In our last blog, we established that governments are NOT formed by people surrendering the imagined freedom of a pre-social, pre-governmental state for some specified benefit. The fact is that there is no pre-social state for human beings--the nature of our reproductive process and our long, vulnerable childhood make basic social cooperation at the family unit level essential for the survival of the species. Furthermore, any pre-social, pre-governmental state would lack meaningful freedom because everyone would have to spend all of their time meeting basic needs.
The only way to escape the tyranny of each person having to provide for every essential need is by expanding social cooperation to such a degree that specialization becomes possible. At that point, people can meaningfully speak of the freedom to choose a specialization they like or at which they are competent. At that point, people can decide how to spend the surplus time made available through specialization. The formation of broader social groups and governments then, is undertaken as a means to achieve the most basic freedom rather than a departure from that basic freedom.
The benefits of expanded social cooperation lead to increasingly complex cooperative arrangements. Governments come into being to manage these increasingly complex cooperative arrangements, and to protect or enforce compliance with group norms through the exercise of state sanctioned violence. What passes for a statement of purpose in the United States Constitution is really no more than an expression of guiding principles for how the founders envisioned the American government carrying out its management, protection and enforcement functions.
Specifically, the United States Constitution provides its guiding principles in the following statement: "We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
There are two key elements to ensuring that you are properly informed: (1) consult a range of sources that span the spectrum of perspectives on key issues, and (2) ensure the sources that you consult are reputable sources of news. In order to have an intelligent opinion on any subject, you must be able to respond intelligently to criticisms of that argument. You cannot respond intelligently to criticisms of your position unless you understand how people with different perspectives view your position. To gain this understanding, you must listen to sources that present those perspectives fairly, honestly and in the best possible light.
Fifty years ago, you could turn from one news program to another on the three major networks and get basically the same perspective on the news. Now, there are far more than three options for news. Each source is likely to have its own editorial slant. The stories that are emphasized are often completely different, and the editorial slant given to the common stories are likely to be completely different.
Sometimes there are good reasons for different media outlets to offer different perspectives on the same issue. After all, there are different ways of identifying the correct or optimal solution to any given challenge. As discussed in previous essays, we can identify different approaches to any issue—constitutional perspectives, arguments from various moral or religious perspectives, and efficiency argument. All may have merit while yielding different solutions.
Because sources of news have become more politicized and polarized, it is necessary to consult multiple, reputable sources across the spectrum to get a fair and honest portrayal of opinions contrary to your own. It is often hard to watch programs that present the opposing view, but you should make a practice of monitoring news as it is portrayed by media outlets that make you uncomfortable. Take note of the stories they cover that your favorite channels do not cover, as well as how their coverage of common stories differs.
Reputable news sources are sources that do not deal in falsehoods. If you are watching or reading a news source that continually broadcasts or publishes stories that are subsequently identified as misleading or false, then you should find a higher quality source for news. Often such sources are labelled as “tabloids” rather than newspapers.
Some of my recommended sources for serious news are the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Economist, both the broadcasts and website for NPR.org, and the BBC.com. You will often find this set of sources will cover the same major stories. These sources are world famous, have different owners, and have a reason to preserve their credibility as a source of their competitive advantage. For that reason, you can often use these sources to judge the quality of other media outlets, and to identify significant omissions or editorial slants.
Surveying coverage over a range of media outlets can also help hone your skills at identifying better and worse quality in media outlets. For instance, you can get a liberal slant on stories by watching CNN and a conservative slant by watching Fox News. When you compare coverage with a magazine like The Economist or an outlet like NPR.org, you are likely to notice when CNN and Fox spend their time covering different stories. You will notice when they give very different perspectives on issues and personalities, and develop a feel for what is more likely to be true.
In sum, broadening the scope of your news intake to cover a range of sources will make you a better-informed citizen. You will be more prepared to defend your opinions because you will be familiar with opposing views. Over time, you will build up your ability to discern quality in media coverage of current events.
In the last blog, we concluded that people are not born free. Rather they are born into a condition of necessity that initially precludes freedom. From the outset, there is an irreducible element of social cooperation. Humans would never survive their relatively long and vulnerable childhood without some minimal level of social cooperation. However, the necessity of providing essential needs like food, shelter and protection precludes meaningful freedom until such time as social cooperation expands enough to allow for some specialization and a surplus of time within the social group.
Political philosophers differ in their ideas on the nature of the most basic social cooperation and how government evolves from it. Often, the differences in political philosophy arise from different assumptions about human nature. Some assume humans to be fundamentally good creatures. In this context, good is defined as accepting social cooperation as a foundational value and subordinating self interest enough of the time to prevent unnecessary harm to the group. On this model, good people will, if properly informed, comply with a natural law where all are treated equitably and none will resort to violence except in self defense. Others assume humans to be fundamentally selfish creatures who will use any means necessary, including violence, to ensure the most favorable distribution of social goods for themselves even if their actions put the group at risk. On this view, any social agreements are fundamentally coercive and the chief characteristic of government is power and the monopoly of violence. It seems likely that there is no definitive "human nature" corresponding to one or the other of these extremes,
The thought experiment by which political philosophers justify their preferred form of government is to project their vision of human nature backwards to some imagined, pre-governmental state of nature. Various visions of human nature have led to different depictions of the state of nature and have been used to justify very different forms of government. Often, the presumption is that individuals surrender the "freedom" of the state of nature to enter into a government that is based on a social contract.
