Category Archives: Political Jesus

Why I Won’t Waste My Time Defending Black History Month

This is going to be a really short piece, because I don’t want to waste my time with this, but here goes. A few years ago, I would go out of my way to share that Morgan Freeman quote. I would get pats on the back from Libertarian friends and it was all good. The problem with playing that Morgan Freeman quote over and over again is that there is little to no reflection on the context in which Black History Month was given birth. Why not remind us who signed the bill into law? It was a Republican President, Ronald Reagan for starters. I don’t think Reagan conservatives are ones for being “politically correct.”

 

 

No one questions “Why is there a Native American History month?” No one asks every year, “Why is there an Asian Pacific American Month or a Hispanic Heritage Month?” No not ever. You want to know why? Because those months have nothing to do with Black people. That’s why. In a country founded on anti-Blackness and African enslavement, Black people, yes, I am including African Americans and immigrants from the Diaspora, are not supposed to celebrate anything. The dominant culture would rather us forget about histories of state violence and whitewash U.S. History and Blacks’ contributions to American society.

 

So, my answer to the question, “Why is there a Black History Month?” is simply this: NOPE! I have no interest in apologizing for Blacks’ full humanity and existence.  Commemorating the achievements and literature of African Americans is not a crime. Only in a society that is still committed to antiblackness can succeed in vilifying such an occassion. What I am not for is a Black History Month that exists as a ritual that reminds Black people annually of our need to assimilate to the dominant culture.  That is still reinscribing White Supremacy. Black History Month exists, as Tommy J Curry says, as a reminder of the utter contradictions of Black life, as Black people look to move forward looking to Black theology, the Black Church, Black philosophy, Black culture and Black music as sources of liberation.

 

Lastly, on the question of “well, what about a White History month?’ Whiteness is a social position and in the United States context, that means the oppression of European immigrants such as the Irish, the Germans, and Italians. So, for example, the government could probably do away with Christopher Columbus Day, and have an Italian Heritage Month. The more months, the merrier!

 

Photo Description (Source: Clearwater Public Library via Flick. A montage of various books by African American authors plus the images of Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. )

 

 

Our Bondage And Our Freedom: on Lent and neoliberalism

William T. Cavanaugh provides an intriguing analysis of modern consumer culture in relation to Christian social norms and morality in his work Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He addresses many questions that many Christian wrestle with on a daily basis. Namely, how does one embrace the teachings of the Gospel and Christianity in general while simultaneously participating in a culture that espouses an amoral foundation on material consumption? The ramifications of this answer not only have an impact on the local level but globally as well. This question is deeply rooted in articulating the human relationships in the midst of a capitalist society. At times in the United States the culture of consumption seems to be both inescapable as well as inevitable. From this insight another question becomes apparent. What is the true meaning of freedom in a free market economy? Cavanaugh seeks to answer this question in the first chapter.

milton friendman obamasized

He first points to Milton Freidman to identity the traditional notion of freedom in a free market capitalist society.  Friedman believes that freedom comes from absence of external coercion when two parties enter a mutually beneficial exchange of production (pg.2) According to this understanding all exchanges must be voluntary and informed.  Perhaps equally as important is that free market is defined in a negative sense. It is freedom from “eternal coercion.” Many have interpreted this to mean a freedom from state or government intervention.  In other words, freedom here is defined by the absence of external interference which ideally frees the individual to enter upon a mutually beneficial agreement. What is not factored into this notion of free market capitalism is the idea of telos. In relation to capitalism markets telos is broadly defined as common end through which desire is directed.  Every individual who embarks on an agreement according to this view of free market capitalism does so, based on their own individual interest. Neither communal good nor the wellbeing of society as a whole is factored into the decision making process.

 

Cavanaugh next point is to employ the work of St. Augustine as a corrective to this view of the free market. One of the more obvious flaws in Friedman’s view of free market capitalism is that quite often people do indeed enter into exchanges that are not mutually beneficial. One group is exploited while the other group does the exploiting. Perhaps the greatest example of this in modern society is the phenomenon known as global outsourcing.  Cavanaugh notes that many American businesses in the mid-20th century began to move overseas to Latin American countries because labor costs were much cheaper abroad. However, several decades later these same businesses moved again to the Asian continent because they hire laborer even cheaper there. Whereas the cost of production in Latin America was around 60 cents an hour for the average worker, in China that same labor could be outsourced at as low as 12 cents an hour. Compare this salary to the revenue generated from selling these items to American customers and it becomes apparent that this type of free market exchange is not mutually beneficial.

