The American Swastika

The first time I attended an AA meeting, I was six days sober. I read the poster of the 12 Steps. I thought to myself (confidently), “Wow! I’m already on Step 10!”

It was not long before I started drinking again.

Is that really a surprise?

You see, I was not honest. I was not honest with myself or my condition at that time. I wanted to believe that I had evolved so much faster than I truly had. I wanted to believe that by simply removing alcohol from system for six days I could ignore the hard work of self-reflection and living sober that was yet come.

I also was not honest in my recovery with my sponsor, my wife, my church, or my friends. I still kept secrets. I refused to admit all my wrongdoing. There was one secret in particular that I kept. It related to the ways I was getting the necessary funds to pay for all of my alcohol. (Essentially, what I defined as “borrowing” the State of New York defined as “extorting.”)

I was unwilling to acknowledge completely that alcohol was simply one part of the problem. It ran much deeper than drinking too much.

And so, because of that, I did not stay sober for long. I found myself drinking again a short while later. Only this time, I drank more often and I drank much more. I kept telling myself it was only a phase; it wasn’t that big a deal; I could stop anytime—pretty much all of the excuses you have all heard in every movie or TV show about addiction ever.

Because I could not come clean, I became much dirtier.

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In our country, we have not yet fully come to terms with our disease of racism. So it really is no surprise that events common in 1950 and 1900 and 1860 and since the earliest days of our nation were occurring still in 2017.

One of the starkest examples of this is that we still allow the American Swastika to fly.

The fact that many people in the country are still okay with and supportive of the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy shows that we are not being honest. People try to wipe away the hateful words that were associated with not only the symbols but also the very existence of the Confederacy.

We must be honest. We must be honest that the Articles of Confederacy stated that non-white people were inferior. We must be honest that at the heart of the Civil War was the desire to have the right to buy and sell human beings. We must be honest that the symbols that have gone up across the country did not go up right after the war; they were erected in 1900 with the proliferation of Jim Crow. They were erected in 1950 as a protest against the Civil Rights movement. These monuments were not intended as a way to preserve history, they were intended to intimidate and remind people they should stay in their place. We have tried to keep our racism and racist meanings behind our symbols a secret for too long.

The American Swastika still flies because, as a country, we have been unwilling to admit our wrongdoing.

bree_newsome_by_venneccablind-d8z707h

And so, because of that, we will continue to face events like we experienced this past weekend. We will never recover from the disease and addiction of racism for long until we finally decide to embark upon the self-reflection that is necessary for growth. We need to acknowledge that events like this past weekend are only one part of the problem. The true problem runs much deeper.

Until we come clean, we will continue to get dirtier.

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We all must acknowledge our wrongdoing—both in our actions and in our inaction; in our words and our silence. We must learn to listen. We must learn to face hard truths. We must give up holding on to only what we want, what we like, and what we are comfortable with. We must seek to journey to a place of recovery.

And that will come only with hard work. But that’s better than walking along blindly until another tragedy occurs.

 

*Artwork from https://venneccablind.deviantart.com/art/Bree-Newsome-542842829

Things Have Not Gotten Worse, We Just Started Paying Attention

Back in the mid-90s, I attended a conservative Christian college in west Texas. When I arrived as a freshman, I felt like I had a pretty solid grasp on just about everything. You know, the typical 18 year old. During my sophomore year, I started attending a predominantly African-American church.

It was a great experience. It was the first time I worshiped in a context different from the one in which I grew up. It was a time of learning and growth for me. I learned as much about preaching from the minister there as I did in all my classes at the college I was attending.

One lesson I struggled to learn, however, was that being a black person in west Texas was a totally different experience than being a white man in west Texas. (For that matter, the experience was different in most, or all, areas of the country.) I even went so far as to tell my friend, the preacher, that he was wrong. I told him he was imagining things. I told him racism no longer existed and he needed to get over it.

