Remembering slavery and our history: saving Shockoe Bottom

Many of us don’t want to think about the past, especially the unpleasant and embarrassing parts of the past.  Not wanting to remember also applies to thinking about history.  I was reminded of this the other day when I came across Maurie D. McInnes’ essay in the New York Times “Disunion” series. 

We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.

Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.

When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”

Richmond was a major slave trading hub and Robert Lumpkin, one of the most prominent traders.  His jail and auction house were located in Shockoe Bottom, a low point along the James River.  Abigail Tucker wrote about the archeology of the site and Lumpkin in a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article, “Digging up the past at a Richmond jail”.  She writes

Lumpkin, a “bully trader” known as a man with a flair for cruelty, fathered five children with a black woman named Mary, who was a former slave and who eventually acted as his wife and took his name. Mary had at least some contact with the unfortunates her husband kept in chains, on one occasion smuggling a hymnal into the prison for an escaped slave named Anthony Burns.

The slave trade was important to the economics of both North and South before the Civil War.  McInnes reminds us

The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.

When I read McInnes’ column the current controversy about preserving the site of Lumpkin’s jail and auction house came immediately to mind.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation explains

Today, Shockoe Bottom is an urban archaeological site imminently threatened by “Revitalize RVA,” the controversial plan to construct a minor league baseball stadium, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, and residential and commercial office space at the site. The ill-considered stadium project, which is heavily promoted by the mayor of Richmond, members of the City Council, and influential real estate developers, threatens to destroy the remarkable archaeological remains which survive below the asphalt.

ShockoeBottom_Douglas_5.24.1866_crPreservationVirginia

The cruelty of slave traders like Robert Lumpkin, the wealth America enjoys, and the stories of the men and women held in the jail and sold at Shockoe Bottom deserve to be remembered.

I can’t remember another time I have used this blog to urge readers to take action, but I hope you will go the the National Trust link and sign on to save Shockoe Bottom.

 

Reproduction of Douglass note from Preservation Virginia.

Policing is a tricky business

Most of us want to be safe.  Maybe that should be all of us.  But how to feel safe and to be safe are questions with many answers.  If we were to listen to the NRA and other gun rights supporters we can best get to safe with each of us carrying a loaded weapon all the time.  Most of us, however, depend on the police.

We recruit young men and women, give them some training, arm them, and send them out to face dangerous situations.  I can’t imagine doing a traffic stop at night, alone.  I’ve heard stories from my State Trooper stepson that are really frightening.  And we also expect them to act within the boundaries society has established:  no excessive force and no stops without cause.  I think that most black men know that “cause” is a slippery thing.  Driving while black is a common reason to be stopped.  I remember my mother telling me about an African American minister who always drove at least once to any place he had to go in a white neighborhood during daylight.  He did this so when he went to a meeting at night, he would know where he was going and wouldn’t be wandering around lost.  He feared being stopped.  Then there is the story of my husband who was stopped while driving four black churchwomen back from a class.  The excuse?  His rear license plate was crooked.  The real reason?  I think they suspected he was a white pimp driving his “girls” someplace.  I guess the trooper realized after he stopped them and looked at the women that they were all middle aged or older and not at all what he had thought.  Was this profiling?  You bet.

So cause can sometimes be difficult to determine.  If see someone driving very fast and weaving in and out of traffic, you have cause for a stop.  If someone is speeding on a two lane road in the rain, you have cause for a stop.  And if you get a report of shots fired in a neighborhood known for gang activity, most of us would think that is cause for a stop.  That seems to be what happened last Friday night in Boston.  According to the story in the Boston Globe

Friday’s incident began at 6:40 p.m. when gang unit officers investigating a report of shots fired stopped a vehicle on Humboldt Avenue near Crawford Street to interview its three male occupants, authorities said Friday night.

The suspect stepped out and began to flee while firing his gun, said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, which works alongside Boston police to address gang violence.

The suspect wounded Moynihan [a police officer] under the right eye, Evans said.

A law enforcement official also said the suspect, who was not identified, had several previous gun-related charges.

Evans [Boston Police Commissioner William] said that the stop was initially routine and that the suspect had fired at police “before they had time to react,” but the officers quickly returned fire, killing the suspect.

Gunfire also struck “a middle-aged woman” who suffered a flesh wound, possibly in her right arm, Evans said.

“I think she got caught up in the crossfire,” he said.

Officer John Moynihan is a veteran Boston policeman who is expected to survive.

So what exactly are we to make of this incident?  Was this a stop with cause?  The report was of shots fired.  Kevin Cullen wrote about the incident and the immediate aftermath for the Globe.