 

I think it is appropriate here to illustrate the exploitative nature of outsourcing through the context of the current season of Lent. Many people celebrate what is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday for spiritual or secular reason. There are several aspects of this festivity that can be seen as problematic. Particularly, the Mardi Gras beads that are so readily celebrated are the result of exploited Chinese laborer. David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, exposes American fetishism of these beads and the paltry condition under which they are made. Workers in these factories, primarily teenage girls, spend 14-16 hours a day laboring over mardigras beads. For all of their efforts they make around sixty-two dollars amount by which they are supposed to support both themselves as well as their families. Redmon even notes how the factory owner states that he does not want more than 10 percent of factory workers to be females because the females are easier to control. The owner also mention how he docks one month’s worth of pay if he catches the workers fraternizing with members of the opposite sex. The list of exploitative practices could go on. Suffice to say Friedman’s notion of free market freedom does not provide the sort of freedom that he hoped for when it is practiced. Freedom from something in a free mark capitalist society is certainly not freedom from exploitation.

 

Augustine fits into this equation because for him freedom is not merely from something but for something. Freedom is the ability to work towards a common good or telos. Everything that we do should be for a greater good and to serve a greater purpose. For Augustine this good is deeply connected to God. All interactions and relationships should connect God’s goodness to society at large. This has implications on how to understand telosin relation to free market capitalism. Model of production as well as economic relationships should be based on the telosof promoting God’s goodness for anyone who considers themselves a Christian. This means that one has to recognize the exploitative nature of free market capitalism as articulated by Milton Friedman. Outsourcing labor that leaves one group at a gross disadvantage does not promote God’s goodness. God’s goodness is revealed through the divine equality that everyone shares. This should be reflected in human relationships. So what does it mean for a person to understand an economic system with a conception of telos?

 

Cavanaugh at various points in his work makes several recommendations on how to conceive an economic system while having in mind, what end that economic system should meet. As previously noted for Christians this telosshould be towards the purpose of serving the greater good, articulated as God.  There are many ways this can be accomplished however; I would like to emphasize one that I think is particularly important towards understanding freedom. Individual practices can be the way that any person can participate in their own liberation. What Michel Foucault calls practices of freedom can help to navigate a Christian perspective of how to view a free market system as freeing. Foucault’s notion of practices of freedom is the process by which an individual’s employ practices aimed at alleviating their own domination. According to Foucault oppression is not solely an institutional process. As such it cannot solely be attacked at an institutional level. It is up to individuals as well as communities to fight oppressive forces. For Foucault when oppression is examined through the lens of the individual it is more aptly termed domination. Individuals alone may not be able to overthrown oppressive systems but that does not mean they have to play a role in their own domination. Through using specific practices the individual is able to exercise agency in the midst of oppression or domination. In other words, through practices they are able to acquire their own sense of freedom

 

Free market capitalism as well as many other economic systems are so easily linked with exploitation that individuals lose any sense that they may be able create change. Thus it is imperative that individuals recognize their own agency in these situations. It is equally important that individuals realize that they do not have to contribute to their own domination. Practices of freedom can include education, speaking out against exploitative practices etc. It is the responsibility of every Christian to also engage in these practices of freedom as well. Through participating in practices of freedom Christian can actively work toward the telos that Augustine describes and that is necessary for a Christian understanding of economic relationships in a free market society.

(Photo description: Obama-ized photo of Milton Friedman where half of the photo background is red, the other blue. The words “FREEDOM” appear in text across the bottom. Found on Flickr.)

Four Things You Didn’t Know About Northern Racism

 Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.

 

In the spring of 2014, the some of the residents of Lancaster, Ohio, the place I call home, woke up in the morning to a rude surprise. Fliers for the Ku Klux Klan were found all over town, including the yards of interracial families like mine. It was the talk of the town but Police Chief Dave Bailey made it clear that law enforcement would not look into the issuebecause they did not“believe that these fliers represent a serious solicitation by any actual organization but are more likely a prank or hoax…” Such a reply might be understandable if Lancaster and surrounding Fairfield County had no history of racism, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, like many northern cities, Lancaster suffers from amnesia and a failure to confront its numerous issues. In fact, it’s one of the whitest cities in the United States according to the financial website NerdWallet.

