Has the backlash begun? Is there a connection between the flag and recent church burnings?

The speed with which Southern political and economic elites have rushed to abandon the confederate flying on or near public buildings has shocked many of us who are familiar with the ways those same elites have pandered to white fear and racism over the decades. As welcome as the removal of the flag is, it is only another step on the long road to rooting out racism throughout the US. And I think that one reason it is so popular right now is that it’s a way for Northerners to once again feel their smug superiority over the South.  I’m only somewhat surprised that legislatures and city councils in northern states haven’t passed resolutions demanding its removal in the South.

At the same time, we can expect a powerful backlash, and not just from the conservative media machine (although with today’s ruling on the ACA, their attention and outrage may change its focus). But that’s not where the real backlash is taking place. I suspect that in diners, bars, and on talk radio throughout rural America, white Americans are voicing their anger and outrage as confederate flags come down. No doubt, some of that outrage will be acted out.

Is it just coincidence that a church fire in Charlotte, NC this week was labeled arson, and that a church fire in Macon, GA is suspected arson, all other causes having been ruled out?

We Are Perishing: A Sermon for the Sunday after the #CharlestonMassacre (Proper 7, Year B)

 

They were gathered in a safe place, meeting as they had many times before, perhaps countless times, for a bible study. They had come together to study what was probably for most of them, a familiar text. The passage was Mark 4:16-20, just a few verses before the Gospel reading we just heard. They were in a familiar place among people they loved. They were joined this night by a stranger, a newcomer. They welcomed him in and for an hour he sat and listened. At the end of the hour, he shot nine of them dead. Emanuel AME Church was a safe place, a sanctuary no longer.

But then, throughout its history, it had never been a sanctuary The history of the AME church began when African-Americans left the Methodist church because of their treatment by whites. Emanuel Church had been burned down in 1822, after one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was implicated in a slave rebellion plot.  After being rebuilt, was closed in 1834 when Charleston banned African-American church services. In 1865, after the end of the Civil War, Emanuel was re-founded. In the 1960s, it became a center of the Civil Rights movement.

The church is not a sanctuary; it’s not a safe place. After hearing of the shootings, I emailed the pastor of a local AME congregation to offer my support, sympathy, and prayers. As I tried to craft the few sentences, I imagined the fear he and members of his congregation will experience the next time they gather for bible study.

For African-Americans, there is no sanctuary, no safe place. Among the many things I’ve read since the Charleston massacre were words written by newly-ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church Broderick Greer who wrote,

black people can’t walk to a convenience store, ask for assistance after a car accident, play with a toy gun or study the Bible without the looming reality of the violent white gaze.

I didn’t want to write this sermon. It seems like all I’ve been thinking about, talking about, preaching about for the last months has been racism. Racism has been in the news across the country and in our city and I know most of us would like to turn our attention elsewhere, to take our gaze off the ugly side of American history and society, to put our original sin of racism back in the furthest corners of our hearts and minds, where it’s always lurked.

But we can’t because events like the Charleston Massacre bring it back to light, bring our sin and guilt back to our consciousness and demand we pay attention, demand we address it. We’re gathered here this morning in this place, at an hour that Dr. King called the most segregated hour in American, an hour when Christians across the country are gathered for worship, an hour where, even in Charleston, at Emanuel AME Church, members of that congregation have gathered with the wounds and grief still raw, gathered to worship God, to ask why.

We seek God’s will moving forward, we strive to be the body of Christ, in this place and across the country. But Christ’s body was broken on the cross, as bodies, black bodies have been broken for four hundred years in this country, broken by the chains and whips of slavery, broken by the nooses of lynchings, the hatred and oppression of Jim Crow, and the ongoing racism of White America. The body of Christ is broken in America, broken by us, by our racism, violence, complacency, and privilege.

On this day, in this context, we may cry with Jesus’ disciples, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” This rich, familiar story of Jesus calming the storm from Mark’s gospel speaks to us in our painful situation. Mark’s brief story is full of important detail and symbolism, not least in the very way he places it in his larger narrative. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd, telling them parables. In Mark, this is Jesus’ only extensive use of parables. The crowd listening was so large that Jesus taught from a boat in the lake. Now at the end of the day, Jesus tells his disciples to cast off and cross the lake. It’s odd, really, if you think about it, that they would undertake this lake crossing in the evening. They are crossing what could easily became a dangerous lake, and they will come into foreign, unknown territory on the other side, Gentile territory, where they will encounter a man possessed with demons.

