Archive for racism

Why We Bang

Last night I went to a performance of Our Town. I was thinking as I watched how fascinating it would be to see the same slice of life shown for an inner city black neighborhood. Not just the crime and the poverty, but how people really live day to day — how the love, how they worship and how they die.

In many ways, I think that of the life of cities has the most real community in the ghettos. I know that in the year I lived in DC I didn’t know any of my neighbors. My friends were spread out across the city with connections through work or interests but not through proximity.

The closest thing I think I’ve seen to a modern Our Town would perhaps be Ghetto Logik’s Why We Bang:

The part I found the most interesting was when they asked people, “Why did you start gangbanging?” Everyone answers, “It’s just what you do.” It made me think of how no one from my group of high school friends would even have considered not going to college. It was just what you did. It was the next step in a person’s life between being a kid and getting a job.

I’m thankful that I managed to get the karmic dice roll that landed me with the expectation to live in a dorm room as a young adult rather than, say, murder someone.

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What Happened To the Dream?

I went to a talk today which marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of MLK. Angela Davis gave a lecture entitled, “We Are Not Now Living the Dream: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Human Rights in the 21st Century.”

She opened the talk with a quote from surprisingly apropos “Beyond Vietnam” (audio) speech given at Riverside Church in New York City.

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube.


As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, “So what about Vietnam?” They ask if our nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent.

She took an interesting position on King’s life saying that in the modern view he is seen as having died as a figurehead for the civil rights movement, but at the time they didn’t call it the civil rights movement — it was the “Freedom Movement.” She claimed, and King’s speech seems to support, that his philosophy took rather obvious direction of: the issues of poverty and racial discrimination in the United States are inexorably linked.

Davis at one time ran for President on the Communist ticket and the reasoning behind her position came through in her solutions to the issues of “pathological hyperindividualism.” Her basic points weren’t tied to that philosophy however.

In particular she referenced the Pew Report “One in 100: Behind Bars in 2008“. She asked the very valid question about why 1 in 106 white men is in jail while 1 in 15 black men is (1 in 9 black men from 20-34). Why is this not being called racism? If it is racism, what can be done about it?

The issue that she focused on in the most depth was loss of the right to vote. She called it “civil death” which is a neat idea since so far as the civil society is concerned, you really do cease to matter. The deciding Florida 2004 Presidential election was decided by less than 600 votes. In the state at that time over 600,000 past felons were denied the right to vote, the bulk of them minorities. With 2.3 million people in prison we have the largest per capita and largest overall prison populations in the world. (China’s second with 1.5 million.) The civil death of criminals is no longer simply an issue affecting a negligible portion of society. When 35% of black men will have spent time in prison at some point in their lives, it’s a veritable civic genocide.

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Sharia Law

Last Thursday, I went to see a fellow talking about Sharia Law. He was emphasizing that it is harsh as a deterrent rather than a punishment. It was just strange to have someone talking about how much less crime we’d have if we just chopped a few hands off. I was trying to stay with him and doing ok until he said:

Here in America, you take your criminals, put them in prison and reward them with a college degree. This is not God’s way. God’s law is an eye for an eye.

I don’t really think that we could even really have a productive discussion because our views on human nature are simply too divergent. At the end I asked a couple questions:

In America, 1 of 3 black men will be in prison during their lifetime, while only 1 in 20 white men will. There are a variety of reasons for this, but a significant one is a difference in enforcement of the laws. I lived in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania for two and a half years, and if anything differential enforcement was worse there. You propose creating some severe penalties for lawbreaking. Do you believe that people are capable of exercising this level of power with fairness?

His response was that the US is the greatest country in the world, but that we’re responsible for destabilizing the Middle East and empowering dictators throughout the region. He went on for a bit about how we have to use our power for good and be a beacon of freedom. Certainly good points, but not really an answer to my question unless I am to assume he’s saying “yes, Islam will encourage the moral purity we need if things will only stabilize.”

