The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
The day is Friday, 26 June 2015.
My daughter, Jessica, sits in our brown recliner, holding an ice pack on her broken nose with her right hand and cradling her one-year-old daughter, Skylar, in her left arm.
I stand leaning over at the waist in the middle of the living room. Two trickles of bloods run down my left shin from my knee cap. My ring finger and thumb on my right hand are throbbing, jammed, and my left hip is tightening, bruised I am sure. I breathe heavily and am covered in sweat, Jessica asking if I am all right.
No more than ten minutes earlier, Jessica pulls into our driveway with Skylar and her white box-head lab, Sasha. I hurry outside to help her and notice, finally, she has Sasha in a collar and on a leash.
As Jessica leads Sasha to our fenced-in backyard to play with our yellow lab (Sasha’s half-sister), Zoe, I walk around the car to unbuckle Skylar from her car seat.
Just as I have the car seat straps undone and my hands under Skylar’s arms, I look up and notice Jessica is bent over with her face in her hands. Jessica is screaming.
The dogs are both out of the fence, I also notice, before I realize what Jessica is shouting: “I think Zoe broke my nose.”
In the next impossibly long second, I recognize I have three obligations—my granddaughter, my frantic daughter, and two dogs now running away.
These are decisions that are not decisions, moments when the universe demands that we notice what matters.
I carefully lift Skylar out of her car seat and hold her tight in my right arm. I try to call for Zoe and Sasha as I hurry toward Jessica, still leaning over with her face in her hands and screaming.
I put my left arm around Jessica and tell her we are going inside, everything will be fine.
When she looks up at me and moves her hands, there is no blood, and although I can tell something has hit her nose, the injury seems not as bad as I feared.
In our house, I tell Jessica to sit in the recliner, and I grab an ice pack wrapping it in a paper towel for her to hold on her nose. Only a few seconds pass before Jessica tells me she can hold Skylar, to go look for the dogs.
The day is scorching, another during a long June week of 100-degree heat index days. No dogs are in sight.
I call for Zoe and Sasha, whistle, and clap my hands, but our entire neighborhood seems completely deserted.
Sasha, I learn later, has run away just the day before at our house; she is a runner like our family chocolate lab Hershey, who we had to put down along with our black lab within a month of each other in the summer of 2014.
I trot into the road in front of our house, still calling, clapping, and whistling. Then I catch sight of the dogs down through the cul-de-sac, chasing each other behind a neighbor’s house.
I call for Zoe and run.
Zoe turns and sprints toward me, but Sasha remains at the edge of the woods between the neighbor’s house and a larger road outside the neighborhood.
I hurry but avoid running toward Sasha who pauses until I am close, and then she darts away again.
At 54, without thinking, I do something I have only seen on TV, movies, and cartoons; I sprint two or three steps and dive, reaching for the leash dragging behind Sasha.
Scrambling back to my feet, my right shoe twisted and only half way on, I somehow have the leash in my right hand, and immediately begin jogging back to our house with Sasha and coaxing Zoe trailing along. But about halfway there, Sasha twists and pulls out of the collar.
I continue to run and call after them both, noticing a car coming down the road.
The momentum works. Sasha, Zoe, and I run back to our house, and then the dogs tumble through the fence gate as if everything is perfectly fine.
The day is Friday, 26 June 2015.
From the White House, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, addresses the nation about the Supreme Court ruling against states’ banning same-sex marriage:
Progress on this journey often comes in small increments. Sometimes two steps forward, one step back, compelled by the persistent effort of dedicated citizens. And then sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.
This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they have reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law; that all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love.
That night, the White House is illuminated with rainbow colors.
In between during mid-afternoon, President Obama speaks in Charleston, South Carolina—at the Emanuel AME Church where only days before nine black people where massacred in a racist act of terrorism. Here, he is behind a pulpit, eulogizing South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney.
“The Bible calls us to hope,” Obama begins, “to persevere and have faith in things not seen.”
About Pinckney, Obama stresses: “No wonder one of his Senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as ‘the most gentle of the 46 of us, the best of the 46 of us.'”
Praising Pinckney builds to Obama’s larger message: “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.”
Behind Obama, congregation leaders in purple robes lend an impromptu chorus punctuated by the organist off camera. “Amazing Grace” and “purple mountains majesty” rise beyond the tragedy of the moment and spread across the nation like a rainbow.
The day is today.
That is not a question before you.
The question before you is always “What matters?” and then “What will I do?”