I was convinced that I was doing him a favor enlightening him on how much better his life would be if he would just get over it.

And then it happened.

I was shopping with him in the college bookstore one day. In addition to being a local preacher, he was also a full-time staff member at the university—Spiritual Activities Director. At a college that had daily chapel, he was in charge of coordinating that chapel. He was on stage and in front of the entire university a lot. And as we walked around the campus store, he was followed by an employee. (Poorly, I might add.)

A full-time staff member, a local preacher, a man dressed in slacks and button-down shirt, was followed. You know, just in case he was going to steal a pack of pencils.

That event bothered me. It opened my eyes in a way that was painful. But my education would not end there. Later that year, our college had the opportunity to host a national youth event on campus. The event was attended primarily by African-American high school students from across the country. There were going to be 1000 high school students on a college campus. Huge score for the recruiting department, right?

The Director of Admissions at that time wrote a letter to the Dean of Students. In that letter, he used the sentence, “I know we want to have large groups of students on our campus, but are these the kind of students we want?” The Dean had an appropriate response: he wrote several comments in pencil and sent it back to the admissions office.

Two events separated by only a few months. They both made something abundantly clear: as much as I wished it wasn’t true, racism and prejudice were still alive and well within my church and my country.

Now, those events did not make that true. But they opened my eyes. In other words, race relations did not get worse that year. I just started paying attention.*

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I remember a story when a black man was pulled out of his car by the police and severely beaten by four officers while others watched. Even though the event was videotaped, none of the four officers was convicted in criminal court. The event led to a number of riots across the country. It even led to a response condemning the police officers’ actions from the President.

Ferguson 2014? No. Los Angeles 1991. Almost 25 years ago.

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When I went to high school, our football team was good. We won the state championship my junior year. My senior year, we made it to the state championship game again. Things didn’t go so well. I believe the final score was 35-0. I remember the 0 that we scored. The other team may have had more. Our quarterback, a black classmate of mine, was all the rage in the town while we were winning. When he was pulled out of the game in the 4th quarter, the townsfolk sitting in the stands changed their tune from “hometown hero” to “worthless n—-r.”

2015? No. 1993.

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Racial tension is not higher now than it was before.

My college roommate, an African-American, didn’t become afraid to drive through Louisiana and Mississippi in the past year.

Parents of black children didn’t all of a sudden become nervous about how their children would be treated in the past 12 months.

The reason you think things are worse now is you are being forced to pay attention. Last year, Walter Scott would not have been a story. The police officer who shot him in the back and planted evidence on him in order to fabricate a story would have gotten away with it.

Last year, Sandra Bland likely would not have made the news cycle. She would have been portrayed as a belligerent black woman who ended up committing suicide. Most people would not have cared.

Still, it is true that many people do not care. But thanks to increased cell phone videotaping, livestreaming, social media storms, and just sheer tenacity, people are getting the message out more. People of color are no more oppressed now than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But more people are finally listening.

And it is about time.

Because people of color are also no less oppressed now that they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

You might be uncomfortable. You might want to blame President Obama. You may want to throw around the term “race-baiter” and confirm that you don’t really know what that word means.

But we cannot deny this truth: race relations are not worse in 2015 than they were in 2005. Or 1995. Or 1985. We are just finally talking about it more. We are using social media more. We are utilizing the technology at our fingertips more. Those things we wanted to ignore before are now put in front of us on an almost daily basis.

And we need to stop ignoring it or simply wishing it away. We have to pay attention. Whether we want to or not.

And you have to choose how you will respond.

I respond by saying Black Lives Matter. I respond by working to fight against unjust societal structures. I respond by acknowledging my privilege and looking for ways to leverage it to help others. I respond by listening to people who have had a different experience than me. I respond by acknowledging that advances that have been made in civil rights and race relations, while commendable, have not yet gone far enough. I respond by seeking to have uncomfortable conversations with people I may disagree with in order to create stronger relationships and build better communities.

