On speech and belonging

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On speech and belonging

Over the course of this month there are those scheduled to make appearances on our campus who are not coming here for dialogue. These speakers are not using their right to speak merely to communicate, they are using speech carefully crafted to harm, to demonize, to disparage, to create a sense of fear about anyone they deem Other. Their speech is intended to provoke and to divide. Many of these speakers, who are coming under the guise of freedom of expression, publicly target specific groups and people from those groups, including transgender people, Muslims, women, people of color, people with disabilities, and their list goes on. They are exploiting democratic principles meant to protect and expand our communities. In doing so, they are attempting to co-opt and pervert the concept of free speech itself.

In thinking about free speech, we must first take a look at ourselves, understand who we are, who we should strive to be, and remember the core values we share as Americans, including justice, equality, and liberty. While there will always be disagreements, what we cannot do is deny the worth of any individual or our common, shared humanity.

A lot of the discourse around free speech has been predicated on the notion that speech doesn’t “really” harm. But freedom of expression, as well as liberty and equality, does not allow for total impunity when it comes to speech. There are reasons we have laws against libel and sexual harassment, both of which can take the form of speech.

We must not let the narrative about free speech itself be narrowly defined by a set of extremist viewpoints. There is an ongoing subtext in the conversation around speech today that if certain people are not welcomed in our public squares or in our public universities or in our communities, that they have been silenced. Yet these are people whose viewpoints and voices have been continuously validated, centered, and reinforced in our media and from our highest seats of power — who are supported by and aligned with a president who has equated the beliefs of white supremacists and neo-Nazis with those who protect justice and equality. The “freedom” to practice the discourse of Othering has rarely been less silent.

This is not about a simple disagreement between two equal but differing viewpoints. When we have right-wing, ethno-nationalist groups publicly calling for the expulsion of Jews, blacks, and other groups, we must respond. There are people coming into our communities saying “You are not human. You do not belong.” We have people in power saying to members of our society, “Get out of our country. You do not belong.” Those of us who believe in equality will find it necessary to resist all attempts to institutionalize Othering, not only in speech but also into policy and law.

This doesn’t mean we should ban speech or silence those with views we may not like or agree with. We should not. But at the same time we must also recognize the need to protect those who are concerned for equality, free from harassment and intimidation. The concept of free speech is a critical topic, and the Haas Institute is committed to engaging in public dialogue about what the First Amendment covers and the evolution of the law on what is considered speech. Who would have thought that corporations giving money to political candidates was “protected speech” 10 years ago?

We are committed to elevating research and dialogue on how speech can injure. What is sometimes called by the name of speech could actually be called injurious speech acts. There is often an effort to ignore these harms by calling such speech offensive or hateful, but not injurious. Several of our faculty are studying the effects of stress on life outcomes, how the effects of institutionalized racism plays a crucial role in the lifespan of people of color, how trauma and isolation are directly connected to higher suicide rates, earlier deaths, addiction and illness. All of these issues are deeply intertwined with speech and what is normalized in public discourse and practice — they do not exist on in a place outside of where free speech sits, protected.

The more we recognize that certain kinds of speech can not only offend but can cause mental and physical harm, and that the harm can be lasting, the more we will be able to properly protect the rights of all — not just of people to speak, but also of their very existence and right to survive and thrive. The exact boundaries for doing this may be difficult to determine, but we must not let be an excuse to not engage. Nor should we put aside our core values as merely abstractions and only discuss free speech from the perspective of the strictest letter of the law as currently defined. The law evolves and is dynamic. What would we have said to the students that challenged the segregated lunch counter, or to the freedom riders—that segregation laws prohibited their actions? These laws proved to be not only legally wrong, but morally wrong as well.

Yet as we uphold and respect the law that protects freedom of expression, we also call for the resources of our institutions and the state to be directed towards the protection of those standing against organized hate and who advocate for justice for our most vulnerable communities. Those who participate in nonviolent demonstrations, who practice boycotts, who engage in civil dialogue, who create sanctuary cities, who are using their positions as faith leaders, engaged scholars, and community organizers to advance equality and justice—these are people helping America be its best self, who are claiming a more inclusive “we” in “we the people.”