Then the guy next to me popped up and provided the clarification I needed. He was a black Muslim and read a bit about righteousness from his Koran. The speaker then said that we will never be able to achieve God’s level of perfection. So apparently his answer was, “no, we’re gonna always be stoning innocent people to death. We should definitely go ahead with this though.”

Your ability to come and speak about your views today is made possible by the freedom of expression built into the US Constitution. The framers of the Constitution created a separation of Church and State because they believed it necessary to safeguard these freedoms. Sharia Law deals with crimes where an individual’s rights are impinged on, like theft or assault, but it also deals with strictly moral crimes like stoning someone to death for adultery. How is freedom of religion protected with those types of laws, or is it unimportant?

He said that if I am sleeping around and spreading AIDS or other diseases, it affects the entire community. It is not simply a moral matter. In some ways I liked his response to this one, not because I agreed with it, but my experience with Islam in the developing world showed that people had a much better understanding of their relationships and obligations to their community. People much much poorer than almost anyone in the States regularly invited hungry people into their homes to share their food. There just wasn’t the same depth of materialism that we’ve got here.

He went on to say though that it would take four people witness adultery before we’d stone anyone to death. Well, that’s good to know. At least it’s unlikely I’m going to get pelted with rocks until I die.

Many of the other questions were kinda argumentative. It’s really unfortunate that the average person who wants to yell at someone who says something generally controversial doesn’t think about the fact that the person you’re yelling at has probably heard your point before and is just going to respond calmly and make you look dumb.

My favorite though was an Arab girl from Turkey responding to his statement, “In Turkey in the public schools they don’t allow women to wear head scarves, how is this freedom?” She said that women in Turkey had more educational opportunities than almost any other Muslim population and that not wearing the scarves was a way to integrate into Turkish society. His response was, “Well, you have your opinion, but I want you to know that the rest of the Muslim world disagrees with you.”

It was cute seeing an American man tell a Muslim Turkish woman what Muslim Turkish women believe.

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Islam In My Life

Over the last week or so I’ve had quite a bit of Arab/Muslim related stuff wander through my world.

I got a video by Pat Condell from my dad this morning. Usually the stuff I get from my dad is kinda narrow-minded, and this is arguably like that, but I think the issues he’s reacting to are ones I am undecided on. Where does the line between respect and contriteness exist? When is it reasonable for a society at large to impinge on a person’s faith? Islam in particular has a focus on maintaining purity in the face of challenges. As this mixes more with Western society, people are going to react to it and some will be irritated, like this guy: His speaking about Saudi Arabia as though it is a single person with a single vision is a bit dangerous, but his points are interesting.

Jenni and I went to see the Axis of Evil comedy tour last week. It’s a bunch of Arab-American comedians talking about the experiences in America. It was pretty entertaining. They emphasized though the way that values are shifting as things spread out. One guy said, “You know how Jews are Jewish, well I’m a Muslim in that way: I’m Muslimish.” That same guy was arrested in an airport the day before Bush’s reelection along with several thousand other Arab-Americans. As the cops walked him really slowly through the airport with his hands cuffed behind him, one of the the cops escorting him whispered, “Now you know what it’s like to be black.”

Yesterday, someone sent me a review of the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi. The book details her life which critiques the relationship between women and Islam as she left her native Holland and rose in popularity in Holland. Eventually her neighbors sue to have her removed from her house because there are so many threats against her life, and she moves to America.

Finally, this morning I got a debate on what looks like Al-Jazeera with an Arab Secular Humanist woman debating Islam with a cleric. That these issues are being discussed across the world is good to see.

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10,000 – Serious Spoilers

Has anyone told you recently just how cool it is to be a white person? For me personally it had been at least a couple days. I was getting a little insecure in my racial superiority, so I went to see 10,000 BC and it was just the pick me up I needed.

The movie has an awesome scene where they’re introducing all the people that will unite to free their friends and families from the slave traders that tore through their villages. One by one they call out the names of the tribes and show the peoples that happen to live within a days march of our heroes. “Denganeh,” the speaker says as they pan across a group of big angry black guys. “Kurasai,” is greeted with the cries of a bunch of Asians. “Ghentan” and “Sarwah” get similar reactions from legions of Native Americans and Mexicans. Pretty much everyone made it except the Arabs and that’s because they’re the ones that enslaved everyone else.