But as we noted previously, the imagined "freedom" of a pre-social state is a fiction. First, the idea of a pre-social state is itself an illusion because the long period of vulnerability associated with human childhood demands some minimal social cooperation as a starting point. We are inherently social animals. Second, what we commonly refer to as freedom arises only when social cooperation expands to the point where specialization is possible. Specialization increases efficiency in meeting basic needs, and a surplus of time allows individuals freedom to choose certain voluntary activities over the tasks that would otherwise be required to meet basic needs.
As the modes and methods of social cooperation become more complex (in order to generate more surplus time and resources), one function of government is to manage the complexity of social cooperation. Ideally this is undertaken with the goal of enabling the greatest amount of freedom and well-being possible for citizens. Another function is to arbitrate the inevitable conflict that arises among stakeholders in the course of cooperative endeavor. In order to be able to truly serve as the arbiter of conflict, the state must possess the authority to force compliance with its mandates. In other words, the state must have a monopoly on the use of force to support the law.
In the next essay, we'll consider the merits of our United States government in performing these functions.
Rousseau famously said, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Let's start by bringing Rousseau into the 21st century, correct his gender bias, and consider his meaning to be "People are born free and everywhere they are in chains." Rousseau wants to make bad government wholly responsible for the chains, but he clearly misses a step. The notion that we are "born free" is fundamentally incorrect. Before we can arrive at anything approaching an appropriate model for good government, we must begin by understanding the flaw in Rousseau's initial condition of freedom, and the implications this has on the necessary purpose of government.
People are not born free in any meaningful sense of freedom. If I were to define a human being, I certainly would include self awareness and free will. But the definition of a human must also include a description of the essentials of the body in which self awareness and free will abide. That body comes with inherent constraints. We experience the world from within individual bodies that exist in time and space. Those bodies grow during a long period of vulnerable childhood, require food and shelter, and a possess diverse sensory mechanisms inclined to feelings including emotional attachment, joy, sorrow, pleasure and pain. People are not born free--they are born in mortal danger of perishing immediately, unless there are other people willing and able to provide for their needs until such time as they can provide for themselves.
In the abstract, providing for oneself is a full time job. It takes a lot of time to secure and prepare food, find and maintain shelter, and perhaps reciprocate in duties of care for others. We see, immediately and inescapably, the fundamental need for some minimal social cooperation in order to sustain human life. But at that minimal level of social cooperation, there is no real freedom because most, if not all, available time is consumed in the provision of food and shelter and care for our immediate social group. Time is the universal constraint: we have only so much of it, and if we have to spend all available time providing for basic needs, then there really is little scope for freedom. And in a condition of even moderate scarcity, we might expect the individual pursuit of essentials to lead to conflict and thereby create another essential need: protection.
It is not hard to see that we can increase the scope for individual freedom through social cooperation. Tacit or explicit agreements on specialization with those in our own and neighboring social groups allow us to provide for our essential needs more efficiently. At some point, this efficiency may yield sufficient surplus time to allow us to meaningfully consider the concept of freedom. We are not born free. We are only able to speak of freedom once we have a level of social cooperation that allows for efficiency in meeting essential needs and creates a surplus of time.
It is hard to understand how anyone could still believe a single word uttered by President Trump, or how any American in their right mind would still vote for him.
Every credible member of his administration has abandoned ship, from former Exxon Chairman Rex Tillerson (who referred to the President as a "f*ng moron") to his own former Chief of Staff, retired Marine General John Kelly and his former Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis.
Speaking about Trump, Kelly recently told friends that "The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me. the dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it's more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life."
And now, on top of the condemnation by even his former chosen cabinet members, we learn that Trump has a Chinese bank account from which he withdrew over $15 million AFTER he was president (New York Times, Oct 21, 2020)... this from the guy who staged a press conference at the beginning of his presidency with stacks of paper and allegedly signed over control of all his business interests to disinterested parties. We have never had such a bald-faced liar and crook in the White House.
Shame on all of us if we allow this fraud another term. Please vote, and like me, please vote for Joe Biden.
Many Christians have been deceived into thinking of Jesus Christ as some sort of magical Teddy Bear from God, sent to make us all feel good about our salvation. This view is reinforced by focusing on pieces of scripture, with a heavy accent on the Old Testament and non-Gospel passages. This deception is used by some religious and political leaders for cynical purposes. Currently, many Christians seem to believe their religion requires them to vote for politicians who vote to overturn the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. But it is clear to me that if Jesus were a Supreme Court justice, He would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
When asked, “Why did God send his son to us?,” I am surprised at how many Christians’ answer is “To die for our sins.” But the Gospels tell us that Jesus came to give us an example of how we are supposed to live. The Great Commandment is the key to understanding that theme. Jesus' words and deeds reinforce that main message numerous times in the Gospels. Even the crucifixion itself can be seen as an illustration of what it means to truly live the Great Commandment.
When asked to identify the most important part of the law, Jesus responds with one of the original ten commandments (Love the Lord your God) but combines it with something that comes from the 19th chapter of Leviticus in the Old Testament: "and love your neighbor as yourself." This is a huge deal! He says everything else (all the other commandments) hang on these two things! Together, these two elements form what Christians call the Great Commandment.