Because we are moral beings, our actions cannot stand solely on legal footing. We must operate, teach, and practice from a set of shared beliefs that honor our commitment to a society built on belonging. The path forward will not always be straight, and there will be disagreement about the boundaries of our pluralism, but that must not stop us from working to secure an America that is moving towards, not slipping away from, a more inclusive society.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

 

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Hate and hurt in America: On Charlottesville

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Hate and hurt in America: On Charlottesville

Like many people, I am deeply bothered by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. I give my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to those who went to Charlottesville to stand up for decency, fairness, and equality, and who put their beliefs on the line against hate. I apologize to Heather Heyer’s family that we as a country did not do more to protect her life. I hope we do more going forward to honor her and protect the values she gave her life for.

We know there are people, called by various names and euphemisms, that believe in hate and white supremacy—these beliefs and these groups are not new. These people feel threatened by the idea of equality. When a person embraces the concept of supremacy, then equality is viewed as an attack. They believe this country belongs to whites. They believe that having people of color in positions of respect and power is un-American. There has been no greater example of a threat to their belief system than President Obama. It was not Obama’s policies they objected to, but his humanity. These people are dangerous and they must be contained.

However, I am just as concerned with the many in power who are complicit with this hate, and who are willing to exploit hateful ideologies for their own purpose. While no American political party has a monopoly on the sick and dangerous strategy of supremacy, it has been the mainstay of the Republican Party since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Their Southern Strategy played up and played on white resentment of the Civil Rights movement to move Dixiecrats to the Republican Party. The elites who were architects of the Southern Strategy did not necessarily believe, nor did they need to believe, whatever racist tropes they were selling when using dog whistles such as “inner city violence” or “welfare queens.” To accomplish their goal of being able to garner support for programs reducing taxes on businesses and gutting regulations that protected the public, they needed something clear enough to signal to and woo resentful white voters, while retaining the ability to deny they were explicitly talking about race to more moderate whites.

This Southern Strategy has now clearly morphed into a national strategy. But the once coded messages are now explicit, loud, and clear, and are coming from those in the highest positions of political power. President Trump has been embraced by white supremacists and has only nominally rejected the endorsement of these groups. He has backed up his speeches to make America great again (read: white again) with actions and policies. He has taken one of the architects of the white nationalist movement and made him his chief strategist.

But Trump is only one aspect of the national politics of hate. The Republican Party is vigorously rolling back voting rights, gay rights, protection of Native American land, public education, and affordable housing—reforms fought for since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and for which many paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure.

For those who say this is nothing new, I respectfully disagree. There is definitely a clear historical precedent but the coordinates of the moral compass of what’s acceptable in this country are shifting. We are embroiled in a number of current and potential disasters from a callous and mean-spirited president, as well as a Republican Party that has lost its values and its backbone. The stakes are raised when the president refuses to publicly condemn white supremacist groups (or is too late and too lukewarm when finally doing so), yet is more than willing to attack those like Kenneth Frazier, a member of one of his advisory councils who resigned in protest over the President’s silence over the past weekend. Frazier is African-American. What about his white colleagues?

Yet there remains much cause for hope. This hope comes from people like Heather who stand up to hate with love. This hope comes from cities who challenge some of the worst aspects of Trump’s immigration policies. This hope comes from organizers who insist on defending the best American values. This hope comes from all who believe in these values and are willing to fight for them.

We must continue to organize and participate and do more in the face of organized hate. We must come forward with not only messages but policies and platforms that advance equality and inclusion. We must protect the protestors who take a stand against hate. These are people helping America be its best self. If we are to pull America back from hate, there must be supporters from all political persuasions and voices from every race, ethnicity, religion, and faith. If we are to stand for equality and love, we must ground ourselves in these values and we must indeed take a stand. We are America’s present and its future.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

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Trump and race

Many months after the election of Donald Trump, new data and research findings continue to provide fresh light on that critical historical moment. The main strand of this research is a search to understand who voted for each candidate, and what motivated their vote. The results are not entirely intuitive, increasingly complex, and, as pundits like Nate Silver have noted, surprising – and certainly not consistent with the prevailing opinion on election night.

In particular, there appears to have been a gradual reversal of election night consensus on the role and relationship of economic anxiety and “racial” anxiety, or anxiety of the “other,” in terms of motivation and voting patterns. Recent elections have increasingly demonstrated the importance racial polarization among the electorate. Yes, 43 percent of whites, according to exit polls, did not vote for Trump, and the more recent survey evidence suggests that number might be slightly greater. But, the number of whites supporting Democrats has been in a general decline since President Lyndon Johnson. Most whites, especially in the South, were uncomfortable, at best, with civil rights since the civil rights movement, and political tacticians such as Lee Atwater brilliantly preyed on this anxiety with the so-called Southern Strategy, using coded appeals to appeal to racial resentment. The country quickly and relatively easily moved from the promise of a more racially fair society to de facto segregated schools and housing to racially based mass incarceration. The march to Trump started in the ’60s.