Jesus decides to take a nap in the stern, while the disciples, presumably, do the hard work of rowing or sailing the boat. A storm comes up. One of the things that strikes me in Mark’s version of this story is how he depicts Jesus—sleeping on a cushion in the midst of a mighty storm. Mark presents us with an image of Jesus at ease, comfortable, resting, while all around him is struggle, noise, and tumult. Jesus sleeps while the boat is being swamped by the waves. Only then, as all looks lost, do the disciples come and wake him, asking him the question, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Awakened, Jesus says simply, “Peace be still.” And as dead calm comes upon the lake, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is the first mention of the disciples’ fear in the story and it invites us to wonder whether their fear was caused by the storm, or by the fact that Jesus calmed it. Their final question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

Was it the storm that caused their fear, or was it that Jesus brought the storm to an end? Which power is more frightening, more awesome, the power of a storm or the power of the one who can calm the storm?

Our tendency is to focus on the miraculous in this story, on Jesus’ power to calm a storm. On one level, it’s a story like other miracle stories in Mark’s gospel. Indeed, the word Mark uses for Jesus’ actions in calming the storm—he rebuked it—is the very same word Mark used of Jesus in the very first miracle story he records, when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from a man in chapter 1.

While we’re tempted to focus on the power displayed in these miracles, seeing them as evidence of Jesus’ divine nature and identity, Mark uses them for a rather different purpose. This story ends with the question, “Who is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” Even after this display of Jesus’ power, the disciples are uncertain of Jesus’ identity.

In fact, it’s interesting that the word “disciple” is used only once in this story, at the very beginning, in Jesus’ instructions to them to go to the other side. They’re in the boat with him, but it’s not at all apparent that they really know who he is, or who they are in relation to him—the only clue is that they call him “Teacher” (In Matthew’s version of the same story, they address him as “Lord.”)

And here, I think, is where we can find help for us in our situation. Look at those disciples in the boat. We look to our faith, our relationship with Jesus, the church, for solace, support, help in time of need, and yes, sanctuary. We want the church to be a safe place in the midst of the storms of life. Of course, some times it is, and needs to be. Some times, we need to recognize that the places we think are sanctuaries, places that are sanctuaries, safe places for us, are places of danger and violence, fear and foreboding for others. Sometimes, making our safe places safe for others, means that we need to leave our comfort zones or protective shells.

But even if we need those safe places, they aren’t necessarily the places to which Jesus is calling us. Other times, perhaps most of the time, Jesus is calling us forward across the lake, into new territory. To be his disciples means following him into those places of discomfort and fear.

Can you imagine what must be going through the hearts and minds of the folks gathered at Emanuel AME church in Charleston this morning, as they grieve, and fear. Can you imagine what it must be like for African-American Christians in this city and across the country as they gather for worship—as they grieve and fear? How many of them are asking, “Teacher, do you not know that we are perishing?”

And we, the white church, white America, do we even know that we are perishing?

We must perish. Our complacency and privilege must perish. We must tear down the walls that separate us from our brothers and sisters. Only then can we cross over with them into new territory where racism no longer exists, where justice reigns, and there is peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Carolina and America

I lived in South Carolina for ten years, moving there just as the debate over the Confederate flag was reaching fever pitch. Although I don’t know Charleston well, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church hit home to me in unexpected ways. From social media, I learned that friends and colleagues had studied with Rev. Pinckney at Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary. I also read about the bomb scare at Allen AME Church in Greenville on Thursday. Greenville was the city where I worked for ten years.

I’ve also been reading a great deal about the continuing presence of the confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol and the renewed effort to remove it. Over my years in the South, I developed a visceral fear of it–avoiding people and places where it was displayed. But the flag is only the most visible symbol of a deeper problem. As John Stewart mentioned in the monologue I linked to in a previous post, in the South, African-Americans are forced to drive on streets named for Confederate Generals. I drove on one such street everyday–Wade Hampton Boulevard in Greenville. It’s named after the Confederate General and first white governor of South Carolina after reconstruction. Indeed, Hampton helped to orchestrate the white takeover of the state through his involvement with the paramilitary group the Redshirts. There is also, by the way, Wade Hampton High School. The familiarity and ubiquity of the name helped to obscure the reality of who he was and what he’d done.