Oh yeah, there’s a couple white guys. You need someone to run everything, don’t ya? You might ask, “Why do all these colors of people decide to follow these random strangers that wandered in from over the mountains?” “Do they recognize the purity in their white skins and fall prostrate before them, simply knowing their inferior moral state showing through in the taint of their colored skin?” Oh no, it’s even better than that. These are all primitive peoples; not separated from the land and their souls by the trappings of material society. They know themselves much as animals do: instinctually and without the lies modern man tells himself.

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I noticed a neat essay in titivillus‘s journal: Is There Anything Good About Men? It makes some interesting points about potential cultural and evolutionary reasons for the existence of a patriarchy. It also makes the good point that while many of our leaders are male, a sizable chunk of our criminals are as well.

I think it’s a interesting article to read and contemplate. I don’t really like the dichotomizing that seems to underlie the whole thing. Gender has been a big issue for me for a while. It started because I was detached and unemotional to the point of feeling dead in my life. As I started trying to understand ways to be more connected in my life and relationships I kept bumping into the stereotype that the things I wanted weren’t part of being a real man. It really took me down for a while. Remember that it wasn’t that I was having these feelings and was looking to deal with them; I felt completely broken away from my life and I felt at times that people were telling me that there was nothing I could do about it because I have a Y chromosome.

My response to gender at this point is there may be certain cultural or genetic predispositions, but their strength and prevalence is so variable that it’s completely useless as a measure of anything about an individual — about like race. So I could be reading an article about how slavery and selective breeding affected the genetic characteristics of Africans in America. It would be interesting and the statistics would be interesting to consider, but I would not let the information affect how I deal with a random black person I meet on the street.

I was thinking about that example. I, and I think most people, have a little voice in my head that actively chastises me if there are any racial stereotypes in my head when I’m talking to someone new. (Though I spent about two hours last night learning to be aware of race — I was watching Chappelle’s Show.) I’ve got a definite socialization against being racist. So far as gender though and making assumptions about a person based on their gender, I dislike it, but it’s mostly from my own thinking. Socially I’ve got some little voices about the value of women’s rights, but things about a person’s emotionality, aggressiveness, or interests are all fair game.

The bit that I distinctly disliked was the last paragraph. I read it as essentially, “There are many critics of how our society operates. There are a variety of reasons that things have progressed this way and the fitness of this type of society is why it has won out. We should think twice before screwing up something that works.”

The “this is the way we’ve been doing things and it works” is a horrible argument and one neednt look any farther than the pyramids to see accomplishing amazing things is not the only criteria for judging a system. I really do believe that the human animal has a capacity for amazing complexity that most people never even get near because they’re too busy chasing the brass ring or pleasing their parents or their church or just playing out some random drama. I don’t expect to live in a world that encourages anything else within my lifetime, but I think so far as a goal, it’s a good one.

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I went to see Shakespeare Behind Bars and it was really moving. It was one of those movies that filled in my picture of life a little bit more — the lives of criminals and life in prison — and I shifted how I see the world a bit. I just watched the trailer on the website which doesn’t really give justice to the film, but knowing the story I started to tear up again. Definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.

Other activities for the day were less moving. Eggspectations had a nice bloody mary and reasonable crepes, but the hollandaise sauce tasted like mayo and butter. L’Auberge espagnole was cute and had its moments, but I was unentertained by what I saw as the protagonist’s largely passionless philandering.

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For those in DC, the performance of King Lear by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at the Folger Theatre is an evening well-spent.

