I think he is correct that the concept of “privilege” is sometimes (often?) presented in such a way that feeling guilty is the only response whites can make. In other words, privilege is often framed as a situation that stems solely from past injustices.

Have you given thanks for the good that was built up in our society through the agonizing work done by schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past?

A shout-out to schoolchildren (and their teachers) in generations past: Thanks.


But that, also, is an oversimplification.  It is true that much of the privilege I enjoy as a white person is a result of past injustices.  But much is also the result of the efforts of people in the past who have worked against injustice or who have worked to empower non-elites.  I am not descended from an elite or aristocratic family lineage (how many of us in the U.S. are, actually?) but I have benefited from an education that was not conditioned on my family’s wealth or status.  This is thanks to the efforts of many Puritans, Yankees and other Americans from the past who worked to ensure the all ordinary children would receive an education.

I am also privileged because there are principles embedded in the Bill of Rights that have allowed my ancestors and me to flourish. We only need to examine how the poor are abused by the rich and powerful in places like Peru, the Philippines, India, and Kenya (just to name a few somewhat random nations) to help us to appreciate the privilege we enjoy of a law enforcement and legal system that does not only work primarily for the interests of the rich and powerful.  So, even though the founders and many after them upheld systems of injustice that reinforced the privileges of white males (slavery, patriarchy), they also promoted principles checked and limited what the most powerful in our society can do.  Later generations built on those systems, and I’m thankful for those efforts to establish justice.

I am also privileged because I was born into a stable (though imperfect) family, with parents who, among other things, instructed me in ethical principles, filled my life with books, instilled in me habits of self-denial, and sent me to church to encounter God.   That took a lot of hard work on their part, and I did not always learn my lessons well. (See: Failure to Properly Respect Others or Adequately Apologize for Sins Committed in the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972).  However, I know that many people are born into family situations in which they did not receive as many blessings as I did growing up. I could name more.

The point is that influences on my life as disparate as public education, a working legal system, and a stable family were all given to me, through no fault, action or decision on my own part.  Those are privileges I have been given, due to the good and just things done by people in the past. I have been granted a position of privilege that is based both on terrible injustices and admirable work for good done by many people in the past.

It is important we understand both sides of this coin.  And we can’t fully understand both sides of this coin if we do not deeply engage history.  (Yes, this is a shameless plug for history, but only because I’m right).  In the O’Reilly segment, Stuart Varney saw it is a problem that we were “always looking to the past.”  His solution, presumably, is to forget the past when it comes to issues of race.  This is an extremely bad suggestion (for any issue, actually).

My guess is, though, Varney would be quite happy if we looked at America’s past to note its accomplishments.  Many conservatives fall into this tendency — to describe American society today by lauding past accomplishments and downplaying its injustices.

Many liberals, however, fall into the opposite tendency — to describe American society today by highlighting past injustices, while downplaying its accomplishments.

A fully formed sense of history will deeply engage both sides.  This means we need to take part in careful discussions in which we listen carefully to issues, respect those with whom we disagree, and search for illumination rather than ammunition.

Perhaps we can start that process by turning off TV news shows.

The Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 and the Contentious Idea of “Privilege”

And now, a couple of more difficult and complicated questions about the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 (see my earlier post for all the violent details.)

Was I guilty?  Was I neutral?

I’m not talking about my angry ripping down of Sharon Osowski’s sign.  That’s easy.  Yes, I was guilty of several crimes and sins there.

No, I mean before that impulse swept over me.  At the moment when I walked back into the classroom in a state of Dodgeball Bliss, when I first saw those girls chanting about how it was all unfair.  At that moment, was I guilty of anything?  Was I neutral?

Yes.  No. Yes.

In one sense, I was not guilty of causing the Dodgeball Injustice to Girls.  I was only doing what Mr. Bacon told me to do.  I was following the rules.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would not have minded if the girls came down and played dodgeball with us.  I mean, come on, it was dodgeball.

But I snapped when Sharon Osowski marched toward my table because it seemed that she was saying I was somehow at fault and I was just doing what Mr. Bacon told us to do.

In that way, I was not guilty.  But here is the problem that I now understand:  I wasn’t neutral.  I got to play dodgeball and Sharon Osowski did not.  It wasn’t from any fault, action or decision of my own — and it wasn’t through any fault, action or decision of the girls — but the fact remains that we boys got to play dodgeball and the girls did not.

What do we say, when one group of people, through no fault, action or decision of their own, benefits from the way society is arranged and another group, through no fault, action or decision of their own, does not benefit?  “That’s life?” “That’s discrimination?”  “Life isn’t fair?”  “That’s injustice?”

For a number of years now, some pointy-headed intellectual types have been using a term in their writings and in higher education to describe this situation.  They call it “privilege.”


Ammunition or Illumination? You decide!

And a few weeks ago, this concept flew around the airwaves and internet more widely after Bill O’Reilly came out with a segment on Fox News in which he criticized the idea — at least in terms of how it was used in a Harvard first-year orientation program.  Of course, in this context, it quickly became quite political. And it gets tougher to think clearly about it when people are turning to ammunition rather than illumination.

