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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History, Race, USA

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A must read for Americans

“When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”

He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred”—and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”

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I just recently finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was published in 1965, the same year in which Malcolm X was violently gunned-down by his former allies. At times, the book feels like it was published yesterday.

That’s because over 50 years removed from its groundbreaking publication, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still incredibly, and perhaps depressingly, relevant. Its discussion of race unveils some painful truths about what it means to be born black, and white, in the United States of America—truths that still hold true to this day.

Especially amongst white Americans, X is commonly remembered as the anti-King. King was a southern Baptist, while X was a Black Muslim. King said to “turn the other cheek,” while X said to “send him to the cemetery.” King had a dream, while X saw a delusion. King had white allies, while X only saw “white devils.”

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History has definitely treated Martin King Luther more kindly. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement and unanimously venerated today by black and white people alike as an America hero of the highest degree. I concur with that sentiment, but after reading X’s autobiography—the story of Malcolm X in his own words—part of me feels that the things that X was saying were more powerful and poignant than any speech that Martin Luther King ever made. King was a man of his time, but X was ahead of his, and perhaps 50 years from now, history will reflect that.

The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened with X as its leader.  King was palatable to the white American public in a way that X could never be. King not only shared the religion of the white masses, he was a minister. He used the very verses that white Christians knew so well to convince them that the just treatment of the black man was the Christian thing to do. His deeply held religious convictions also helped to inform his philosophy of non-violence—a philosophy that also had immense strategic wherewithal. Pictures of violent white cops brutalizing peaceful black protestors had an enormous impact on the white American psyche, and made the dehumanization of the latter much more difficult in the face of the actions of the former. What is more, King insisted on integration—on black people and white people living together peacefully, in harmony, as one. King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech is based on this very sentiment, and is credited with having helped to create a society where black and white people do indeed “work together, pray together, [and] struggle together,” at least up to a certain point.

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X, on the other hand, was a staunch segregationist. He had no desire to live next to the white man who had beaten and brutalized his people for hundreds of years—he just wanted an end to the beatings and the brutalization. He did not want to work with the white man either. He saw no sense or honorability in trying to convince the white man to bestow rights upon blacks. Respect and independence was something that the black man had to earn for himself, no matter what the white man had to say about it. In achieving those ends, X did not advocate for violence, but unlike King, he also did not advocate against it. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense,” X once said, “I call it intelligence.”

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Even though X was, first and foremost, an advocate for black rights, he was also one of the most prominent critics of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the movement as we think of it today. He was highly skeptical of the methods and tactics used by the more prominent civil rights “leaders” (X’s quotations, not mine), and was even more skeptical of the movement’s so called achievements. To this day, Americans celebrate things like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act as historic moments in the fight for racial equality—tangible political achievements that finally fulfilled the promised ideals of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every American regardless of race. But like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, the language in said legislation often rang hollow. The words may have been pretty, but they failed to reflect themselves in a racial reality that never stopped being ugly. State sanctioned segregation may have come to an end, but that did little to increase the quality of black neighborhoods and black schools. Discriminatory voting laws may have been outlawed (sort of), but the legislators and legislation that followed have done little to address the plight of a lot of black Americans.

X didn’t need the hindsight that I am using to make the above observations—he used foresight. He knew that inspirational rhetoric and symbolic milestones would only go so far in creating meaningful change in the lives of black Americans. He may have thought King’s ends and means to be just and well-intentioned, but as X once said of his fellow civil rights advocate, “If you don’t think that he’s walking on the right road, I’m quite sure that you don’t agree that he’ll get to the right place.”

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I have tremendous respect for Malcolm X and tremendous regard for the worldview that he projected, but I also think that one of the most powerful aspects of this book is that X’s flaws were on full display. Even as someone who is enamored by history’s radical revolutionaries, there were plenty of things about X that I did not like, and plenty of things that X said that I did not agree with. But like this essay, this book is not an effort to martyrize or romanticize X the myth. It’s an honest, unapologetic portrayal of X the man.

In history, we often pretend that people don’t change. We assign them with static characteristics, as if they come into this world with certain inalterable traits that they consistently exhibit throughout their lives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X challenges this notion by showing us X’s evolution—not just from youth to adulthood, but the changes that took place in X, both personally and philosophically, in his never-ending quest to make sense of the world around him. In his final months, X had become more willing to work with the white man and more warm to the idea of an integrated society. He had recognized and admitted that some of his earlier views had some major flaws that failed to reflect the complexity of the larger world. He even broke with the Black Muslims with whom he had burst onto the national scene, and began his own pursuit of justice and truth in light of the new realities he had discovered.

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It goes without saying that X’s words should not be mistaken as the truth. I don’t think that there even is such a thing to find when surfing the subjective waves of race and history. That being said, I am confidant that everything that X expresses in those 400-plus pages is undoubtedly his truth. X always told it like he saw it, even though the way that he saw it changed over time. He was never one to sugarcoat anything, and never held anything back no matter how hurtful or offensive his words might be. The truth itself is oftentimes hurtful and offensive, and if X had to hurt you or offend you in order to tell you that truth, than that was just what had to be done.