The scribes and pharisees knew that the Great Commandment was a big deal. That is why they asked Jesus right away: who is our neighbor? And Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In my new book, I say the Samaritans and Jewish people of Jesus' time were like Republicans and Democrats today. They did not like each other very much. They tended to assume the worst about each other. But those people — the ones we have a hard time liking—are exactly the people Jesus tells us we must love “as ourselves.” Those last words are important.
And this is not just one isolated part of the New Testament. It is the major theme that runs through the Gospels, when they are taken all together. In my Oxford Annotated Bible, Jesus calls out hypocrites explicitly on nineteen separate occasions. Implicitly, he calls out hypocritical behavior almost an equal number of times. What is hypocrisy? It’s when we hold others to rules that we don’t apply to ourselves, or that we don’t apply in the same way to ourselves. In other words, hypocrisy happens when we don’t follow the Great Commandment. We see many examples of that with both religious and political leaders these days.
But I still think many Christians don’t get the impact of Jesus saying that all of the law depends on than what he identifies as most important — the Great Commandment. In John [John 8:4-11], the scribes and Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman who has been caught in adultery, a violation of another commandment for which Mosaic law decrees stoning. Jesus tells them that the one who is without sin should throw the first stone. The crowd melts away, with no one claiming to be without sin. After the crowd leaves, with no one throwing a stone, Jesus asks the woman if there was no one left to condemn her. When she says no one, he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” Here Jesus models for us what the Great Commandment means in action: loving your neighbor as yourself means we should not choose to throw stones unless we are perfect, and none of us are perfect. It means none of the other commandments, even thou shalt not kill, are as important as the Great Commandment.
And finally, of course, Jesus does die for us. And on the cross he says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What a beautiful illustration of the Great Commandment in action. We are called to love our neighbors (the tough ones) as ourselves even if it kills us. That is hard. Probably not too many Christians can live up to that standard. So it's easier to downplay the Great Commandment and get really vocal about things like Roe v. Wade.
For me, being a Christian is not consistent with supporting what I see in most Republican candidates. A friend was shocked by this. He asked me to address how I could support Democratic candidates given their positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and freedom of religion. Here is what I told him.
Christians argue that abortion is bad because it violates “thou shalt not kill,” correct? And we have already established that Jesus told us the Great Commandment is more important than all the other commandments, including this one. But, that said, anyone who cares about following the commandments should want to minimize the number of abortions to the extent that is consistent with the Great Commandment.
Abortions are a function of unwanted pregnancies. A study conducted by Lancet Global Health concluded that, worldwide, 61% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion. Since 1990, the proportion of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased in countries where more legal restrictions are in place. In January of this year, The latest National Survey of Family Growth in the US showed that the contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has resulted in a decrease in unintended pregnancies in the US. This evidence is reinforced by the fact that the number of abortions performed in the US has decreased almost 20 percent since 2011, and most of the decline in abortions has occurred in states where access to abortion has NOT been restricted. If you truly want to reduce abortions, the evidence shows you should support the ACA. Republicans have been working nonstop for ten years to undermine and overturn the ACA.
We have learned again and again that laws are not the best way to stop behaviors like drinking, drugs and sex. Prohibition did not work. It make alcohol a lucrative criminal enterprise. The war on drugs has been a disaster. Another example of a lucrative criminal enterprise has been incentivized by bad public policy. Eliminating legal abortions will cause women who can afford it to travel someplace else to have the abortion. Poor women will seek out illegal abortion providers. The effect of so-called Christians opposing Roe v. Wade will be to undo the gains in reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions that have been made in the past ten years and to disproportionately harm poor women. Do you really believe that is how Jesus would approach the challenge of abortion? I, for one, do not.
Republican politicians say “vote for me and we will overturn Roe v Wade and eliminate abortions” while at the same time saying “vote for me and we will overturn the ACA because it is socialism.” Well, in 1992, with 8 Republican appointed justices, the Supreme Court still upheld the main finding of Roe v Wade in a 5-4 decision (Planned Parenthood v Casey). I think Republican politicians know very well that (1) abortion is an issue they can use to get Christian votes, (2) the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Roe v Wade regardless of how many Republican appointed justices there are [in part because of (1)], and (3) overturning Roe v Wade is not going to stop abortions in the United States. So Christians who vote Republican out of opposition to abortion are simply deceived.
Oh, and by the way, the ACA is not even close to socialism. Look up the definition of socialism and think about it.
Okay, now same-sex marriage… Jimmy Carter is one of my favorite Christians. As a politician and public figure, he has never been afraid of living his faith, even when doing so came at great personal cost. Say what you will about Carter, but the guy successfully commanded a nuclear submarine while he was in the Navy. He might not have been the most popular President, but he is not a hypocrite. Carter is on the record as saying he believes Jesus would approve of gay marriage. He said, “I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else and I don’t see that gay marriage damages anyone else.” I agree with him.
Now all the evangelicals lined up and used Old Testament scriptures to say Carter was wrong. But I think the evangelicals are wrong. And I think a lot of them are pretty much hypocrites in a lot of ways. They like to use the Old Testament to let their followers stay in their comfort zone, because living the Great Commandment is hard, and challenges comfort-zone Christians.
