Keep the Focus on George Floyd

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune

The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.

The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.

But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?

Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.

Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.

If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.

I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.

You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.

During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.

Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.

The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.

One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.

Christianity Teaches That Whiteness Loses

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13

We’re caught in a pandemic that is disproportionally killing black people. The violent and racist American policing system continues its rampage. New videos emerge, exclamation points on the sentences most of us haven’t bothered to read.

In our age of existential and eschatological confusion, where anything might be true, it is a challenge to cling to a hope rigorous enough to sustain action.

White Christianity can’t help us here. Indeed, if I thought for a minute that white Christianity represented God’s goodness I would not be a Christian. If I thought the passivity and silence of white Christians embodied Christian teaching I would know for certain that the invention of Christianity was a historic calamity.

But if the Christian story isn’t true, there are other bleak possibilities ahead. After all, whose to say so-called white people won’t win in the end? If the nation is all we have, whose to say the end of the story won’t be: we tried to establish an interracial democracy and failed. If humanity is all we have, whose to say the end of the story isn’t: we bounced around for a while, killing each other here and healing each other there, before finally destroying ourselves.

One reason I cling to Christian hope is because Christianity promises that whiteness will be overthrown. And that’s where James Baldwin comes in. Yes, Baldwin. Even though he eventually discarded the Christianity of his youth, he understood the subversive possibilities of Christianity far better than most Christians.

Baldwin’s first novel is a haunting coming of age story and a vivid picture of black Pentecostalism in 1930s Harlem. The main character is John Grimes, a black teenager wrestling with his sexuality and spirituality. In one astonishing passage describing John’s grandmother, a woman born into slavery, Baldwin shows his deep understanding of the black theological tradition. Against the theological heresies and social dehumanization practiced by most white Americans, John’s grandmother steadied herself with the truths of the Christian scriptures.

Take a moment to read this slowly. Let it wash over you:

I choose to believe this is true, and I could not possibly be more bored with the “god” of all the white Christians who tell us to calm down and stop talking about white supremacy. Sometimes people are most reluctant to talk about precisely those things that are most precious and holy to them. Think about that.

Baldwin was doing here what every good white evangelical claims to do with the scripture: applying it. There is a big gap in context and experience between the first century and twenty-first, and white Christians tend to be terrified of making that leap. So they keep the scriptures safely in an irrelevant time and place.

In recent weeks we’ve seen white people using guns to threaten legislators and pressure elected officials to end lockdowns. In large swaths of white America, it makes more intuitive sense to protest life-saving public health measures than to protest the death of a black person. This kind of moral illness is always a feature of the top of a social hierarchy. The struggle to dominate comes with costs to one’s own soul.

I have come to believe that the dark heart of socialization into whiteness is learning to devalue human life. You might think this would be a difficult lesson to learn, but learn it we do. It shows up in our materialism, our frenetic pursuit of accomplishment, our passivity in the face of injustice, our trust in racist institutions, and on and on. It shows up, too, in the way we enforce ignorance and callousness through social stigma. Go against the grain, defend black people without equivocation, and watch how quickly white Christians try to slap you down and make you bow to their god.

But folks, the people who here and now are white are on the edge of a steep place, with sightless eyes and stumbling feet. Whiteness loses, in the end.

A Scathing Review of Birth of A Nation from an Unlikely Source

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NAACP members protest the showing of Birth of A Nation in 1947. Theatrical re-releases for decades after 1915 helped make Birth of A Nation one of the most watched and influential films in American history.

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a historical epic of the reconstructed then redeemed South, debuted in the Spring of 1915. You may have heard of President Wilson’s probably-apocryphal remark that the film was like writing history with lightning.

The emotional core of the film, the part that grabbed audience’s hearts and left them stumbling out of the theater in ecstasies of white solidarity, was the lynching of a black man. In the climax of the film, a grim band of terrorists ride to the rescue of their absurd civilization, ready to do what they must to save themselves and their womenfolk from the horrors of freedom and democracy.

I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. While the NAACP boycotted and protested and successfully lobbied to ban the film in some cities, most people who saw it (and a lot of people saw it) seem to have thought the movie succeeded both as entertainment and as history.

The Chicago Tribune called Birth of A Nation “the greatest piece of work” ever done by an American filmmaker, and “in all essential episodes grounded on historical fact.” In London, the Observer enthused, “from first to last the story captivates with thrilling exploit,” and “remarkable realism.” Life magazine declared, “No one who cares for the history of our country should miss seeing this stirring exhibition.”

A 1921 retrospective in Life said that “movie history may be said to date from the day when The Birth of a Nation was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality.”