In telling his truths, X oftentimes alters our own. Over 50 years removed from his departure from this world, X’s words still challenge many of the beliefs that we as a nation collectively hold about things like race and history and what it means to be an American. His words can be as discomforting as they are empowering, as demoralizing as they are inspiring, but regardless of message or tone, they are always radical, raw, and honest.

That’s what makes X’s voice so worthy of inclusion in the conversations that we are currently having. That’s what makes his words so insightful in our continued search to find solutions to the racial unrest that still plagues our nation. And that’s what makes his book such an important read for whites, and blacks, and anyone else who has skin in the game of race relations in the United States today. As I said before, I don’t think that X was right about everything, and surely there are some things that I think he was blatantly wrong about. But even though, at the end of the book, I remained unconvinced that the entirety of X’s upside down worldview was true, I still think that I’m a wiser person for at least taking the time to consider it.

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Race, TV/Movies

HBO’s “The Night Of” does not have a “black people problem,” but the United States does

I just recently finished binge watching the first five episodes of HBO’s new series “The Night Of,” a riveting story about an American-born Pakistani who finds himself wrapped up in a murder case in which he is the lead suspect. If you’re not watching this series, you should be. It’s fucking great, not only for its story-telling, but for some of the HBO-esque social commentary it makes in its portrayal of things like our criminal “justice” system, prison culture, and life in America as a Muslim.

That’s why I was surprised to find this article as I scoured the web for some write-ups regarding the show’s most recent developments. As the title suggests, NY Daily News writer, Katherine Pushkar, has some beef with the show’s portrayal of black people, specifically, the array of harmful racial stereotypes that she believes the show reinforces. She’s got some solid evidence to back up her point.

The vast majority of the black actors in “The Night Of” do indeed portray characters that are not cast in a particularly positive light.   As Pushkar points out, most of them play inmates, some of them play “beat” cops—albeit none central to the main storyline—and those who remain play supporting roles to white defense attorney John Stone, serving more to establish Stone’s “idiosyncratic” character than their own. But what seems to have pushed Pushkar over the edge was the multiple appearances of a “big black dick” on a deceased black body during a scene in the series’ most recent episode—a scene that she describes as either “willfully or provocatively obtuse.”

I get where Pushkar is coming from. American television has a rich history of promoting harmful racial stereotypes that do real social damage. People from my generation and older all grew up watching cartoons with cringe-worthy portrayals of people of color, and my own guilty pleasure of professional wrestling still comes to mind when I think of TV shows that typecast non-white people as characters that will match the shade of their skin. Both TV and Hollywood also have a rich history of casting people of color to play supporting roles to white protagonists, even when the story is supposed to be about the people from that more colorful group. Whether its Abraham Lincoln emancipating the slaves, Kevin Costner dancing with wolves, Michelle Pfeiffer teaching dangerous minds, or a Marine-operated Avatar helping to save an alien, humanoid tribe, stories that are ostensibly about the liberation, empowerment, and/or struggle of a particular non-white ethnic group are constantly being undermined by the subliminal message that those groups needed a white savior to lead the way.

But to me, HBO’s “The Night Of” feels different than the examples mentioned above. The series does reinforce certain harmful stereotypes about black people—that they live in ghettos, that they commit crimes, that they go to prison…However, while those stereotypes may indeed be harmful, they are also mostly true.

Please do not misinterpret what I am trying to say here. I am not trying to say that black people are somehow genetically predisposed to lack 21st century job skills or participate in violent criminal behavior. What I am trying to say, however, is that the history and prevalence of systemic racism in our country has created a society in which black people are much more likely to be poor and are much more likely to go to prison, not because of any inherent ineptitude, but because of major race-based societal inequities that have never been addressed.

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Also, while the show does allocate much of its social commentary to other American-born social illnesses like Islamophobia and our broken criminal justice system, racism does takes some direct hits as well. I specifically recall one courtroom scene where a black man, having just received a less-than lenient sentence, incredulously asks the judge why he can’t receive a ruling similar to the white Jewish guy that preceded him. “You want Jew time? Do a Jew crime!” responds the judge matter-of-factly, following it up with a deliberate, “Next.”

To any viewer paying attention, that “next” should help to explain the increased level of melanin present at Riker’s Island, and the relative lack of criminals whose collars would be far from the whitest thing about them. Perhaps not all viewers are thinking about these sorts of things while watching the show, but HBO has never been one to dumb it down. They leave that to network television.

Could the show have casted a black protagonist, or at the very least, a black judge or a black lawyer? Sure. I don’t see why not. There are, after all, black people occupying all sorts of positions of power and prestige in every corner of the country. But if you do it just to do it, what message are you really sending? Will casting a black judge reverse the racial bias inherent in our criminal justice system? Would the sprinkling in of more white inmates do anything to change the real-life racial imbalance at Riker’s and other urban detention centers? I think not, but perhaps the truth could.