Now for religious freedom. I am all for it. So is Biden. Of course, like everything, there is a limit. Our Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but we don’t allow religions that decide they believe in human sacrifice, or other things that violate individual rights in certain ways.
That brings us back to abortion, I think. Because many would claim that abortion is murder—human sacrifice. But the fact is that not all religions believe that life begins at conception. So freedom of religion protects the right of those people to believe that. And, in fact, freedom of religion protects the right of people to not believe in religion at all. I support freedom of religion in all of those dimensions, and I think we have ample processes for resolving disagreements over where your freedom of religion conflicts with mine. What we clearly SHOULD NOT endorse, in my opinion, is the idea that freedom of religion means America should be governed by some sort of Christian Taliban, and that, frankly, is the way many Christians act.
Bottom line: Republican positions on abortion, the ACA, same-sex marriage, and freedom of religion are logically inconsistent with each other, if you think them through. For Christians, the only way out of that trap is by using the Great Commandment as your decision criterion. Current positions of the Democratic candidates on my ballot are more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than are the positions of their Republican opponents.
When in doubt, I like to remember some other great words from Jesus: “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to the Lord that which is the Lord’s.” So many things that are appropriate to address one-on-one and in a charitable way are simply not appropriately or effectively manageable as a matter of public policy.
It should not come as a surprise to anyone when I assert that institutional racism and sexism were baked into the original fabric of the United States. I don’t state that as an advocate for so-called “cancel culture.” I am not lamenting it or judging it in any way. I am simply stating a fact as a starting point in this essay. My moral view of that fact is irrelevant to the purpose of this essay. In this essay, I will use the fact that the government of the United States was born as a racist, sexist institution as support for my conclusion: that institutional racism and sexism still exist in the United States, albeit to a lesser degree, and that the continued manifestations of institutional racism and sexism in 2020 should be morally intolerable for all Americans.
I don’t think any reasonable person can deny my starting point. Look at the picture of the signing of the Constitution. The only people in the picture are white men.
Read the words of the original Constitution. They very clearly allow slavery, and the continuation of importing slaves, and the counting of slaves as “three fifths” of a person for purposes of representation in Congress. “Indians not taxed” are excluded from being counted for purposes of representation. Ironically, women are not mentioned. Presumably, because the Declaration only states that “all Men are created equal,” the authors of the Constitution did not feel it necessary to explicitly address women. But the Constitution effectively denies equal rights to all three classes—slaves, Indians, and women. That is clear because it requires separate amendments and laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to abolish slavery and grant equal rights to former slaves, Indians, women and people of color. It is a simple fact, therefore, that the political and social institutions of the United States were racist and sexist at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. [House Document 112-129, The Constitution of the United States with Index and The Declaration of Independence, 25th Edition, 2012].
Those who hold that there is no institutional racism and sexism in the United States today must, therefore, believe that something has happened since the drafting and ratification of the Constitution that has removed the original problem. Indeed, we can point to the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Amendments to the Constitution as ending slavery, affording equal protection of the law to all persons, and explicitly granting former slaves the right to vote in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively. But clearly, this change to the supreme positive law of the United States did not guarantee compliance at the level of state laws and practices.
The 100 years after the Civil War were full of examples of domestic terrorism and murder against African Americans. The federal government effectively looked the other way as the Constitution was ignored in some cases and addressed with inadequate half measures to preserve segregation in others. Violence sometimes erupted into major incidents like white mobs leveling the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 or the black town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923.
Women and Native Americans saw their rights formally recognized in the XIXth Amendment (1920) and the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), respectively. In practice, these changes in law did not magically change the treatment of women and Native Americans in every aspect of society. Social prejudices persist even when laws change.
When programs like the New Deal, the GI Bill and Veterans home loans seemed to promise economic advancement without regard to race, social practices and governmental policies ensured a preservation of the status quo in a way that systemically took advantage of African Americans and other people of color, holding them at a lower level of economic achievement. Social Security was originally designed to exclude farm workers and domestic workers—exclusions that disproportionately affected black Americans. In 1950, “the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics warned that ‘a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood… any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” The federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was an active participant in preserving these racial restrictions. [Coates, Ta-Nehisi, We Were Eight Years in Power, pp. 185-88]
The period from 1954 to 1964 saw another series of major changes to public law that seemed to signal real progress towards a society that was not racist. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that state laws segregating public schools were unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly specified the equal rights for people of all races that had been systemically denied to people of color previously. Violence erupted in many parts of the country as the federal government sought to enforce these rulings.
Ironically, the states failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that was intended to grant constitutional protection against gender discrimination. Congress passed the ERA in 1972, but only 31 states approved the amendment. The Constitution requires three fourths of states to approve an amendment before it is ratified. A version of the ERA is still under consideration.
Changes to existing laws continue to address areas where discrimination surfaces in our society. In the years since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there have been advances in civil rights on many fronts, including race, gender, sexual orientation and identity. Many who argue that current manifestations of discrimination are not manifestations of systemic or institutional racism or sexism seem to feel that the many legal advances to this point have left only a problem with individuals who are racist or sexist or who act in discriminatory ways. These people seem to feel that, since they ascribe the problem to the individual level, there is no need for broad governmental action to address any perceived institutional racism.