Documentarian Ken Burns—noted for his work on the Civil War—explains that the shift in attitudes concerning the Confederate battle flag across the South and the U.S. parallels another watershed moment in the nation, support for gay marriage (I would add the legalization of marijuana is another similar shift).
Many are rightfully concerned that the massacre of the #Charleston9 is being reduced if not trivialized by the political rush to remove the battle flag from state grounds, license plates, and flags, just as some believe the flag debate allows political leaders and the public once again to avoid a real discussion and then action on gun control.
Let us, then, embrace the flag debate as not a symbolic moment, but a symbolic movement—lowering and removing are actions—that both works with and builds on the momentum of those political and public shifts.
Removing the Confederate battle flag from government display, however, is not banning that flag; individuals continue to have the right in the U.S. to flaunt symbolically their beliefs, however misguided or even hateful, regardless of the mechanism—as long as that free speech does not cross a line into denying others their free speech or threaten harm.
Thus, part of that movement must be personal and public education.
And that education must address the “Heritage Not Hate” mantra that has for too long allowed both the Confederate battle flag and the concurrent racism to survive behind slogans without basis in the facts of history.
The Confederate battle flag has not suffered a change in meaning; its meaning has always been corrupt from its original creation within the larger acts of secession and war.
The “heritage” and “state’s rights” claims are cultural lies by omission: The heritage was one of racism and slavery, and the state’s right was to maintain slavery as the primary mechanism of economic power in the South (an economic dynamic that made a very few incredibly wealthy, but also a system of human bondage that benefitted those who didn’t own slaves, rendering nearly all free people complicit during the institution of slavery).
Many have offered the evidence for that personal and public education, and I offer them below as an opportunity for folding “Heritage Not Hate” into the movement that will embrace those willing to say they have also changed their minds and hearts because they are now willing to face the uncomfortable facts that contradict long-held beliefs.
Debunking “Heritage Not Hate”: A Reader
Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates
“Corner Stone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens,Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861
What This Cruel War Was Over, Ta-Nehisi Coates
“They Can’t Turn Back,” James Baldwin
The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States (Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia)
The “meaning” of the Confederate flag, Bryan Bibb
[Quoted from John M. Coski, the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond]
How The South Lost The War But Won The Narrative, Tony Horwitz
James Baldwin published “They Can’t Turn Back” in 1960 just as I was about to enter this world.
Baldwin—black, gay and from the North—was witnessing a world from which I—white, straight and from the South—would in many ways be exempt, although it was the same world.
In this essay, Baldwin was charged by Mademoiselle to report on student activism in Florida after the Greensboro (North Carolina) sit-in, which the editors framed, in part, as follows:
More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida. to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether “We really want to be free” and whether freedom applied to all Americans or only to part of the population. (Italics in original)
“I am the only Negro passenger at Tallahassee’s shambles of an airport,” Baldwin begins, as he paints an immediate picture of the tensions between blacks and whites that defined his world: “If she were smiling at me that way I would expect to shake her hand. But if I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.”
In Charleston, South Carolina—about 300 miles away from Greensboro and 55 years later—racial tensions have escalated from “threat” to execution. In the wake of the mass shooting of the #Charleston9 (an eerie and disturbing echo of the Little Rock Nine), the political and public response has focused on the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds in SC as well as in both government and private contexts across the South and U.S.
Time and place, then, do not erase the power of Baldwin’s second paragraph:
On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend, and that is why I find the South so eerie and exhausting. This system of signs and naunces covers the mined terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across this field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its “folkways.” The fact that the gesture is not made is what the South calls “excellent race relations.” It is impossible for any northern Negro to become an adept of this mystery, not because the South’s racial attitudes are not found in the North but because it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority. That is why the battle of Negro students for freedom here is really an attempt to free the entire region from the irrational terror that has ruled it for so long.
The South Baldwin describes was cracking under the weight of “separate but equal” as that myth crashed into a rising refrain of civil rights. As Baldwin notes, “the viewpoint of the white majority” dictated the narratives about and for blacks—and whites.