The truth hurts. The truth sucks. But if we don’t know the truth, how are we supposed to act on it? Obscuring the truth only serves to postpone the problem—to infuse us with a false of sense of hope that we as a nation are making more progress towards racial equity than we actually are. “The Night Of” may reinforce harmful racial stereotypes, but it does so in the interest of confronting them—showing us the reality and hoping that it bothers us. I appreciate Pushkar’s sensitivity to things that are racially insensitive and her attempt to hold the makers of the show accountable. But in my opinion, she should be less concerned with whatever stereotypes “The Night Of” may be reinforcing and more concerned with the reality that they reflect. And as for “the big black dick” thing, I just saw a penis—a rare instance where, in my guilty, white, race-conscious mind, skin color didn’t even really occur to me. We don’t have to racialize everything, even if everything already is.

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Yes, that is Michael K. Williams who played Omar from “The Wire” (which should alone be enough of a reason to watch this show), and yes, he is once again portraying a ruthless, violent criminal…

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Music, Race

Songs w/ Substance #2: Ben Harper – “Call It What It Is” (A Response to Baton Rouge & Falcon Heights)

A lot of times we lack the evidence. Questionable police shootings culminate in ‘he said-she saids’ that ultimately fail to gain criminal indictments of police officers in a court of law. But for anyone who has ever questioned or failed to fully understand black narratives of police shootings in cases like Michael Brown or Jamar Clark (myself included), the last 48 hours have given us a lot to think about.

The video don’t lie. Sure there are still unanswered questions: Where exactly was Alton Sterling’s gun when the officer opened fire? What preceded the appalling footage taken by Philando Castillo’s girlfriend? But to me, the answers to these questions will likely do very little to convince me that what I saw in those videos is anything other than one word:

Murder.

Like the cell phone footage, Ben Harper’s song is pretty straightforward. What we saw in those videos are inexcusable slayings. It does not matter that the killer wore a badge. It does not matter if the killer’s ostensible intentions were to protect and serve. No matter what those two black men did or did not do to bring themselves into contact with law enforcement on those fateful nights, no matter what further details from their stories emerge, those two black men did not deserve to die.

The New York Times has a headline calling the Falcon Heights incident a “police shooting.” CNN ran a story where an officer was simply “involved.” In an NPR headline, a police stop in Minnesota mysteriously “ends” in a black man’s death. But Ben Harper is right. If we really want to address the problem of the destruction of black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, than in cases like these where the evidence is so apparently clear, we need to call that problem exactly what it is: Murder.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Minnesota, Race

Protest, Privilege, and Paying Attention

Black Lives Matter sure knows how to piss people off. Just when Minnesotans had begun to settle down from the highly-publicized 4th Precinct occupation and the highway shutdowns and marches that accompanied it, Black Lives Matter held its second annual MOA invasion, disrupting the days of those last-minute shoppers attempting to put the final checkmarks on their Christmas lists. As if that wasn’t enough to re-rile people up, Black Lives Matter also staged a simultaneous demonstration at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, causing multiple delays for Christmas-time commuters.

The comments section of the Strib editorial linked here illustrates the kind of responses that you would expect. People were not happy, and it’s easy to understand why. Yet, while I believe there are fair criticisms to be levied at these types of inflammatory protests, particularly of their utility in advancing the Black Lives Matter agenda, I also feel that the vast majority of the criticisms that I see and hear fundamentally misunderstand the reason that Black Lives Matter holds these types of protests.

Whether or not you agree with the protest methods of Black Lives Matter, you’ve got to admit that they keep people talking. People say that there are better ways for Black Lives Matter to draw attention to their cause, but the fact is that when BLM isn’t forcing us to talk about their issues, we have proven that we don’t talk about their issues. BLM was the talk of the town during their occupation of the 4th Precinct, but how many Minneapolis-based BLM headlines have you seen since that occupation ended? People also say that these protests just distract from the real issues at hand or that these protests alienate potential supporters, but again, when have you ever heard someone say, “Thank god we finally got rid of those pesky protestors. Now we can finally focus our attention and energy on disassembling the systemic racism that is plaguing our nation!”

It’s not surprising that racial justice is not at the forefront of most people’s minds. If you’re not affected by racial profiling or police brutality, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about those things. Likewise, if your children don’t attend under-funded schools and your family and friends aren’t packed into over-crowded prisons, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about those things either. That’s because if you’re not a victim of systemic racism, you don’t need to think about it.

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And that’s another important feat that these protests are meant to accomplish: the interruption of privilege. Ignorance is a form of privilege, and when it comes to the issues for which Black Lives Matter is fighting, ignorance is certainly bliss. But for many Black Americans, ignorance is not an option. They don’t have the privilege of ignoring these issues because they are forced to live them. Their holidays aren’t interrupted once a year by mall marches and airport protests, but are forever interrupted by the multitude of issues disproportionately plaguing Black America—impoverishment, imprisonment, crime and murder. There are many disputable elements when it comes to the questionable case of Jamar Clark, but one thing that is not disputable is that his family is hurting this holiday season.  And his family is far from the only one.

