I might look suspicious– if not for white privilege.

Racism is a white problem. Preferences and prejudices are universal. An ‘-ism’ needs power and privilege to make it real.

When I say racism is a white problem, I mean white people belong to a majority group, a dominant group, we have the power to enforce our prejudices. I think most white people do this in very subtle ways and would be horrified to realize they are doing it that all.

When I say racism is a white problem, I do not intend to dismiss or minimize the impact it has on people of color. Instead, I would liken it to a disease that afflicts the privileged. Unlike a disease, it can only be changed by those who are afflicted.

In an article published in the Atlantic, Teju Cole  talks about the White Savior Industrial Complex. The theme I took away from the article was about well-intentioned white people trying to do good in short spurts. Meanwhile, the slow and steady support of oppressive regimes, inequitable trade relations, discrimination, racial profiling and everyday microaggressions continues.

This is, all at once, too large and complex a problem to even think about and also so small we can’t NOT address it. We can confront our prejudice and privilege every day, one incident at a time.

Carl Jung talked about the importance of embracing our shadow-side. It’s not easy. Who wants to think of themselves as racist? But pretending racism is a thing of the past or limited to fringe supremist groups doesn’t make it go away. Only by acknowledging white privilege and the racist climate we live in, can we begin to see what we are doing to perpetuate the problem.

Silence is the Voice of Complicity

I’m a huge fan of free speech. It doesn’t mean I like everything that other people say. It doesn’t mean I’ll stand around and listen. But it is important enough to me that I gave seven years of my youth in military service to support free speech. It’s important enough to me that I continue to try to encourage people to speak.

Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “Silence is the Voice of Complicity”? I think it’s true. I also think it is often easier to ignore a problem than to confront it. It sometimes works with children and with puppies. When they don’t get the response they are hoping for they often stop the behavior. You probably know this doesn’t work with teenagers. If your new driver borrows your car without asking and you say nothing your new driver learns they don’t have to ask for the car.

When your coworker makes an offensive remark and you ignore it, they learn, and the people around you learn, it’s okay to make those kinds of remarks. It’s not easy to make an appropriate response to an inappropriate comment. It makes everyone uncomfortable. But inappropriate comments also make people uncomfortable. If you’re going to be uncomfortable anyway, why not venture an appropriate response?

Free Market Fundamentalist

“Free market fundamentalist.” Funny little phrase isn’t it? I heard it on the radio this morning.  It co-mingles the invisible hand of God and the invisible hand of the free market – as if the universe had been created by the great clock-maker who wound it up and walked way. Adam Smith was actually trying to apply this image of natural forces to his thoughts about commerce.

Almost twenty years ago, I tried participating in my local government. I had just bought a house in a new development and discovered the city planners had done nothing by way of preparing for the population boom the building permits they granted would eventually cause. This was bad, but not enough to draw me out beyond my day-to-day concerns of providing for my very young children. Then I discovered a developer was applying for another permit for new construction, which would further burden the insufficient infrastructure of the area. They must have known residents would resist their application because they complied with the public notice requirements in much the same way a mime would entertain on a darkened stage.

Nonetheless, someone noticed and started talking about it. Within a day, a clear majority of the affected residents had signed a petition to block the permit. Remember, this was pre-internet. People walked the neighborhoods, knocked on doors and talked about the issue. Residents packed the planning commission’s public hearing; chiefly raising objections about the developer’s plan to extract value from the land without contributing to the infrastructure changes they necessitated. The residents were accused of being greedy and classist.  Their objections were dismissed. The planning commission approved the permits as if no discussion had taken place, no petition submitted.

I found the whole process discouraging and confusing. For years I thought perhaps I was actually viewing the problem from a greedy and classist perspective. The developers’ spun the homeowners’ objections as a fear that their high-density ‘affordable’ housing plans would lower existing home values. Now I understand this to be a classic example of projection. Had they not feared a reduction in home values themselves, they would have developed a balanced distribution of luxury and affordable housing from the start. I had taken the children with me to the hearing. Afterwards, I felt relieved they were too young to understand how democracy failed to work in that instance.

I was at the time a strong believer in free-market capitalism. What I didn’t understand at the time what that free-market capitalism is a myth. Individuals do not make informed economic decisions based on self-interest. First, individuals are rarely aware of all of the details surrounding their economic decisions. Second, individuals are sometimes coerced into making economic decisions against their self-interest. Finally, because we are human, we sometimes make economic decisions to benefit a third-party rather than ourselves.

I had also never considered capitalism a threat to democracy. For some, this threat is so obvious it does not bear discussing. For others, the discussion itself is threatening.  Capitalism is sacred and patriotic and I might just be a communist if I suggest otherwise.

Capitalism is a huge threat to democracy. For-profit entities must try to remove all barriers to profit maximization. Democratic governments, by nature, to protect constituents, regulate commerce and those regulations create barriers to profit maximization. The tension is built in. Unfortunately, economic power trumps populist concerns; most especially because economic power can be used to discredit or mask populist concerns.