Until the civil rights movement, the Republican Party had been a largely northern party, associated with the “war of northern aggression,” and the party of big business and an urban, industrialized economy outside of the South. While most southern whites did not, in fact, own slaves, there was widespread support for that “peculiar institution,” and southern white identity was deeply connected to, and even constituted by, an ideology of white supremacy. The refrain of local control in response to the Brown mandate and knee-jerk antagonism to Washington, D.C., was bound up with protecting a way of life that largely included domination, exploitation and control of black labor, black bodies and black life.

The South, since 1896, was largely a one-party system dominated by the Democratic Party. But it might be more accurate to assert that American politics since then has been controlled by three, not two, parties: Democrats, Republicans and the South. After the New Deal, which was largely pushed by northern Democrats, Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to accept a greater role for the federal government in not only protecting civil rights in the South (recall the Little Rock incident), but also protecting people from corporate excess and the more extreme havoc caused by boom and bust cycles. We have a name for this. It is called regulations, like Glass-Steagall or the Wagner Act, which regulate market dynamics.

Although the economic effects were far more severe than recent downturns, the Great Depression, we might note, did not produce a dominant ethnic nationalism as it has more recently in Western nations. Instead, it produced the most robust welfare state in American history up to that point. How did that happen? How did the Depression lead to Social Security, public works programs, unemployment insurance on an unprecedented scale, the Wagner Act and so on? Why didn’t the South exercise its power in Congress and prey upon the racial fears of its constituents to thwart these developments, like Trump today?

In part, it did. Southern leaders in Congress, where they could, built racial ramparts into the heart of the New Deal, creating exclusions for black workers and black labor and in old age insurance, housing programs, etc. These accommodations to white supremacy, demanded by the southern Democrats, ensured that white privilege was maintained.

The Great Depression did not automatically shift white working-class support to reactionary demagogues (although there were many, like Father Charles Coughlin), as many today might suppose. Instead, by accepting a white racial hegemony, there was space for more liberal populists, like Huey Long, who were less vulnerable to a politics of race-baiting.

The point is that the politics of “the other,” in this case race, has been important in shaping our political and economic policy agenda, especially in times of economic crisis. The New Deal was not the first such economic crisis, nor would it be the last. The politics and structure of the New Deal was strongly informed by race. The Great Recession, triggered by fraud in the mortgage market, led to an aggressive federal response that created the Tea Party as a resistance movement, blaming the victims of the crisis as the culprits, with unavailable racialized overtones, epitomized by Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent.”

There is a general recognition that economic anxiety, stress and instability are fertile ground for demagoguery and various strands of right-wing nationalism. Yet, we have a more difficult time seeing how anxiety of the “other” generates a neo-liberal policy agenda that hurts the working and middle class. This is a blind spot for too many.

From one perspective, we are still contesting the aftermath of the civil war, whose fundamental questions of citizenship, belonging and equal rights remain unresolved in many respects. The South lost militarily, but won the fight over Reconstruction, and gained ground politically and culturally for several generations. Why was the virulently racist movie, The Birth of a Nation, the first Hollywood blockbuster?

The Republican Party achieved national ascendency by appealing to hostility to civil rights and racial resentment, and flipped the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. The specifics of the Southern Strategy continue today: attacking integrated education, affirmative action, fair housing, welfare, unions, and promoting “right to work laws,” the War on Drugs and mass incarceration as well as new, nefarious laws like “Stand Your Ground.” The through-line is policies that are punitive to blacks while promoting, at least symbolically, the prerogative of white supremacy with the intent of further entrenching economic elites.

What made the Southern Strategy so clever was that it appealed to racial resentment and hostility to civil rights without repelling whites who would be disgusted by a more vulgar or explicit racial hatred. So, the goal was to communicate a racial message to the base while maintaining plausible deniability that race was an issue. This was the dog whistle, or what Ian Haney Lopez calls “Dog Whistle Politics.” Arguments about the Second Amendment sound not only as constitutional claims, but as resonant fears of an aggressive federal government harkening back to the Civil War. Similarly, demands for local control are more than assertions for greater democracy, but appeals against federal courts enforcing the rights of minorities. Attacks on the welfare state and unions were not simply critiques of a profligate government or labor unrest, but about control of black labor. And “special interests” were not corporate elites, but blacks, environmentalists and unions.

