“If we face the music and dance together we can turn the funk into function and leave the junk at the junction.” — Swami Beyondananda
One of the “great” things about polarized, identity politics is that each side excels in bringing out the shadow side of the other. And … at the same time refuses to face its own shadow because that would be giving ammunition to the enemy.
Welcome to race politics in America. Heck, welcome to ALL politics in America.
The growing awareness of police violence and profiling African Americans has created the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This has led to a bipartisan call for reform of prison and sentencing laws, the firing of police chiefs, the indictment of cops. The confederate flag has become a target, and understandably so. How many Jews would enjoy seeing a flag with a swastika flying over THEIR state capital?
And yes, it is a parallel “shituation”. To black Americans (and most whites who don’t have to defend slavery in looking up their family tree) the Civil War represents, among all the other complex reasons it was fought, the end of slavery in America. One might ask, had the Confederacy been allowed to exist as a sovereign state, how long would have slavery continued? Probably as long as it would have been financially viable. (To get a sense of what those who do fly Confederate flags have to say, please check out this video made by my cousin Neil Bhaerman – https://vimeo.com/33421908).
As a Libra and Enneagram 9 — and someone who grew up as a minority white kid in a housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant — I can see the issue from many different sides. And after all the posturing and positioning, the rhetoric and accusations, to me it comes down to one thing — respect. Respect for self, respect for others, respect for life, and respect for the virtues and values that transcend political viewpoint, class and race. In Africa, this respect is called ubuntu; “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri a year ago and the events that followed was about disrespect piled upon disrespect. The way Michael Brown’s body was allowed to lie on the street — disrespect. The riots and looting that followed — disrespect. And that’s just the beginning. The shouting, the distorted testimony, the way each side sought to discredit the other, disrespect. Disrespect for the truth, disrespect for justice, disrespect for self and community.
Given the decades of mutual disrespect, it’s understandable why many police in the inner city see themselves as being in enemy territory, and how young black males see themselves as enemy targets. Both sides are right.
As a youngster in the projects during 1950s and 1960s, I was privy to seeing all sides. On one hand, I was picked on and singled out for being white. On the other hand, when I was in high school, kids I hardly knew would make it a point to shout out, “Hey, Steve” to let their friends know I lived there and was “okay” instead of “ofay”. One of the saddest things was to see my two best friends from elementary school, two brothers a year apart in age, happy, intelligent kids, become gang members in junior high school. By the time they reached high school age, they were already in the detention system and I lost track of them after that. Being white, I was under no social pressure to join a gang, although I did intentionally misspell an easy word to insure I would NOT win the fifth grade spelling bee. Winning that contest would have downgraded my status.
Another poignant memory was Mr. Lee, the superintendent at 205 Albany Avenue, the building where I lived. He was a kind, dignified black man whose job it was to mop up the urine in the elevators every morning before people like my dad left for work. Every morning. The drunks would come home when the bars closed and couldn’t hold it in for the time it took for the elevator to take them to the 14th floor. (Note: Our building had no 13th floor, because that would have been “bad luck”. As a 12-year-old, I recognized that simply living in the building was bad luck.) The disrespect for the social nicety of not pissing in the elevator deeply hurt Mr. Lee, especially because it largely involved his “people”.
Fast forward ten years or so, and I found myself teaching in inner city Washington, D.C. the spring that Martin Luther King was killed. After the riots, when the schools re-opened, my students very generously offered me TV sets they had looted. I remember asking them about a particular business that had been looted over on Mount Pleasant Street, a clothing store called Mister Man. “Why did people loot a black-owned business?” I asked my kids.
“Oh, because they have the best clothes!” was the enthusiastic — and altogether guileless — answer.
And now, 47 years later … and two generations of inner city kids down the toilet — not that much has changed in that regard.
Lest we get too one-sided about the race shadow in this country, ever since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (and remarked to Bill Moyers, “I just gave the South to the Republicans for the next 50 years”) the Republicans have employed what is euphemistically called the “Southern Strategy” to take advantage of racial prejudice. It helped elect Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes.
Of course, the Democrats have done the same only different in cultivating black voters. No wonder Swami calls our current polarized system “pander-monium”.
Neither side has actually respected themselves or the other by standing for the truth. Every time a black individual speaks out on black-against-black violence, he or she is attacked as a traitor — just as Jews who criticize Israeli policies are demonized as “self-hating Jews”.
And — as you will see if you view my cousin Neil’s video — defenders of the Confederate flag use laughable disinformation and misinformation to justify their stand.
So … what can self-loving, self-respecting individuals do to cultivate sanity?
A recent blog post by my colleague Tom Atlee (author of the Tao of Democracy) suggests the “systemically transformative” process of Truth and Reconciliation, the restorative justice system that allowed South Africa to heal and emerge from apartheid two decades ago. Unlike Germany, which was forced by the Nuremberg trials and world opinion to come to grips with the Holocaust, the United States has never fully healed slavery, and its aftermath. Consequently, racism has become a political issue where scoring points overrides truth — and respect.
Some would say that Barack Obama has had the perfect bully pulpit to preside over healing race relations in America. Maybe he still can do it in the remaining 18 months of his presidency. If not, it must come from the awakening awareness of we the people. It’s time to hold multi-racial conversations in every locality in the United States that cultivate mutual listening, understanding and respect. I have found Jim Rough’s “dynamic facilitation” and Wisdom Council model to be a leader in this regard, and I’m sure other ways are emerging as well.
As with all aspects of our dysfunctional political and economic system, it will take an awakening of a critical mass of the heretofore-uncritical masses to restore (or perhaps install for the first time) the wise rule of we the people. If you consider this “utopian”, consider the alternative. You don’t have to go far to find it. It’s in the news every day. Through awareness, respect, and the newly-emerging tools to engage and cultivate wisdom, perhaps we can make some new news.