Economics, History, Race, USA

Reparations for Racist Plunder: Addressing the Racial Economic Divide

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“When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.” ­– Ta-Nehisi Coates

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There is no panacea for American racism—no single policy or protest or legislative proposal that can cure the ills of this deep-seated, multi-layered disease. The killing of George Floyd, and many others before him, has our national attention focused on the issue of police brutality.  Calls to defund the police are ringing out in cities across the country.

To this cause, I’m both sympathetic and skeptical.  I’m supportive of communities of color who wish to defund or dismantle an institution that has all too often done the opposite of “protect and serve” them, but I also question the ability of such an initiative to make progress towards true racial justice.

Everything is and should be on the table, and reforms to the way we do policing are undoubtedly worth considering.  But when it comes to appropriating our limited energy and resources, I think there is an issue that deserves a bigger slice of that pie—an issue that should seize centerstage in this moment of national urgency towards addressing racial injustice.  That issue is the enormous economic gulf that divides black and white America.

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Real solutions come from addressing root causes, and economic oppression is a root cause of a lot of problems in black communities, police brutality included.  Black people are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and while the caricature of the “black ghetto” is problematic, impoverished communities are more likely to experience crime, and therefore, more likely to experience encounters with police that have the potential to turn violent.

Economic inequality also helps respond to one of the favorite refrains of those who question the Black Lives Matter agenda, “Why are we so worried about blue-on-black crime when the real problem is black-on-black crime?”  There is no excuse for police brutality, but black-on-black crime is a problem that plagues many black communities, and makes policing those communities a difficult and dangerous job.  But, once again, it’s important to consider root causes.  Why are levels of black-on-black crime so disproportionately high?  Is it due to the fact that people born with black skin are innately more likely to exhibit violent behavior?  If you believe that, you are literally a “racist”.  But assuming you don’t, then there needs to be another explanation, something that stems less from biology and more from socialization.  That explanation lies within the impoverished communities that black people are more likely to be born into—communities in which socioeconomic conditions leave people more susceptible to participation in criminal activity.

And those conditions are 400 years in the making.

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The black poverty of today did not fall from the sky.  It’s a construction of American history that took centuries to build.  That history begins with slavery.

The enslavement of black people on American soil is older than the country itself, and it is the starting point for the black-white wealth gap that has never went away.  For nearly two-and-a-half centuries, black slaves occupied the unusual economic position of being mostly unable to accumulate wealth while simultaneously representing wealth as the property of their white owners.  They also generated enormous amounts of wealth through their labor, even though they didn’t share in any of the profits.  In the seven cotton producing states in the antebellum South, it is estimated that one third of all white income was derived from slavery.  By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the country.  That wealth has been passed down through generations of white families, even though it was literally built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the brief period of Reconstruction offered a glimmer of hope to newly freed blacks that measures would be taken to reduce their economic deprivation. Forty acres and a mule was part of the initial promise made by the American government to help former slaves begin their new lives as free people.  It’s amazing to think where our country might be today if this promise had been fulfilled.  But it wasn’t.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency and rescinded the order, returning all the land set aside for freed slaves to the white southern planters who had owned it originally, and who had attempted to secede from the Union in order to preserve their “right” to force slaves to work it.

Black people remained free from state-sanctioned bondage, but their undesirable situation showed that freedom without economic security is no freedom at all.  They had lost their chains, but what did they have to start their new lives as free people?  Without money, without skills, without formal education, what was a free black man to do upon his release from the plantation in a country that, despite his legally recognized humanity, still saw him as something to be disdained?  Many ended up back on plantations working as sharecroppers for the same families who owned them in previous decades, and became a part of a system that many historians have referred to as “slavery by another name.”

When Reconstruction came to a close, the South rapidly returned to the project of constructing a society steeped in white supremacy.  Legalized segregation, voter suppression, and violent intimidation all collaborated to deny blacks political and economic opportunity. Even when black people were able to overcome all odds and achieve economic prosperity, incidents like the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 showed how quickly that wealth could be wiped away.

In an attempt to flee the horrors of the Jim Crow South, many blacks headed North in hopes of finding something better.  Unfortunately, better was still bad.  Discrimination in employment left blacks with few pathways to upward economic mobility.  Those able to succeed still found themselves unwelcomed in emerging wealthy, white suburbs.  Instead, black families with wealth were pushed towards poor, black neighborhoods where predatory mortgages torpedoed them back into poverty.  This practice, known as redlining, is one of the primary forces that led to the formation of the black ghettos we see across the urban North today.

 

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made some pretty historic progress towards racial equality, but few of those achievements were centered around economics.  Decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 went a long way towards gaining black Americans political equality, but economic equality still remained elusive.  While most remember Martin Luther King as the guy with a “Dream” in 1963, not many are aware that, towards the end of his life, King had shifted his focus to much more “radical” causes, including economics.  It’s worth quoting from one of his last major interviews at length:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil…America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality…to get started on.   At the same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base.  And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.  And so, emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore, was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression, and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

This is the reason that King was in Memphis in the Spring of 1968.  He was there to support striking sanitation workers who were staging a protest against unequal wages and working conditions.  King did not leave Memphis alive.

 

Fast-forward to today.  Millions of black Americans are still “bootless”.  The wage gap between blacks and whites has been widening in recent decades, and the gap in homeownership is as large as it was on the day King was assassinated. When it comes to net worth white households on average possess about ten times the wealth of black households, creating cradle-to-grave security or cradle-to-grave poverty depending on which side of those statistics you’re on.  These inequities are magnified during the current pandemic.  Black people make up 13% of the country’s total population but have made up 23% of Covid-19 deaths, a stat no doubt bolstered by the fact that black people are almost twice as likely to lack health insurance compared to whites.  At every turn, the lingering economic inequality that began the day the first African slave was imported to Jamestown is still hampering the crusade for racial justice dozens of generations later.