Today, as the South and the nation wrestles with symbolism—a flag—we also confront a tarnished and enduring myth-turned-slogan, “Heritage Not Hate,” as Tony Horwitz explains:
Some of those who invoke the “heritage, not hate” mantra are disingenuous. On the day of the shooting, I was in rural east Texas, touring a small town with a businessman who displayed the rebel flag on his truck. After telling me “it’s heritage, not hate,” he proceeded to refer to a black neighborhood as “Niggertown” and rant against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
Most flag defenders, however, are sincere when they say they cherish the banner as a symbol of their ancestors’ valor. About 20 percent of white Southern males of military age died in the Civil War. In South Carolina the toll was even higher, and thousands more were left maimed, their farms and homes in ruins. For many descendants of Southern soldiers, the rebel flag recalls that sacrifice, and taking it down dishonors those who fought under the banner. No one wants to be asked to spit on their ancestors’ graves….
But a deeper problem remains, and not just among those who cherish the Confederacy. Nationwide, Americans still cling to a deeply sanitized and Southern-fried understanding of the Civil War. More often than not, when I talk to people about the conflict, I hear that it was about abstract principles like “state sovereignty” and “the Southern way of life.” Surveys confirm this. In 2011, at the start of the war’s sesquicentennial, the Pew Research Center asked more than 1500 Americans their view as to “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent said the main cause was slavery, compared to 48 percent who answered states’ rights.
For Baldwin in the turbulent cusp of the 1950s/1960s at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University:
The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live, and have lived here, are so ugly that now they cannot even speak to one another. It does not demand much reflection to be appalled at the inevitable state of mind achieved by people who dare not speak freely about those things which most disturb them….
It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. The fact that F.A.M.U. is a Negro university merely serves to demonstrate this American principle more clearly: and the pressure now being placed on the Negro administration and faculty by the white Florida State Board of Control further hampers the university’s effectiveness as a training ground for future citizens. In fact, if the Florida State Board of Control has its way, Florida will no longer produce citizens, only black and white sheep. I do not think or, more accurately, I refuse to think that it will have its way but, at the moment, all that prevents this are the sorely menaced students and a handful of even more sorely menaced teachers and preachers.
Our contemporary world remains too often silent, just as our institutions of education continue to be in the service of the status quo—failing more often than not the very students most in need of public and higher education. Just as Baldwin’s recognition of the power of symbolism in the South speaks to today, his words strike also at the heart of the return of segregated and inequitable schooling across the entire U.S.:
For the segregated school system in the South has always been used by the southern states as a means of controlling Negroes. When one considers the lengths to which the South has gone to prevent the Negro from ever becoming, or even feeling like, an equal, it is clear that the southern states could not have used schools in any other way.
In his role as witness, Baldwin details his own journey among black leaders and students in Florida, and one student leads him to note:
But this [the historical perspective] does not, and cannot exist, either privately or publicly, in a country that has told itself so many lies about its history, that, in sober fact, has yet to excavate its history from the rubble of romance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the South today, for if the tissue of myths that has for so long been propagated as southern history had any actual validity, the white people of the South would be far less tormented people and the present generation of Negro students could never have been produced.
For SC and the U.S., pulling down a flag is not an act of erasing history, but a moment, a momentum for facing a history long masked behind the veneer of whitewashing.
Baldwin’s time spent with student protestors in Florida spurred in him angst—an angst not unlike those who fear now that the flag removal will be but a passing symbolic act with little real change to follow: “And all this, I think to myself, will only be a page in history. I cannot help wondering what kind of page it will be, whether we are hourly, in this country now, recording our salvation or our doom,” Baldwin muses.
However, Baldwin’s closing words suggest hope, a hope embodied in young blacks then who were in a different world than the one into which Baldwin was born. And Baldwin believed in the promise of young black activism grounded in a bold recognition of the real history of race in the U.S.:
They [black student activists] cannot be diverted. It seems to me that they are the only people in this country now who really believe in freedom. Insofar as they can make it real for themselves, they will make it real for all of us. The question with which they present the nation is whether or not we really want to be free. It is because these students remain so closely related to their past that they are able to face with such authority a population ignorant of its history and enslaved by a myth. And by this population I do not mean merely the unhappy people who make up the southern mobs. I have in mind nearly all Americans.
These students prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real.
Hope and angst are with us in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, in the wake of political leaders who defended the Confederate flag on one Friday (and for years) only to reverse course after a weekend (and likely some motivation from the very CEOs politicians had invoked as evidence the flag was not a real issue), in the vacuum of the national refusal to confront the violent gun culture that arms the racism we are begrudgingly admitting.