As a technical filmmaking achievement, this judgment may not be far from the truth. But Life did not stop to ask what sort of country censored sex and profanity in movies while making an ode to terrorism its highest-grossing film to date.

But how did white conservative Protestants react to the film? My expectation would be that most objected to the theater in general, but not the film in particular. So I was surprised to discover yesterday a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who saw clearly what most mainstream reviewers did not.

Writing in The Christian Nation, the denomination’s news magazine, W.J. McKnight noted that “The colored population of Boston is greatly agitated” about the movie. I expected him to condescendingly explain why their agitation was unjustified. Instead, he pointed out that the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, and that Dixon, “as everybody knows, hates the negro with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and would like to get all his neighbors, except, perhaps, the negroes, to do the same.” In other words, the black people of Boston had every right and reason to be agitated.

Well now, this was fascinating! Why did McKnight come to have these views, and how common were they in his circles? Certainly it has something to do with him being part of the slightly quirky Reformed Presbyterian Church. But why did he say “everybody knows” Dixon hated black people, when it was obvious most people did not know that (least of all Dixon himself)?

In contrast to mainstream reviews, McKnight called the film “a caricature of history.” How did he come to know this? How common was this knowledge among conservative Protestants? I’d really like to know!

While D.W. Griffith basked in the success of his film and declared that he “loved Negroes” (you know, some of my best friends are black) McKnight called the director “venomous.” McKnight had attended an interracial “indignation meeting” at an African Methodist Church where he learned that the film’s real message was “BACK TO SLAVERY.”

McKnight had apparently already been working among the black residents of Boston, though in what fashion I’m not sure. He mentioned that he had already given some lectures to crowds of hundreds and had more lectures scheduled. It is easy to assume that this ministry was carried on in a paternalistic fashion typical of the day. But that’s the thing about paternalistic ministry: it can’t control its effects in the way it purports to do. Sometimes the paternalist finds himself changing. McKight’s contact with African Americans may have given him insight to see the truth that most white Americans refused to see.

A Reading List for My Next Class

I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.

I’ve Experienced Enough Historically Significant Events Thank You Very Much

I was born in the 1980s. We millennials have had a tough go of it.

First, the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

Then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And now the severest pandemic threat since 1918.

Oh yeah, and there were two impeachments and the first black president.

It’s been an eventful life!

This is, of course, an American perspective on things. Globally, I’d say the most significant changes of my 34 years are as follows:

The intensification of climate change, huge improvements in global public health, China becoming a middle-income country, and the end of the Cold War (in that order).

Are we really living through an unusually eventful time, or does the immediacy of our own moment and time’s erosion of the harsh peaks and valleys of past experience deceive us? It’s often hard to tell.

What if I had been born in 1886 instead of 1986?

There would have been the economic crises of the 1890s and 1907. The triumph of racial terrorism and final overthrows of democracy in the southern states. A President assassinated. The Spanish American War. Counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Cars! Planes! Einstein’s theory of relativity! The astonishing immigration numbers. The Great War. The flu pandemic. I dunno. Maybe there’s always a lot going on.

In Praise of the Resurgent American Left

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After panning Sanders’ campaign yesterday, I offer this addendum today: the reinvigorated left is a wonderful development for American democracy and for all those who desire a more just society, even those of us who are not leftists.

Liberals who are sympathetic to the need for profound change in American society—though via reform rather than revolution—should be cheering the rise of the left for at least three reasons.

First, a visible and vocal left serves as a check on the invariable liberal impulse to tack to the center—no matter how awful that center is on the merits. With a viable left as an alternative, liberals must worry not only about appeasing the reactionary right. They must also address their left flank by making meaningful change on behalf of working people.

A rough analogy: As awful as Cold War era communism was, its very presence as a potentially attractive alternative was salutary in some democratic societies because it compelled the gains of capitalism to be widely shared. As I said, this is only an analogy—the American left’s desire to be more like Denmark does not portend gulags folks!

Second, a reinvigorated left challenges the American foreign policy consensus that has focused on imposing capitalism rather than prioritizing human rights. This consensus is grossly immoral, and makes the United States less safe besides. It also places an absurd faith in the power of military force to accomplish good in the world. Liberals, for all their supposed grounding in evidence and reason, have pursued this bloodthirsty militarism despite the overwhelming evidence of its futility. The left sees more clearly than do liberals that imperialism is coercive and inimical to human freedom, even in its supposedly benign American guise.

Third, a viable left serves notice to the American political system that liberalism is an ideology! It opens up a broader range of possibilities for Americans to imagine, and a larger field on which the American political debate can play out. It moves liberal shibboleths from the realm of common sense to their appropriate status of contested ideological claims.