 

Lancaster’s biggest claim to fame is her native son General Tecumseh Sherman, the North’s bulldog. Made infamous in the South for his scorch earth tactics, General Sherman’s March to the Sea brought the destruction Atlanta and Savannah. To this very day, it serves a talking point for neo-confederates seeking to legitimize the so-called Lost Cause. To remember his honor, Sherman has a statue downtown and a Middle School named after him. This makes the town’s race issues the stuff of poetic irony, but, despite its problems, I call it home. I’m half-African-American and half-Caucasian and I’ve lived most of my life here. I’ve learned over the years on how to survive as a biracial activist in an almost entirely white environment

 

Often, the idea of racism is a far off notion that doesn’t seem relevant to people who have never experienced it. You have to make racial issues concrete to them by using local examples. The fundamental problem with pointing to examples of police brutality from out of town to illustrate racism is that most of the inhabitants of white suburbia have no frame of references to compare it to. It is hard to stir someone to fight for racial injustice when they confuse the Andy Griffith Show with an episode of Cops. I find most discussions with my white peers on the issue instantly dissolve into the conversations about “race-baiting”. In contrast, I find it far to easier to discuss examples that occurs in places they know of and can visualize. Here are four things you probably didn’t know about how White Supremacy manifests itself in Northern states like Ohio.

 

  1. The Jim Crow North

Racism has a deep rooted history in many Northern towns, especially historically rural communities like Lancaster. Like many cities, including those in the North, Lancaster had a past full of segregation. Public facilities (like the localpool) and privately owned shops were heavily segregated. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s Mary Burnham, an associate with the YMCA, was instrumental in providing activities for black youth by permitting them to use Y facilities when it was available. The NAACP had a relatively short lived presence in Fairfield County. Sometime between 1924 and 1929, with the help of Father Mario, the Catholic Church helped bring the NAACP to Lancaster and held a panel discussion at the local Elk lodge downtown. For decades and even up to recent years, the local catholic owned thrift store, Saint Vincent de Paul consistently employed African-Americans. Despite this, a NAACP chapter wasn’t started in Fairfield County until 1965 with the help of local resident Grant Groggin. Groggin, after removing burnt crosses from the top of Mount Pleasant (the hill downtown), had his life threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, most African-Americans left for Columbus after decades of housing discrimination. For these reasons, Lancaster, Ohio, was listed as the whitest city in the United States.

 

  1. The Great Migration and White Northern Backlash

 

Isabel Wilkerson, the author ofThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, recently highlighted the issue of northern racial prejudice in the New York Times by asking us “When will the North face its racism?”  In the Great Migration, from World War One to the 1970s, some 6 million blacks fled their homes to seek political asylum in their own country. Northern communities like Chicago greeted these newcomers by only allowing them the worse kinds of work for lower wages and regulated them into ghettos. It is no accident that the recent wave of protests surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and others are taking place in northern states. In order to escape Jim Crow, blacks went North, but they were followed by the very organizations that forced them to leave in the first place. Adam Parsons, a central Ohio resident/activist and PhD candidate in American history at Syracuse university, tells us, during a January 22nd interview, that Wilkerson’s point about a great migration “needs to be considered alongside the history of poor white outmigration from the South. Northern racism definitely existed already, but pre-migration Northern racism, I think, mingled with poor white Southern racism to create something new.”The Klan followed blacks to many Northern states like Indiana, organizing their chapter in 1915, and to the place I call home, Ohio. The perfect storm of Northern amnesia and largely white rural-sides weave a story that claims that Northern racial tensions (if they exist at all) only seem to occur in large cities where blacks are concentrated; thereby subtly implying that the issue is the very presence of said communities. In reality, there are many Northern cities like my home of Lancaster that used to have a sizable minority of African-Americans… they just all left for the major cities to flee racial prejudice.