It’s uncomfortable. But it’s necessary. Problems exist. They don’t go away by ignoring them. We’ve got work to do.

 

*I believe it is important to note that since the time of this story, the college I attended has done a lot to address their past sins of racial discrimination. There is still a ways to go, but they are making honest attempts to move forward.

The Charleston Murderer Is A Terrorist, But He Is Not The Problem

In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, I was taught that alcohol was not my problem. It was a symptom of my problem. The true problem ran much deeper than the substance I poured into my body.

A young man walked into one of the most historically significant African-American churches in the South, opened fire, and took the lives of 9 people. Not only are the lives of the families of those 9 people forever altered, an entire community now mourns, and a nation is brought face to face again with the reality of racism in our midst.

But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is hate. In a state that still flies a flag that is a symbol of hatred, division, and white supremacy people are actually asking where this young man could have learned to hate black people the way he does.

It is not enough to think we can just ignore our differences and our nation’s history and the result will be our children growing up to be loving and accepting. We must teach love. We must teach appreciation of one another’s cultural differences. We must be examples of this in the ways we speak and the ways we act. We must set the example in speaking against injustice of any kind. Until we actively teach love and appreciation of our differences, we will face these issues over and over.

The problem is maintenance of the status quo. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t want anyone to rock the boat. We want to believe that things are okay. Or at the very least that they are better than 50 years ago. We want to believe that if we don’t talk about the problems that exist we can pretend they don’t exist.

The problem is too many white people have allowed the status quo to go unchallenged.

The problem is too many of you are upset with me saying “white people” in my last statement than with the truth of that statement.

As Christians (especially white Christians), we are often unwilling to talk about racism from the pulpit because we are afraid it will make us uncomfortable when we mess with the status quo at church. But nine people had their lives taken from them while they were at church. It’s okay for us to get a little uncomfortable.

“The way things used to be” or “the way things are” is not good enough. The status quo lulls us into a false sense of security. We think we are balanced. But that balance comes at the expense of recognizing those for whom balance is little more than a fantasy. We must wake up to the problems that exist around us. We must acknowledge our role, either explicit or implicit. We must make changes. The simplest way to begin that is build relationships with people who have different experiences than we do. And it must be intentional.

The problem is trying to make excuses instead of facing what the real problem is. Media sources came out yesterday trying to proclaim that this was a religious issue, not a racial one. Many pundits said we would never know what the motive truly was behind what he did. Many people took to social media to say this was not about race and we should quit making everything about race and we are race-baiters for saying this was a racist attack.

Do you know who made this a racial issue? The shooter did. Him and only him. He made this a racial issue when he chose the place he chose; when chose the victims he chose; when he spoke the words he chose: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

When we refuse acknowledge the real problem we alienate ourselves from those who are truly victims. Racism is still alive and well in our country and when we try to sweep it under the rug or give it a different name or turn a blind eye to it we are telling people of color that we truly don’t care about them or their experiences.

When we acknowledge that racism exists, we can do something about it. When we confront the structures and systems that are infected with the disease of institutional racism we can begin to effect change.

But we cannot change anything until we point to it and say, “This can stand no longer.”

The shooter perpetrated a horrific evil earlier this week. But he is not the problem. The problem runs much deeper.

The problem is the system that allowed him to grow into that hate and the individuals who turned a blind eye and a deaf ear because they thought everything was “good enough.”

Let us work on the real problem.

Can We Actually Learn Anything From McKinney

My youngest son wants to grow up and become a police officer. In fact, the local police chief was willing to sit down with him one day recently and have a conversation about his career goal.

I attend church with and enjoy spending time with several officers on the police force. I have even had email conversations about topics on which we disagree with a couple of them. I look forward to having even more.

I truly feel for the officers who were terrified by the events that occurred in Dallas last night.

But I still think we have a lot to talk about concerning the state of policing in America.

Calling for police reform does not make one an enemy of police.

Saying that police violence is a problem does not mean one hates the police.

