Sunday, September 24, 2017

Considering American Heritage When the President Calls you a Son of a Bitch

In 2017 in Alabama, the President of the United States said to a group of cheering white people:

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.

The symbolism is impossible to miss.  The ‘sons of bitches’ that the President is referring to are primarily black men who play on teams owned by rich white men. These athletes have owners. Even in the time of twitter when history is farther away than 140 characters, the historical link to America’s heritage of slavery is clear. If it wasn’t, the President recalled that heritage explicitly in case we missed it. According to him, these black athletes have “a total disrespect for our heritage, and everything we stand for.”

Our. We.

My heritage in the Americas began with being owned. For black people, our heritage was not gilded with ownership, it was barbed terror. What these players are protesting is the litany of white police men who are shooting and killing black people with impunity. The murderous behavior of the police is a continuing public display of the inhumanity that is the foundation of the dark side of American heritage. The same side that the President champions and is immortalized in the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and their kind. The same side that thought it ordained that white people should own, buy and sell black people.

These athletes are protesting a heritage that viewed black people as beasts, as mere sons of bitches. Chattel. The President’s remarks loosely translated into 19th century American heritage language would be, “Countrymen, gentlemen and fellow Christians, I implore you to snatch those uppity niggers off the field right now and string ‘em up – that’ll teach ‘em to have some goddamn respect.”

In 1852, Frederick Douglass addressed the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society and delivered his remarks, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? In that address he offered an answer – “A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration [of the 4th of July] is a sham.”

The President’s recollection of American heritage is a sham. America’s future is dependent on its ability to achieve humanity and redemption. It can only learn that from the people who were subject to its inhumanity and remained human despite.  Once the President and his tribe learn that lesson, American heritage will be revealed to them and perhaps then we can all have something to stand for.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

STEM, DACA and the Battle for America's Future

The argument for inclusion, diversity and broadening participation in STEM fields is that the country is better when all of its people and talents are engaged. On one side of this divided nation that simple argument is obvious and needs no defense - it is part of the national definition, part of the alignment with lofty American ideals. On the other side lives the dark side of the American story – the side of the past, of American cruelty, barbarism and terrorism.

Making the case for STEM education when the American dark side is on the rise will require extraordinary focus and a commitment to battle that my generation has not experienced.

What are we really up against in this American past?

In recent months the full weight of the conflict between America’s past and future was revealed again. In Charlottesville, a man in defense of America’s past drove a car into a crowd gathered in support of America’s future. He crushed a young woman and killed her. In a manner similar to the barbarism of ISIS soldiers, he was fueled by a doctrine of hatred and inhumanity. He was riled up by thousands of his tribe who, in 2017 - 152 years after the end of the Civil War, gathered to defend Robert E. Lee, the standard bearer for southern sedition, slavery and American treason.

Shortly thereafter, the President pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Over years, Sheriff Arpaio unleashed on Hispanic people in Arizona, a degree of tyranny, violence and dislocation reminiscent of the cruelty meted out to Japanese Americans during World War II. On the pretense that they are illegal people, he commissioned his officers to hunt for brown people, harass, arrest and corral them into jails and detention centers that he himself called concentration camps. He brought back the chain gang from the dark corners of early 20th century America – for black and brown women. A US. District court judge found him guilty of being a vile and a repugnant reminder of the dark side of the American past.

The President not only pardoned the man, he pardoned his philosophy.

He did so in the face of an approaching storm, Hurricane Harvey – one of the most devastating storms in American history. A storm whose recovery, we all know, will require the back breaking labor of thousands of those very Hispanic people.

And then today the President revoked DACA – the Deferred Action for  Childhood Arrivals. In doing so he took a step further in his public disdain for America’s future and his revelry in its dark past. He cast a cloud of dread and uncertainty over 800,000 people living in this country. The cruelty and inhumanity of this act is clear. It is as clear to those who believe in America's future, as it is incomprehensible.

The battle lines are drawn – America’s past versus its future. Make America great again implies that its greatness lies in its past. It does not. Its greatness is the substance of our yearnings.  It is the reason we struggle for tomorrow to be better than today.

Our charge in the midst of the battle for basic human dignity and national decency is to ensure that the case for education is not lost. Education generally and STEM education in particular are cornerstones of the American future. In the end we will win, but it is clear now that STEM education is not merely a cause worthy of advocacy, it is a battle for America’s future.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

First Day of School in the neo-Klan Era

This is about me. 

Today was my daughter’s first day of school. For a variety of difficult reasons connected to the price black people pay to get our children elite education in the south, her school is predominantely white. It is a progressive white school as far as white schools go, but make no mistake, it is a white school. If it’s original charter had been, “A school for progressive whites, Jews and a tolerable number of coloreds” this is that school several years on.

I dropped her off into this environment after having watched, along with the rest of the country, a Klan rally earlier this week. I watched hundreds of white men and women, torches alit, rage dripping from their lips and hearts, marching and chanting verses of hate. I watched one of them on Saturday murderously drive a car into a crowd of people in the name of the Klan. I don’t need to explain the symbolism and significance of the Ku Klux Klan – a uniquely white American terror contribution to the world.

James Baldwin’s description of the Klan's influence on black people’s history in The Fire Next Time, is perhaps the best:

This past, the Negro's past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible--this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.

My job as father is to protect and exalt her human identity and authority – to offer her the moral and cultural tools to help her burnish her own intellect and beauty and to affirm her position in the world as a black woman, and as a whole person. The quality of education in this school helps that larger objective. The cultural experience of this school does not. This past spring, one of these white progressive children cursed my girl to her face and told her that she hates black people. A couple of grades ago, another of these progressive white children told the two black boys in her class that they were niggers and he wanted nothing to do with them.

I experience a brief moment of pain and pause every day that I drop her into this environment. I endure it on the hopes that we're doing the right thing for her education – which is absolutely excellent at this school. I endure it fully aware that in the history of black children and white schools, this is hardly a test. I endure it knowing that many of the kids, her friends and their families, are fantastic people. I am aware that the attributes of a group seldom map to individuals. I am also aware that she is a black island in a cultural sea that is not hers. Yet, I drop her off and endure.

But today was different.

The cost of elite education for our children is extraordinary. I dropped my beautiful black star into a sea of white children and it hurt.