 

nazi confederate flag

3. Northern Hate Groups

 When discussing past racism is essential but it is by no means the whole story, the conversation must also entail more recent events. Violent racist hate groups are by no means isolated to the southern United States. Lancaster has produced domestic terrorists. Case and point is Lancaster resident Larry Wayne Harris, who was convicted in 1998 for violating Section 175, Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits the possession of a biological agent for use as a weapon. Harris, a member of the National Alliance and the Aryan Nation, claimed to have military grade anthrax and, according to the FBI, had made threats to release it in a New York subway station.[1] After discovering that he mistakenly obtained vaccine grade anthrax, he was only charged with probation violations. This all occurred after his 1995 arrest when he attempted to obtain samples of bubonic plague. Because of a tip off from the laboratory he attempted to obtain them from, he never received it. He was only convicted of wire fraud (he created a false laboratory and misrepresented his credentials in going about obtaining Bubonic Plague). Judge Joseph Kinneary only placed Harris on probation for 18 months, ordered him to complete 200 hours of community service, and a fine of $50.[2] Needless to say, this is a slap on the wrist, but what more could you expect from a highly conservative part of Ohio?

 

  1. Economics And the Face of Modern Northern Racism

 

Intergenerational poverty helps reinforce much of the racism in Lancaster and surrounding Fairfield County. Working class whites struggle to make ends meet and look for someone to blame. Racial minorities are always easy targets. To quote local activist and former candidate of Lancaster City Board of Education Adam Schneider, a long time Lancaster area activist who now lives in Seattle for graduate school, during a January 21st interview: “The issue of naivety is one that is sad because there is a high concentration of poverty in Fairfield Count”. In an interview on Jan. 31st, local activist Jacob Chaffin agrees: “This same set of conservative values [those that produced racism] has prevented Lancaster from helping the poorest. The decline in industry in Lancaster has led to an increase in unemployment or low-wage jobs among high school graduates. I would argue that the lack of employment opportunity and security has directly led to the increase in drug use, which is something that people in Lancaster have attempted to ignore entirely until recently.” Tough economic situations combine with a heroin epidemic and create a perfect storm that produces hatred looking for a victim.

 

Conclusion: How Does One Combat Northern Racism?

 

Sure protests and non-violent direct action can change structures, but what strategies are effective when the racist in question is a good friend from High School who, after having a few beers,begins to use racially charged language? When dealing with racial issues it majority white towns, it is important to remember that often people are not aware they are using micro-aggressions. Lancaster native and activist Jacob Chaffin, reflecting on growing up, tells us that “I wasn’t surprised when it came out that Lancaster was considered the whitest city in America. When people of color did attend Lancaster High School, it was always noticeable and talked about among the white students. For the most part, I wouldn’t say that students were overtly racist, but rather partook in colorblind or ironic racism that is prevalent in our generation.”
To help them realize that they are engaging in racism, do you go out of the way to maintain a friendship with them, slowly apply pressure, and hope that they change over time or do you lay out an ultimatum? Finding the balance between an incrementalist and a fire-and-brimstone approach is one I’m still trying to figure out. Ultimately it seems to come down to the individual I’m trying to change. When taking an incremental, be aware of the microaggressions that you will unavoidably encounter. For example, a frequent topic of discussion was the race of my parents. Acquaintances aresometimes shocked to discover that my father was the white. Racist stereotypes dictate that the animalistic black male pursues the blond haired white female (therefore making him a threat to white civilization) but what kind of white man would willingly choose to marry an African-American women? Such are the kind of questions interracial families receive. Also, be aware that incremental approaches also run the risk of you becoming the “black friend” and being reduced to an Uncle Tom. Make use of these opportunities as valuable teaching moments, helping your friends to recognize problematic behaviors and negative stereotypes.

 

Any activism in majority white and working class cities requires realizing that the source of rage may be legitimate, but it’s focused at the wrong target. Lancaster, like many struggling post-industrial communities, struggles with drug abuse and seemingly endless unemployment. Most of the overtly racist people I’ve met over the years suffer from tough economic situations and may need a helping hand. Providing this hand is one of the best way to break racist stereotypes. The North, much like the South, has its racists too. Not even the home of the Union’s bulldog General Sherman is free from the influence of racism.

 

(Photo descriptions: 1st, the featured image is a mural painting of General Tecumseh Sherman in a Union Blue. Found in Lancaster, OH. Source: Flickr. 2nd image is a mashup of the flag of the Third Reich Nazi Germany and a Confederate battle flag. Original image editted by The Resist Daily)

 

[1] United States of America v. Larry Wayne Harris, William Job Leavitt, Jr., Criminal Complaint, Case No. MAG-98-2042-M-RLH, February 19, 1998, p. 3

[2] United States of America v. Larry Wayne Harris, Change of Plea and Sentencing, CR-2-95-93, April 22, 1997.