I remember standing in line at the polls on Election Day in 2008, less than a mile from that school. The electorate there was probably 75%or 80% white, mostly working class. We came dressed as we were, for work, or for errands, many in shorts and T-shirts. The whites, most of them, seemed apprehensive. The blacks who came brought their whole families. There were grandparents with their grandchildren, wanting them to witness history. There was a young man, 18 or 19 years old, casting his first vote. He wore a suit and tie. Just as one could sense the apprehension among any of the whites, the  hope of the African-Americans was palpable. They saw, the older ones the first time in many years, for the younger, for the first time ever, the possibility of a different future, a different nation, a different state.

One of the difficult things for northerners to understand is the complicated way racism plays out in the South. I don’t fully understand it, can’t hope to but I do know that there’s the possibility today for a real reckoning with the legacy and present reality of racism in South Carolina. But if that reckoning only takes place in the context of a debate over the confederate flag, it will fail. It will fail to address the racism that is at the heart of the state and the region. It will fail to address 450 years of violent subjugation of African-Americans of which the Charleston Massacre is only the most recent incident.

If there’s a a national focus on what’s wrong with South Carolina, we will escape the necessary reckoning with our national sin of racism. For racism isn’t a regional problem. It’s a national one. There may be subtle differences between South and North but racism pervades our nation. We in the North have been willing to say too often that it’s a problem for the South or that the work of undoing it is done–whether with victory in the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, racism is too pervasive, too insidious, to be undone by a single act or movement.

From my friend, the Rev. Michael Sullivan: We are all South Carolina

But to think that South Carolina has the monopoly on racism and the institutionalized, unacknowledged, systemic degradation of humanity is a part of our American problem.

Jack Hitt (a native of Charleston), on The New Yorker blog, offers some additional historical background.

From Tiffany Stanley (Religion and Politics), who grew up in South Carolina:

History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand. And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets.

Of course, the target of that sanitized history is not just Charlestonians. It’s us. It’s all of those tourists from other parts of the country and the world who come to visit. I remember taking a tour of a a plantation house in Virginia some years ago, during which the tour guide kept referring to the “servants.” Slavery, the labor and people that made that house and lifestyle possible, had been completely erased from the story.

 

Naming the Horror–Racism

This unimaginable horror–perpetrated by someone so steeped in racism and racial hatred that he identified with South African apartheid as well as the Confederate States of America–perpetrated by someone who killed nine people after sitting with them and praying with them for an hour …

This horrific act has opened the wound that lays bare the racism at the heart and soul of America, a racism that expresses itself in ways large and small, from little daily indignities to state-sanctioned murder, that makes African-Americans fear for their lives whether they are running an errand to a convenience store, playing in a park, or praying in a church.

Words cannot express the horror, not only the horror of these acts that take place on a continual, relentless basis, but the horror that is at the heart of our nation, our society. But words are what we have, and we have people who can give expression to the horror at the heart of our nation, and the horror that it is to live as an African-American in this nation.

Among those words that have moved me in the past two days:

from Osagyefu Sekou:

They were killed because of their love. They welcomed a stranger and gave him a home as he plotted their demise. This is the best of black church — unconditional love. To love in the face of white supremacy is nothing less than a revolutionary act.

From Stacia l. Brown:

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

From Broderick Greer:

There is nothing isolated about the violence exacted upon black people by law enforcement officers, vigilantes or terrorists. When police officers or extrajudicial neighborhood watchmen shoot dead descendants of this nation’s formerly enslaved population, they are recommitting themselves to the white American tradition of squashing out black life at every juncture possible. Over the past three years alone, I’ve learned that – in the social economy of white American supremacy – black people can’t walk to a convenience store, ask for assistance after a car accident, play with a toy gun or study the Bible without the looming reality of the violent white gaze.

and Jon Stewart:

“I honestly have nothing other than sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist. I’m confident though that by acknowledging it — by staring into — we still won’t do jack shit.”