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So, what do we do about?

The most powerful piece that I read in preparing this essay was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations”—a must-read for any American that cares about racial justice and even more of a must-read for any American that doesn’t.  In the article, Coates outlines a thorough history on many of the historic injustices that I’ve more briefly discussed here, and his belief that black Americans today must be financially compensated for the wealth that was robbed from their ancestors, and by consequence, them.

There are many forms that these restorative payments could take.  They could be checks sent out to individual African-Americans who can demonstrate a legacy of slavery in their lineage.  They could be, as Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree suggests, targeted investments in things like job training and public works that operate under the mission of racial justice, but indirectly assist the poor of all races.

What makes the idea of reparations most attractive to me is that they are a systemic response to a systemic problem.  The racial economic divide that exists in present day America is not a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Americans carefully and intentionally created it.  They created it through slavery, segregation, violence, discrimination, Jim Crow, redlining, voter suppression, sharecropping, and the scientifically disprovable belief that skin color determines the superiority or inferiority of persons, or if they are even persons at all.  It’s an outcome created by a system, and it will take a system to destroy it.

Reparations are about “repairing”—repairing the economic damage done to black communities throughout the course of American history.  But they’re also more than that.  They’re also a step towards healing—healing an enormous wound in the flesh of racial harmony that’s led to so much mutual hatred and mistrust between the “races” that we’ve created.  As Coates puts it:

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Perhaps defunding the police could play a role.  Redirecting police department dollars towards an investment in a struggling community of color could be an important step both practically and symbolically.  But that’s not enough.  Not even close.

Reparations would be a colossal project, but one of the many lessons that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that if we deem a project to be sufficiently important, we’re willing to commit as many dollars as that project needs.  The federal government has already invested trillions of dollars in Covid-19 relief spending, and it’s possible that there are trillions more to come.  But as devastating as this pandemic has been for the American economy, it pales in comparison to the economic devastation wrought on black communities over centuries of subjugation.

Reparations don’t need to happen in one fell swoop, but it’s time for the economic divide to take center stage in the national dialogue on racial justice.  It’s time for H.R. 40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to receive serious consideration from our elected leaders.  The problem of American racism is much too complicated to be solved simply by throwing money at it, and certainly there is no amount of money that can truly “make up” for the gross injustices of the past.  But when racial inequities of all kinds are so deeply rooted in economics, and in a country where financial security is so closely linked to the experience of true freedom, money is a good start.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Reacting to the Riots

I’m not sure of anything I’m about to say.  I struggled with the decision to even write about the riots.  I’m not sure that I should be writing about the riots, or if “riots” is the term I should even be using.  As sad and distressed and disheartened as I feel, I don’t know if a guy that occupies the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic spaces that I do can offer helpful and meaningful contributions to this conversation.

I obviously don’t condone the riots.  How could you?  How can anyone look at the videos and images of our cities reduced to robbery, rubble, and flames and say that that is something that they condone?  The ugliness unfolding across my social media platforms literally has me sick to my stomach.

But is that something that I really need to say?  Is that the kind of commentary that we need right now from Minnesota’s white community?  It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to fire-up my social media and launch a series of disparaging tweets condemning the senseless and counterproductive violence taking place across the Twin Cities.  And I would mean it, too.  That is how I feel.  But everything felt is not worth saying.

I haven’t lived a life of experiences that would ever lead me to participate in this kind of destruction.  That’s not because I’m better.  It’s because I’m lucky.  It’s because I was born with a skin color that statistically made me more likely to experience economic prosperity and less likely to fall victim to state-sanctioned violence.  It’s also the reason that I’m ill-equipped to pass judgment or condemnation on those who aren’t as lucky as me.

Which is why I don’t have a lot I want to say.  Instead, I want to listen.

I want to listen to the people of color who have a more intimate knowledge of the experiences that lead us to today.  People of color who have grown up in these neglected communities and been victims of poverty and profiling and police brutality.  People of color who have grown up with more privilege, but still sense the dangers that their black skin can bring them in the United States of America. People of color who are leading movements that call for peace, justice, action, equity, and systemic change.  People of color who are decrying the craziness of the last two days and have suffered the most from the devastation.  And, yes, people of color who are encouraging and perpetrating it.

The radical historian, Howard Zinn, once wrote that “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

The voices of the unheard are roaring today.  There’s nothing just about what’s happening right now, but there’s nothing just about what got us here, either.  I hope with all my heart that state and community leaders will make the right decisions to quell these threats to human life and property, but I’m also skeptical that a “right” decision even exists.  But when the dust eventually settles and the smoke eventually clears, if we haven’t listened to these cries and learned from these injustices, we’re doomed to repeat them, and all the madness that comes with.  I hope to god we don’t make that mistake.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Thoughts on George Floyd, 24 hours later

It’s been 24 hours since I first watched the video of the events that lead to the death of George Floyd in southeast Minneapolis.  It’s one of the most distressing videos that I’ve ever seen.  About five minutes in, shortly after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, I remember thinking that the video had to be over soon—that the aggressor-officer had to be ready to let up.  As I moved my cursor downward, I was shocked to discover that the video was barely half-over, with another full five minutes to go.  Throughout most of those minutes, the aforementioned officer continued to kneel on George Floyd’s neck.  We all know the end result.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first video I’ve seen documenting the slaying of a black man at the hands of my local police.  Twin Cities folks no doubt remember the dashboard cam footage of four years back when Philando Castile was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, as well as the harrowing footage of the aftermath filmed by his girlfriend from inside of the car.  I wrote about this tragedy at the time, highlighting the injustice that seemed to be implied from the various angles that we had of the killing.  But as incriminating as that footage was, I think that the video from this most recent tragedy ascends to a different level of incrimination of the law enforcement officials involved in a few distinct ways.