Angelo West wasn’t going back to prison.

That’s what this was about. Pure and simple.

When members of the Boston police gang unit stopped the car he was driving on Humboldt Avenue on Friday evening, he knew that the .357 Magnum he was carrying was a ticket back to Cedar Junction in Walpole, and he wasn’t going out like that.

So he came out of the car, without a word, put his gun to the face of John Moynihan, and pulled the trigger. Then he ran off, turning back to fire at Moynihan’s colleagues.

Did he really think he would get away?

There was an extraordinary scene as police officers combed the area for spent shell casings and other evidence as Moynihan underwent surgery at Boston Medical Center. Some people got in their faces, calling them pigs, screaming about another black man shot to death by police.

I wonder.  Did any of them know the victim?  Did they understand that he shot first and that he was a three time loser facing life?

The Boston Police and the Suffolk County District Attorney then made an extraordinary decision.  Dante Ramos explains

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown finds the surveillance video persuasive, so much so that he gets up from where we’re sitting and pantomimes what happens in it: Boston Police Officer John T. Moynihan approaches a stopped vehicle last Friday, stands by the driver’s door, and taps on the edge of the roof to tell him to come out. As the driver, Angelo West, emerges, Moynihan shifts on his feet — and suddenly rears back as West shoots him in the face. Then, in Brown’s rendition, West leans over the fallen officer, as if to shoot him again. Another officer interrupts by firing at West, who flees while discharging his weapon.

The confrontation on Humboldt Street in Roxbury ended with West dead and Moynihan badly injured. People who’ve seen the video, taken by cameras mounted at a nearby business, say it makes West’s culpability plain.

The footage from Roxbury bears a time stamp of 6:46 p.m. Friday, and interactions between police and spectators on the scene soon became edgy. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested the deaths of African-American men under dubious circumstances in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, raised the possibility that West’s death was part of that pattern.

In past cases involving so-called officer-involved deaths in Boston, video evidence came out only at the end of a long investigation. Authorities waited a year after the 2013 shooting of Darryl Dookhran by Boston police to release footage that supported officers’ account of the event. Yet by around noon Saturday, police were showing the video from Humboldt Avenue to a group that included Brown, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, state Representative Russell Holmes, civil rights attorney Rahsaan Hall, and others.

Releasing the video sets a precedent that may be difficult to live up to in the future.  In other cases, there may be witnesses visible that need protection or the video may be more ambiguous and need to have a jury interpret it.  But in this case it was the right thing to do and a good decision by Commissioner Evans and DA Conley.  People may still question whether the stop itself was justified, but clearly the shooting of Angelo West was the only thing that police could have done.

Yes, black lives matter – all lives matter.  But we need to ask if they all matter equally.  Don’t people like Angelo West terrorize the very community in which many of the protesters live?  Don’t get me wrong.  I would rather see West in prison for life than dead, but in the end Angelo West is dead.  John Moynihan will survive.  I think justice was served.

 

 

Ghettoside

We are all thinking this January 2015 about relationship between the minority – in particular, black – communities and the police. Ghettoside by Los Angeles reporter, Jill Leovy, is a timely addition to the conversation.

The homicide rate in Los Angeles, in Watts and in South Central in particular, consists of young black men killing other young black men. The clearance rate for these murders is very low. Because of the difficulties in finding witnesses willing to testify and a culture that put a low premium on their lives, many police resorted to arresting those they knew were guilty of murder but against whom they had insufficient evidence, of “proxy crimes.” These crimes included public drinking, possession of drugs, and parole violations. These arrests did get killers off the streets, but they were often viewed as harassment.

Ghettoside is the story of two murders and of John Skaggs, the white police detective who solved both. Skaggs was the detective who actually cared and he and his partners preserved until both cases resulted in convictions. Leovy chose as victims the son of a black police detective and a tenth grader son of a single mother home health care worker. Neither were gang affiliated. One would expect effort to solve the case concerning a fellow police officer, but given the culture of the L.A. police at the time, not the other. Skaggs worked through police budget cuts and the lack of resources his entire career. He and his first partner and later those they trained cared. They cared about the families, the victims and the witnesses. They solved homicides. Leovy gives us a small glimpse into what makes Skaggs tick, but I never learned enough to understand why he was different, why he was driven to solve these crimes that few others cared about.

The unfolding of the investigations reads like a mystery story. Some may get confused about the multiple characters, but I found it no more confusing than reading Ngaio Marsh or Agatha Christie. I did find that Leovy’s digressions into the roots of both black on black crime and white indifference distracting and, in the end, superficial. Leovy is not an historian or sociologist and the strength of this book is her reporting on the crimes and the investigations. She began a blog for the Los Angeles Times called the “Homicide Report” in 2007. The report chronicles every homicide in the city to the current day. Every city should have a similar blog.