This argument seems wrong to me because there is clear evidence that the effects of our social and governmental systems are still having a disproportionately negative impact on people of color and women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the concept of “disparate impact” as a standard for determining whether a practice, policy or system was discriminatory. In employment, the standard is generally this: any practice that has a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin that is not job related or a business necessity is proof of discrimination. It seems to me that there is a clear disparate impact of our economic, social and legal systems on people of color and women. We can see this disparate impact in different life expectancies, incarceration rates, and levels of economic attainment. As the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others make painfully clear, we can see a difference in the rate at which civil authorities use force against people of color. Because the evidence of disparate impact is so clear, we must conclude that our systems and institutions still harbor, foster or tolerate racism and sexism.
There have been many attempts to address racism and sexism with legal changes over the years. None have been successful in addressing the whole problem. The fact is that the institutional problem we are confronting today is different than the problem that erupted in the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century. The problems that exist in our institutions and across society today may not be as intentional or obvious as those addressed by previous generations. That doesn’t mean the problems are not institutional, systemic and serious. The argument from disparate impact indicates that they are all of those things.
The twin tragedies of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths are but instances of a disturbing pattern that should be morally unacceptable to all Americans. The circumstances surrounding these and similar cases demand that we include a systemic and institutional focus as we address the symptoms of racism and sexism in individuals and in groups. Adopting a zero-tolerance policy on inappropriate use of force, coupled with an expanded role for de-escalation skills, community engagement and support activities seem the minimally acceptable steps to take at the level of our local government, law enforcement and educational institutions.
I am going to start this essay by stating, emphatically, that Black Lives Matter. I acknowledge that systemic racism and sexism exist, that systemic racism and sexism harm people of color and women (in general), and I support the agenda of fixing social systems to eliminate systemic racism and sexism affecting people of color and women. I want to make that perfectly clear at the outset because I am likely to say things in this essay that will offend many people. My goal is to be honest, because I believe honesty is the essential element of any solution to the challenges of racism and sexism.
I’m sure there are people already offended, so let me address the imaginary conflict between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” right at the outset. In business, we measure programs and processes by outcomes. And here we are, nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the outcomes, frankly, suck. By every measure I can see, all the programs and processes designed to ensure equal protection of the law to people of color and women are failing. No where is that problem more severe in American society than with regard to the African-American community.
African-Americans were the only group enslaved in America, and today, in 2020, we find they are still disproportionately poor, disproportionately sick, disproportionately jailed, and disproportionately killed by law enforcement. For that reason alone, it is 100 percent appropriate to focus our efforts on making sure that every segment and every level of our society internalizes the message that Black Lives Matter. The outcomes clearly indicate we have not internalized that message, and the consequences of our failure to do so going forward will be fatal to the American republic, at least insofar as that republic is supposed to represent the fulfillment of the promise of the United States Constitution.
Some will say that the problems are all related to individual choices, and I think that is completely inconsistent with the evidence I see. I have a friend about my age who, like me, is a West Point graduate and a retired infantry officer. He went into a store in downtown Denver a few years ago and security stopped him on the way out so they could check his pockets for stolen merchandise. That has never happened to me, and I suspect it never will. He is black, and I am white. Remember Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? He was arrested on July 16, 2009 after police responded to a 911 call about an attempted burglary. Gates was just returning from a trip to China, and had enlisted the help of his cab driver when he found the front door of his house stuck. What should have been a three-minute conversation resulted in the arrest of a Harvard University professor. I can guarantee that would not have happened if Gates had been white. In these two cases, distinguished individuals with a record of making great choices were harassed unnecessarily because they were black.
Some will correctly point out that the two cases I cite in the preceding paragraph provide only anecdotal evidence for my thesis. Here’s some more anecdotal evidence: Watch the video of George Floyd being murdered by police. Watch the video of Terence Crutcher being murdered by police. Read about how Philando Castile was stopped for a broken taillight and then shot to death in the front seat of a car in which his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter were passengers. Read about the 2015 Charleston church massacre where nine African-Americans were murdered by a white supremacist during a Bible study. Read about the 2017 neo-nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. You could keep reading and watching for a long time, but at some point you should just stop and consider the statistics. What is clear is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that we have a serious race-relations problem in the United States, that the policies intended to solve that problem have failed, and that we all—regardless of our race—have both individual and collective duties to do something to fix the problem.
This essay deals with racism at the individual level. The next essay will address the society-wide dimensions of racism. That essay will address issues such as how we should deal with controversy over monuments, the issue of reparations, and practices that disproportionately harm the rights of protected classes. This essay, in contrast, addresses what racism is, our individual duty in combatting it, the concept of white privilege, and a brief discussion of the long history of racial inequality.
I begin this discussion of racism at the individual level by reminding the reader of what I have said in a previous essay about bias in general: we all have it. It’s part of how we are constructed as homo sapiens. A recent training on implicit bias cited a statistic from a Harvard University study: our brains process approximately 11 million pieces of information every second, and we can only process about 40 of those consciously. Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow is a superb overview of how our minds use models to simplify what we experience and how our models are biased by experience and evolutionary factors.