One difference is the factor of the unknown, or in the case of George Floyd, what might have went down before the filming began.  While I will still contend that the killing of Philando Castile was grossly unjustified and criminally reprehensible, I will admit that I cannot know for sure what took place inside of that car prior to the officer discharging his weapon.  I know what I think happened (nothing!), but I have no definitive proof that Castile did not appear to be reaching for his weapon, or that the aggressor-officer did not have good reason to fear for his life.

George Floyd is different.  In the video I watched early yesterday morning, the events that transpired before the witness began recording on their cellphone have little-to-no bearing on what took place afterwards.  Invent any scenario that you like—”George Floyd was resisting arrest!”  “He was aggressive!”  “He was dangerously violent!”  No matter what took place prior, at the time the now infamous video began, George Floyd was clearly no longer a threat, and he only became less threatening as the video carried on.  He was handcuffed, lying on his stomach, and sufficiently disenabled.  In the case of Philando Castile, we can at least imagine a scenario (albeit unlikely) in which lethal force could be justified.  In the case of George Floyd, that scenario does not exist, no matter how creative your imagination.

Another distinction worth noting is the behavior of the aggressor-officers.  The officer who killed Philando Castile knew he fucked up.  You could hear it in his voice.  He was well aware that pulling that trigger may have been the gravest mistake of his life.  I’m not sure if that necessarily transforms him into a sympathetic figure, but at the very least, it lends him a little humanity.

I cannot say the same about the behavior of the aggressor-officer in the case of George Floyd.  His demeanor is calm and cold.  As the onlookers grow increasingly urgent in their desperate pleas for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, the officer almost seems to grow more defiant, as if he continues to apply the possibly lethal pressure just to prove a point.

I’ll still refrain from passing judgment on these cops as people.  I’m a firm believer that good people can do terrible things in moments of anger or weakness.  That includes the bystander cop who, despite his concerned and conflicted expressions, fails to make a potentially life-saving intervention. These cops may not be monsters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they participated in a monstrous thing.  Assuming they are criminally charged, the prosecution should reflect that.

I attended the early stages of yesterday’s protest.  It was the first protest I’ve ever been to of this kind.  Several things stood out.

First and foremost is my admiration for the protest’s organizers and leaders.  In the past, I’ve been critical of some members of groups like Black Lives Matter for what I believe to be their overzealous inflation of injustices that need no hyperbole, and the adverse effect that those exaggerations can have on the group’s goals and credibility.

I heard none of that last night. The leaders of the protest were impressively nuanced.  They called for resistance, but explicitly denounced violence and destruction of property.  They called for the prosecution of the offending officers, but refrained from demonizing the entire police force.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some protestors blaring “Fuck Tha Police” waiting for any excuse to launch whatever projectiles might be in range, but based on my unofficial observations, the vast, vast majority of protestors who were gathered at that intersection came ready to resist responsibly, and that is in large part due to the protest’s leadership.

Another personal takeaway was my dramatic realization of the courage that it takes to attend protests like these.  Over the time I spent on 38th and Chicago, I witnessed the removal of a man who was later reported to be an armed, Neo-Nazi counter-protester.  I saw the beginnings of what could have exploded into a mass-panic when revving engines suddenly approached the protest’s epicenter, evoking a short-lived but intense terror that we were about to experience a repeat of Charlottesville (the engines turned out to be those of a black motorcycle gang arriving in support of the protest, but god was it scary).

Both these anecdotes are representative of the kind of knowledge that only comes from experience.  From my studies and teaching of events from Selma to Ferguson, I’ve learned a great deal about the inherent dangers of protest, but there is no knowledge that can be acquired from a book that can ever supersede the experiential knowledge gained in those few fleeting moments when I thought that the consequences of that danger might be experienced by me.

I was moved by the solidarity exhibited between different groups of color.  Despite a very different history, there were first, second, and probably third generation African immigrants, many Somali, out in full force at this protest.  Native peoples were well-represented, including a quasi-drum circle on the southeast corner explicitly expressing its solidarity with the black community as a group with a comparable history of systemic mistreatment.

That diversity also included a lot of white people, and the protest’s leaders made us feel validated.  That validation, however, did not come without a challenge.  I was deeply impacted by the words of one of the speakers who, after proclaiming his appreciation of our presence, insisted that we remain with them on the front lines, because, as he so eloquently put it, “we [black people] can’t go home.”

I left the protest about 90 minutes after those words were uttered, and as I watched the chaos and destruction unfold from the safety of my suburban neighborhood, the speaker’s words could not have rang more true.  It is hard to find a more powerful representation of white privilege than the ability to attend the easy part of a protest and leave before the shit gets real.   I should have been a better white ally, but I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.

Not that I would have participated in the violence and destruction of property with the select few who perpetrated it.  I believe those actions to be profoundly misguided and undermining of everything the protest is meant to achieve.  However, I also subscribe to the Kingsian view that “riot is the language of the unheard.”  That doesn’t mean I agree with the riots, but it does mean that I think I understand where they come from and why they happen.

One last point I’d like to address: the courage of the confronters.  I’ve got a semi-personal connection with one of the people who confronted the team of police officers called upon to restrain George Floyd, and I couldn’t be prouder to be vaguely associated with him.  He’s a fellow aspiring martial artist who happens to train at the same institution as me.  The mix of persistence and composure displayed by him and other confronters at the scene—including the firefighter chick and the woman behind the cellphone cam—is unbelievably admiral.  “He’s human, bro…He’s not responsive right now…Check his pulse!!!…You gonna let him kill that man in front of you, bro?…Thao, you know that’s bogus…”.  The level of courage that it takes for a black man to challenge police officers ENGAGED IN ASSAULT is a level of courage that I very much aspire to.

