Systems and Silos

MBK Cambridge, #TheMovementContinues – June 7, 2020

Yesterday, I had the great opportunity to hear from some incredible young voices in the fight for Black Lives.  At the protest organized by My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, there were powerful and personal arguments made for a deeper and more systemic approach to dealing with racism that exists even within a liberal bastion like Cambridge, MA.  In the wake of the George Floyd murder, this systemic change is specifically aimed at police and we heard multiple times from speakers and the crowd that even with black leadership and community engagement, trust in police is tenuous at best.  There is difficult work ahead for this city.  Much of the national dialogue among protesters has turned to the clear message of “defunding” the police, and this language is here in Cambridge as well [Cambridge City, MA – Policy Order – POR 2020 #133]. It is no wonder that with a $4.1 million dollar increase to the police budget, residents are challenging where else this money could be spent to actually make real change.

Let me be clear, I understand the complexity of what is being asked.  At the same time, I don’t disagree with defunding police.  Nor do I disagree with police abolition or dismantling.  I think the idea of being “policed” is against every value of a modern, technologically advanced and global democracy.  It is certainly against my spiritual beliefs and my work in ministry.  As I see it, just like Big Brother (the one from the George Orwell novel and not the TV show) “policing” can only result in societal failure:  failures of trust, failures of agency and as we’ve seen all too tragically and all too often, failures of judgment and failures of racial bias.  Why must we be treated with the equivalent of a lethal nanny cam, where we are taught to grow up paranoid and compliant out of a sense of fear for our lives and not out of a sense of connection to the rest of the human race?

The only place that I find myself at odds with the excitingly progressive goals of defunding, abolishing and/or dismantling police is in the means to achieve the end.  And even at that, I think I may ultimately be in agreement with youth who are driving this policy.  It is a simple inversion of the communication.  Instead of focusing in the message on what we don’t want, why not focus on what we do want?   Why get caught up only in “defunding police”, when we could redirect our energies (and finances) toward “funding comprehensive public safety”?  I’ve written about the difference in semantics between “policing”, “criminal justice” and “public safety” before.  What I’m trying to clarify here is that making this shift from the destructive to the constructive, invites us to also redefine public safety as something more broadly, systemically comprehensive and people driven.  This would craft policy that connects law enforcement directly to the ways in which people are asked/forced to live, not as a punishable inevitability but always as a tool to build community safety and relationship.  Through this strategy, there is no ethical need for “policing” in language or in function.

If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities…there would be no need for “policing” as we know it.

Right now, the logical conclusion of our system, specifically for blacks, is lethal “policing” whether that is lethal in terms of ending a life physically or civically through disenfranchisement and restrictions in employment.  It begins with poor birth outcomes, and navigates through underfunded education systems, arrives at poor housing and access to nutrition, and dies young of a lack of access to healthcare.  Combine these with historical trauma, mental health and addiction disparities amplified by racism and we end with “policing” where there is only a cursory, performative or adversarial relationship between law enforcement by government and law engagement by citizens.

If cities like Cambridge could re imagine their public safety policies with the goal of generating health and security across the broad spectrum of our communities, factoring in answers to historical racism and marginalization, there would be no need for “policing” as we know it.  Does this mean there would be an end to crime? No.  Human beings will always be human beings.  Does it mean that there will never be injustice?  No.  But it does mean that instead of being automatically funneled into a system that intentionally feeds on black lives in a vicious and sometimes inescapable cycle, all people are first dealt with in terms of the systems that have not supported their outcomes (including but not exclusive of racism) instead of as solely individual, expendable failures in need of “policing.”

I would argue that the broken and dangerous arrangement of policing black lives that we currently have is actually not a “system” at all, but  a series of 400 year old silos, the last of which is either a cage or a coffin.  Each element that adds up to another dead black person on a street is taken individually and unaccountable to the other elements and the result is a history that has never had to account fully for itself in terms of the connections between racism as health policy, racism as education policy, racism as employment policy or racism as housing policy, and has only just recently re-awoken to the idea of racism as policing policy.

But the solution we are seeking cannot also be a silo.  We have to work with the system like a river that is connected by multiple streams and rivulets.  We cannot defund police so far downstream that this one action is ultimately vulnerable to being breached by future floodwaters of rampant poverty, lack of access to health care, etc. driven by racism as they flow mightily downriver.  We’ve got to work at both ends of the river, way upstream and way down stream simultaneously, to redirect the richness of black lives through generators of prosperity, wholeness and safety ultimately letting them flow freely to the sea.


Cambridge Day Article summarizing the MBK protest in Cambridge, June 7, 2020

Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure

Equal UnEqualScenario 1: Hair There and Everywhere

A white woman was shot to death this morning after an altercation with a black man at a lunch counter.  “She kept hitting me with her long hair when she tossed it” the man said as he was led away in handcuffs “They’re always tossing their hair, never minding who it hits and where if flies…and this one had one of those whiny, whiny voices and played with her food like a two year old…it was too much, I just snapped.”

This actually happened inside my head last weekend when I was having lunch in Los Angeles.  Seated at a counter, the woman next to me kept flinging her hair and droning on and on about some nonsense with a boy she was texting, while mashing a piece of pie into a vile baby food like paste; not easy to ignore in the close proximity of counter seating.  But as it was, this is a scene that I’ve been a part of repeatedly through my life, where a white woman with long hair thinks nothing of tossing it in my face, on my body, in my food.  I have learned great patience with this.  But to my knowledge, no one has pulled a gun on someone for this casual, though exceedingly personal rudeness.  It is a cultural behavior with built in assumptions: “all girls do that,” “she didn’t mean any harm,” “gee, its a little sexy”…all in all not considered a life threatening situation, despite being a direct invasion of personal space.  Yet, the state of Florida has once again been through a racially charged trial based on another kind of cultural behavior that somehow, has, once again been treated as a life threatening situation. Rest in Peace Jordan Davis.