In Baldwin’s refuting of William Faulkner—white calls for patience from blacks—we have more evidence of the relevance of Baldwin in a time of racial unrest:
But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist—and he is not the only Southerner who knows is. There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now. (“Faulkner and Desegregation,” Nobody Knows My Name)
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
For Skylar and Jessica
When writing about my redneck past—born, raised, and now having lived my entire life in the upstate of South Carolina—I reached back to my grandparents and parents as a way to give context to who I am and how I “got to be this way.”
In the waning days of June 2015, in the sort of near-100-degree heat we tend to suffer in July and August, SC has been exposed to the rest of the U.S. and world in a way that is hard for me as a Southerner to face: nine innocent souls slaughtered in a racist rage.
While the domestic terrorist responsible for this logical consequence of a people hopelessly clutching a culture of violence in the form of the right to bear arms and willfully blind to the lingering racism that stains our refrain of “life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness” sought to start a race war, instead a state and national conversation has begun about the embarrassment that is Southern Heritage, raised like a petulant bully’s middle-finger on the grounds of SC’s Capitol.
I have never felt pride about being a South Carolinian, a Southerner, or an American—these are all mere coincidences of my birth.
It makes no real sense to me, this personalizing geography and then mangling history and ideology in order to create barriers among people.
As a high school teacher in SC for nearly two decades, my students often bristled at my confronting them about the flag fetish among many white students, mostly males.
As a life-long witness to Southern Heritage, I have come to recognize that we are not unique but representative in the South of the worst aspects of patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism—making a commitment to a false narrative to preserve an ideology that ultimately is self-defeating and dehumanizing.
Those most fervent about Southern Heritage and fundamentalist faith in the South have something important in common: an incomplete at best and missing at worst understanding of either the history of the South (and the Confederacy) or the Bible.
There is a selectivity to calling on history and scripture that exposes the real commitments of the fervent: holding onto a world that insures other people remain inferior.
“Heritage Not Hate” is propaganda, and as Aldous Huxley notes: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
It is the cruelest sort of irony that Southern Heritage advocates misrepresent history as many fundamentalists misrepresent Christianity because those false narratives seek to dehumanize and divide.
Yes, my family and community shaped who I am and how I “got to be this way.” And I am certain the South and SC have played roles in that story of me as well.
But I have no specific idea if any of my ancestors participated in any way in the Civil War or slavery; I must imagine that those ancestors in the South during those eras were like most people—in most ways directly or indirectly complicit in horrible human acts.
I must imagine that because we are directly and indirectly complicit now in horrible human acts—some so large and pervasive that most cannot see them (our consumer culture that includes the wealth of the few on the labor of the discardable many).
I have no desire to contort reality around my ancestors or the history of the region I happen to be born in as a act of somehow justifying my own value as a person.
Southern Heritage and Pride are abstractions that allow a callous disregard for the very real world around us—a world that is unnecessarily violent of our own making, a world that is horribly inequitable of our own making, and a world trapped in the labels of “heritage” and “Christian” but unwilling to learn from history or act on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I simply cannot embrace a past that reveals all the ways we have failed each other.
It seems instead that today and every “today” we are called to imagine how the world can be better and then do something to make that happen.
I am grateful in many ways for the life my grandparents and parents afforded me, but my life has also included making choices to set aside many things that redneck past inculcated in me, things that do not fill me with pride, but shame.
The enduring possibilities of human dignity have been my guideposts that I found in literature (not garbled and romanticized history or cherry-picked bible verses): William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings, Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Adrienne Rich.
But the moral barometers who ultimately saved me remain the voices I hear daily: Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin.
Vonnegut writes through Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
Baldwin confesses in “They Can’t Turn Back”:
It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.
I feel no pride in being a South Carolinian, a Southern or an American; I did not choose any of that geography.
But when I read Vonnegut and Baldwin, I am proud to be a fellow human and I feel a sudden rush of hope found in the pages of literature—as author Neil Gaiman recognizes:
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
And this is my confession: While white parents gave me life, black authors saved my life.
I have debts to pay, and I must pay them forward—things I cannot do clutching a past that has failed us all.
A couple of years or more were consumed by my research, writing, and then related public work on school choice, anchored by my book Parental Choice?
The topic of school choice made me aware of the significant gap in credibility along support for and concerns about parental choice as a mechanism for spurring education reform: advocates of choice tend to be from outside the field of education while many who challenge school choice are educators or educational researchers and scholars.
On several occasions, I was invited to debate school choice, but I refused because the pro-choice representative was always someone without real credibility. My position was that to commit to a forum based on pro versus con immediately gave legitimacy to a side that was not, in fact, credible.