(You can see the clip here.  I could not find the original segment on the Fox News website, so this link is attached to some snarky political commentary).

So I’m going to try to search for some illumination here.  I’ll say at the outset that I think Bill O’Reilly is incorrect about many things on this issue.  But I should also say he might have a point in another way.

First, I think I understand Bill O’Reilly’s emotional reaction, though I think it is incorrect.  Bill O’Reilly declared that he was going to have to “exempt himself under the white privilege banner” because he worked hard at lower-level jobs when he was younger.  It seems to me he is reacting in much the same way I did to Sharon Osowski.  How was I at fault for the girls’ dodgeball situation?  When it comes to race, a lot of whites feel like others are trying to make them feel guilty for things that they did not cause. Persons who work hard, face obstacles, overcome difficulties, and generally try to treat others decently don’t like to be told they are privileged.

But the issue of “privilege,” as it is explained by its clearest advocates, isn’t about what a person has done or not done.  And this is the important point:  this kind of “privilege” really exists and it matters.  Some groups in society, through no fault, action or decision of their own, reap benefits because of race, class, gender, or any other number of factors.

This is not necessarily the same thing as being born into a wealthy, powerful family and having everything handed to you, as O’Reilly seems to think it is.  Obviously, Paris Hilton grew up with privileges that you and I did not grow up with, which is why she is famous for….well, just what is it she is famous for, again?  But that’s not really what “privilege” in this sense, means.

Here is why:  yes, I am sure O’Reilly worked hard and didn’t have everything handed to him.   He didn’t grow up in the Hamptons.  He explained in the segment that he grew up in Levittown, New York, meaning his parents did not have a lot of money.

But he doesn’t get it.  (It’s possible he gets it, but he’s more concerned about ammunition…but I’ll assume that he is sincere.)

For instance, Bill O’Reilly has benefited from white privilege in at least one very clear way: in the 1950s and 60s (when he was growing up) Levittown was a suburb that had contracts prohibiting blacks from buying houses in his suburb.  In fact, most suburbs in America at that time had official or unofficial policies that kept blacks out.

A 1950s Levittown version of "Where's Waldo?" goes like this:  where's the person of color?  (You won't win this game).

A 1950s Levittown version of “Where’s Waldo?” goes like this: where’s the person of color? (Hint: Give up. You won’t win this game).

What did that mean?  It meant that many working-class whites — especially whites whose parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents came from Catholic or Jewish immigrant communities that faced discrimination in the United States — were taking advantage of economic and educational opportunities available to them.  In the 1950s many working class whites who lived in poor neighborhoods in the city could buy “entry-level” suburban houses in places like Levittown.  As I explained in an earlier post, property and land-ownership has been a crucial way for Americans to move up the socio-economic ladder in American history — and it is a feature that historically made the United States different (and more prosperous) than, for instance, Latin American countries.

But in the 1950s, a black family could not move out of the city and buy a house in Levittown, like O’Reilly’s parents did.  When it comes to homes in upwardly-mobile neighborhoods, the United States did not widely extend this opportunity to blacks until….when?  1975?  1990?  2005?  Do blacks have it, fully, today?

Obviously, middle-class blacks who have the financial resources can buy homes in many middle-class neighborhoods.  Legally, they can now buy homes anywhere they want.

So does that mean we have moved beyond this issue?

Well, I know that if I were black, there are still some towns, suburbs and neighborhoods that I would not want to move into because of how I would be treated — at least by some of the people.  (I know of some of these places in my own county).  And I know for sure that I would be hesitant to move if I had kids and had to send them to the public schools in these towns, suburbs or neighborhoods.

However, I am a white person, so I don’t have to worry about those issues.  Neither does Bill O’Reilly.  Socially, the two of us have a certain privilege because of the color of our skin — through no fault, action, or decision of ours.  That has economic ramifications.  The United States is interesting in that historically, it has offered both opportunities and privileges to poorer whites but denied them to blacks and people of color.  We haven’t fully resolved that issue yet.

Another problem:  this kind of privilege is largely invisible to the person who holds it — unless they have had some combination of experience and willingness to consider how it might be so.  It had not occurred to me at all that Mr. Bacon was privileging boys over girls in that dodgeball situation.  Then Sharon Osowski organized her protest.  Before that, I didn’t see any problem.

For those of us who are white, do we know how often clerks ignore blacks who shop in the stores in our town?  How often do banks in our town give better terms on loans to whites, compared to blacks who have the same financial status?

How often do blacks in our town have advantages over whites in the above examples?

Reality:  I don’t know how often these things happen in my town.  You don’t either.  It’s impossible to know the specifics.  But there is plenty of sociological data to show it is still a problem in our society.

There is more. Even with what I have argued, I think the proponents of privilege can have a problem or two in how they argue their point.  Bill O’Reilly might, implicitly, have a point in the midst of this.  That’s in my next post.