The Only Fight

brown-cancer-ribbon

The symbol to the left is normally used to denote support for cancer awareness.  I’ve turned it upside down as a symbol of my commitment to end the cancer of racism.  Upside down, its shape is also a reminder that the United States never passed a law against lynching…one of the most explicit and brutal acts of institutional racism in the history of this nation (although the government “apologized” in 2005.)  One of my earliest memories is the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  46 years later, black men are still being gunned down out of racially motivated hatred.  Where is my government?  Where is my church?  Where are my people?  

I offer the following plea to all people during what sometimes feels like a perpetual night of horror that has lasted my entire life.  If you agree, please share this image and these words:

WE believe in a truly United States…

We demand an immediate and more engaged national response to racism.  We insist on aggressive action from our leadership (government, faith, social, etc.) and we encourage hands on action and vocal responses to injustice that demonstrate the power and will of THE PEOPLE to dismantle institutionalized racism in America once and for all. 

Racism in the United States is a global embarrassment and demands our priority attention.  The question of race is part of every cultural, ethical and spiritual aspect of life in this country.  As a result, American racism is a sickness that lies at the root of economic inequity, environmental abuse, health disparity, immigration justice, gender, sexuality and gender identity marginalization, political and social disenfranchisement as well as countless other gross injustices, past and present.

We will no longer tolerate the specific issue of racism being sidelined.  THE PEOPLE have the power to turn American racism into history.  We demand change TODAY. 

– A.D.

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.

American Men Can’t Win the “War on Poverty”

Vitruvian $Reading commentary by Angela Glover Blackwell (CEO and Founder of PolicyLink) in the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the start of the War on Poverty, I am more than ever convinced that we cannot win with our current mode of attack.  In the piece, she points out that it is “not a war” but an “Equitable Economy” that is necessary.  What she says is absoluely true.  We currently live by systems that grossly favor the already rich and ignore those who are poor or not connected to big corporate systems.  These systems are too numerous and out of the scope of my personal study and position as a theologically based writer to offer meaningful insight on, but I can appreciate her expert analysis and thoughtful direction toward tangible solutions.  Indeed, it is not a “war” that is necessary.  But the strategy she presents, although highly effective, could benefit by also addressing the deep cultural issue at hand.  Within an Equitable Economy and certainly more important than a “war”, there is something much more basic that needs to shift.

Lyndon Johnson coined the phrase “War on Poverty” as a battle cry:

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.  It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

These words, delivered during his state of the union address in 1964 on the heels of the Kennedy Assassination, were deliberate propaganda on the part of a skillful politician and orator.  This language tapped into not only a very real revenge mentality that was felt by a deeply wounded America in the wake of tragedy, but also the obsession with our place as the “richest nation on earth.”  The country had been at serious odds with itself in terms of race and opportunity and now Johnson, a white southerner seen as a turncoat by the segregationist “Dixiecrats,” was ironically in a position as leader of the United States to champion real and sweeping changes in government services that would benefit those that his fellow Southerners had fought against for so long.  But he needed an army; and that army was the American people.  He needed weapons; and those weapons were sweeping progressive legislation.

But saying that we need to win a “war on poverty” is like saying we need to win a war on Tuesdays.  Tuesday is not something that consciously decided to place itself between Monday and Wednesday, forever separating these two days in the week.  Tuesday happened as part of a measure of time; it is a result of the human need to order itself in the temporal arc.  Likewise, poverty is not something that lifted up its head and said to black men, disabled people and single women “I am going to oppress you…now!”  Poverty is a result of inequity which comes from human behavior, from both the oppressors and the oppressed.  Poverty is the measure of the problem of inequity and not necessarily the real problem at all.

Looking more closely then, the human behavior that sits at the heart of the problem of inequity and results in poverty is the male ego within the American dream.  Consider this: if the ‘founding fathers’ had been less concerned with their individual rights as men (We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….) and more interested in community, shared resources and collective mutual benefit for all human beings when they set out to establish this nation, we would have a very different picture indeed.  The name of the seminal document from which these words come says it all: the “Declaration of Independence.”  Rather than being a “Declaration of Community” or a “Declaration of Unity” it is a document that seeks, by differentiating a nation from one oppressive regime, to foster individual differentiation within a new regime so that no individual man is oppressed.  This model of individuation is above all rooted in a male centric domination concept of self importance where every man is his own ruler (king of his castle) and it is a mentality that permeates all aspects of the “American dream.”  Individual house/land ownership, upward mobility, career progress, financial growth, providing family security without public support, winning a spouse to create ones own offspring…each of these symbolize what it means in the classic sense to be an American and more specifically, what it means to be an American male.