This is 24 hours in.  I’m a big believer in allowing the facts of a case to manifest before arriving at final conclusions, and that no previous injustices by white cops against black men should weigh in on our decisions on how to evaluate the specific details of this case.  That said, I also find it hard to imagine the emergence of any evidence that could substantially sway my general sentiment about this particular tragedy.

A gross injustice was committed yesterday. An injustice that was both unnecessary and preventable.  An injustice that certainly would not have taken place with a little more empathy and a lot less hate.  I’m sad for my city, my state, and my country, and while I’m encouraged by the level of turnout at the protest and the swift action taken by the city of Minneapolis and its police department to try to right an irrevocable wrong, I’m also convinced more than ever that, in spite of centuries of progress, we still have a lot of work to do.

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Politics, Race, USA, World

The Transparency of Trump’s “Chinese” Virus

Let me start with a concession: the Coronavirus did originate in China. To that degree, the president’s use of the term “Chinese virus” is accurate. I’ll follow it up with another concession: the Chinese government is deserving of criticism for its handling of the initial outbreak. Though recent governmental efforts have led to a vast reduction of new cases inside the country, it’s reasonable to think that more effective measures early on could have helped to prevent some of the worldwide chaos that we are experiencing now.

Those concessions withstanding, Donald Trump’s recent rebranding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese” virus is disgusting. It’s a transparent attempt to tap into the racism and xenophobia that animates much of his base, and perhaps worse, a shameful act of cowardice during a time when strong leadership and accountability couldn’t be more important.

I’ve repeatedly resisted the urge to call Donald Trump a racist. I’m a firm believer that that term should be reserved for people who truly hold hatred in their hearts for different “races” of people, not people who are racially unenlightened. Trump is definitely the latter, and while he may not be the former, he sure has no problem exploiting the racial hatred of others.

There had already been an uptick in discriminatory attitudes and behavior towards Asian-Americans since the Coronavirus outbreak began, and that was before the most influential person in the country decided to get in on it. Trump knows that his words will contribute to this ugliness, but he doesn’t give a shit. That’s because he’s already made the political calculation that his best hope for reelection lies in crafting the same xenophobic narrative that won him the presidency four years ago. Much like the boogieman of the Central American migrant was his ticket to victory in 2016, he believes that the boogieman of the Chinese virus will salvage his reelection campaign in 2020.

And that’s what makes Trump such a fucking coward. This was Trump’s chance to step up and be the brave “wartime president” that he imagines himself to be in his egomaniacal fantasies. This was his opportunity to be a leader of a nation in a time of crisis. But Trump has not been the strong leader we need.

Strong leaders accept responsibility for their shortcomings and promise to learn from their mistakes. Trump tries to rewrite the history of his own incompetencies and searches for scapegoats to deflect the blame. Strong leaders seek to bring diverse peoples together and unite them around a common struggle. Trump reads the words of unity from a script but can’t suppress his divisive impulses the second he’s asked to speak form himself. Strong leaders are champions of the most vulnerable. Trump victimizes them.

There are some governmental measures spearheaded by Trump that are worth commending. The weeklong, albeit, overdue efforts to get Americans to embrace social distancing and self-quarantining will hopefully help to flatten the curve. The massive stimuluses for American citizens and businesses will hopefully help to head off the enormous economic losses that are resulting from nationwide societal shutdowns. But these are things that any American government would have done anyway, regardless of who’s in charge.

Make no mistake, when it comes to the main responsibilities of an individual president in a time of crisis, Trump has been a total failure. Rather than providing leadership and inspiring confidence, Trump has been a fountain of misinformation, contradictory claims, and now blatant bigotry. We’ll make it through this crisis in spite of him, but when we do, and Trump tries to make the case later this fall that it was his courageous leadership that helped the country prevail, please, America, don’t fall for it.

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P.S. If you want to see a difference in leadership styles during a time of crisis, just do a little comparison between the Twitter’s of our former president and our current president.  No partisanship necessary.

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Immigration, Politics, Race, USA

The CAPS LOCK President: Why I like nuance, and why Donald Trump doesn’t have it

I don’t support the death penalty.  I believe that there’s something to living in a country that stakes its claim to a higher moral ground—that doesn’t subscribe to an outdated, eye-for-an-eye philosophy and refuses to treat even its most despicable citizens with the same inhumanity with which they treated others.

That said, I’m not vehemently opposed to it either.  Life-in-prison sentences cost a lot of public money, and we could probably find better uses for that money than caring for convicted murders (although some studies do suggest that capital punishment is actually more expensive than keeping somebody in prison for life).  Also, while it’s easy to take the moral high ground as a detached, objective observer, I’m not so sure that I could maintain that ideological purity if a capital punishment-worthy crime were to touch me more personally.

Which is why I’m not offended when Donald Trump expresses his desire that the man responsible for the recent Manhattan truck attack be put to death.  This guy is a monster of the worst kind.  He brutally murdered eight strangers, has admitted to his crimes and their premeditation, and has even expressed a sense of accomplishment from the results of his deadly actions.  If there was ever a person who was deserving of the death penalty, this guy is that person.

But like a lot of disagreements that I have with our president, it’s not always so much about what he says, but the way that he says it.

Donald Trump could have simply stated his hope that this man is prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that he receives the harshest form of punishment available under our criminal justice system.  He might have even mentioned that, in a case like this one, capital punishment seems like an appropriate response.  But Donald Trump didn’t do that.  Instead, Donald Trump used his Twitter account to call for the man’s head in all CAPITAL LETTERS.

