Conflict Builds Character: A Family Conversation About Race

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My own family situation was unique. As many good Mennonites do, my aunts and uncles, like my grandmother, adopted and there was no child left behind. Of course what this meant is there was some additional shades of color at family reunions and it had always seemed like this wonderful idyllic thing. And it certainly did help in the regard that it gave some children the privilege of a stable home and also likely helped us other cousins to humanize those of different color from our own.

But with this also came a negative side. Believe it or not, good little Mennonite children can also be vicious racists, being of a different skin color did indeed make that a focal point of conflict and I wonder how many seeds were planted then that fed insecurities that we all deal with and yet would be felt especially acutely by those adopted? My own feelings of not belonging did not have that one focal point, that specific thing that could be identified as a source, and yet I was still the “black sheep” regardless.

Still, I had the opportunity to talk to another self-identified “black sheep” of his family, my cousin Isaac, who like me, had a foot in two different cultures. He would spend most of the year with his white family in rural Pennsylvania, his parents my first cousins, and would also spend time with his black family in the inner-city of Philadelphia during the summer. Of course this gives him a very unique perspective on racial issues and definitely a voice worth listening to. So, when we started to argue about recent events, both of us talking past each other, he called and this is the result.

My Voice Doesn’t Matter

Taking a step back, Isaac and I are a different generation. I’ve been struggling, over the past few years, with feelings of betrayal for having embraced the ideal of racial equality and all that nonsense (which isn’t actually nonsense) about judging each other by the content of character rather than the color of their skin. Racism always seemed silly to me. What did it really matter what skin a person wore so long as they treated me decently, right? And that’s just how I would assume that most rational and sane people think. Unfortunately things are more complicated than that and that is what is creating conflict across this great nation.

My grievance started years ago, with something that I witnessed over and over again and maybe is best captured in a story from my school years when a mother, black, got on to the bus and screamed in the face of our bus driver, calling him “racist” and “redneck,” nasty things. Why? Well, he had had the audacity to apply the same standard, established for the safety of her children as much as all of us, but apparently the only thing she could see was that this white man (now beet red) was somehow mistreating her perfect darling angels for trying to impose a little order. The rest of us sat in stunned silence, the poor farmer working for a pittance was not a sophisticated man nor equipped for this kind of conflict nor were the rest of us.

That was one of many similar incidents where us polite people had to simply keep our mouths shut as some other folks got a free pass for their misbehavior. Polite culture means we avoided causing a scene, that we look the other way when the impolite people fight and basically do whatever it takes to avoid conflict. Conflict over the slightest perceived insult was the realm of bullies and other insecure people. We did not wish to be browbeat and berated ourselves. Our own grievances with this mistreatment would be mocked and belittled anyways, so we kept our heads low and did whatever it took to accommodate those less polite.

A few years, during the Obama presidency, many took issue with the massive expansion of government called by the misnomer Affordable Care Act. Of course, as a consistent fiscal conservative and one keenly aware of the costs, along with unintended consequences, of expanded government power, I was opposed. Many Americans did peacefully protest and yet, almost immediately, they were branded as racist by the media. I was appalled. But at least a black friend, a progressive, with a good education, would treat my own concerns as valid, right? It ended up being one of the most disappointing conversation of my life. A man, who already intimidated me for his advantages, dismissed my points with personal insults.

It was in that conversation and several others, after Obama’s call for dialogue about race, that I found out my own voice and experience didn’t matter in this ‘conversation’ about race. If I did not accept everything on their terms then I wasn’t understanding or lacked in empathy, which is absurd and definitely not terms that I would ever agree with in any other discussion. Nevertheless, it was what was, my skin color automatically disqualified my opinion, my attempts at consistently applied principles didn’t apply to their grievance, and I’ve always left feeling unheard. That’s the experience for many who don’t go 100% along with the protest narrative. Our voice didn’t matter.

A Time When Silence Is No Longer An Option

Over the past few years I’ve become a professional (yet hopefully harmless) agitator. After years of being a polite person or at least trying, wanting to go along with the Mennonite program, and finally it had just become too much. I had been told I was respected, affirmed in many ways, followed the rules, mostly, or to the best of my abilities and felt the other side of this social contract wasn’t holding up their own end of the commitment. My grievance had become too much to bear any longer and thus began my blogging here. It eventually boiled over and led me to leave my Mennonite tribal identity behind or at least to the extent that is possible.

But this emancipation was not complete. There was one topic, given past experience and potential loss of friends, that I avoided as much as possible. The politics of race, meaning the discussion of things related to measuring out justice and governance, is a third rail for those who wish to think outside of the established and acceptable narrative. As oppressed as some claim to be, the oppressed sure do dominate conversation, they have governors breaking their own shutdown orders to march, celebrities speaking out in solidarity and big corporations affirming their message without any word about the accompanying violence. If only I could be so oppressed.