Implicit bias does not have to cause racism. We can define racism as discrimination or antagonism directed against others on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Another definition that I like is based on outcomes: racism is whatever perpetuates inequality that persists on racial lines.
Our first duty as individuals in combatting racism is to force ourselves to consciously surface and interrogate our propensities, likes and dislike to try and understand our bias. Stanford social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Ph.D., makes this point in her book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do. Forcing ourselves to be aware of our bias is especially important when making decisions that affect others.
Building systems with checks and balances helps. We are social animals—we should seek the input of others to mitigate our personal bias wherever possible. This does not mean we cannot make individual decisions. It does mean we are likely to make better decisions when we consider the perspectives of others.
Another duty in combatting racism is to confront it, peacefully and persistently, when we see it. We should all insist that the people around us show proper respect for others, in word and deed. We should never tolerate disrespectful language or conduct based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
Once, shortly after taking over management of a warehouse (and publishing my expectations for all employees), I discovered an employee had used a racial slur—directed at an Asian co-worker—on our hand-held radio network. I immediately contacted the supervisor to bring the employee to my office so I could fire him. The team arrived with the Asian co-worker as well, who insisted it was all a joke. He assured me he was not offended. I told him that the behavior was clearly against my policy, and that the behavior offended me. Then I fired the employee who had used the slur. All of us, especially when we are leaders (but even when we are not), must confront racist behavior. It is far too easy for people to rationalize bad conduct under the guise of friendship or teamwork.
In the introduction to my 2013 book Accountability Citizenship, I wrote “For both my father and myself, I see a combination of both hard work and luck as the main features of a tapestry spanning nearly one hundred years…. I am the American dream fulfilled.” If you would have asked me then what I meant by “luck,” I would have said that I was lucky to have had the parents and siblings that I have, I was lucky in my military career to have survived a few near misses, and I was lucky to have met the future CEO of the company where I would eventually go to work. If you would have then asked me what I thought about the role race played in any person’s ability to live the American dream, I would have said something about the Civil Rights Act and the progress that we have made since then. I would have concluded that racism was still a problem in some places, but, by and large, people of all races could achieve the same level of success with the same amount of hard work and luck. And I would have been wrong.
I now think that answer is incomplete, because I now believe that part of the “luck” that enabled my success was what people are now referring to as white privilege. I have rewritten that sentence a few times. I want to be absolutely clear that I do not believe any race is superior to any other race. I have never sought preferential treatment based on my race, and have always taken pride in earning my way based on my skills and merit. I would never have approved of a system that gave me an advantage because of the color of my skin, especially if that system disadvantaged others because their skin color was different. But regardless of all that, it is now clear to me that American society, in general, even in 2020, offers a multitude of advantages to white people that are not available to people of color. I have benefited from the white cultural orientation of American society. That is to say, I have benefited from white privilege.
I believe we all have a duty to work toward a society where no one is privileged based on the color of their skin. At the same time, given the failures of policies and programs designed to produce equitable outcomes for Americans of all races, I do not think we are anywhere close to a society that can function fairly without government oversight programs like Affirmative Action. In addition to the duties to combat racism mentioned earlier in this essay, it is my individual responsibility to articulate the need for such programs, to participate in the dialogue about how to make them effective, and to use my vote to support racial justice.
It is our duty to make a reasonable effort to understand diverse perspectives. We can do this by reading, through dialogue, voluntary exposure to cultural events sponsored by those with different backgrounds, and by sharing elements of our own heritage. These individual duties apply to people of every race. Even if kids are more comfortable sitting with other kids that look like them in the school cafeteria, all kids should make an effort to include people of all races in their social circles. The fact that this may be uncomfortable for some makes it even more important.
The Roots of Racial Inequality Are Much Older than the United States
Years ago, textbooks rationalized colonialism, conquest and exploitation of indigenous populations with the argument that the conquering powers brought technology and improvements to the quality of life of the conquered people. Buried in this proposition was the assumption that native peoples were somehow inferior to the conquerors, adding a racist rationale to the raw profit motive of economic exploitation. The racist notion that colonialism was a duty to lift up people of color was known as the “white man’s burden.”
The question of why technology and social organizations grew at different rates among different peoples is a reasonable line of inquiry. To paraphrase the words of UCLA Professor Jared Diamond, why did Europeans arrived to conquer the Incas rather than the Incas arriving to conquer Spain? In Guns, Germs and Steel—The Fates of Human Societies, Diamond provides an excellent description of how environmental factors shaped the speed with which civilizations emerged, developed various technologies, and projected their power on other peoples.
First, and most importantly, Diamond provides a clear rationale for why human societies developed at different speeds that debunks the racist idea that white Europeans developed faster due to inherent superiority. “In short, Europe’s colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples themselves, as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography—in particular to the continents’ different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species.” (Diamond, p. 401) Guns, Germs and Steel offers a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of these factors across all regions and peoples.
Diamond makes the case that homo sapiens moved more rapidly from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture-based societies in areas where there were higher concentrations of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication and food production. In turn, the ability to generate a surplus of food in a reliable fashion enabled the rise of cities, classes of people who could focus on something other than survival, armies, and technology. Population-dense groups living in proximity with domesticated animals suffered from new forms of communicable disease, to which many developed immunity. All together, these factors gave farming societies the ability to expand, displacing or conquering hunter-gatherer societies in their path.