Which is why Black Lives Matter targets places like the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Not because those people have never experienced disadvantages or discrimination or hard times or loss, but because many of them probably have experienced far less of those things than the people for whom BLM is advocating. Because even though most mall shoppers and airline passengers are likely unprivileged in some aspect of their lives, most are also likely quite privileged in many aspects of their lives. At the very least, they can afford to shop at a nice mall and fly on an airplane.

I saw a story featuring one shop-owner, a self-proclaimed sympathizer of the Black Lives Matter cause, who was frustrated with the protests. She supported the protesters, and agreed that the protests should be carried out, just not at the mall, because retailers and shoppers “didn’t do anything” to deserve to be targeted. I think that she’s right. They didn’t do anything, and that must have really sucked for innocent retailers that lost business or commuters that missed flights.  But I also think that she is making Black Lives Matter’s point for them.

People “not doing anything” is exactly what Black Lives Matter is trying to change. People “not doing anything” is exactly what allows systemic racism to persist. And Black Lives Matter will not win their struggle if “not doing anything” is what people continue to do, and that sucks too.

For as big and powerful a voice as Black Lives Matter has become, they still represent many people whose voices are ignored. What is more, whatever power BLM has accumulated over the past year-and-change pales in comparison to the power held by the various institutions and systems that they are fighting, institutions and systems that in part accumulated their power due to the centuries of racial oppression that they helped to establish and maintain. Black Lives Matter will not win those battles alone. They need the support of everyday mall-goers and airline commuters across the nation if they are ever going to be successful in creating true systemic reform.

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And that’s where I think these protests are worthy of criticism, because I am not sure that they are accomplishing that goal. They do keep people talking, but mostly because people are angry at Black Lives Matter, not angry with them. They do interrupt privilege, but while people are certainly aware of the interruption, I don’t think they are anymore aware of their privilege.  The strategy is sound, but the implementation is failing.

Ultimately, what Black Lives Matter needs is for everyone to think like Mike Griffin from Minneapolis, an airline commuter whose December 23rd flight was delayed due to the protests:

“While I’m delayed an hour and a half to get back to my family for Christmas, I know there are several Black families mourning the loss of innocent Black men. My mom is a little bit annoyed, but she’s going to see me this holiday season.”

But how you get more Minnesotans to think like that, I have no fucking idea…

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Minnesota, Race, USA

I’m a Black Lives Matter supporter, and I’m frustrated

I am a vehement supporter of the group Black Lives Matter. Some people mistake this to mean that I support everything that every member of every chapter of Black Lives Matter says and does—that I have some explaining to do every time a Black Lives Matter member makes an outlandish remark or chucks a bottle into a crowd of police.  Not so. What it means is that I support the movement’s overarching cause, the termination of an injustice that I believe to be real—the discrepancy between the value that we as a society place on white lives and the value that we place on black ones.

But as much as I support their cause, I have found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with some of the methods the movement has chosen to achieve its goals, particularly in my hometown of Minneapolis as it relates to the shooting death of Jamar Clark. I’m certainly not alone in this sentiment, but while most peoples’ frustrations stem from the types of protests the Minneapolis chapter of BLM has been conducting—from blocking traffic on 94 to camping-out outside the precinct—my own personal frustration has less to do with their choice of protest and more to do with the narrative they have built those protests on.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the highway shutdown. It wouldn’t be the first tactic that I would choose from the long list of non-violent resistance methods, but I think that interrupting privilege and forcing people to pay attention is an important component to the BLM gameplan. And while I’ve heard several legitimate criticisms of this tactic, such as the hypothetical ambulance on its way to or from an emergency, I think this criticism is also somewhat illustrative of the essential claim to the Black Lives Matter cause, as it places more importance on the life of that hypothetical victim in the hypothetical ambulance than the life of the victim who was, in reality, already killed.

I also don’t have a problem with the precinct camp-out. If an institution is a purveyor of injustice, then that institution deserves to be a target of the protests fighting to eliminate those injustices, even if many of that institution’s members are providing the admirable and essential societal services that most police officers do indeed provide.

Where I do have a problem with #Justice4Jamar is that both of these protests have been based on a version of the Jamar Clark story that, in all likelihood, is not entirely true. Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has gone all-in on an improbable counter-narrative that, in the long-run, will greatly reduce its credibility, as well as its ability to gain widespread support.

In the BLM narrative, Jamar Clark is an innocent victim, facedown on the ground, handcuffed and helpless, when he is shot in the head by Minneapolis Police. The last part of this narrative has been confirmed to be true. However, other evidence suggests that the rest of the narrative is not. It suggests instead that Jamar was not innocent nor handcuffed nor helpless. That he was violent towards his girlfriend, violent towards the police and paramedics attempting to provide her treatment, and that it was his own actions, his own reaching for the weapon holstered on the belt of one of the officers at the scene, that ultimately led to that officer using the weapon against him.