Clergy marching for justice and peace in Madison

On Friday May 8th an unprecedented meeting of faith leaders was held here in the MUM offices. We came together over the systemic injustices that exist in our County and out of concern for our community.  Attached you will find a letter  from that coalition reflecting the purpose and outcome of that meeting. We know that as clergy and people of faith we are called across traditions to work for justice. Our meeting on May 8th represents the beginning of our work as a faith coalition, we recognize that there is much, much more to be done and we pledge to continue
TomorrowTuesday, May 12th at 2:30 p.m. the District Attorney will announce his decision regarding the officer involved shooting of Tony Robinson. We know that the decision, regardless of what it is, will not heal our divided and suffering community. We know that our community will still be in pain.
At 2:30  p.m. tomorrow, May 12th, Clergy and members of faith communities from throughout Dane County are invited to gather outside the residence where Tony Robinson was killed. We will join in prayer and song and at 5:00 p.m. we will march down Williamson Street to Grace Episcopal Church for more prayer and song we will then march to the Dane County Courthouse.
We  ask that you join us as people of faith in calling for racial justice in our community, in action, and in our support of the letter sent by the African American Council of churches to of Dane County law enforcement officials (also attached). Please feel free to share this announcement with others as you see fit.

More on Baltimore and our divided nation

I’ve been reading some powerful stuff on Baltimore and I’d like to share it.

Dave Zirin writes about Camden Yards and the plight of African-Americans

        The scene is as familiar to me as it is repulsive: almost exclusively young, white fans from the surrounding suburbs or the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods, show up and get absolutely shit-faced drunk and either aggressively hit on random women or fight each other before, during and after games. I’ve seen more scuffles outside of sporting events in the last decade than my wife has seen teaching in a DC public high school and it’s not even close. On Saturday, these fans acted like they always act except this time they turned their taunting, frat-house Tucker Carlson comedy routines outward at the people who travelled a short geographical but cavernous psychological distance from West Baltimore. Not shockingly, confrontations ensued although with much of the cell phone video coming from inside the sports bars, the events have been wildly 

A publicly funded stadium is not the root cause of what plagues our cities, but it’s a flashing, blaring sign of a set of economic priorities that like sports has created a country that defines people as winners or losers. But unlike sports, a country where the happenstance of your birth determines what side of that line you reside.

Jelani Cobb, writing in the New Yorker, describes the protests of last Saturday against the backdrop of a baseball game at Camden Yards:

The protest on Saturday migrated south of City Hall, through the inner harbor, and west along Pratt Street toward Camden Yards Stadium, where the Orioles were scheduled to play the Boston Red Sox. At the corner of Pratt and Light Street a few dozen people held up traffic and staged a spontaneous die-in, sprawling themselves on the asphalt in poses straight from crime-scene photos. There was a comparatively light police presence along the route, but dozens of officers in riot gear blocked the crowd from getting near the stadium, which seemed to confirm the protesters’ most damning suspicions. A man near the front shouted, “They only care about the Orioles!”

Another eyewitness account (by d. Watkins), from The New York Times, of the violence that began with taunting from white baseball fans:

Most of the protests were peaceful. The first acts of violence didn’t occur until after a nonviolent, if agitated, protest Saturday night at City Hall. From there, a group of protesters, including myself, marched to Camden Yards, where the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox. As we passed a strip of bars, a group of white baseball fans, wearing both Baltimore and Boston gear, were standing outside yelling, “We don’t care! We don’t care!” Some called us monkeys and apes. A fight broke out, and people were hurt.

After that, it didn’t take much. Some people might ask, “Why Baltimore?” But the real question is, “Why did it take so long?”

From Michael Fletcher,  a 30-year resident and former Baltimore Sun reporter:

It was only a matter of time before Baltimore exploded.

In the more than three decades I have called this city home, Baltimore has been a combustible mix of poverty, crime, and hopelessness, uncomfortably juxtaposed against rich history, friendly people, venerable institutions and pockets of old-money affluence.

The two Baltimores have mostly gone unreconciled. The violence that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral Monday, with roaming gangs looting stores and igniting fires, demands that something be done.

Rebecca Traister, in The New Republic, writes about our understanding of violence:

 Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake blamed the conflagration in her city on “thugs who only want to incite violence,” by whom she meant protesters and not the officers who likely killed Freddie Gray. Too many people, she said, “have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”

“Senselessness,” in Rawlings-Blake’s formulation, is reflexively connected to looting and burning—as if that looting and burning had no antecedent—but not to the death of a man that no one has explained and that thus, quite seriously, makes no sense. Violent response to that death may be many things—tragic, necessary, regressive, wrong, damaging to already damaged communities—but it is not anywhere near as senseless as the notion that a 25-year-old man who had, as far as we know, committed no crime, is dead from a severed spine. That is senseless. People being furious about it to the point of bursting makes quite a lot of sense.