If these concerns were primarily economic, then they would not have succeeded. What does gay marriage have to do with the economy? Hostility to gay marriage is not simply about protecting the family or traditional values, but about identity, including a conservative white Christian identity that Robert Jones writes about his book, The End of White Christian America. Trump’s appeal is for a continuation of that imagined white, Christian America. Why did Trump insist that Obama was a Muslim? And, perhaps more importantly, why did so many Republican voters believe him? The message is that he is the “other,” and a threat to who “we” are.

After the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee post-mortem suggested outreach to a growing Latino electorate. But the rank and file emphatically rejected this détente with the nomination of Donald Trump. Instead, they doubled down on white, rural, ethnic Protestant voters. They appealed to a mythical past instead of a diverse, and changing, present.

These appeals not just cognitive, but they are deeply emotional, animated by fear and anxiety. And they are not just economic, they are ontological and spiritual. While the left complains about inequality, the right complains about the “takers,” and Donald Trump complains about Mexican labor and Chinese trade negotiators. But are these genuine economic plans, or are they better understood as emotional and ontological appeals? Is preserving 50,000 coal mining jobs going to change the economy? We must look more deeply to understand what these claims are really about.

Many of the 43 percent of whites who voted for Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson were put off by the implicit and explicit racism, misogyny and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s message. Instead, some Trump voters admitted similar reservations, but were ultimately willing to overlook them. Trump, more so than any other major American party candidate since the 1960s, broke the strategy of sticking to the dog whistle, and not being too explicit. And yet he won.

And while deep economic anxiety might explain part of what happened, it does not explain enough. For all the calls to avoid identity politics, to double down on economic, class-based appeals, Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary, in no small part because he failed to mobilize black voters while Hillary did, opening her campaign with a call to end mass incarceration. Moreover, in the battleground states where the economy was the top issue, Hillary won. If economic anxiety truly explained the election results, how, too, to explain the votes of millions of working-class black, native and Asian voters, who did not bolt to the right?

And yet, there is a way of doing identity politics that should concern us, where the critics have a point. And this is when we assert, implicitly or explicitly, that one group is more deserving of attention or remediation than another. I call this “breaking.” When any group is only concerned with its own group, and fails to connect or link those struggles with the struggles of other groups, they are leaning towards breaking. When a group shuts out other voices, perhaps even defensively, this is breaking.

There is almost always a way to frame, link and connect a group’s struggles with another group. This is called “bridging.” This happens when the causes of immigrants and the currently and formerly incarcerated are connected to fight for housing, labor rights and full civic participation. This happens when Latinos and African Americans join forces to fight against gentrification and displacement. This happens when Muslims and disability advocates jointly call for greater accommodation in schools and workplaces for prayer and physical access.

The solution to breaking — which is also othering, as it denies the full humanity of the “other” — is not “saming” or creating a false universal that erases the needs or situation of the suffering group. The solution is bridging and belonging. While belonging can recognize that we are not all similarly situated in our interest, or structures, we are not categorically different but situational different. Belonging can recognize the “other” without engaging in othering.

The ontological anxiety that is gripping America and other parts of the world may be a natural human response to rapid change. Recognizing that anxiety and helping folks negotiate is an important role for the stories and frames we use. I believe the right has been better at engaging this anxiety, but offers an “us versus them” solution. The left wants to avoid the conversation and talk about the economy, and how we are all the same. We need to move toward a bridging. empathic story not unlike the one in Canada. The story needs to be inclusive, sensitive to the anxiety and suffering and recognize that we are both the same and different. This is not the story on the left or right. We need a new story of “we” that deals with both the economic anxiety, our group-based situatedness, and our ontological need to belong.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

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Can we tell a different story?

The past two weeks have ripped at the heart of America.

We have had to witness senseless killings and we’ve had to witness far too many of them.

The nation witnessed with outrage and grief the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, their names added to a list that is already disproportionately heavy with those of black people killed by police. These were not just any killings, not that there is any such thing as just any killing, but these killings were done by those sworn to protect us from harm. These killings were done by those who have the power of the state behind them. These killings suggested to us that some lives, indeed, black lives, do not matter.

The nation witnessed with grief and shock the lives of police taken by different gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as we added the names of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, and now, from Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald to the list of those killed in the line of duty. The killings of police officers were not just ordinary killings, not that any killing is ordinary. These were killings of people who have sworn to protect us. These were killings of people who put themselves in harm’s way. These were killings that remind us the police have dangerous jobs. When the people who are empowered to make us safe do not feel safe themselves, what does that say about all of our safety?