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This is why I can never get behind Donald Trump.  In a world with so many shades of grey—so many issues in which nuance and complexities hugely matter—Donald Trump has chosen a platform of black or white.  He’s chosen exaggerations, simplifications, and generalizations over any position that would require more than an ounce of intellect.  Everything is the “best” or the “biggest” or the “most” or the “greatest”.  I guess that’s acceptable if you’re Joe Blow by the water-cooler (who coincidentally voted for Trump), but when you’re President of the United States, it’s inexcusable.

Take the national anthem protests by NFL athletes—an issue in which there is all kinds of nuance to be had. Do you support the players right to free expression while questioning the effectiveness of their use of that freedom?  Do you challenge their indictment of American police while also recognizing the reasons that people of color might feel differently? Do you distinguish between sitting down and taking a knee, and the conscientious shift made by Colin Kaepernick following a conversation with a former Green Beret?  Not if you’re Donald Trump.  If you’re Donald Trump, you just scream for owners to FIRE those sons of bitches that are disrespecting OUR HERITAGE, never pausing to consider the fact that the heritage experienced by the “our” in your almost-all white audience may be a little bit different than the heritage experienced by “those” players peacefully kneeling on the field.

The lack of nuance was pretty evident on the campaign trail, too.  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “border security being a legitimate concern for even the most dogged supporter of American diversity.”  He ran a campaign of “BUILD THE WALL!”  Donald Trump didn’t run a campaign of “serious questions over Hillary Clinton’s careless and dangerous use of her private email server.”  He ran a campaign of “LOCK HER UP!”  And sadly, that’s probably what won him the election.

Which begs the question: Is this the authentic Donald Trump, or is it all part of an elaborate strategy?  Does Donald Trump really believe the hyperbolic bullshit that comes out of his own mouth, or is he just throwing out red meat to a certain sector of his base in order to secure their support?  Either way, the answer is unsettling.

In Trump’s defense, the criticisms levied against him haven’t always been all that nuanced either.  It’s become waaaay too easy, hip, and cool to hate Donald Trump in certain circles, and while I can’t say that I’m unhappy with peoples’ lack of satisfaction towards our president, I’m also not all that impressed with the casual tossing around of terms like “racist,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” from people who seem to be echoing the opinions of others rather than carefully and critically forming their own.

The solution to Trump cannot be to fight fire-with-fire, or to fight the outrageous with the absurd.  That response does no more for civil discourse than the state-sponsored execution of murderers does for curbing violent crime.  The only way to fight the CAPS LOCK president is to disable that function on our own keyboards, type with complete sentences, and insist on saying things that reflect the complicated reality in which we actually live, not the distorted dystopia that the demagogue in the White House likes to portray.

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Politics, Race, USA

Thoughts on Charlottesville: The necessity of conversation

This morning I finally watched the VICE documentary on the race-based terror that rocked the city of Charlottesville last weekend. The footage is nothing short of terrifying.  Even though I have no illusions about the pernicious role that racism continues to play in our society, I was still shocked to see that a white supremacist rally of that magnitude could take place in America in 2017.

Trump’s response to the rally was disgraceful.  Even if Trump himself is not a racist or a white supremacist, it’s pretty clear that his presidency has emboldened many people who are.  This was Trump’s opportunity to explicitly separate himself from those groups, but he didn’t take it.  Instead, Trump once again blew his racist dog whistle, refusing to denounce the hateful elements of his base that were so vital to his electoral success.

184503.pngHis attempts to draw equivalencies between neo-Nazis and radical leftist groups like Antifa are also total bullshit.  I personally have no shortage of criticisms that I could offer about certain elements of today’s far-left—their affinity for identity politics, their silencing of free speech on college campuses, their ever-evolving policing of political correctness—but I would still stop far short of equating them to Nazis. One side fights against racism whereas the other side fights for it, and no matter how misguided the means of the former group may be, I’ll take them over the latter group any day.

Moral outrage is definitely the appropriate response to what happened last weekend in Charlottesville.  If images of torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” don’t make your stomach sink, then you have some introspection to do.  However, as justifiable as our moral outrage might be, I still believe that conversation is the only solution.

The conversations that need to take place are not with the relatively tiny (albeit far too big) fraction of the population that self-identify as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, but with the people who, while not neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves, still support small pieces of the agenda that motivated those far-right assemblies last weekend in Charlottesville.  These are the people who question the removal of Confederate monuments, the people who view groups like Antifa as legitimate threats to American democracy, the people who possess justifiable concerns over immigration and radical Islam, and most likely, the people who voted for Donald Trump.

At no point in this presidency have Trump supporters been more ready to jump ship than they are right now.  They are ready to seize the opportunity that the president did not and separate themselves from racism and bigotry.  They are ready to open up a dialogue with people of differing beliefs on how to move forward from some of the ugliest days in our country’s recent past.  But if we insist on labeling everyone whose outrage we deem as insufficient as an ally of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, then there are no conversations to be had.  If we don’t throw Trump supporters a lifering, then they are not going to jump ship.

Conversation doesn’t necessarily mean compromise.  It means finding common ground, validating beliefs that are acceptable, challenging beliefs that are not, and above all else, recognizing the humanity in the person on the other side of the table.

Everyone is a product of their life experiences.  No one is born a racist just like no one is born a criminal.  Those behaviors are learned.  They can be unlearned as well.

It’s easy to be the purest person in the room—to righteously shout your worldview from the hilltops while refusing to acknowledge the life experiences that, for right or for wrong, have led other people to see their worlds differently.  But when it comes to changing minds, that shouting will get you nowhere.