Here is the crux of these inconsistencies: The way that even the best (and certainly the worst) of us are trained to see, understand, and then tell the story of violence in America tends to work in one direction. We instinctively mark violence’s start at the moment that less powerful people encroach on more powerful people. When property is destroyed by those who do not own property; when cars are burned by protesters on foot; when rocks are thrown by kids at men armed with guns and shields: That is the moment at which we see the kick-off of battle, the opening shots in a war.

Alyssa Rosenberg on The Wire and Freddy Gray:

“The Wire” doesn’t explain Baltimore. Enthusiasm for “The Wire” helps explain how fans of the show would like to feel about Baltimore, cities like it, and the people who inhabit them. We want to believe we have deep sympathy for and understanding of people whose lives bear the marks of institutional racism, decades of dreadful criminal justice policy, hopelessly inadequate educational systems and a profound lack of legitimate economic opportunity. And then we’d like to feel like there’s nothing we really can do, and so there’s nothing we are required to do.

Ferguson, Madison, Baltimore

When will it end? When will police violence against unarmed African-American men stop? When will we understand that the institutional racism and institutionalized violence against African-Americans, so deeply entwined in America’s history for four hundred years, results in deaths, violence, and destruction?

I’ve been watching my twitter feed burn as Baltimore burns. African-Americans use Twitter to cry out about the injustice and oppression. Well-meaning white clergy, celebrities, and politicians, plead for calm and non-violent protest. My twitter feed burns, Baltimore burns, America burns. Ferguson, Madison, Baltimore.

It’s heartbreaking to watch, and it’s heartbreaking to see well meaning whites plead for nonviolence when injustice and oppression persist; when lives are ground down by the institutional violence and racism of everyday existence; when there is no hope, no future.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore writes powerfully about how Baltimore has come to this point and why we on the outside who call for nonviolence are wrong:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point, tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

Read it all here. And read this about the Baltimore Police Department’s history of criminal behavior and violence. The Baltimore Police Department has paid out $5.7 million in recent years in lawsuits over the use of force. That’s a lot of money, but a drop in the bucket compared to the City of Chicago, which paid out more than $500 million between 2004 and 2014.

And these statistics about Freddy Gray’s neighborhood.

It’s not just Ferguson, or Baltimore, or Madison. It’s the USA. Our nation was founded on slavery and oppression. It has thrived on racism and oppression, and unless we can confront our past and present sin now, we will continue to exist thanks to state-sponsored violence, racism, and oppression.

Clergy respond to the shooting of Tony Ferguson

Clergy of Madison and Dane County have written a letter in response to the killing of Tony Robinson. In it, we write:

We grieve the loss of one of our own, a child raised and educated in our city, a member of our community, and a member of the human family whose life ended too soon and in a manner that has shocked and disturbed us all….

We call upon you, the people who have been entrusted with the power to effect change in the policies and practices that undergird and perpetuate the disparities in our communities, to enter into dialog with this community and with us as we do our part to address the attitudes, bias, and prejudices that allow racism to go unchallenged and unchecked in our community.

We commit to examining our own failure to challenge the racism and bias within our communities, in the ways that we do our theology, and in our failure to preach and advocate for justice and equality.

 

The full test is available here: 5503216db2f1a.pdf

The list of signatories is here: 5503216f8b434.pdf

Pat Schneider’s article from the Capital Times is available here:

Madison isn’t Ferguson

Madison is deeply divided racially. I’ve written before about the chasm separating whites from African-Americans in our city and county. You can follow some of those posts and sermons here. The Race to Equity report from 2013 lays out the details and is a must read. It’s available here: WCCF-R2E-Report

The contrasts are especially striking when it comes to the criminal justice system. While arrest rates for African-Americans in general, and African-American juveniles are down over the last decades, they remain considerably higher than those of whites and of the national averages. For example, in 2010, the arrest rate for African-American juveniles was 469 per 1000; for white juveniles it was 77. Nationally among the same age group, the rates were 71 per 1000 for African-Americans, 33 for whites. Although African-Americans account for only 9% of Dane County’s youth, they make up 80% of those sentenced to Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional facility. In 2012,43% of the new adult prison population were African-American men, while they account for only 4.8% of the county’s total population. More information on these statistics is available here.