Second, Diamond points out that the pattern of expansion, conquest, displacement, enslavement and brutalization of conquered peoples occurs all over the world among all the races of homo sapiens. For example, the Bantu expansion in Africa, the empires of Mesoamerica and South America, and the expansion of societies in Asia and the Pacific all ended badly for the people who were conquered and displaced. Just as being conquered does not imply intellectual inferiority, neither does it confer moral superiority. Power corrupts, it seems. Across all races, people with the power to expand, conquer and dominate their neighbors have done so.
The differentiator, according to Diamond, is the original “luck” that accrued to peoples living in areas with sufficient biodiversity to give them a head start on the path to guns, germs and steel. These peoples moved more rapidly to the stage of expansion and conquest by virtue of the geographical and ecological factors of their original homeland. Therefore, we can say that “white privilege” has its roots in a much older “Fertile Crescent privilege.” Neither privilege was ever deserved, earned, or intended by most of the people they have affected (positively or negatively).
The problem with white privilege in the United States lies primarily in areas where we can see that privilege has been leveraged, extended and caused to persist through injustice and with intention. Those of us who have remained unaware of privilege, as well as those who have passively accepted it, are also at fault. It is far past time for a comprehensive evaluation of social systems and processes to achieve justice for all.
Racism—defined as either discrimination directed against others on the basis of their race or whatever perpetuates inequality that persists on racial lines—is evil. It arises from bias. We all have bias, and we should acknowledge that fact. But bias does not become racism until we either engage in or tolerate unjust behavior. It is our duty as citizens of the United States to ensure our personal conduct neither creates nor enables racism in any form.
Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) Classics (2000-2011)
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(published June 22, 2006)
Jumpin' and Shoutin' and Carryin' On
by Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz
The morning began warm and bright. The sky was clear, with the white sun poised just above the horizon in the blue expanse, and the shafts of light made everything appear more radiant. Though the moon was still visible, it was a milky silhouette, fading. An intermittent breeze came through unsettling loose objects in the yard and troubling the Inca doves masquerading as leaves; they coo-hoo, coo-hooed each time the breeze arose.
At first the draft merely seemed to keep the morning in motion, but then it became steadier and cold, carrying with it the smell of burning in the distance. Like the billows of smoke ballooning upward, dark clouds emerged, the sun cowering behind them, and the sky turned ugly — gray and uninteresting.
Standing in his backyard, Luther turned his attention to the sky's sudden haziness. He was trying to listen, though an unexpected gust shook through the trees and the doves ascended in great haste, distracting and momentarily confusing him. He muttered a curse word, and again poised his ear toward the distance. Following some concentration, he could distinguish the sound of wood being pieced together, a refrain, and then the thunk, thunk thunk of a hammer's blow. The murmur of human voices rose above the wind. Shaking his head, Luther turned his attention back to the tub of dungarees he was angrily scrubbing. His wet hands ached as the cold breeze passed over them, making it difficult for him to wring water from the heavy denim.
He sighed, in anger and frustration; he would have to leave soon.
The change in weather would not keep them from gathering and, as a member of the Negro community, Luther knew he was expected to be there as well.
As he struggled with the tub of wet clothes, muttering to himself, Luther thought of the ancient Israelites, of the commandment of Yahweh that they celebrate their being passed over by the Angel of Death. They were to gather year after year in celebration of their history — their salvation — but Luther couldn't help but wonder if ever some, or maybe just one, ever thought or said, "We know why we're still here. I've got some other things I need to do—can't we just let this go this time?"
He laughed at the absurdity of this his thoughts, but still, along the same line, he thought: Can't I just not do somethin' I don't want to do? Isn't that what today is all about—people being free? Negroes are free; we all know that, even if it's just up there on that paper in Washington, D.C. Can't I just join y'all same time next year?
But he knew he could not, so he hastened his washing, draping the dripping clothes across the line running between two trees. He'd been up since early morning, though he'd gotten a late start, and he tried not to think of the other chores that would have to go undone, for today at least.
Luther kicked at the tub until it toppled over and the water spilled out into the yard, running backward and rushing over his boots. It would do him no good to curse again, but Luther did anyway as he headed out of the backyard and down the road.
Guessing at the time, Luther supposed the hammering was the tent going up, the burning was surely the pit being readied for the chicken and ribs to be cooked, and although his mind allowed him a taste of Miss Rose's sweet potato pie, the Seven-Up cakes made from scratch by the Lacey sisters, the peach and apple cobblers, still it was not enough to sway his mood.
The celebration was inconvenient; that was most of it, Luther thought. Why did it seem that everything that needed to get done waited till Juneteenth to start hollerin' for attention?
Still he wondered why the black folks in town continued this celebration. There was nothing different year after year; same old jumpin' and shoutin' and carryin' on, he thought. People died or moved away, but that seemed to be the only aspect that changed.
Still they gathered.
Luther plodded along the dirt road toward the clearing in the woods where the Negroes in town met for such occasions. In the distance, laughter could be heard. Joyous singing. Luther crossed his arms about him and lowered his head, thinking how he might tolerate the work to be done for the warmth of the fire. Looking up to gauge his distance, he was surprised to see two figures emerging toward him, away from the site of celebration.