Right now, we don’t really know. We have our own versions of the story in our heads—what we believe, what we don’t—but as the investigation continues, the larger truth still evades us. Even when that “truth” comes outs, when the official version of the story has been released, it will still likely be comprised of incomplete and contradictory evidence. And no matter what the official version of that story says, I understand why people, specifically those associated with Black Lives Matter, will still be skeptical of the version produced by the very institution they are protesting.

But what I’m fairly certain about is that, upon its release, this official version will put to rest many of the claims that Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has been purporting about Jamar Clark’s death, claims that have played an integral role in the controversial protests that the movement has been conducting.

In a way, we’ve seen this movie before. It played out one year ago in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, when unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Much like the Jamar Clark case, the immediate details were murky. We knew the end of the story, but we didn’t know how we got there. Many narratives were created to fill in the blanks, but the narrative adopted by the newly created Black Lives Matter movement, and the nation as a whole, was the narrative of “Hands up, Don’t shoot.”

In this narrative, Michael Brown and a friend were walking down the street when they were stopped by police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson noted that Brown matched the description for a convenience store theft, and tried to question Brown on the matter. An altercation occurred. Brown took off running. Wilson gave chase. Realizing that his attempts at escape were futile, Brown stopped, raised his hands in the air, and prepared to give himself up. Wilson then shot Brown six times, killing him on the spot.

It is easy to see how this story inspired a national outrage. “Hands up, Don’t shoot,” chants rang out in marches and rallies across the country, even making appearances in rap concerts and NFL games. The problem with the chant is that it wasn’t exactly true.

According to multiple eyewitness accounts, Brown did not have his hands up. Instead he was aggressively charging at officer Wilson when the six fatal shots were fired that ultimately took his life. Furthermore, prior to the shooting, Brown robbed a convenience store, assaulted an officer, and tried to grab an officer’s weapon. In other words, “Hands up, Don’t shoot” was more than misleading, it was a lie.

I suspect that #Justice4Jamar may be heading in the same direction—that the shutdowns and sit-ins and marches that have been conducted in Jamar’s name, will ultimately have been built on a narrative that inaccurately reflects the final moments of his life. I also suspect that once this narrative has been discredited, the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter will be discredited as well, just as it was in Ferguson.

And as a BLM supporter, that pisses me off. It pisses me off because it undermines all the other crusades against racial injustice that are built on real narratives, narratives without exaggerations or fabrications, narratives that are just built on good, old-fashion, real-life, institutional racism—narratives that are built on the truth.

While “Hands up, Don’t shoot” and #Justice4Jamar have succeeded in bringing much needed attention to the Black Lives Matter mission, not all press is good press, and when the Jamar Clark headlines are turned on their heads just like they were in the Michael Brown case, that publicity will only be used to discredit the movement on a larger scale.

This is the last thing that Black Lives Matter needs. There are already enough people out there who deny the existence of systemic racism, who don’t understand the inherent ignorance in #AllLivesMatter, and who continually cite black-on-black crime as the reason that the Black Lives Matter movement is bullshit.  How is the movement supposed to challenge these falsities, much less win these people over, if it completely destroys its own credibility?

The ironic part is that the unembellished narratives of both the Michael Brown and Jamar Clark cases have aspects that maybe should be a part of the injustices that Black Lives Matter is trying to combat. Brown and Clark may not have been saints or martyrs, but they are still two unarmed men who did not deserve to be shot in the head. If these narratives were used correctly, if these narratives were used truthfully, they could provide powerful support to the larger battles Black Lives Matter is fighting against the excessive use of police force and the targeting of black bodies. But once these narratives have been corrupted with even the slightest hint of dishonesty or disingenuity, it discredits the whole narrative, and becomes ammunition for the opposition.

So please Black Lives Matter, don’t make the narrative of #Justice4Jamar more than it is. The fact that another unarmed black man was killed by a police officer is significant enough. If it comes out that Jamar was indeed handcuffed, then yes, by all means, go fucking nuts—shut down highways, occupy precincts, rally, march, and boycott…But until we know for sure,  don’t treat that narrative as truth. Continue to demand the truth, but don’t create your own version of it. Because if you create your own version of the truth, and that version turns out to be anything less than truthful, you will lose the support of a lot people. And that’s a shame, because the support of a lot of people is exactly what the Black Lives Matter movement deserves and needs.

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Immigration, Military, Politics, Race, Religion, USA, World

Thinking through Paris

Paris fucked me up. It was one of those events that seemed to have me reconsidering nearly everything I thought I believed—what I believed about people, what I believed about politics…It threw me into a state of mental disequilibrium so profound that a week-and-change later, I still haven’t really settled back into the post-Paris me. In that sense, this post is a thinking-through, a consideration of the clusterfuck that was last week’s events and the tangled mess of causes and consequences that connect to it, in hopes of finding equilibrium again.