We have also had to face again the reality of hate crimes. If all killing is abnormal, then a hate crime is itself a special type of killing because hate crimes are perpetrated against someone specifically because of their group membership.

We are not talking about addressing personal bigotry. Yes, there are some people who kill blacks not just out of fear, but out of racial hatred, but they are a small minority and should be dealt with. Yes, there are some blacks who are indeed dangerous and would take the lives of others who they believe stand in their way, but they are a small minority, and all communities need protection from them too.

But most bigotry is not personal, it’s institutional. Institutional racism is not only expressed in the taking of black and brown lives, it is happening in every quarter of our country. It happens in the drinking water of Flint, it happens at the voting booth in Florida. It happens as we accept the destruction of public schools in Kansas City and Minneapolis. It happens in the way we give credit at the banks, it happens in the way we pick the themes of our movies. It happens as a large number of people refuse to accept that Obama can be a real American. It happens as we create a war on drugs as an excuse to incarcerate large segments of the black and brown community. It happens in New York City as stop-and-frisk policies are carried out on thousands of black bodies.

It is happening everywhere we look.

As a number of studies have shown, many Americans live in fear of black Americans not because of the actions of blacks, but from a deeper unconscious place, resulting in the false belief that “dangerous blacks” are part of our national story, going back to the days of slavery in this country. And there is a pattern that for black people, no matter how young or how innocent, that gaze of fear can disrupt or even end their life.

There is a lack of symmetry between the police and the communities they are charged to protect. Yes, like all of us, the police are human and want to go home safely at the end of the day. Also like all of us, the police are likely to carry unconscious racial biases. Unlike all of us, however, the police have been given the power of the state to stop people, to question them, and then far too often have inflicted violence on people from black, brown, and poor communities with little or no accountability by the system. When the law extends the protection of the police to discharge their guns because they are in fear, there is a problem. Even as we recognize that the police may truly be afraid, that cannot ever be an excuse to take innocent life.

Can we learn from these tragedies? I believe we can and we must. In order to make sense of these events, we must hold several things in our minds and hearts at once. Here are some of them.

Things have gotten better: we have people of color in positions of power and authority. Things have gotten worse: we have a criminal justice system that is much more destructive of black lives today than in the 60s and 70s. Things have gotten better: we are much more likely to have people of color and women on the police force than a generation ago. Things have gotten worse: we have a police system that is fearful, militarized, and largely unaccountable to the black communities they have sworn to serve. One could continue with this comparison through the lens of our schools, boardrooms, cultural spaces, and neighborhoods.

Learning from these tragedies requires us seeing how some lives, yes black lives, do not matter now. It requires recognizing that the lives of police matter, but that we are not all similarly situated. It requires recognizing that there are in fact dangers that we must confront, but we are safer when we confront them together. It requires us to pay closer attention to what our structures and institutions are doing to either shorten and devalue life or to enhance and promote life. It requires challenging those who, through their words or their practices and policies, deny that some lives matter. Even while challenging them, we must also hold on to their humanity in order to fully claim our own.

We must engage and hold on to the humanity of black people. We must engage and hold onto the humanity of police. It is not enough to support the police and ignore black lives being killed with regularity by the state. It is not enough to only care about black lives and ignore that most police take their role to protect seriously and that it is a dangerous job. And it is very problematic to insist that because people of all stripes are protesting in our democracy— in our country that was born of protest—that the protesters are un-American.

Can we tell a different story? I believe we can and we must. It starts by recognizing there is not just one story. There are many stories and they all touch on part of the truth. When we learn to hear each others’ stories and build a more inclusive story, we will make progress. Our country is in flux and it’s also increasingly polarized. But when we insist on giving into polarization, there is little room for hope.

We must reach for a new story. This story requires a new language that is not binary. A language that can hold respect for the police while challenging structures that do not serve us well. This requires dropping the impossible demand that blacks must first prove that their lives matter. This requires being willing to ask more of the black community, but not the impossible.This requires asking more of the white community, but not the impossible. This requires recognizing that the black, white, brown, Asian, Native American, and mixed race communities are all our America. This requires that we be willing to do things differently, whether it’s in how we fund and populate our schools and police departments to how we approach guns and violence in our society.