Conversation is about cultivating a mutual understanding.  It is the attitude of “perhaps if I listen to them, then they will listen to me.”  It’s an approach that gets people to uncross their arms and open their minds, in hopes that once the mind is open, it will be susceptible to change.  I get the sense that a lot of arms have come uncrossed since Charlottesville.  I just hope that our moral outrage doesn’t disable us from taking advantage of that opportunity.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

The killing of Philando Castile and the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez

Jeronimo Yanez and I attended the same university at the same time.  I don’t recall ever meeting him, but we ran with a similar group of friends.  They tell me that Yanez was a good guy—nice, friendly, hardly the monster that many have made him out to be following his deadly encounter with Philando Castile last July.

Nothing I’ve seen over the past year has done anything to make me think otherwise.  Even after watching that horrifying dashcam video in which Yanez pumps seven fatal rounds into the front seat of Castile’s car, I still find him to be a sympathetic figure.  The video hardly portrays a vicious executioner.  The guy’s nervous, he panics, and in the process, he makes the gravest mistake of his life.  It’s obvious that he feels terrible, both then and now, and I feel sorry for him.  But that sympathy isn’t enough to prevent me from adding my voice to the overwhelming chorus who feel that, in the case of State of Minnesota v. Jeronimo Yanez, justice was not served.

I think it’s worth highlighting that Yanez was not being charged with murder.  He was being charged with manslaughter—second degree manslaughter to be exact.  This reflects the notion that we as a society lend police officers a certain amount of leeway not provided to ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of lethal force.  We recognize that police officers perform a difficult and dangerous job in which snap decisions are often necessary, and can make the difference between whether or not an officer lives or dies.

However, when I watch that dashcam video, the definition of second degree manslaughter is exactly what I see. Words like “negligence,” “unreasonable,” and “endangerment,” seem to perfectly describe Yanez’s actions.  He may not have murdered Castile in cold blood, but based on what I’m reading, he still appears criminally culpable for Castile’s death.

But the video admittedly does not provide the whole story.  Despite all the disturbing images that we can see through the lenses of the squad car and Diamond Reynold’s cell phone, we still can’t see exactly what’s happening inside of the car prior to the shooting.  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the jury chose not to convict.  In our justice system, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, not the defense.  Even though it seems unlikely, there is no hard proof that Castile was not reaching for his gun rather than his license.  There is no hard proof that Officer Yanez did not fear for his life (and if you’ve seen the video, it seems quite likely that he did).  In the United States, the defendant is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and in spite of all the incriminating evidence that the prosecution presented, the jurors still obviously possessed the proverbial reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they believed Yanez to be “innocent,” it just means they didn’t feel that they had enough to send him to prison.

This case is unique, and should be treated as such.  What we think about the case should be influenced by the details of this case and this case alone, not by what has or has not happened in similar cases in the recent past.  That said, this case is also so emblematic of the systemic issues inherent in the way that we do criminal justice in this country, that it’s easy to see why people are so quick to make that jump.   From the fact that a black man was pulled over for his resemblance of a suspect in another crime (a.k.a. “driving while black”), to the careful compliance exhibited by the black occupants of the car as they talked to the police (in Reynolds case, even AFTER her boyfriend was shot), to the ultimate acquittal of the officer (are black people innocent until proven guilty?), this case just seems to be such an example of the experience of black people when they come into contact with the criminal justice system and those who administer it.  As one write-up put it, “the system worked as it was designed, it was not built to protect black lives.”  I’m not sure if I agree with everything that that statement implies, but I understand why a black person might.

Even if Yanez had been convicted, that verdict would have given me no pleasure.  This is a disgusting situation in which even “justice” is no real remedy.  As one juror put it, “nobody was ok with it”—nobody was ok with the pain and suffering that will plague each member of the Castile family for the rest of their lives, nor the guilt and regret that Yanez will carry with him for the rest of his.  Yet that juror still chose not to convict. I was not in that court room.  Maybe, legally speaking, acquittal was the right call.  But if this case is not an example of injustice perpetrated by a police officer against a black man, then what in the hell is?

 

 

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History, Minnesota, Politics, Race, USA

The Walker Art Center and the “Scaffold” Controversy

Social justice-centered censorship is sweeping the nation, and this past week, Minneapolis became the temporary epicenter.  The controversy stems from a piece of art that was set to debut at the grand reopening of the Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden later this month.  The piece known as Scaffold is intended to represent a commentary on the use and abuse of capital punishment throughout the history of the United States.  Part of that commentary includes a reconstruction of the gallows used in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 hanging of the Dakota 38—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

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The Scaffold structure has been met with massive resistance from both Native and non-Native peoples alike. That resistance came to a dramatic culmination on Wednesday afternoon with the joint decision to dismantle and burn the structure in a ceremony led by Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. But while Scaffold’s run has ended before it ever really began, the conversation that is taking place in the Twin Cities and around the country is just getting started, and I personally am still trying to figure out where on these issues I stand.

Although artist Sam Durant intended Scaffold to be an awareness generating piece about the historic plight of Native populations, I understand the concerns about the unintended messages that the piece may also convey.  Chief amongst these is the structure’s location in the Walker Sculpture Garden—a less than solemn place with frolicking couples and children, mini golf, and a giant rooster and a cherry.  As one write-up puts it, “context matters,” and the context of the Walker Sculpture Garden may contribute to the trivialization of one of our State’s gravest injustices.

Another concern is the neglect of Native voices in the retelling of a story that is particularly impactful to indigenous people in this part of the country.  Sam Durant is a white guy from L.A., and while he has collaborated with Native groups in the past, this project was completed without any attempts at outreach to the Dakota peoples who the project is about. What is more, while in negotiations to obtain Scaffold, the Walker Art Center never reached out to Dakota groups in the community, which in hindsight, should have been a no-brainer considering the gruesome nature of the project and its intimate ties to that tribe’s history.