Many years before this problem was skewered by John Oliver, I was invoking the Oliver Rule.
The circumstances of debating school choice, I believe, raise issues of credible agents of positions, but school choice is itself a legitimate topic of debate—although the evidence is pretty well tilted against the effectiveness of choice as a reform mechanism.
More recently, I have made strong public statements against corporal punishment, putting me in a slightly different context: physical punishment of children, based on a comprehensive body of research, is not a debatable topic.
And while I did agree to speak on a panel of advocates for and against corporal punishment, I am deeply concerned about venturing into a debate when allowing debate lends credibility to both positions (as opposed to the agent of the position).
As Oliver lampooned, the mainstream media is complicit in both lending credibility to people who have little or no credibility and allowing “both sides” of an issue to be viewed as having equal moral weight and/or equal validity in terms of research or evidence.
I have, then, more often than I would prefer to examine called for a critical free press—one that makes the distinctions about who is credible and what positions are credible.
In the wake of the racist massacre of nine blacks peacefully assembled in their church, the mainstream media have once again revealed themselves to be incapable of any sort of critical awareness of either the issues they cover or themselves, notably the white/privileged bias of objective journalism.
In Room for Debate (The New York Times), which also regularly fields debates on education among people with little or no credibility in the field of education, Does the Confederate Flag Breed Racism? frames the flag issue in SC as having two credible sides—which it doesn’t.
Simply presenting a topic in a civil format with smiling well-dressed advocates for their causes is a corrosive mismanagement of both journalism and human decency.
But more offensive still was the Meet the Press segment from 21 June 2015, featuring David Brooks as a spokesperson on moral character.
As if that isn’t offensive enough, the segment included an extended clip of only black criminals talking about gun violence:
‘Meet The Press’ panelist and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out the apparent disconnect.
“I thought that was a very powerful piece,” he said. “One small thing I would mention, because I haven’t seen the whole piece, is there wasn’t a terribly diverse set of people who were talking. Right now, we’re talking about a horrific crime committed by a white man. We’re talking about the search for two escaped murderers who are white men. So, we should point out that this is not just an African-American problem.”
Todd responded that “it wasn’t intended to be that way.”
At the root of both the NYT and MTP being complicit in perpetuating racism is the journalistic standard of the objective pose, the mostly adolescent view of the world that insists on airing “both sides” of an issue.
However, there is nothing neutral about framing a question when no question remains, and there is nothing objective about calling for the audience to set aside race (Todd made an equally tone-deaf attempt to suggest the gun violence segment can be viewed as only about gun violence, arguing the racialized facts of the clip were not meant to “cloud the discussion of the topic”).
The mainstream media in the U.S.—like partisan politics—exists in a moral vacuum of market ethics.
In 1946, George Orwell lamented: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”
So it goes.
Dear White Folk Who Say You “Don’t See Race”:
I am a white male, and when you see me, you should immediately notice both—because the parts of who I am are ultimately the whole.
To say to someone you don’t see race (or gender), you are in effect refusing to see the person, you are dehumanizing the person as somehow not worthy of being fully seen.
But there are also a few points of logic that make “I don’t see race” truly offensive.
First, the only reason to make the effort not to see race is the implication that once you see race you have racist or bigoted thoughts or actions connected to race.
Second, to consciously not see race (which is an odd concept to begin with since eyesight doesn’t allow us to filter) or to make a false claim of not seeing race also simultaneously prohibits you from seeing racism.
“I don’t see race” is admitting “I refuse to acknowledge racism”—and denying racism has a real evidence problem.
Those who claim “I don’t see race,” then, are likely either racists who are fronting (consciously or unconsciously) or people who consider themselves “good people” but by taking a so-called neutral stance are actually supporting the status quo of racism in the U.S.
Humans have recognizable nuances and differences, and it is ours to denounce equating surface differences as signals of deficits or stereotypes.
We cannot see each other as fully human by refusing to see any of our parts, including the social construction of race that we associate with how we look.
For those of us—especially those of who are white—committed to racial equity in the U.S., we must resist “I don’t see race” and instead seek for ourselves and others: “I see human dignity in all races.”
Charleston, South Carolina in just a few months has forced the state and the nation to witness the racial injustice of law enforcement and the horror of violent racism, but these incidences that reflect a larger culture of violence and racism in the U.S. have spurred media and political insult in the form of denial.