Ghettoside ends with a quote from William J. Stuntz. Stuntz was a Harvard Law School Professor who studied the criminal justice system and died much too young. “Poor black neighborhoods see too little of the kids of policing and criminal punishment that do the most good, and too much of the kinds that do the most harm.” This also sums up Ghettoside.

I highly recommend this book.

This was first published as a review for LibraryThing with an Advanced Readers Copy.  The book will be available on January 27.

 

 

The importance of place

Amy Davidson has written  a piece for the New Yorker summarizing the last year using seven addresses.  It must have been on my mind after I read it last night because early this morning in that time when you are not quite awake and yet not asleep, I tried to name the street and visualize all the places I’ve lived.  I don’t, of course, remember the first place I went after I was born except from a vague memory of visiting as a very young child.  I do remember with some effort the other places.  Some of them – particularly early rentals as a young adult – were actually pretty awful.  I even remember a couple of the landlords.  But the last, almost 40 years, I’ve only lived at three addresses.  All of them were/are wonderful in their own way.  The seven addresses Davidson picked to remember 2014 evoke feelings from horrifying and sad to wonderment.

Davidson begins with West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri and Bay Street, Staten Island, New York where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of the police, events which have the potential to change policing as well as the way we talk about race.  Her next set of addresses are where Thomas Eric Duncan was exposed to Ebola and where he first became ill:  72nd Samuel K. Doe Boulevard, Paynesville, Liberia and The Ivy Apartments, Fair Oaks Avenue, Dallas.  Duncan’s illness set off an extraordinary and irrational panic here.  An epidemic never materialized and so, in the American way, we have mostly forgotten that people are still dying in West Africa.  One consequence is that people there no longer seek medical help for problems that have cures because they fear medical facilities and Ebola causing the number of deaths from ordinary medical problems to rise also.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

A memorial for Eric Garner at the site where he died, on Staten Island.

Have you heard of this next address?

Nathan Road [Hong Kong], which is six lanes wide and cuts through the central Mong Kok district, was closed for weeks this fall, as students and others assembled to protest what they saw as Beijing’s broken promises about free elections. It, along with other gleaming thoroughfares, was the scene of standoffs whose contrasts—crowds holding up umbrellas amid teargassing near destination boutiques and offices—embodied some trade-offs that have accompanied China’s economic rise in graphic, or geographic, terms. (Traffic or democracy?) The barricades on Nathan Avenue were mostly cleared away in a major police action at the end of November. Cars are passing through again, but the story is not complete, for either side.

We hear almost nothing about the students and their supporters these days unless one listens to the BBC.  Right now, no one is sure where the protests are headed and protesters themselves are divided about whether to continue or to rethink tactics.

I had never heard of this next address:  Naem Roundabout, Raqqa, Syria.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has been geographically disorienting: it has made sudden, sweeping moves into Northern Iraq, threatened the Turkish border, and put out videos, shot in indeterminate stretches of desert, in which hostages are mocked and killed. But there are moments when the group’s brutality and degraded character can be given an exact address, as when, in Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as its base, prisoners were beheaded and their remains put on display along the Naem Roundabout. (Naem, in Arabic, means “bliss.”)

Davidson ends with the wonderful address of Comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta spacecraft’s trip to this address took a decade and covered four billion miles. On November 12th, after a couple of bouncy knocks, Rosetta’s Philae module landed on the comet’s surface—the first such visit in human history. The lander settled in a shady spot and then, over a frantic fifty-seven hours, scientists at the European Space Agency performed all the experiments they could before its solar-powered batteries shut down. Philae is sleeping on the comet now, but it may wake up again next summer, when the comet next turns toward the sun.

Thinking about the world and one’s own life through place is a fascinating thing to do.  Try thinking about all of your addresses and how they shaped your life and how they will shape your future.  Think about places you have been.  And I can’t wait to see if Philae wakes up next summer.

Photograph:  MARK PETERSON/REDUX

 

 

Grand juries, Ferguson, lots of questions and incredible sadness

What do I feel this morning after the grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson on any charge?  Just incredible sadness and weariness.