When I first caught wind of the attacks, the radio man was being very cautious about the details he was releasing, but I remember knowing one detail of the attacks right away without anyone needing to tell me: the attackers were radical Islamists.

I didn’t want to be right about that. Upon confirming what I already knew on the World Wide Web, I took to Twitter, and aside from the Parisians directly affected by the attacks, there isn’t any people for whom I felt more pity than the Muslims from around the world who felt compelled to tweet out their opposition to these atrocities lest they be labeled as terrorists themselves.

But the Islamic question is upon us again, and I don’t know where I stand. I know for sure that the vast, vast, vast majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people who should not have to explain themselves nor apologize for the actions of these crazy, ISIS assholes. But I also think that thinkers like Sam Harris have a point when they say things like the religion of Islam “has a unique problem at this moment in history.”

When I try to reconcile these ideas in my own head, I find myself trying to differentiate between Muslims as people and Islam as a set of ideas. I don’t agree with any sweeping generalizations that people make about Muslim people, but I do think that you can criticize the religion of Islam, and certain radical Muslims, without being a bigot. As an atheist, I criticize Christianity all the time, and no one ever bigotizes me for it. I also have a life crammed full of Christians who are way better people than I am, people that I love and adore, despite my opposition to the theology they subscribe to. And just like it’s unintellectual to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, I also find it unintellectual when President Obama and other liberals go out of their way to avoid using the word Islamic to describe the self-described Islamic terrorists they are describing.

But as far as doctrine goes, is Islam really any more violent than a religion like Christianity? The Quran is certainly violent, and Jesus was a peaceful dude, but the god of the Old Testament was a homicidal maniac who indiscriminately killed all those who failed to appease his capricious demands. Furthermore, Christianity experienced millennia of war and violence before it found the relative peaceful epoch that many Christians experience today.

That’s why a big part of me also believes that the violence associated with Islam is less about the religion and more about the places where people who subscribe to that religion happen to live, places where people are generally much more politically and economically disempowered than their Christian brethren in the Western World. Any religion can be radicalized, but radicalization is more likely in certain places than in others, places like war-torn Syria and Iraq or occupied countries like Palestine and Afghanistan.

And then I ask myself what the world would look like if the tables were turned—if Muslims around the world experienced the relative prosperity and stability of Christians today, and Christians the impoverished and violent dystopias of so many Muslims. What it would look like if Islamic countries controlled the UN and the IMF and the Christians nations were still recovering from decades of colonialism and imperialism. How much more vulnerable would Christians be to the radical wings of their own religion, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan? Certainly there’s no shortage of things like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the Christian world as it is. How much worse would it be if they were thrown into the desperate and dire circumstances known by so many Muslims, if they really had something to be angry about?

Yet most Muslims aren’t angry. They’re just scared. Scared of the same lunatics that shot up the city of Paris ten days ago. And that’s why they’re running.

Which leads to the questions surrounding the world refugee crisis, questions about the number of refugees we in the United States should accept, questions about the vetting process refugees should be subjected to in order to gain admission.

While I’ve been appalled by many of the racist arguments equating refugees to terrorists, I have to admit that some of those arguments contain a small but significant dose of truth: the more refugees that the United States accepts and the more lenient the vetting process, the more likely it is that that process will be exploited by people who wish to do the United States harm.

I really think that’s undeniable. It doesn’t mean that refugees are terrorists. Refugees are refugees. It does mean, however, that terrorism is a problem in the world, a problem that often comes from the same places as the refugees do, and that those terrorists are not above the exploitation of humanitarian compassion. If you want to make an argument for refugee acceptance, I think that’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

I do acknowledge that reality, but I also don’t think that it has to dictate our response to our fellow human beings in crisis. I whole-heartedly agree with the overused mantra that to deny refugees based on fears of terrorism would be letting the terrorists win. More importantly, it would be letting the refugees lose, and that would be unacceptable.

Sometimes in discussions like these, the tone seems to take an us-and-them mentality.  “It will put us in danger if we take them in.”  “How are we going to help their people if we can’t even help our own people?”   Fair points, but for me, those words carry little weight when I’m looking at images like these. When I look at these pictures, I don’t see Syrians. I don’t see Muslims. I don’t see us or them. I just see children—children who desperately need a world to do the right thing in spite of any potential consequences.

And while this decision should not be a political one, it does present the United States with a tremendous opportunity to begin reforming its image in the Muslim world. By taking in tens-of-thousands of Muslims (and many non-Muslims) in need, the United States not only provides an essential service to humanity, it also simultaneously delivers a big “fuck you” to radical Islamists everywhere, demonstrating our unwillingness to let their terroristic threats dictate the way that we care for our Muslim brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings in need.

And after the Paris attacks, it is clear that we in the Western World need a reminder of who our fellow human beings are. The outpouring of sympathy for Paris was, in my opinion, beautiful. Changing your Facebook profile picture or retweeting #PrayForParis could be seen as pretty meaningless gestures, but I love the idea of the world coming together across borders and oceans to show support and offer hope, to send prayers and positive energy to a city and a people who desperately need them. No one should be made to feel bad for clicking with their hearts.