It was with cities burning, small owners being beaten for defending their livelihoods, with my polite friends seeing “animals” and a growing number people dying in the violence, that I decided to take off my own filter and say enough is enough!

Everyone up to President Trump himself had acknowledged the injustice of George Floyd’s death. We had an opportunity for solidarity against police brutality, the officer was charged, and yet, after what seemed like a full validation of the concern, the protests only picked up steam. I might be a polite person, who avoids conflict when possible, but I don’t want to be beaten to death on account of my skin color more than anyone else and certainly was not going to wait untill the violence had reach my own doorstep to speak out. No, nobody asked me to mediate or broker a conversation. I knew that those on the ‘other side’ would likely tune me out, maybe even unfriend or unfollow me, and started my own form of protest.

The racially divisive narrative was a lie. Police brutality is a problem. The death of George Floyd is, by all appearances, an injustice. I have no problem with those who, on their own time and dime, without violating the rights of others, wish to protest. I know well the reality of racism, both historically and in the current year. And yet to frame everything of what happened in Minnesota in terms of race simply ignores reality and this sort of assumption about what happened will lead to anything but justice. If we were allowed to have an intelligent discussion on matters of race, if I had a partner in that discussion willing to see another perspective, I could explain.

The Call

Anyhow, it was in the midst of speaking out that someone with connection to me since childhood decided to speak back. That being my cousin Isaac. And it went predictably, online, as one would expect, I was “missing the point” and this first round came to a stalemate, with us moral posturing and might have ended there had Isaac not reached out with a phone call. It didn’t feel, at the end of an hour or so, that we agreed on too much. We had our times of animation, talking over each other, and emotion. But the reality is that we accomplished far more in our willingness to engage and so I did want to summarize a little of what I saw as significant, what I heard, where we agreed and where as diverged.

1) Not About George Floyd

The one thing that Issac and I seemed to agree on is that that this was not about only the death of George Floyd. In his view, this is about racial unjustice and draws upon his own experience of finding out what it means to be black as a teenager. He spoke of the fear that black (presumably men in particular) have in their encounters with police, the profiling he suspects when entering into white communities and some of the racist language he has encountered.

The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, that being his violent criminal record, his being on drugs and passing forged currency were inconsequential in his opinion. And I agree that this doesn’t make any difference as far as the guilt or innocent of Derek Chauven and the other officers. But where I diverge from Isaac is where he claims this death makes him equally vulnerable, as a black man, whereas I believe that criminal behavior and repeat negative encounters with law enforcement are going to dramatically increase the chances of dying at the hands of police.

So we agreed that it is not about George Floyd. But I see the only reason that we are talking about this case, as a nation, is because of Floyd is black and not because of the injustice.

2) Black Lives Is Not About Black Lives, But All Lives?

Isaac took issue with me saying that this was all about black tribal identity and racial solidarity, but was actually about police brutality and justice for all people. But, while saying this, he also defended the “Black Lives Matter” description and claimed it was a movement to respect all lives.

However, if this were truly the case, I postulated, why do we only have protests, riots and looting when it is a black man involved?

Why didn’t millions of Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets and demand instantaneous prosecution of the black officer, Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed 40-year-old white woman in July of 2017?

Why did I never hear about the final desperate calls of a young man named Tony Timpa? “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!”

Timpa cried out thirty times, as officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck down, and joked over his body as he slipped away in 2017? Why no outrage over the officers only being charged with misdemeanors and then having those charges dropped?

Could it be because Timpa was white?

And, finally, why did it not matter when Daniel Shaver, a 26 year old man on a business trip, in 2016, was shot five times, while crawling in compliance with police demands and having committed no crime?

His killer was acquitted, even briefly reinstated as a police officer just so he could receive a pension and nothing burned. Nobody said much of anything.

Why?

I know what my own answers to that series of questions is. My answer is that these deaths did not fit a racially divisive narrative. If this were truly about making all lives matter and police brutality, then these three cases would be an excellent opportunity to bring many people into the fold. No, that doesn’t mean that Isaac is insincere, not at all, but I do think the “Black Lives Matter” moniker is alienating and, frankly, insulting to those of us who have spent our lives treating everyone of all colors and creeds as if their lives mattered.

So, my point is if this truly is about police reforms, not racial tribalism or divisive political posturing, why not find descriptive language that matches that intention? Why not “All Male Lives Matter,” since most who are killed by police happen to be men, mostly white men, not women? Or maybe “Police Brutality Must Stop,” a title that would describe the actual mission if it is about change and reform of police violence? The point is that words also matter and I would much sooner jump on board a movement that didn’t falsely present the issue.