But all that said, I also understand a lot of the resistance to the resistance of the soon-to-be-burned structure.  Scaffold is a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s an example of genocide opportunism. A reading of Sam Durant’s near instant apology can quickly punch holes in that accusation.  The project’s actual intention was “to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and people, and to build awareness around their significance.”  Misguided methods? Perhaps. But after reading the letter in full, Durant hardly seems like the kind of a guy seeking to exploit tragedy for personal gain.  Even the highly criticized “jungle gym” component of the project stems from a thoughtful albeit questionable attempt to comment on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon so prevalent in communities of color today.

I also have to say that I got some respect for a fellow white guy doing his darndest to challenge oppression and privilege in the world, especially when he doesn’t have to.  As a member of the most dominant group in almost every major demographic category, guys like Durant don’t need to tackle injustice, because on a systemic level, they probably don’t often face it.  I’m not trying to paint Durant as a hero, and that kind of observation may sound tone deaf considering the gravity of the issue at hand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  Perhaps it’s also that ignorance to experienced oppression that leads to the blundering nature in which guys like Durant (and myself) try to address said oppression, no matter how pure his (my) intentions might be.  But while it’s not always the thought that counts, the thought still counts for something, and what Durant is doing is exactly what us white guys are supposed to do in fighting oppression and dismantling our own privilege—starting conversations in our communities, with our people, and trying to create change.

Cultural appropriation is often a term that gets tossed around to describe artists like Durant who try to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell. But while misappropriation is certainly a thing, and perhaps applicable here, there also seems to have been a societal shift in what we define as tasteless or insensitive appropriation of someone else’s culture. Bob Dylan sang songs about both Emmett Till and Rubin Carter in the 60s and 70s, and I’ve yet to find an article that condemns him as a “racism opportunist.” On the contrary, Dylan is constantly recognized as an American civil rights hero who used his art to draw attention to repressed and silenced voices, even if the experiences of those voices were a far cry from his own.

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Sam Durant is no Bob Dylan. Even if he thought that he was, he knows differently now:

“I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists …However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.”

Hopefully Durant has learned from this experience as much as his statement seems to suggest.  Hopefully he remains encouraged, and continues to try use his position of power and influence to do good in the world. If there is any solace he can take from this catastrophe, it’s that his project still accomplished its intended goal—it started a conversation. It’s not exactly the conversation that he intended, but it’s an important conversation nonetheless, and no matter what side of the issue you’re on, or what your ethnic background is, or what your beliefs are regarding the myriad of –isms at play, there is understanding to be gained for those willing to listen and learn, especially considering the fact that no one in this conversation seems to disagree that injustice is something that we need to address.  If nothing else, Sam, thanks for that.

 

Recommended viewing to learn about the Dakota 38:

 

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Politics, Race, USA

The Alt-Right Wink

I don’t know if Donald Trump is a racist. I certainly think that he seems unenlightened about race. This is the guy, after all, who called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., declared a significant number of Latino immigrants to be criminals and rapists, and suggested for years that our first black president was actually born in Kenya. These comments appear to be evidence of harmful attitudes that, whether or not it’s Trump’s intent, could do enormous damage to communities of color should they ever be reflected in national policy.

I know that there are many, many Trump supporters that are not racists. These people have legitimate criticisms and concerns about the liberal vision for our nation, and in Trump they see a candidate who seems to be echoing those sentiments. However, I also know that there are a significant number of Trump supporters that do indeed harbor real racist opinions, and whether he intended to or not, Trump has created a space in which those people feel validated and empowered.

I don’t need the “liberal media” to point this out to me either. I’ve had the misfortune of seeing it first hand at the school in which I teach. Over the last week and change, our school has witnessed several racially charged incidents, including students using the N-word on social media to describe their black peers, students threatening their Hmong peers that they will soon be back working in the “rice paddies,” and a student creating the username “LynchNegroes” for an in-class, online review game.

The offenders here are not bad kids. They are good kids with good hearts whose minds just need a little enlightening. But I would argue that the unenlightened and sometimes hateful rhetoric that has recently surfaced in my school and everywhere is a direct result of the election of Donald Trump and the alt-right wink that he has been giving to many of his voters throughout his campaign.

The alt-right wink refers to language used by him and other members of the alt-right movement that, while not explicitly advocating for things like racism or xenophobia, lends implicit support to people who harbor racist or xenophobic beliefs.   In many cases, this has the look of a two-part sentence in which only the first part of the sentence is said out loud. The second part is the racist, xenophobic shit that the listener hears in their head. “We need to take our country back!” (From the black man who stole our White House and the Mexicans that took our jobs.) “We are going to make America great again!” (Like it was when white men controlled it.) And when you mix that message with some of the stuff Trump has said about Mexicans, Muslims, Somalis, and others, racist vitriol towards those communities is hardly a surprising result.

I suppose it is possible that Trump’s incitement of said racism is unintentional—that he really doesn’t realize what it is that he appears to be suggesting to so many people when he says the things that he says. However, it is not possible that Trump is unaware of the effects of some of his language—that he does not see the racism and xenophobia and hate that his campaign has inspired in the American electorate. And the fact that Donald Trump has not been more vocal in his condemnation of these racist reactions means that, no matter his intentions, he is culpable for the results.

This goes for Trump supporters too—Trump supporters who do not identify as racists themselves but have been all too tolerant of the virulent strand of racism that has provided essential fuel to their movement.   Unfortunately, the conspiracy theories surrounding liberals that Trump and the alt-right have created mean that liberals like myself have very little credibility in combatting this racism. We are perceived to be part of the “biased” and “brainwashed” liberal machine and therefore cannot be trusted. That’s why it is so important that Trump and his supporters speak out against this hatred themselves.