Most importantly this new story requires that we recognize that we are all a part of each other and that we make all our practices reflect this. This new story requires more than words. It requires actions. It requires reaching inside ourselves and out across the gulf that threatens to divide us. This new story requires that we lean away from hate and into love. We will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, but we can collectively give birth to a new story and a new way of being.

Some will insist that things have improved. And they have. Some will insist that things have gotten worse and they have. The question we must ask is: How do things get better? And equally important: What is our role in creating a new story to ensure things will?

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.

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American history: beyond a selective remembrance

Yesterday on the Fourth of July, many celebrated U.S. history, or at least part of it, while others were thinking about the many parts we are inclined to ignore. We are a country deeply divided in the way we look at our history. There are some Americans who think “real” Americans are, and always have been, white, or at least represent some version of white values, whatever those may be. Maybe those are associated with guns, maybe it’s the exclusion. Maybe they are the values who speak to those still looking for a wall.

There are others who took time yesterday to reflect on the long march, temporarily stalled, that this country continues to take towards a more perfect union. Those folks are likely to tell a different history of the United States. While Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were celebrated, these folks are likely to think of the women enslaved by Jefferson who bore six of his children. They are more likely to think about how this land was ripped from the people who were already here, who still suffer at the hands of greed and indifference. Think of Standing Rock. Do we really need another pipeline? These folks are the ones likely to remember our American internment camps built to imprison our fellow Americans of Japanese descent.

There are some who may say this is just a rehashing of old history, a history that is now behind us. But one only has to look at today’s hate-fueled online media, our legal system, and our prisons to understand the very current effects our history continues to have on women, people of color, the environment, and even whites who need the health care provided by the Affordable Care Act.

Despite the select narratives told by some, this country belongs to all of us. The Fourth of July reminds us that our history is full of terrible and wonderful things. But still it is our history. If our future is to be better, we must approach our history with clear eyes, and not just pick and choose the parts we like. The Fourth of July is a time to be reminded that this is our country with all of it greatness and its imperfections, just like this is our shared planet. Neither belongs to just one group or just one religion.

While claims of a shared past may be ignored, there is no denying that we are bound together by a shared future. I hope we work together to make it a future worth living in, a future where the humanity of all people is recognized and respected, a future where we are more animated by love than fear.

America, let’s do better.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

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A new social compact for America

Our society is undergoing a profound shift. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many of our foundational values and assumptions about our democracy are being called into question. Our core institutions and norms are under attack and in need of defending and reclaiming.

There are certain things that most people consider not up for grabs in our society: Democracy. Human dignity. Separation of powers. Equality. Dialogue. These are core values that also represent our best aspirations. Many rest on a profound moral footing with ties to religions and spiritual practices. Movement forward has not always been straight and there has been disagreement about the reach and boundaries of our pluralism, yet there has been a general understanding that America was gradually moving towards a more inclusive society and future.

For many of us, that belief has now been ruptured.

There is currently in the White House a person who shows little or no regard for our Constitution, who disrespects the law, and who openly disregards democratic norms; a person who seems to not only have little concern for most people outside of the U.S., but a great many of the people inside; a person who has embraced and surrounded himself with explicit racists; a person who is hostile to facts; a person who rarely adheres to rules unless they fit within his very narrow self-interests; a person whose choices do not appear to be tethered to any sort of moral system.

We must actively resist the hate, racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia from this political administration and those who would support it, and must refuse all attempts to institutionalize these forces into practice and policy.

But resistance alone is not enough. We also need to state and claim what aligns us and brings us together. There are certain times in which we are called upon to rethink, reclaim and boldly articulate what we stand for and to act, and this is one of those times today. I believe we are in need of articulating a new social compact for our country that builds on our past and embraces our future — an inclusive social compact that gives us a foundation for a new birth of freedom for all, and that helps us understand who we are and who we must become. This compact should reflect our grounding in a morality that recognizes the equal human value of all people. This compact should give us clear moral and practical directions.

With the support of many others, we have created a compact that lays out a set of values and practices that we believe represent some of these most fundamental tenets of society (see newsocialcompact.org). Even as we recognize we have many different strategies for achieving our goals, we are united by core values that guide our actions.

This pact is not partisan, because these values are not about left/right or Republican/Democratic, or even solely about America. This pact anchors us in an ethics of care not just limited to any one group or country, but a care for all, without reducing us all to the same. Given our differences and similarities, we are still part of one global society.

There is a clear choice now to either fully live into our relationships with each other across the planet, and with the planet, or to slip into a narrow tribal nationalism. We choose the former.