Scenario 2: White Male Guilt

“Why does it always have to come back to race?” His face was a perfect picture of genuine frustration and vulnerability. “I mean, every time I hear about the economy from a person of color, I feel like I want to crawl under a rock.  It makes me ashamed of the color of my skin…and it makes me angry that I can’t disagree.  I feel helpless”

I have had several recent interactions like this with white men where they ask or say something to the effect of “can I do anything right?” and “why do I always feel guilty?”  and “why are white guys always wrong these days?”  What is most surprising is that these are the liberals; progressives who are supposedly living lives that are dedicated to social, racial and economic justice.  I read a lot of blogs and online content and often when a piece involves statements about colonialism or inequality and race, there is increasing backlash in the comments from white men who feel vilified and targeted as being the source of all cultural ills.

Scenario 3: A “Black” President

President Obama is poised to launch the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative.  This is not only a first in American history by specifically targeting improvements for men of color from a National perspective, but it is seen as a fitting legacy for the country’s first black president who is uniquely positioned to leverage his own identity to address the United States continuing challenges around men of color.  Praised by most progressives, there is also backlash from predominantly white groups who feel this is too narrow a focus for a US president and also some from women’s activist groups who feel there is already too much focus on outcomes for men.

President Obama has made it clear that one of the legacies he will leave will be to have made a commitment to helping black men counter the institutionalized cultural barriers and hurdles that still linger in our national consciousness.  Although he is mixed race, he identifies as a black man and sees an opportunity to leverage this social location into real and positive change.  But already there are ugly attacks on his Presidency and threats to his and other black men’s personal safety for highlighting this work.  Part of me wonders how is this different than George Bush and his commitment to faith based communities based on his identity as a Christian?

Where This is Heading

I lay out these scenarios because I believe that they are the formula for a perfect storm.  We are facing the very real prospect of a true revolution unlike any we have seen before and one for which, in our techno driven, isolated, “me centered” existences we are ill prepared.  As a nation, we have never before faced a critical mass of empowered people of color and marginalized populations who were not so much asking for change in the cultural narrative about equality as they were making the change.  In California alone, there are community organizations that are pointing toward redefining the place for indigenous sensibilities in the lives of young men of color; organizations that lift up the unique relationship between Latino communities, parents and LGBTQ people; others that are dedicated to new educational models for young people of color or re-imagining how people of color can access healthcare through school communities…the list goes on.  These organizations represent the result of cultural fatigue of asking but never receiving from the dominant hierarchies, from the government systems and agencies.  The result is marginalized people and specifically people of color representing their communities in state and local legislature and making changes that will help the people they come from.  The history of missed opportunities for people of color, is part of the fabric of what this nation comes from and goes right back to the beginning.  The best example is how the founding fathers of the United States had the opportunity in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence  to significantly alter the prevalence and conversation around slavery in the fledgling country (see full text HERE).  However, it was determined that this language would imperil the success of securing independence over all.  Basically, dealing with the injustice of slavery, took a back seat to the priorities of the white landed men who were more concerned about separation from British rule and protecting their own interests.  People are through with waiting.

But there is a bigger lesson here.  The title of this entry is “Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure” (if you are unfamiliar with the “≠” symbol or your computer doesn’t display it properly it stands for “does not equal.”)  In the fight for rights in America, we are at a crucial point.  Those fighting for rights are no longer looking at success as being defined by the standards and approval of the dominating culture (largely white men.)  And as a result,  instead of looking at polarizing in-equalities we have to explore unifying equalities that exist in a broader cultural landscape and increasingly varied social locations.  Where the language was once “level the playing field” and “war on: poverty, sexism, racism, etc.” (language that subtly implies winners and losers) the language must now speak of community, interdependence and universal balance if we are to actually avoid negating (or worse obliterating) one another all together.  The “stone soup” analogy fits here: independently, we will starve; blending our ingredients together, we will all be nourished.  Therefore, the “enemy” (if you subscribe to that language) is not just white and male; the real enemy is anyone who has adopted and perpetuated the attitude from colonial culture that excluding “the other” for more selfish opportunities is a positive thing.  Adopting an attitude of “I’ve got mine” is cultural violence that ultimately will not sustain progress.  Shockingly, the “I’ve got mine” violence usually takes the form of silence.  Yes, the violence is conservative white politicians changing the landscape of voting rights, and the violence is in “Gay Jim Crow” laws in Kansas.  But the violence is also in white LGBTQ silence on issues of race and African American silence on Immigration rights and Asian American silence on issues of financial disparity and minimum wage increase.

So in the end, would I be justified blowing the brains out of a blonde for flinging her hair at me? No.  Is a white man justified for killing a black kid who’s music was too loud. No.  Are white men always wrong. No.  Are black men always right. No.  The only way we can actually know one another is by sharing real relationships with each other without value judgements and comparisons.  My gayness does not diminish your straightness; her Judaism doesn’t diminish your Islam; and indeed, black male achievement does not mean white male failure.  There is plenty of room at the counter and plenty of soup for all of us.