Raising My White Son In A Racist Age

Image result for john lewis young

The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.

My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.

I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.

When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.

I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.

My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.

The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?

We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?

Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.

But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?

My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.

During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.

But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.

Keep Your Eye on the Justice Department

rising-tide-of-color
An important intellectual call to arms during the last great nativist reaction. 1920.

The disgraceful confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general continues to fly under the radar. The Brennan Center’s Andrew Cohen reminds us what is at stake:

Just as the nation is turning away from mass incarceration, and discovering that crime rates can go down along with incarceration rates, Attorney General Sessions is poised to reverse course. He already made it clear with his opposition to bipartisan sentencing reform last year that he has little compassion or empathy for the families affected by the enforcement of unduly harsh sentencing laws. He has made this clear also with his adamant and relentless opposition to presidential clemency, even in cases of manifest injustice that shocks the conscience. A whole new generation of men and women, and their families, will be doomed to unreasonably long prison terms.

Even as he revs up the engine of mass incarceration, Sessions won’t be an attorney general who emphasizes the need to identify and rectify wrongful convictions. He will not fight for the right of criminal defendants to be ably represented in court so that fewer wrongful convictions occur in the first place. He won’t be an attorney general who questions the validity of forensic evidence, even when experts conclude that its reliability and accuracy is dubious. There are two types of prosecutors in the world: Those who care  only about convictions, and those who take a broader view of justice. Sessions has made it clear, both in Alabama and on Capitol Hill, that he is the first type of prosecutor.

Sessions’s confirmation hearing reminded us that he will be an attorney general for vote suppressors and perpetrators of the voter fraud myth. Under the guise of protecting democracy from a threat that does not exist, he will be an attorney general who allows more jurisdictions to enact voting restrictions that make it harder, or impossible, for the elderly, the poor, and citizens of color to cast a valid ballot. He will be an attorney general who looks for excuses not to file aggressive litigation designed to protect voting rights. He will be an attorney general who is as feckless in this area of the job as he has shown to be fearless in prosecuting dubious voter fraud cases.

Read the whole thing. A man who praises the Johnson-Reed Act and criticizes the Voting Rights Act is not fit to hold office. Sessions’ colleagues tell us how kind and decent he is. He reminds me of John Stennis in that way. As my forthcoming article in History & Memory details, American media and political elites harped on Stennis’s integrity and personal kindness, as if these interpersonal qualities somehow made up for what Stennis actually did as a public figure. He spent decades fighting for white supremacy, but his colleagues called him the “conscience” of the senate.

In a similar way, if you look at what Sessions actually does, he appears to be nothing more than a white nationalist operating in a proud tradition of white southern elites. Why should we care if he’s a nice guy?

A Mockery of Justice

sessions
Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions

In the first decades of the twentieth century, vast numbers of Eastern European immigrants came to the United States. By the 1920s, the country was gripped by nativist reaction. The revamped Ku Klux Klan added Catholics and immigrants to its list of enemies and gained millions of members nationwide. Leading public intellectuals fretted about “The Rising Tide of Color” and “The Passing of the Great [white] Race.” President Calvin Coolidge published an article called “Whose Country Is This?” in which he pontificated about the superiority of the “Nordics.” In 1923, the Supreme Court declared that Asians could not become naturalized citizens.

In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most sweeping immigration restriction law in American history. The law drastically reduced overall immigration levels, barred all Asians, and imposed draconian cuts on immigration from Eastern Europe. The expressed purpose of the law was to favor immigrants from western European countries deemed racially fit.

Congressman Albert Johnson, the key driver of the law in the House, described his rationale this way:

Today, instead of a well-knit homogeneous citizenry, we have a body politic made up of all and every diverse element. Today, instead of a nation descended from generations of freemen bred to a knowledge of the principles and practice of self-government, of liberty under law, we have a heterogeneous population no small proportion of which is sprung from races that, throughout the centuries, have known no liberty at all…In other words, our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood, with all its inherited misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed…It is no wonder, therefore, that the myth of the melting pot has been discredited…the United States is our land…We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.¹

Notice that Johnson described American identity not only as a matter of ideals, but of blood. America’s leading statesmen believed that race was linked to capacity for self-government. Liberty and self-government were not abstracted ideals. They were instead the racial achievement of the superior Anglo-Saxon race. By welcoming other races into the country that did not understand these traditions and were not racially capable of embracing them, the United States was inevitably weakening itself.

It is precisely this Johnson-Reed Act that soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised:

In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic. Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so, it’s very unusual, it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly, we then assimilated through the 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America. We passed a law that went far beyond what anybody realized in 1965, and we’re on a path to surge far past what the situation was in 1924.

Does Sessions think the Johnson-Reed Act was good policy because of its racism, or in spite of it? Does he support the law itself, but none of the ideas that caused Congress to enact it? These are not unfair questions.

While praising the Johnson-Reed Act, Sessions has criticized the Voting Rights Act. He called it “intrusive” and praised the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. He has since supported the proliferation of new vote suppression laws.

This man draws inspiration from the worst parts of our history, and seeks to roll back our greatest achievements. He is unfit for office.

______________________________________________

¹Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd Edition (New York: Perennial, 2002), 283-284.