“The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church” demonstrates that — Walter Scott notwithstanding — “the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King [in his response to the Birmingham bombing] no longer exists.”
And SC governor Nikki Haley continued her refrain reaching back to her campaign mantras:
“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Conceding that South Carolina had suffered an image problem in the past, Haley asserted that the state had moved beyond those days.
The mainstream media and elected officials reflect that—despite claims of the U.S. being a Christian nation and the South being the Bible Belt—responses to the racist massacre at the AME church in Charleston exposes we are a people existing in a moral vacuum, we are a people shackled to market ethics.
Governor Haley believes that CEOs outside of SC have the power to determine for the people of the state what is or isn’t offensive. Her comment is a stark testament to her political commitments—but Haley is also a typical if not universal embodiment of politics-as-market-ethics.
And the media share poll after poll—a sort of perverse popularized market-democracy—as well as measured debates of “both sides” to entrench further that those sides have equal moral weight.
Moral imperatives are above market forces, above democratic mechanisms, above debate.
The market and even democracy remained, at best, often silent during all sorts of assaults on human dignity; U.S. slavery, women’s equality, civil rights, marriage equality—all of these existed with the market and popular opinion in support of (and often depending on) denying fellow humans their humanity.
Moral imperatives require leaders with integrity, open eyes, open ears, and open minds for human dignity.
Many people have lamented that after the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook Elementary, we failed to let go of the death-grip on our sacred guns. And many have gone further to admit that the mass shooting of nine blacks in church is doomed to the same failure to see, to confront, and to act.
These are not cynical responses to horrors; these are admissions of our moral vacuum.
Just as the racist murderer of people gathered in their place of worship is not some isolated incident, the WSJ and Haley are not isolated examples of tone-deaf media and politicians.
The WSJ and Haley are who we are.
The market has spoken.
The geographical coincidence of my birth often leaves me disappointed and embarrassed—mortified.
I am a son of the South, more specifically South Carolina. And while my birthplace and current home are in the Upstate and nearly as far from Charleston, SC, as one can be and remain in the state, the massacre, the racist terrorism now known as #AMEShooting left me yesterday certain that words were destined to be inadequate.
So when I read Sally Kohn on Twitter, I was compelled to respond:
@sallykohn From SC, and not hard to believe … regretfully
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) June 19, 2015
While tone-deaf and insincere political rhetoric neither starts nor ends with Nikki Haley, Mark Sanford, or Lindsey Graham in SC or across the U.S., there is a certain inexcusable arrogant nastiness I hear when these so-called leaders speak.
Why? Because I am from here, and as a white male Southerner, I know what white people say when only white people are around, what men say when only men are around, what straight people say when only straight people are around.
I have done it. I bear witness to it daily.
I live among the Bible thumping “heritage is not hate” crowd that knows next to nothing about either religious charity or the scarred history to which they cling like a decaying corpse.
I have also witnessed a nation morn heinous violence followed by President Obama making a plea for “all our children”—only to witness also how nothing changed because the real American value is not being a Christian nation or protecting the land of the free but a commitment to unadulterated violence and hatred symbolized by the insult to human decency known as the right to bear arms.
As I was wrestling with the futility of words, I read Nicole Nguyen’s Education Scholars: Challenging Racial Injustice Begins With Us, in which she offers a powerful challenge:
As public transit riders shuffled on and off the train, I began to understand that we cannot solve complex social problems like institutional racism within the prototypical ivory tower as armchair critics. Our scholarship cannot merely inform our own ideas and advance our own careers. If we are to train future teachers, principals, and education researchers, we must recognize how schools perpetuate and disrupt systems of inequality, nourish the critical consciousness of our students, model antiracist and decolonizing pedagogies, and build the tool kits necessary for creating more-democratic schools.
If we are to counter the oppressive systems of inequality that brutalize youths, we cannot do it alone. We must marshal the intellect of all those who board the train, young people in particular. We do not need university solutions to public problems.
Nguyen’s words should be read in full, but she concludes with a clear “mission of colleges of education: to serve as political allies of the young people in our communities to dismantle systems of violence.”
I humbly add this is the mission of every denizen of a place called “free,” called “just.”
I also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now, pausing at his “Cowardice, too, is heritage.”
Violence through the barrel of a gun, violence spat in a racial slur, violence flapping in the breeze on statehouse grounds—these are all cowardice.
As is the paralysis that follows that violence each time.
Because not taking action seems to be a heritage that unites every region of this country.