I served on a grand jury in Boston.  It was supposed to be a six month gig, but turned out to be over a year because we were following evidence in a case.  We heard maybe 75 or 80 different cases and I can only recall two in which we didn’t indict.  One was a drug deal complete with very bad video and audio.  We decided we just couldn’t see or hear well enough to know what was going on.  There was another case, don’t remember exactly what it involved, where there was also not enough evidence.  If I remember correctly, the prosecutors can find more evidence and present again to a different grand jury.  In both cases where we declined to indict, they came to talk to us about why we didn’t do so.  In my year and a half, we heard many cases of unemployment insurance fraud, one child porn case, several Big Dig contractor fraud cases, and the biggie, a public corruption case.  We were constantly reminded that we were not a jury deciding guilt or innocence, but were just to decide if there was enough that a jury should hear the case.  We were often given the option, as was the Ferguson grand jury, of indicting on one of several charges.  We heard the prosecutor’s case only as the process was designed to determine if the prosecutor had enough evidence to go to trial.  It is an interesting process.

We have no idea what went on inside that grand jury room.  We don’t know if there were jurors who voted to indict and on which charges.  (Grand juries usually need a minimum, but not unanimous, vote.)  This was a special grand jury which heard no other cases.  We do know that in this instance, the grand jury did hear from Darren Wilson the defendant.  According to the New York Times summary of the case

The prosecutor usually chooses the evidence that a grand jury will hear, but in this case, the grand jury was given more latitude in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas, according to Susan McGraugh, a law professor at the St. Louis University who has followed the case extensively. Grand jurors viewed photographs, forensic evidence and medical reports. Witnesses who testified include people who saw the events and police officers who worked on the investigation. While it is unusual in grand jury proceedings for the defendant to appear, Officer Wilson also gave testimony.

I watched Prosecutor McCulloch give his lengthy and sometimes repetitious statement on why the grand jury decided not to indict and I was left with several nagging questions.  There had been an altercation at Officer Wilson’s car and Officer Wilson was the only one who fired a weapon.  Michael Brown was clearly not armed.  Why was he shot, from the front, twelve times?   Why the press conference at night?  John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker this morning, has many of the same questions.

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

A preliminary question to ask is why the St. Louis authorities scheduled such an incendiary announcement for after dark, even though the news that the grand jury had reached a decision had become public hours earlier. Surely, it would have been wiser for Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, to have met with reporters earlier in the day.

A more important question, also unanswered in anything but the most general terms, is this: Why did the grand jury decide not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson? McCulloch’s press conference, when it eventually took place, was notably lacking in detail about the shots that killed Brown.

But we didn’t learn precisely how far away Brown was when Wilson shot him fatally, or what persuaded the police officer that his life was in danger, which is one legal justification in Missouri for shooting someone who is unarmed. According to some accounts, Brown had his arms raised when he was shot for the final time. Other accounts say that he was charging at Wilson. McCulloch, beyond saying that some eyewitnesses provided contradictory statements, didn’t say what evidence the grand jury had relied on in reaching its decision. He did say, though, that the grand jury had met for twenty-five days and heard from more than sixty witnesses.

I’m sure that there will be extensive analysis from legal scholars in the coming days and I look forward to reading them.  I hope someone answers one of my questions which is:  Did hearing from Darren Wilson make the grand jury feel this was a trial where they were to determine guilt or innocence?

Meanwhile, if the grand jury decision makes me sad, the reaction of the fools on the streets makes me even sadder.  I’ve seen this too many times before – when Dr. King was killed, after Rodney King, right after Michael Brown’s death, etc. etc.   John Cassidy writes

Perhaps the grand-jury transcripts, some of which were released late on Monday, will help clear up what actually happened. More likely, the exact sequence of events will remain in dispute, and so will the grand jury’s decision. Americans who believe that the legal system generally works well, and fairly, will be inclined to believe that the members of the grand jury reached the right decision. Those who believe the criminal-justice system is stacked against minorities, particularly against young African-American men, will be inclined to believe that this was another whitewash.

I am among those who can’t understand the grand jury’s decision, but burning police cars and Walgreen’s will not change the racism in the criminal justice system.  There is more than enough blame to go around.  The announcement made after dark and the declaration of martial law and calling out the National Guard before the decision created a confrontational atmosphere and, in the end, didn’t prevent anything.  Prosecutor McCulloch’s long non-explanation explanation.  The rioters who through their actions fulfilled every stereotype.  There are no good guys here.

It just leaves me sad and frustrated.

Photograph:  ADREES LATIF/REUTERS

Anger, fear, and violence

People made fun of President Carter when he spoke of a national malaise.  I’m not sure we were in one back then, but I’d say we are sure in one today.  Everyone seems tired.  The upcoming election is very important, but many can’t get up enough energy to decide to vote.  But added to the tiredness is anger.   You can see it in what is said about the President, in the disrespect shown him and the office.  You can see it in the fear about Ebola.  You can see it in the increased racial tension in Missouri and elsewhere.  You can see it the attempts to restrict voting.  I see the fear of “the other” manifesting as anger.  But you can also see it in the anger against women.