This is not a question of whether we want to be connected. We already are connected. Whether I state it or not, I am connected to all other people on this planet. Whether I consciously live it or not, I am related to the earth. Whether I structurally live it or not, I am related to all other living beings.

But in this time of assault on even truth itself, giving public expression to that which we hold unshakable empowers us and gives us a shared language. Claiming and committing to our interconnectedness must become fundamental to our allegiance to our society. Pushing towards an integrated, pluralist world where human fairness and caring are the norm is necessary.

In the last two weeks alone we have experienced enormous demands on our attention that have called for us to respond to many urgent affronts to our liberty. And in the coming months we will need to continue to be vigilant and respond. But what we cannot do is cede any of the space that holds our core values. And we must not only hold onto our values, we must actively live them.

With conviction, tenacity, humility, joy, and love, we must claim a new social compact to live by — for our society, our democracy, our future generations and for our life-giving planet itself.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and Huffington Post.

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Resistance and the rebirth of inclusion

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Resistance and the rebirth of inclusion

My, our, disagreement with Trump is in fact rooted in his support for oppression against people that he and his supporters see as other, and against their denial for their humanity and their right to exist.

According to systems scholar and political scientist Scott E. Page, diversity of experience and views can be a strength so long as there is agreement on end values and goals. But when there is no agreement on core values and goals, that strength can become destructive.

Some have suggested that Trump may step away from some of his most hateful and vitriolic positions espoused during his presidential campaign. But his behavior throughout the campaign and since the election—regarding women, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, “the blacks,” people with disabilities, the very institutions of democracy as well as the earth itself—gives us pause before accepting that suggestion. And the hatefulness unleashed during the campaign has already caused real harm to many in our society, giving currency to our concerns.

For those who want to give Trump a chance, I say he must give us reason to give him a chance. It is not enough that someone comes into power through our democratic process and then gets to demand unquestioning support. Those in power have to work to earn our trust. So far Trump and his transition team have done nothing to indicate they are rebuilding the trust that has been severely eroded during the campaign season. He intends to put people in power who are on public record as being against many of the same people Trump attacked during the campaign, officials with the intention, one imagines, and the power, one knows, to turn those attacks into policy and law. I hope that Trump, by his words and deeds, clearly repudiates the hatred and otherness he built his campaign on. But we cannot simply judge people by what we wish them to be in the future and forget their past.

At this point in our history, there are many things we must be careful of as Trump steps into power. We cannot allow our institutions to normalize hatred and violence. We have to resist accepting leaders and policies that denigrate the humanity of any of us. This is all the more important as it has been both encouraged by Trump and may now be enacted from the instruments of government.

We also must not dehumanize Trump and those who support him. But accepting their humanity does not mean we accept their positions. We do not accept beliefs or policies that signify that any people are less than others. We cannot accept personal or institutional efforts to other anyone. We know there is suffering and anxiety in the America, but it is not limited to whites. This anxiety and suffering does not give us license to attack those thought of as different.

We know that there are many Americans who believe not only in American exceptionalism, but also in the supremacy of a white, Christian America. These values cannot co-exist within a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy requires equality and inclusion. Trump’s campaign was organized around a reactionary white identity based on fear of the other and exclusion. For those who want to move beyond identity politics, whatever that means, I suggest they focus on ending the white identity politics that carried Trump to “victory.”

We must be careful to remember this was not just another election. This election was not simply about the economy or what we have or have not, but about who we are and who belongs. Much of American history has been a struggle about who belongs, who could become full members. That struggle continues today.

While we are clear what we are against, we must also be clear who we are and what we stand for and believe in.

What we are for is human dignity and equality for all.

What we are for is creating a space that engages all who are interested in advocating for a government that works for all people and not just elites.

What we are for is building a society where the market and corporations serve people and respect the environment.

What we are for is a society where our highest values are not just for power or profit, but life with dignity.

What we are for is caring for each other and for our earth. Ours is a circle of concern that supports all of life, where all people belong, but not all values. We have to be and we will be deliberate in contesting values, policies, and systems based on oppression, exclusion, and dominance.

What we believe in is building bridges, not erecting walls. Instead of simply denying that people have different pasts and are situated differently in the present, bridging means we create additional space where we recognize our difference and sameness without denying either. It is only because of our sameness and difference that dialogue is necessary and possible. If we are just different, dialogue is not possible. If we are just the same, dialogue is not necessary. It is this dynamic of difference and sameness that makes bridging desirable. Bridging does not deny our suffering or the suffering of others, but builds a space where we can suffer and dream together.