There’s still a long way to go in making the left critique more visible and more effectual in American politics. Just this week a New York Times reported piece referred with a straight face to Pete Buttigieg’s “common-sense centrism.” Such nonsense was the norm when a dormant left was all but written out of the American political conversation. Liberals should be glad their claims are no longer common sense.

The polarizing style of the left is admittedly obnoxious, but then, it wouldn’t be a left if it thought liberals were its natural allies. Liberals are very good at explaining why gradualism is the only reasonable path forward. The left is needed to goad us, to remind us that this gradualism is not only a statement of what is possible; it is an ideological and temperamental disposition. The left is here to expand what is possible. May its influence grow.

Some Super Tuesday Thoughts

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Behold! I emerge from my bunker to offer a layperson’s thoughts on yesterday’s primaries.

Here are the numbers that really stood out me. According the exit polls, in the Super Tuesday states Biden won black voters 56-19. Meanwhile Sanders won Latino voters 50-24. What gives? Yes, we can point to the relative youthfulness of the Latino population, but does that entirely account for such a dramatic divergence? It is fascinating to see these two constituencies–one the backbone of the party and the other a rising “sleeping giant”–so out of step with each other.

I’m interested in the alternative timeline where Bernie tried to appeal to regular Democrats while retaining his core principles, rather than running as a factional candidate. Maybe he would have struggled to thread that needle but it must be said that he didn’t even try.

I would have more faith in Bernie’s theory of the case if he had produced some hard evidence of it by now. I really like the sound of historic turnout in November, driven by an unprecedented surge of young voters and people alienated from the political process. But if you can’t produce it in the primaries why should we expect it in the general?

I was struck by the contrasting tone of Bernie and Biden’s speeches last night. Biden made an open and explicit call to anyone within the sound of his voice to join his campaign. There’s a place for you in this campaign, he said. The message was: this campaign is for you. That’s just good politics folks! Without sacrificing any of his principles or policies, Bernie could have offered a similarly welcoming message. At least try to welcome Democrats! But instead, the tone of his speech was factional, as likely to turn off Democrats as woo them. This is just bad politicking!

There may well be more twists and turns ahead in this primary, but Biden appears to have reassumed front-runner status. The main people responsible for this surprising outcome? Ordinary black voters, first in South Carolina, and then across the South yesterday.

I can’t get this quote from one black South Carolinian out of my head: “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.” For many black voters, the pursuit of a political revolution may be a luxury they cannot afford. I feel no great enthusiasm for Joe Biden. But my personal experience and historical study have led me to see black political behavior as something of a conscience for the nation. I am not quick to dismiss it.

My historian’s take (which isn’t worth much since we’re famously bad at prediction) is that it has fallen to us to preserve the democracy black activists created in the 1960s. As the GOP turns against the rule of law and tries to hollow out our institutions, we take on the frustrating role of protecting imperfect institutions. We become, literally, the conservatives. That’s the role black South Carolinian’s played last week.

What the Sanders-left seems rarely to understand is how much worse things can become for poor people in a Potemkin democracy. Many black voters bear the memory of it in their bodies.

I’m inspired by what black voters did yesterday, even if I feel very ambivalent about Biden. I think they know what’s at stake. We need to vote in every midterm. We need to take sporadic voters with us. We need to wage a generational fight for decency and democracy. It’s a grind rather than a grand revolution, but it’s noble work worth doing.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.

I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.

I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.

What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)

Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.

Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.

Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.

The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):

Independent research

Wikipedia

School

Magic Tree House

Tv

Historical fiction

Museums

Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)

Video games (Call of duty)

Family (history phd in the family!)

Oral history

Listening to others

History channel

Weather channel

NPR

Social media

Traveling

Pop culture (comics)

Memes

Word of mouth

Talking with family; family stories

Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]

Documentaries

Festivals

High school teacher

American girl doll

Colonial Williamsburg

Museums and monuments

Dance

History textbooks

Historic sites (one room school house)

Landscapes

Quaker meeting houses

Battlefields

Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view

I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:

–History is all around us.

–We learn it in popular forms.

–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.

Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!

My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.

My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?

On Singing O Holy Night In White Evangelical Churches

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.

In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.

Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”

He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”

Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:

As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”

What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”

Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.

Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.

When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.

But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.

When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.

O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?

“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”

“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”

“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”

O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?

Thoughts for Sunday: The Radical Politics of Christmas

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Growing up, I was taught to read the Bible literally and take the plain meaning of a text at face value if possible. But I don’t believe this is the approach we took to Mary’s Song:

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1.46-55