Seeking a better system does not mean one does not care when a police officer is hurt, or killed, in the line of duty.

We still need to have some difficult, uncomfortable conversations.

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What we saw on the video from McKinney, TX, this week was awful. There is no way around it: the situation devolved into a mess and one person in particular was caught on tape treating children in a way no child should be treated.

After the video of Officer Casebolt went viral, he was called out by his own chief.

“Conley emphasized that 11 out of 12 officers on scene ‘performed according to their training.’ He decried those who violated community rules and disrespected authorities during the incident, but also made clear that Casebolt, as a police officer, is held to a higher standard.” Conley also used the terms “indefensible” and “out of control” to describe Casebolt’s actions.

This statement from a highly ranked police officer highlights both positives and negatives.

First, the negative.

Twelve officers responding to teenagers at a pool party? Specifically, black teenagers at a pool party in a mostly white neighborhood?

There is a suspicion of black bodies in our country; especially when they are somewhere “they don’t belong.” This is a difficult concept for many white people to grasp. This is also a difficult concept for white people to hear. But when teenagers in swim suits necessitate 12 police officers, it is legitimate to question the response.

When the child in the video is referred to as “the black girl” or “the girl with the braids” instead of by her name, DaJerria Becton, it is legitimate to think that black bodies are dehumanized.

Have you ever seriously considered why minorities feel targeted by the police? Or have you essentially dismissed their argument with phrases like “Most police officers are good,” or “It’s not the 50s anymore.”? Have you ever delved into the dark history of the treatment of minorities in our country?

Have you ever sat and listened to a POC talk about their experience?

This altercation began when an adult slapped a teenager and then told the group to go back to their Section 8 housing. Our words reveal a lot about what we believe. They also reveal why minority groups feel threatened, excluded, and unwelcome.

When the voices of white, teenaged witnesses are silenced and the voices of white adults who were not present are given airtime, it is another indication that some people are trying to propagate a story they know isn’t true.

This is also revealed when people continue to rush to the defense of a police officer whose actions were deemed indefensible by his own chief. The person in charge said his officer was out of control. Yet still people are standing up justifying his behavior.

Because too many of us don’t want to believe that people we look up to can and do make mistakes. And some professionals must be held to a much higher standard. Body slamming unarmed teenagers in swimsuits is not acceptable.

But there is also a positive.

A police chief called out one of the bad apples. We hear often that those who do bad things are few and far between, and maybe that is true, but when police departments, FOPs, and city officials refuse to call out the bad ones, it appears they are condoning or covering up bad behavior.

The more people in authority stand up and say, “This is unacceptable behavior,” the more trust will grow.

Likewise, we should want to see more videos of other police officers standing in to try and calm down an out of control colleague. If the “bad apples” truly are few and far between, then let us work together to remove them.

Another positive is the fact that the young people present were willing to speak out and tell the truth about what they saw. When teenagers are willing to stand up for truth and justice, we can begin to feel better about the direction our country is headed.

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These are the beginnings of the conversations we need to have. I live in a community that does not have many of the issues between police and community that are present in so many towns and cities across the country. But that does not mean everything is perfect. There are still conversations to be had. Thankfully, our police chief is (usually) willing to have those conversations.

If we want to see relationships improve, we need to actually build relationships. Talk to each other, not past each other. Community forums, cups of coffee, times for people to admit mistakes made. Transparency from civic officials. Work on the local level.

What many people in the dominant culture (yes, meaning white people) fail to understand is that most protestors are not against the police. They are against the overuse of violence by police in disproportionate numbers towards minorities. If we want to being building and improving relationships in our communities, let’s start by acknowledging that. Let’s listen to the experience of those who feel targeted without telling them they are wrong. From those conversations, growth can begin.