What we are for is building a society where justice, love, and belonging are centered, where diversity is a strength, and where the humanity of all people is recognized.

What we are for, this work that we do, and the values that we stand for are not simple, nor are they simply won. But as James Baldwin reminds us, “Words like freedom, justice, and democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous… effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.”

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and Huffington Post.

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Obama’s people and the African Americans: the language of Othering

Names used to refer to the “black” community have changed, and continue to change. I sometimes say I was born a colored boy, then I became a Negro, then black, then African American, and still we are not done. To the list of identities black people in America have assumed or been asked to, we can now add, thanks to this presidential election season, “Obama’s people” and “the African Americans.

Most of these names were imposed on us, but not all. For a people to be whole, they must participate in their naming. After being called blacks in a derogatory manner by the white community for years, we reclaimed that term and began referring to ourselves as black, an effort to embrace and define ourselves. Malcolm X became widely known as one of the first black public figures. Justice Thurgood Marshall insisted on being called a Negro until shortly before he died.

During most of these name changes, I didn’t understand how relational and situational these processes were. But they were, and still are. It matters not only what we call ourselves, but what others call us. These are not just labels; they indicate different social positions. As such, they not only situate and affect blacks, but also whites. This dance is relational even if it is not symmetrical.

When Donald Trump refers to “the African Americans,” his use of the word “the” attempts to put black Americans into one subordinate monolithic category. The “the” becomes a code, a signal that he distances himself from an entire group. He is reassuring his supporters that “the” group he is referring to is the Other. In the second presidential debate, as Trump was declaring his commitment to be a president who would serve all people, he responded, in part, “African Americans, the inner cities. Devastating what’s happening to our inner cities.”

Trump’s characterization of black people and black neighborhoods is the worst, and most racist, stereotype that exists, because it signifies that black spaces and people are scary and distorts the complexity and reality of black life in America. It also asserts that this imagined black space is far from normal — normal being defined as white space — and can only be fixed by law and order.

Blacks do not comprise one bloc of people. Our community is diverse. Most blacks do not live in the city, or the inner city. Most blacks in America are not poor.

But from “welfare queen” to “inner city” to “the African Americans,” the list of both coded and explicit characterizations of what is a multifaceted community grows. Yes, there are real issues facing black Americans, just like any community, but they are not all bad, and they are not all the same. Far too many African Americans are in jail, but not all are. Far too many black Americans fear getting shot by police, but not all do.

For Trump there is little to no relationship between the black space and the white space that most of his supporters inhabit. Trump’s strategy and use of language is designed to further stigmatize the black community to a largely white base. The kind of extreme stereotypes Trump projects publicly about black people are in the same vein as ones he communicates about other groups, including Mexicans, Muslims and women. They are the most crass and simplistic projections. In Trump’s worldview, black communities are gang-plagued ghettos, all Muslims are radical terrorists, the entire country of Mexico is an organized crime cartel, and women are liars and nasty people whose worth is due to their physical appearance and usefulness to men. As over the top and absurd as these characterizations sound and are, what matters is the frequency of and consistency at which these stereotypes are communicated, and that Trump’s demagoguery is constantly amplified on prominent, national media platforms.

Language has always been a way to divide, conquer, classify and control, but it also helps to constitute who we are and what we think. Language matters, as the stories we live help to give facts and reality their meaning. It is hard to sway minds that have already made unconscious connections.

Language matters because when used as rhetoric it can have a purposeful smoke-and-mirrors effect, shielding more pressing issues that need our attention. As Trump warns that millions of immigrants and blacks are likely to steal the election, we remember that the history of fraud in the U.S. elections has not been about black and brown people voting, but about Republican governors making it more difficult to vote. I worry that Trump may be suggesting that the very civic participation of blacks and other Others may be experienced itself as a kind of loss, as a kind of theft.

I don’t know what we will call ourselves in the coming years, given the growing diversity in the black community, largely due to immigration from Africa and the Caribbean. While I cannot say what we will settle on, I can say it will not be a singular term such as “the blacks” or “the African Americans.” Instead, I hope it will be a name that reflects our diversity as well as our deep and changing relationships. I hope our evolving name helps us affirm ourselves in deep relationship with those who might think of us as Other. Our name will not only name, it will help us claim ourselves with full dignity and our belonging with all other members of The Earth.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and Huffington Post.

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