Nearing them, he was further surprised to find it was Doc and one of his granddaughters.
Doc had been a minister most of his life, but he'd also studied medicine, becoming the first Negro doctor in town, his intention being (Doc would tell you if you asked and especially when you didn't) to heal body and soul. Luther remembered Doc as a solid and booming man, but a stroke had struck him down, confining him to a wheelchair and stealing away his speech.
Still Doc had his way. If there was something in the new preacher's sermon that Doc didn't agree with, for example, the old man would take his cane, the one he'd used before the stroke, and bang the tip of it against the wooden floor again and again to show his dissatisfaction.
His granddaughter, Nancy, like most Negro women Luther knew, worked as a maid in some white family's home, although he'd heard that she was studying to be a nurse.
Meeting up, Luther informed them that they were headed in the wrong direction.
"We're gatherin' that way," he said with a slight laugh, worried that his irritable disposition had somehow changed the day's events, affecting others.
Nancy smiled. "Oh, we just came from there, but we can't stay."
The young woman shook her head. Placing her hands on either of her grandfather's shoulders, she said, "He isn't feeling well today. He just wanted to make an appearance, make sure it was going to happen."
It happened every year, Luther assured her. Negroes celebratin' just like they had when old General Granger arrived in Galveston with General Order Number 3.
Luther searched his mind and spoke with quiet deliberation:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and freed laborer.
"The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness, either there or elsewhere."
Luther was surprised that the words he'd memorized as a child had come back so clear to him, so easy. The intense interest on Doc's face and Nancy's made him uncomfortable, so he made light of his knowledge, saying, "Like we'd been idle all along."
Nancy grinned and then said in a solemn tone, "Granddaddy used to know that by heart too."
Doc jabbed the dirt with his cane.
"He knows it," she said, correcting herself. She leaned her head close and pressed her cheek to her grandfather's. "You still know it; you just can't get it out no more."
They remained like that for a few moments and then Nancy straightened herself and wrapped her hands around the handles on the chair. "We'd better be going."
"Back home?" Luther asked, feeling it was a shame that Doc wasn't himself anymore. Every Juneteenth, until he had the stroke, Doc had run the whole damn show.
Nancy shook her head. "Nah, we're going down to the Ashton Villa."
Luther's eyes questioned her, although he said nothing.
Explaining, she said, "The proclamation's read there every year. Granddaddy was there in Galveston when the news first came. He'd been a slave all the five years of his life, and although he was a bit angry having to work longer than he should have, nothing made him happier than hearing that he didn't have to work no more — not for free, anyway."
Luther eyes widened. "I didn't know that about Doc." He looked down into the man's face. Doc was smiling, but Luther couldn't be sure the smile was for him.
"We go there every year," Nancy continued. "To hear that it was ended."
"Well, least in word," Luther laughed. "They be lettin' black folks over there?"
"Oh, we don't stay long . . . just long enough for the ceremony and for Granddaddy to remember. Besides, they don't bother us none. I'm sure they're used to us by now." Nancy laughed. "Though I remember one time, when me and Ida and Pearl were young and Granddaddy decided to take us with him. It must have been the first time we'd ever gone, but we sure didn't want to.
"Anyway, once there, this white man told us we needed to get, that we weren't free to be on that side of town . . . We could just feel Granddaddy bristling at that, but he just replied, 'I may not be at liberty to be on this side of town, but Sir, may I remind you that I am free to do as I damn well please.' Oh, that just made that man so mad, his nose was flaring and his face got all red. Granddaddy gathered us up right quick and we made haste to the car, Granddaddy giggling all the way, though he kept an eye in the rearview mirror 'til we got home. The next year, we begged to be taken along."
"Really now," Luther said, his mind now full of things to consider. "Well."
Nancy smiled. "You have a good time, Luther. We'll be seeing you."
Luther watched them depart before he turned and headed down a hill towards the celebration grounds.
The Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect in January 1863, but the news hadn't reached Texas until the middle of June —two and a half years later.
Freedom had arrived not too long ago, Luther thought. Not at all.
He was pondering the details he'd just learned, amazed that he knew someone who'd survived the burden of slavery. Now he understood Doc's valiant and constant cry every Sunday morning that his congregation "forget the unnecessary things in their past."
"It wasn't all bad," Luther could recall Doc saying. "Something back there got us thus far." Doc had attributed their survival to the faith and endurance of their African ancestors despite the circumstances of their lives.
"That evil called slavery had to fall, but we don't," Doc had proclaimed. "We need to grab hold of the worthwhile things they left us and move ahead!"
Luther was coming to an understanding of Doc's determination and its transcending spirit born out of that experience, and suddenly what had begun over two hundred years before didn't seem so remote, something just for some history books. Luther felt his mood shifting, buoyed by the meaning of his newfound knowledge. If there were no need for this celebration, where would he be?
Doc might not be around much longer, Luther was thinking. In his mind, he could see the man before the Ashton Villa, his former slave heart swelling with a memory. But as Luther continued on to the celebration, calling out to the crowd and waving, an image of himself began to emerge in Doc's place.
Maybe the white folks of Galveston would be bothered enough to ask what he was doing there, a lone Negro appearing every June 19 and, already, Luther could hear himself saying, "Remembering."