The inertia of economic power is probably the reason we still talk about “invisible market forces” causing market corrections and assuring free trade. If you had considerable economic power that depended on the majority of people believing you deserved that power wouldn’t you invest in educating the population about the system (the science of economics) that affirms your economic power as justly conferred to you?

Apologize, Make Amends, Move On

It’s not surprising that Herman Cain has been accused of sexual harassment. It would be surprising if he never harassed a women. It would be so gay. Men and women perceive sex differently. Men and women approach sex differently. I think men typically make the first move because they would be waiting a long time otherwise. Unwanted advances are inevitable. Inevitable, but not harassment. It’s not harassment until he refuses to accept that she isn’t interested and tries to leverage a power advantage to get what he wants.
I can’t imagine there is a man on the planet who has never made an unwanted advance or been perceived to have made an unwanted advance. I can’t imagine there is a man on the planet who hasn’t tried to leverage his maleness to some advantage. These things aren’t harassment until the threat of sexual coercion or economic exclusion emerge.
I have heard that men who view themselves as successful also tend to over-estimate their sexual attractiveness. Successful men make more unwanted advances because they can’t imagine their advances would be unwanted. Perhaps they are more often accused of harassment because the power differential makes the threat of coercion or exclusion stronger than ever they intended.
None of this matters. Human beings make mistakes. What matters is how we respond to them. A man who appears to request sex and accepts a woman’s refusal — even if he didn’t intend to request sex — this man does not get charged with harassment; this man does not settle out of court because it’s cheaper; this man doesn’t need to discredit that woman because nothing happened. People of integrity apologize when they offend and they seek outside themselves to ensure they continue to act with integrity.
Herman Cain probably did cross a line at some time in his past with one or more women. He is a heterosexual male. What matters is how he and other men are responding to this ‘news’. Personally, I don’t think any of the Republican candidates are credible and I don’t think Cain is a frontrunner. Allegations of sexual harassment do make great smoke screens though. The disturbing response from some extreme voices — that women accuse men of sexual harassment because they can’t succeed in the normal way — aren’t even germane.
We know Cain is not a man of integrity because he can’t handle a simple allegation of misconduct. Great, but what do we know about any of the other candidates? Will they continue to funnel money to the wealthy? Will they continue to use the military and paramilitary forces to protect the financial interests of large corporations? Will they continue the war on poverty-stricken families? Will they continue to belittle GLBT people in order to intimidate heterosexual men? Do any of them actually know how to govern?

Why aren’t you Occupy-ing?

I’ve been talking to people about the various Occupy actions, with a particular focus on OccupyMN because that’s where I live.

I started with my parents. A playful tease. Yes, I am old enough to know better. Yes, I am old enough to feel embarrassed about having done this. My parents were born just as the Great Depression got underway — now you see why I feel a little embarrassed.

When I heard they were going to D.C., I asked if they’d be joining the protest.

Their first response was “what protest” — early days — Occupy Wall Street was only in it’s third week at this point. Even so, I was surprised because my parents are politically savvy news hounds. If the main-stream media have covered a topic, they know about it.

Their next response was, “Don’t be silly. We are too old for such things.” Never mind that my parents aren’t the protesting kind. They are more the pro-democracy, keen on honoring human rights, silent sentinels of the cold war kind of people.

Together since their youth, they have dedicated their entire adult lives to defending freedom. For thirty-two years, they served the U.S. Navy. Now they support a national heritage site, provide scholarships for the children of sailors, and volunteer at the polls.

It’s not their way to protest the unilateral reduction of their retirement contract. It’s not their way to protest the denial of basic civil rights to some of their children and grandchildren. They might talk about it. They will definitely vote about it. But you won’t find them on the streets carrying signs.

What about you? Are you just not the kind of person to take to the streets? Do you disagree with the message? Are you confused by the lack of message? Are you waiting for them to ‘land’?

If you haven’t connected with the Occupy actions, why not? Some of the responses I’ve heard are included below. Please add your thoughts too.

What would you do?

Recognizing that October in Minnesota doesn’t inspire a lot of causal milling about outside, I been wondering what motivates people to OccupyMN.

Okay, even Minnesotans ask the broader question: why does anyone live here? If you’re curious too, it’s the people. For my part, I didn’t fall in love with Minnesota so much as with a particular Minnesotan.

I’ve been asking people, “what brings you out to Government Plaza today?” Turns out it’s the people: children and grandchildren, neighbors who struggle to make ends meet, patients who don’t get the care they need. For the record, I haven’t heard anyone demanding personal bailouts. The people I’ve talked to are concerned about others.

So I changed my question.

If you could make one change in our society, what would it be?

Some initial responses are posted below. Please add your own.