I was only vaguely familiar with the story and André De Shields performance as Lear really helped draw me into the story. It is frequently difficult to deliver Shakespeare without it seeming performed. I thought that De Shields did a good job of effectively conveying emotion into a very complex character. My favorite though was Ty Jones as Edmund. The emotional depth of the character is more limited, but what there was he swam in. I really enjoyed his relish at being bad. ☺

Alfred Pressier’s interpretation of the play was a little non-traditional. The costuming was more Middle Eastern than the little bit I remember from the bits Lawrence Olivier’s performance I saw years ago. The most striking aspect though was the energy and physical presence of the performers. The entire cast moves with a sense of power that I am more accustomed to seeing in Cirque du Soleil than in Shakespeare. The athleticism of the actors was readily apparent as the jumped and climbed and fought their way through the play.

I think that some might be set off by the level of energy and pace of the show. I liked both it and Pressier’s use of a set of moving risers to alter the set through the course of the performance.

I also spent some time discussing the “complete misrepresentation” of McK’s views in my post yesterday with her shortly before I went to the play. As such, issues of race were still playing in my mind as I watched this predominantly black troupe. The most prominent white actor was Danny Camiel as the cuckolded and dominated Duke of Albany. I thought it was also interesting that with the deaths of Lear, Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Cornwall and Gloucester; he will likely be the one to end up owning most everything. ☺

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Am I Racist?

Back at Tech, I went to hear a researcher from UT talk about gender and society. I don’t remember his name or the subject of the talk, but he opened with an anecdote that I’ve contemplated from time to time over the years:

“I look out over this crowd and I am reminded of my times back in college. From my gray hair you might guess it’s been a while. I was in college back in the ’60’s, and it wasn’t exactly like you see in the movies, but it was something interesting. Many of us felt as though we were part of something special; that the world was changing and we were a part of that.

“We used to have groups of people who would get together and just talk about stuff. Sometimes there was a book, but alot of the time the conversation just meandered. I remember being your age and being in one of those discussions about gender. One of my friends turned to a black girl and said, ‘our struggle as women unifies us. There are lots of different problems with the world, but we can connect in the common ground of our womanhood.’

“Her friend responded, ‘No. That’s a nice thought, but when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror you see a woman. When I look in the mirror, I see a black woman.’

“It was at that point I realized that when I get up in the morning and look into the mirror, I see a human being. The thing about privilege is that it’s invisible. Everyone else has to define themselves in relation to it.”

I’ve been thinking about this in the last couple days because I’ve been arguing social issues with McK and one of her central points of opposition to my points is that I am a passive racist.

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I, unfortunately, will not vote this year. My absentee ballot was sent to Africa and I didn’t have time to get a new one. It sucks since I would like to cancel out my father’s vote on Tennessee’s marriage amendment. He’s been on a speaking tour across the state for the last week trying to drum up support as part of the Real Marriage bus tour.

I really don’t get it. Exactly what the do they thing is going to happen if gay people were to marry?

I always thought that homophobia was something along the lines of the racism of the 60’s. I’m certainly not going to argue that racism is dead, but if I were black I wouldn’t expect to walk into a restaurant in most of the country and be refused service. While the problem hasn’t gone away, I think that it is undeniably improving.

My grandmothers, both of whom I love and respect, have both said things that are a little bit racist. I don’t argue with them or expect them to change their sentiments. They are members of their generation and I find it difficult to fault them that when my predilections line up so much with my own generation. It is rare that someone really breaks away from the opinions they grew up with in any serious way and those who do seem more likely to be demented than visionary.

Honestly, I figured this was a problem that I could mostly ignore for a while and it would pass away (literally).

Titivillus sent me a list of ballot initiatives and it looks like eight states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin) have same-sex marriage bans under consideration.

One of the big problems with the liberal microcosm I travel in is I lose touch with the rest of the world. It is like being overseas in an Islamic republic during the last presidential election. It was completely baffling (and embarrassing) when Bush was reelected. He was so disliked by so many of my daily contacts that I forgot that the country full of people who elected him in the first place were still there.

What are things like for the rest of you? I live with a gay guy and I spent about an hour getting chatted up by a transvestite on Halloween. Different sexualities are certainly present in my daily life, but not in an uncomfortable sort of way. I live in DC though. I went to the drag races and spent an hour dancing and drunken cat-calling drag queens with about 10,000 other people. (At some point everyone should see a 200lb man sprint in high heels.)

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