But there is something that we should feel bad about, and that is what Paris revealed about who we choose to grieve for.

I remember having this thought while watching the news coverage of Paris two Friday’s ago, but in hindsight, I didn’t know shit about Beirut or Baghdad either, and a week-and-a-half later, it’s still not those attacks that I’m “thinking through.” Black Lives Matter is usually something discussed in relation to domestic issues inside the United States, but Paris made it clear that there is a definite discrepancy in the way that we values the lives of white people compared with those of black and brown people in the rest of the world as well.

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And what about the response? What does France and its allies do to “strike back” at ISIS? It scared me when my gut-reaction to this question was eerily similar to Trump’s idea of “bomb the shit out of them,” the kind of balls-over-brains thinking that helped to create ISIS in the first place. Looking at recent history, military intervention seems to do way more to create terrorism than it ever does to eliminate it. That being said, while I hope our world leaders won’t be making such decisions with their collective gut, I can see why military intervention, in this case, might be called for.

What I know I don’t want is to see some sort of unilateral Western intervention composed of France, the States, and other Western allies. I think critics of intervention are right when they say that this is exactly what ISIS wants, a war on Islam by the West, the ultimate tool to galvanize support among the enlisted and provide additional propaganda for recruitment to ensure that their fucked-up brand of backwards hate will only continue to grow. The West can’t solve this problem alone, no matter how many bombs or drones they drop. This is a worldwide problem, and it needs a worldwide solution.

Perhaps most important to this worldwide solution is the support needed from the Muslim world, the collaborative effort from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to take out a group that should be considered an enemy to all Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and any other group that considers themselves a part of humanity. Furthermore, it will take cooperation between West and East, between Western Europe and North America and China and Russia, and a dramatic departure from the Machiavellian, balance-of-power bullshit that has defined the conflict thus far. And while a united effort of this magnitude could easily wipe the wanna-be caliphate off the face of the fucking planet, history also tells us that this kind of humanitarian-driven, united effort has zero chance of happening.

And that’s what makes this situation so impossible. That’s why nearly two weeks removed from the Paris attacks I still have no idea what the fuck to think or what the fuck to do. It makes me want to eternally avoid the likes of MPR and CNN and forever hide within the comfortable confines of KFAN and the WWE.

But thinking about these things is the least we can do. Thinking about what we can do in our lives to fight back against ignorance and hatred. Thinking about those who are less fortunate than us, and what we can do to make their existence on this planet a little more tolerable. Thinking about how we can be the best human beings we are capable of being, and inspire others to realize their full human potential as well. And continuing to remember that it is easier to be the ones tasked with thinking about these horrible events, than it is to be the ones tasked with feeling them.

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History, Race, USA

Systemic racism, or just racism?

“Systemic racism” means that the system is racist. It means that something in or about the system is systematically providing white people with advantages while consequently disadvantaging people of color. The intent of the system does not always seem or mean to be racist, but nevertheless, the results are.

Statistics on things like wealth distribution, employment, incarceration rates, and other social phenomena strongly suggest that systemic racism is indeed a problem in the United States. Yet, I often get the feeling that people don’t buy it—that they think that “systemic racism” is just a term invented by Black Lives Matter members to make excuses for their own failures and shortcomings.

But the statistics remain. The racial disparities are real. And if systemic racism is not the cause, then some other phenomenon must be.

I’m not saying that all systemic-racism skeptics are racists. However, I can’t think of any other way to rationally explain the statistics, the facts, surrounding America’s racial divide other than actual racism. You either need to believe in the existence of systemic racism, or you almost by default need to believe in some racist ideas.

Take student test scores for example—the racial disparity between black students and white students commonly referred to as the “achievement gap.” If you believe that black students and white students are born equally capable of succeeding in school, equally intelligent and talented, than you have to believe that there is something in the system, something in society that creates the results that we see. It could be due to inequitable funding between schools, or test questions that cater to a specific cultural group, but it certainly is not due to a lack of intelligence or capability in black children, unless you’re a racist, that is.

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How about incarceration, the fact that black people make up little more than 10% of the general population, but nearly 50% of the prisoner population. Is this because black people are inherently less moral? Inherently more violent? Inherently more susceptible to a life of crime? If you’re a racist, perhaps. But if you’re not, than you have to believe that something in the system created those results—racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline, unrectified historical injustices…something…

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And then there’s poverty. Black people live below the poverty line at more than twice the rate of white people. Black children are more than three times more likely to be living in poverty than are children who are white. Why? Is it because black people are incapable of performing the work demanded by higher paying jobs? Is it because black people are allergic to money and success? Or is it something systemic—some kind of hidden societal mechanism that borns blacks into poverty and works throughout their lives to keep them from getting out? Unless you’re a racist, the answer has to be the latter.