Jessica Valenti had a piece in the Guardian the other day, “Why are Men so Angry?”.  I’ve been thinking about it since I first came across it.  She begins

There’s a Margaret Atwood quote that I can’t get out of my head these days: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Last Friday, a young man from Washington state walked into his high school cafeteria and shot five people, killing one young woman. Early reports from other students indicate that the shooter, who reportedly shot himself, was upset over a girl. In early October, Mary Spears was shot to death in Detroit, allegedly by a man whose advances she rejected at a social club. In April, a Connecticut teen stabbed his classmate to death when she rejected his prom invitation. Turning men down is a risky business.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. From Gamergate to mass shootings todomestic violence and the NFL – the common denominator is male rage. Women are not committing most acts of mass and individual violence, nor are women lobbing out most death threats online or raping most college students. Violence – and the threat of it – remains a decidedly male domain.

But why are men so violently angry?

I believe that it is the same kind of fear that drives the fear of the racially other.  When it comes to women, it is fear of losing some perceived superiority.  Valenti puts it this way

Is it the fear that women’s progress means a loss of all that shiny male privilege? That our society is a zero sum game and power can’t be shared? Maybe some men’s anger stems from good old-fashioned misogyny, which is then stoked by political, social and cultural forces that say there’s nothing lower in this world than a woman so how dare she … well, anything. Or perhaps that anger at women comes from straight-up entitlement: the men who believe that women are meant to be there for them, whether it’s to wash their toilets or warm their beds, and that denying them access to us is an unthinkable affront.

But it’s no coincidence that anti-feminist backlash happens most often when women’s rights are on an upswing. And male anger towards women isn’t going anywhere – if anything, it’s gaining steam. Online forums that provide anonymity are creating spaces for men to say the things they no longer can in “real life”, police and courts that disbelieve and blame women for the violence done to them give men the impression their bad behavior is acceptable and a conservative movement that refuses to let go of traditional gender roles teaches our children that being a man is synonymous with being “tough”, having guns and, yes, being violent.

domestic_violence_awareness_ribbon

I’m old enough to remember when no one talked about violence against women.  We were just beginning to recognize domestic violence and create shelters.  The concepts of sexual harassment and date rape were just being named.  Rape was beginning to be taken seriously.  Now we have special months, ribbons, and rape is generally depicted as a crime of violence.  So it makes me tired to think that after all these decades that we are still trying to figure out how to deal with male violence.  (And before someone complains that women can be violent also, yes they can be.  But the vast majority of violent incidents are perpetrated by men.)

Valenti concludes

If we want to put a dent in male anger and the chaos it creates, we need to stop looking at problems like sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence and even violent threats online and assigning their solutions to feminists. We need to stop calling them “just women’s issues”. We have to address men and men’s behavior together – not just their direct violence against women, but their propensity to protect their own. Not the outcomes of their rage, but the causes. Because, until we do, we’ll continue to be afraid. All of us.

I think she is right, but I worry that the conversation about male violence will be like the national dialog on race which everyone talks about but no one knows how to begin.  I’m not sure I know how to talk to the person who still believes that President Obama is really Kenyan, much less talk to someone to wants to commit violence against me to keep me in my place.

 

 

 

A guide to talking about race

With the Michael Brown shooting leading the news and talk about possible ISIS attacks in the United States, racial and ethnic profiling is in the spotlight once again.  And you hear people saying that we need to have a conversation about race.  We keep talking about having one and somehow it never happens.  This is why I was interested to see Charles Blow’s recent column in the New York Times titled “Constructing a Conversation on Race.”

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists

We all carry our own baggage:  an encounter with someone of a different race or background that didn’t go well; a perceived slight; or feeling passed over for someone for what we felt were racial reasons.  We may talk about these things within our own circles which are often made up of people just like us.  I am usually one of the very few Asian Americans in any group and it was only when I moved to Boston that I could be on the street or even in a meeting that was predominantly Asian.  And now I’ve moved to Vermont which is one of the whitest states and where my sister and I have already been confused because we have the same last name.  I have been referred to as “white” which somehow offends me but I think it is meant as a kind of compliment.  Race can be a no win thing.

Blow continues

I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

He also advises that we should think about what we mean by race.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

We need to think hard about why race and ethnicity are among the first things we recognize about someone and what we see is often not how the person thinks of herself.  One thing seems clear.   We need to talk and think about race a great deal more constructively that most current conversations where the parties can never get past their anger.  Maybe we can start the discussion by talking about Mr Blow’s column,