The alt-right is correct about some stuff. Their critiques of liberal beliefs surrounding things like multiculturalism, political correctness, and Islam are valid, and over the months that come, liberals will have to look inward and address some of those issues. But it is also imperative that Trump and his supporters call out the ugly hatred that exists on their side of the ideological fence. If the alt-right wants to be taken seriously, they need to quit winking at xenophobes and racists with their coded language and let those people know that there is no place for that kind of ideology in Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump did not create this deep-seated hatred, but he sure as hell uncovered it, and now it is up to him and all of us to take it on.

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Politics, Race, USA

Making sense of the 2016 presidential election

Tuesday night hit me like a fucking semi.

Needless to say, I did not expect Trump to win. I did not think it was outside the realm of possibilities, but I certainly did not think he would win like that—taking Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and nearly my home state of Minnesota. I don’t even think that Trump thought that he would win like that. He may have called it on the campaign trail, but you have to do that kind of stuff when you’re trying to win an election. But even if Trump didn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, his supporters did, and then they went out and made them come true.

Tuesday’s results left me not only shocked but depressed—depressed by both the winner and my complete and total aloofness to the sentiments that produced that winner. In reflecting on that aloofness, and trying to make sense of what the fuck actually happened, one thing has become very clear to me:

I live in a liberal bubble.

Bill Maher often talks about a “conservative bubble”—a place where facts don’t matter and where our country is being overrun by gay Muslim socialists hellbent on taking our guns, our freedoms, and our cisgender bathrooms. But there is a liberal bubble in this country too, where arrogance, elitism, and a tinge of unchallenged hypocrisy work together to create a perception of our country that, while perhaps not as apocalyptic, is still pretty distorted.

Nothing that I’ve read breaks down that bubble better than this must-read Cracked.com article entitled “How Half of American lost its F**king Mind”. In this article, author David Wong describes an America that is less divided by lines between red states and blue, and more divided by lines that distinguish urban from rural. This is not a revelation. There’s no doubt that, upon seeing how close Trump came to taking our state, the first group that many of us liberal Minneapolitans looked to blame was the ignorant white rednecks that reside in the rural wasteland of “Greater Minnesota”—the unenlightened bigots who put their fear and hatred of diversity over their own working class interests.

But while those sentiments contain some truths, they also show the inherent hypocrisy of the city-dwelling liberal—the smug, coffee-sipping douchebag who will righteously defend the rights of impoverished urban blacks to riot against their oppression, but condescendingly snicker when a couple of country hillbillies get their meth lab raided. Urban liberals like to fancy themselves as champions of the oppressed, but in reality, it’s only a select group of oppressed peoples that those liberals are concerned about.

Liberals are right to call out the racism that was so key in the rise of Donald Trump. Van Jones nailed it when he called this election a “white-lash,” a “white-lash against a changing country,” and a “white-lash against a black president” from whom we need to take our country back and Make America Great Again. But one thing Van Jones also did was acknowledge that this was about more than race. Racism played an all too significant role in Trump’s election, and I do think that you can argue that anyone who voted for Trump has an unacceptable tolerance for the racism that fueled that campaign. That said, all Trump voters are not racists. It’s more complicated than that.

I’m disappointed in my liberal friends who are thinking and saying otherwise—who are unfriending people on Facebook and blocking people on Twitter and using their social media platforms to label all Trump supporters as racist, sexist, xenophobic morons. These words and actions only serve to fortify the outer layer of the liberal bubble in which we clearly already reside. They cut us off from an America whose support we vitally need if our liberal vision for this country is ever to become a reality. For that to happen, there needs to be dialogue, especially with those who think differently than we do.

The United States was founded on the ideal of free speech not just because we believe that people should be able to say whatever they want, but because we believe that it is free speech that leads us to truth. In the unabridged marketplace of intellectual exchange, bad ideas are not ignored and suppressed, but intellectually undermined and defeated. However, if this shared market does not exist, it gives insufficiently challenged bad ideas an opportunity to flourish inside the bubbles in which they are born.

I’m very concerned about a Trump presidency, and I understand why others are absolutely terrified. But Donald Trump is going to be our president, and like president Obama said, we need to root for him. This does not mean cheering Trump on as he bans Muslims and boots Mexicans, but instead hoping that this whole process has humbled him a little bit. It means hoping that his time in office will help him to develop a sensitivity and empathy for people that see and feel the world differently than he does. It means hoping that he will take some positive strides in reforming a corrupt and broken Washington and that he will somehow be able to use his less than partisan status to break the perpetual partisan gridlock. Because like Obama said to the president elect, “if you succeed, then the country succeeds.”

 

Early signs show that Trump may be willing to comprise. Less than a week after the election, Trump has already began walking back some of his “repeal Obamacare” rhetoric, and has appeared to be very gracious and respectful in his dialogue with Obama, the Clintons, and the like. Personally, I think the guy is scared shitless. I don’t think that he thought he would be here, and I don’t think that he knows what to do now that he is. I remain convinced that he is immensely unqualified for the job he just won and that he will be desperately relying on real intellectuals for help in keeping the wheels of the country turning. But even if some of Trump’s doomsday rhetoric fades, liberals will still likely be on the defensive for much of Trump’s presidency, and we need to take that role seriously. We do not want to be the uncompromising obstructionists that Republicans were during Obama’s eight years in office, but we still need to stand up against bad ideas. If we are able to do that effectively while simultaneously reaching out beyond the liberal bubble to those groups who have felt left behind or neglected by liberal voices and policies, maybe in the next election more of the country will agree with us about what some of those bad ideas are, and some of the good ones as well.

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