Also, we need to dig deeper than community-police relationships. While those are important to build and nurture, there are systemic issues that create much of the tension. There are many unjust laws and systems that create and maintain poverty and discrimination. We must fight to eradicate these. Do you know how difficult it is to find a job or rent an apartment or get an ID or set up a doctor’s appointment when you are poor? Especially when that poverty has been generational and no one has been present to teach you how to navigate the system?

Learn what it is like for people in lower socio-economic classes to do the things you take for granted.

We must ask why so many churches are silent on issues of social justice. Church, we need to stop being afraid to say things that are deemed political; many issues are not truly political, although they have been politicized. We must still speak truth and justice into those issues. We must not only be preaching and calling for justice from the pulpit, we must be in our neighborhoods-daily-seeking ways to help heal the hurt that exists.

One way to do this? Walk the streets of your neighborhood. Pray for each house and each person living in that house. Knock on the door and ask two simple questions: “Can we pray for you?” “Can we do anything around your house to help you?” Don’t evangelize. Just serve. Build relationships.

We need to have many difficult conversations.

Let’s start talking.

We Shall Overcome: Reflections on MLK Day 2015

Yesterday was an amazing day.

I read a lot.

I marched with a large group of people.

I attended a gathering calling for nonviolent police responses to crime.

I dined at a banquet with over 600 people in attendance.

All to honor the memory of a man whose impact has already spanned 50 years, and will likely span hundreds more.

Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up against the evils of racism and prejudice. He fought against societal structures that enabled poverty. He fought against war. So much of our civil rights advances over the past 50 years can be attributed to his work, the SCLC, and those who worked with him.

Yet what struck me yesterday is how much we have tamed his message. We don’t often quote, “There aren’t enough white persons in our country who are willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege.” We sometimes gloss over the fact that he broke the same laws the Ferguson protesters are breaking nationwide. We often forget that his nonviolent philosophy was not about African-Americans passively waiting until white people got their act together, but was an intentional, direct-action approach that called people’s attention to the injustices that existed. It seems to me that we forget how radical he was. It seems we also forget how violent the institutional response was.*

But there was something else that had an even greater impact on me. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.

At the end of the banquet the keynote speaker—himself a man who had faced hatred, racism, and segregation in its worst forms in the 50s and 60s—had all of us stand, join hands, and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Of the 600 in attendance, there appeared to be close to 100 who sang that song in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Listening to their voices blend with the voices of younger generations moved me in a way beyond words.

“We shall overcome.

Oh, deep in my heart,

I do believe:

We shall overcome. Someday.”

So simple yet so profound.

And to join in with people who lived through an era that tried to take everything away from them taught me some valuable lessons:

No matter how much a people group is oppressed, there is a strength that cannot be quashed. I continue to be amazed by the stories of people who were maced, beaten, chased with dogs, tear-gassed and then arrested. I continue to be amazed that those same things happen in 2015. Yet still people stand. Still they rise. And I am so amazed.

People who have never known better do not need to accept things the way they are. Our country was built on the foundation of slavery. African-Americans were brought to this country and treated worse than cattle to work on the land that was taken from the indigenous peoples. For 300 years they were enslaved. For 100 years after slavery, they were segregated and treated as second class citizens. Yet they refused to accept that was who they were. They believed they were children created in God’s image and they fought to be recognized as such. That indomitable spirit is nothing less than inspiring.

Oppressed groups are not the only ones who need to overcome. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail is hard on white Christians, especially clergy. Because they were just hoping things would get better without having to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately, that attitude has been passed down in too many church traditions. We must overcome our silence, our apathy, our inaction.

So as I listened to the crowd sing “We Shall Overcome,” I thought about how different things must be from 50 years ago, but how different they need to be 50 years from now. I thought about the example of the people who sang that song 50 years ago and their encouragement to a new generation to pass that message along.

I thought about that word “We.” I thought about how grateful I was to be included in last night’s gathering. I thought about how things could change if we realized we were all in this together; if we would all listen and not discount other people’s experiences.

And then I smiled. Because we shall overcome. One day.