Isaac would likely disagree with everything I just said, that’s his right.

3) Isaac Wants Change, I Do Too

The real crux of the matter comes down to a difference of perspective. Isaac (who has friends who are in law enforcement) sees a “broken criminal justice system” and wants a change. I agree that there needs to be improvement, but also that there’s an elephant in the room not often talked about and that being that we aren’t actually being honest in our discussion about race or getting to those things that lead to more violent encounters with police. And that’s not blame-shifting, we can both hold police officers accountable and also get to some of those root issues shaping black outcomes as well, but there first needs to be some acknowledgement of that difference.

As things currently stand, polite people are forbidden to talk about things like black on black crime, we are not supposed to notice when public officials, journalists and activists downplay the ongoing murder and mayhem in the name of justice. We are not supposed to believe our own eyes when we see people, many of them black, with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Sure this may be a small minority, but let’s not pretend that this is only a few “white supremacist” infiltrators. It is time to stop this racism of lower expectations and have zero tolerance for using one injustice to excuse another. Again, that would restore some credibility and help accomplish the stated goals of the protests.

And we need to talk about this double standard. The polite people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens and silenced based on their skin color. They are tired of being villainized or ridiculed for their peaceful protests of other forms of government oppression, equated to terrorists, when actual terrorism is being ignored and criminals lionized. We need to talk about this because even polite people won’t respect those who do respect them. If the goal is to eventually achieve equality (which is my own hope) then the pandering and patronizing must end. To achieve the change we need to be the change and to be the change we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.

Ironically, I believe some of the reason why many white people tune out is because they don’t feel heard themselves. Many, like me, feel unappreciated in a system that expects them to be polite people and then celebrates when their minority counterparts act out. It’s almost as if the minstrel shows have etched in this expectation that the black folk are supposed to sing, dance and keep us entertained, riot occasionally, that black people are unable to control themselves or their emotions and thus can be exempted if they are more aggressive, etc. But this is utter nonsense, there are many sober and serious black people, many emotional and expressive white people.

I do agree with Isaac, we should not hold police to a different standard than anyone else, they must be held accountable for their actions like anybody else, and I support the push for reforms. Where we seem to diverge the most is our perception of what’s important to consider. He would prefer a more narrow focus, on the problem of police brutality, where I am more interested in doing more to address the cultural issues that lead to negative outcomes and would improve the image of black men in particular.

4) I Want Appreciation, And As An Individual

It is not fair that Isaac, as intelligent and well-rounded as an individual that he is, gets lumped in with the crimes of any other black man or is even the defined in any way by his skin color. Likewise, I don’t want to be judged or held personally accountable for sins I’ve never committed as some are trying to do. It is absolutely absurd to me that some white people are out literally kissing the boots of black men. Please stop this insanity! Let’s just all learn to appreciate each others as equally individuals, okay? Fight prejudice in all forms.

I would also rather we start from a position of appreciation for the criminal justice system that we do have. It is far from perfect and yet I know first hand what happens where it doesn’t exist. The killers of uncle Roland, in the Philippines, despite many leads, have not been brought to justice and that’s simply because there’s not the law enforcement resources to bring to bear. It is extremely easy to criticize any system and yet we should also study what is working and why as well. The key to fixing or improving any system is having an intimate knowledge of how it works or why it was designed in a particular way.

I think that’s where Isaac and I differ the most, and also why we must talk, he wants change while I’m geared for caution and constraint. He protests for justice, now, immediately and on his own terms, while I ruminate about foundational principles and think about past incidents of mob rule. Neither of us are right or wrong in our approach. I understand his orientation towards action. He probably gets more done while I brood and ponder philosophies. We make perfect sparing partners. He knows enough about me to keep me honest and I know enough about him to do the same.

I appreciate that Isaac, while passionate, did not attempt to pigeonhole and treated me with respect, like an equal. As Scripture says, “iron sharpens iron” and I felt quite evenly matched. It was definitely a conflict, yet I never felt threatened, as I have in other similar attempts at honest dialogue and efforts to bring the racial divide. We ended up expressing our love for each other, something that I don’t think we’ve even done before given there is a whole multitude of cousins on my dad’s side, and the whole experience was cathartic for someone like me who cares deeply and often feels helpless to change anything given the complexity of everything.

It also inspired me to write this and help get our combined perspectives (albeit obviously biased towards my own perspective) out there for your consideration. But the more important take away is that we not ignore uncomfortable topics, that we not shout each other down rather than hear, that we engage in there types of true conversations, with two sides given, and find our common ground. I feel strongly that God brought Isaac and I together for a reason and the reason is to be that bridge between people. But Isaac deserves most of the credit, he didn’t fire shots and run, he was willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.