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We are now a half-century removed from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, a movement that saw black people finally gain access to many of the protections and liberties that they had been denied since their arrival on this continent. Yet, even Martin Luther King knew that political equality would be the easy part of the African American struggle. In the struggle for what he called “genuine equality,” King said that things like integrated lunch counters wouldn’t be enough. After all, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” King was talking about the economics of systemic racism—the enslaved and oppressed history of the black race that entrenched its people in poverty, and the prevailing structures and attitudes that make it difficult for them to escape it. The Civil Rights Movements won many important battles, victories that deserve to be celebrated, but the struggle for genuine equality was not resolved then, and it remains unresolved now.

Systemic racism is a real thing. It’s the left overs and continuation of a racist past, the remnants of the racism that didn’t go away with the abolition of slavery and the desegregation of schools. It’s the cogs that continue to turn deep within the societal machine keeping black people in America underpaid, undereducated, and their lives undervalued—the pumping pistons that perpetuate the imprisonment of their people, or worse, leave them face down in the streets as victims of violence, violence that is all too often inflicted by the system itself. And if you’re willing to accept that the system is racist, that systemic racism is a real problem in United States that needs fixing, than you also have to accept that there is only one way to fix a systemic problem: change the system.

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Minnesota, Race, USA

Every protest is a nuisance in its time

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is at it again in Minnesota. This Sunday, prior to the Minnesota Vikings first home game of the season, BLM will be holding a rally they are calling #BlackRail to protest police brutality against the Black community, and more specifically to protest the beating delivered last month to 17-year-old Marcus Abrahams during a confrontation with Metro Transit Police near the fairgrounds where he had been working.

People are pissed, not so much about the beating, but of the audacity of the BLM movement to interrupt yet another hallowed event on the Minnesota calendar. Looking at the #BlackRail twitter feed, it is clear that this protest has inspired the same vehement opposition inspired by their protests of the past, and has evoked the same types of comments that, while objecting to these protests, simultaneously demonstrate the very need for their necessity. Comments that express the need for these protesters to find jobs. Comments that label these protesters and the victims that they stand up for as criminals or thugs. Comments with the hashtag #AllLivesMatter. Comments that prove that racism is still a huge problem in this country today, and that the conversations that groups like BLM are trying to start are conversations that desperately need to happen.

But not everyone who opposes these protests is an espouser of racist rhetoric. Some people are just annoyed, annoyed by the fact that their day is being interrupted for a problem to which they themselves do not contribute. They are just minding their own business. They are just going about their day.

This has been the case with every major Minnesota protest put on my BLM. The Mall of America protests bothered people just trying to do their Christmas shopping. The State Fair protests bothered people just trying to enjoy a corn dog. But you know what’s worse than long lines at the mall and cold corn dogs? Dying. And I think this is what many of the frustrated often forget.

I also think that those who write-off BLM as a nuisance are forgetting their history. Movements and moments that we celebrate today pissed off a ton of people in their time. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. The freedom riders complicated the days of people just trying to get to work. Those that sat in on segregated counters disturbed people just trying to enjoy their lunch breaks. And the March on Washington probably interrupted the vacations of families who had saved and planned for that vacation for months and years. Yet it is those tactics that made the movement successful, not just in pissing people off, but helping people to see the light.

That success did not come easy. Challenging the status quo is hard work, especially with so many people living comfortably within it. Pissed off people rose up then against the Civil Rights Movement just like pissed off people are rising up now against BLM. But those people of 50 years ago are not remembered very kindly. They are the people in your history textbook holding the signs that say, “Race Mixing is Communism,” “White Power,” and “Who Needs Niggers.” They are the people who stood against the tide of progress.

Which raises the question, how will those who stand against the goals advocated for by groups like Black Lives Matter be judged by history? 50 years from now, after the tide of progress (hopefully) has washed away much of the racial injustice and systemic racism that exists today, how will those people be remembered? I don’t think it is going out on a limb to say, “Not well.”

I’m not trying to compare yesterday’s racism to today’s. Thankfully, in most of the United States, such direct and honest racism is considered unacceptable. Today’s battle is more against the subtle stuff, the systems and sayings that don’t explicitly advocate for racist goals, but nevertheless achieve racist results. These are the battles that Black Lives Matter are fighting.

So next time that even the thought of a Black Lives Matter protest inconveniencing your day enters your mind, and you feel that frustration and anger starting to creep in, pause, and think big picture. Think about the march of history, where we’ve been, and where we’re hopefully going. Think about who’s helping us get there, and who’s standing in the way? Who’s rolling with the tide, and who’s pushing back against it? And then take a deep breath, and relax. Realize that even if Black Lives Matter is making some people’s day suck a little bit, their cause is a worthwhile one, because they are fighting for people who have it a lot worse. And whatever you do, don’t get pissed off, because even though mall patrons, and fair-goers, and Vikes fans are not the people gunning down unarmed Black men in the street, their annoyance with Black Lives Matter’s persistence to advocate for justice is still problematic.

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