But it’s important to note the significant differences as well.  Perhaps those differences are best exemplified by the response of the city’s leadership to Tony Robinson’s death. Both Mayor Soglin and Chief Koval were on the scene of the shooting Friday night. Michael Johnson, head of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Madison, took Chief Koval to meet with Tony’s family that night where he prayed with them. In his press conference on Saturday, Koval refused to comment on Robinson’s background. There’s an informative piece on Chief Koval here.

There’s another difference. The shooting did not take place in some strip mall in the suburbs or in a primarily African-American neighborhood. It took place on Williamson (Willy) Street, close to downtown and in the heart of Madison’s eastside, most progressive neighborhood. It really is quite jarring to drive down Willy St. as we did yesterday on our way to visit friends. As you drive past the artisanal butcher shops, bakeries, and shops, you suddenly see four or five police cruisers, police tape blocking the sidewalk. Just as quickly, the site recedes from your rear-view mirror. The wound in our social fabric won’t disappear so easily.

The response from the community has been remarkable. The engagement of African-American leadership, clergy, politicians, and ordinary folks has already made a difference. There is anger, yes. There is grief and mourning. But there is also renewed commitment to work on our city’s problems, to work toward solutions, so that Madison can become one of American’s “most livable cities,” not just for whites, but for everyone.

Alice Goffman, On the Run: Racism and the oppressive police state

I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Alice Goffman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UW Madison, and the author of the acclaimed and controversial On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American CityI’ve not yet read the book but I’ve read a good bit about it and I was excited about the prospect of hearing her talk about her research.

Her talk focused on a single family, the Taylors. It was fascinating on so many levels but perhaps the most poignant piece of it for me was the family’s trajectory. They began as sharecroppers in South Georgia, moved to Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration in World War II when George was five. His father was a day laborer working on the docks shoveling coal. His mother was a servant to two white families in downtown Philly. Alice told us that it was the neighborhood where she herself grew up. George graduated from high school in 1959, joined the army, received an honorable discharge before Viet Nam, and went to work for the US Postal Service, where he stayed until his retirement.

With his good job, he was able to buy a three-bedroom house in what Goffman calls “the 6th Street” neighborhood. It was outside the traditional ghetto; he was one of the first African-Americans to purchase in the area but was followed by other middle class and professional blacks. Goffman doesn’t give us the precise chronology but she did tell us that things began to fall apart in the community and in the family in the 1980s. George was raising his daughter alone. In the 80s, she became a crack user and gave birth to three sons. It was the three sons on whose stories Goffman focused in her talk. In 2014, one was dead, one (who had spent almost all of his time between age 11 and 23 in the criminal justice system) had been out of prison for a year and a half; the youngest was now behind bars.

Think about that trajectory. In three generations, from Jim Crow and sharecropping, to the middle class, to the New Jim Crow. There may be all sorts of ways of interpreting the reasons for that trajectory, but it’s telling that at the moment African-Americans seemed poised to enter the mainstream of American economic and political life in the late sixties and seventies the war on drugs and crime began its relentless attack.

Time and again, Goffman reiterated that the neighborhood she was studying wasn’t one of the “hot spots.” It was still somewhat mixed economically. When she talked with the police, it wasn’t on their list of priorities; it was relatively quiet. Still, by 2002, there was a 9:00 pm curfew for young black men; there were video cameras on the streets. She listed the numbers of times she saw police helicopters overhead. She recounted the three SWAT team raids over a few nights at the Taylor house because one of the boys had fled an arrest on suspicion of possession of marijuana. She told of the first time the youngest son, Tim, was arrested, at age 11, on charges of being an accessory, while his older brother was stopped for driving a stolen car (it was his girlfriend’s and neither he nor she knew it was stolen).

Goffman compares the police involvement in the 6th street neighborhood to the oppressive totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe under communism. It’s a sobering, depressing story. To her, the criminal justice system is an occupying power in African-American community.

After her talk, someone asked about schools. She had this to say: “In Philadelphia, schools are a dangerous place. The families that are successful in keeping their sons out of prison keep them out of public schools.”

Still, she is not without hope. There is a reform movement emerging. The drug war, she says, is over. It may be that we are reaching consensus as a society that the long-term project to incarcerate African-American males is coming to an end.

About Madison, she said this: Our city and county are unique in the extent of the exclusion of African-Americans and the extent of the disparities between black and white. Goffman is doing important work and I hope that she and her students will engage the situation here in Madison as well as larger American society and culture.