Today, this is not just restricted to white men either.  Certainly, the founding fathers of this country were white men.  Historical and institutionalized oppression by white men in America of the indigenous tribes of this country, of immigrants, of blacks and Jews and women of all races, has been well enough documented without going on about it at length here.  However, the issue has evolved into one where, as oppressed groups continue to lift out of downtrodden positions, even slightly, they are adopting the same goals and pursuits of their oppressors.  This is why a “war on poverty” cannot be only about rich white men holding everyone else back.  Whether or not it started with white men, everyone…black, white, Latino, disabled, female, LGBTQ…are all now seeking to be in the position of privilege that is rooted in colonial style male dominance.  Everyone is looking for the individual goals of the American dream and no one is talking about how this type of individuality is based on a model of masculinity that is in itself the biggest culprit of oppressive behavior.

As we consider real solutions to poverty to achieve an Equitable Economy, we must also consider real solutions to archaic male dominance.  We need to progress from the language of “war, conquering and oppression” to a language of “respect, engagement and interdependence.”  Frequently, our culture looks at these latter qualities as being weak or submissive, but these are the same powerful qualities that bind tribes together and keep families strong.  If the “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858), why do we culturally attempt to build separate rooms?  If we can let go of the idealized male identity that is frequently defined by its ability to stand alone and conquer or rule individually defiant over evil and instead seek new gender identities that are based in a broader concept of self than the self alone, we might just stand a chance.

We absolutely need an Equitable Economy, but there really is no “war on poverty” to be won.  The only way that we will create a truly Equitable Economy is if we are able to craft new cultural identities that are liberated from classic ‘American dream’ masculinities: head of household, provider, primary breadwinner…master, President, King.  It is our challenge to make these labels obsolete in order to free not only those who have been oppressed by them but to free all men from the burden of feeling it necessary to start and then trying to win “wars” that only serve to destroy them in the end.

Waiting for a Bus While Black

whec_student_arrest_131202a-615x345The title says it all.  I am following the development of this story and eager to see faith communities like First Unitarian of Rochester, mobilize on this.  Please read this and spread it around.  Then have a look at the PDF I’m attaching that lays out a few ‘slave’ rules from Manhattan in the 16 – 19th centuries.  Little seems to have changed.

Three Black Students Waiting for Bus Arrested…

Laws_Affecting_Blacks_in_Manhattan

We have just begun the season of Advent in the Christian church.  We are coming to the end of Hanukkah.  We have just had Thanksgiving.  In each of these celebrations is a very deep sense of both anticipation and longing for wholeness and peace.  Let’s fix this.

– Adam

Black Male Achievement…Coming Out

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes – Author

The work around black men in America is very much in the news these days.  The Obama administration has made a bold statement of acknowledging the unique challenges faced by this population and making a commitment to promoting advancement and achievement among black men.  My home state of California has led the way with groundbreaking legislation including a unique House Resolution (HR 23), committing to changing the outcomes for black men and boys as well as all men of color.  PolicyLink, where I currently work on the program team, has been intimately involved in black male achievement work and will launch a new website and blog devoted to these efforts later this month.

The Leadership and Sustainability Institute for Black Male Achievement has declared the month of October to be Black Male Achievement Month (#bmaoct.)  At the same time, October is also recognized nationwide as LGBT History Month and includes National “Coming Out” Day on October 11.  Far from being at odds, this coincidence is a terrific reminder that while we seek to promote and support efforts to create better outcomes for black men and boys in general, we cannot forget to have the conversations within the black community about gender justice, sexuality, orientation and what it really means to be male identified and black in our world today.

LGBT communities celebrated earlier this year with great gains in terms of marriage equality; but the excitement was tempered for black LGBT people with the decision coming down in the wake of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act.  This juxtaposition of political concerns exemplifies how black LGBT people often sit at a difficult crossroads of race and social orientation in America.  Similarly, it is well established that black men find themselves in the most vulnerable positions in American society at large and the same holds true for black GBTQ men.  But the broader injustices of racial profiling, barriers to employment and advancement, health concerns and being targeted for violence, are only made more bitter when black GBTQ men are demonized within black communities and are  seen as a “weak link” in the strength of the black family or somehow buying into a white centered and therefore counterproductive view of black male identity.

If it were indeed true that black GBTQ men were a weak link or counterproductive, we would not have the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the writing of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, or contemporary media voices like CNN’s Don Lemon, ESPN’s LZ Granderson or author Keith Boykin.  And of course, we would never have had the grand vision and epic social organizing skill of Bayard Rustin to bring together the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the setting for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Through black male achievement work, we have an opportunity to really grow.  Leveraging the insight and creativity of organizations like Brown Boi Project and by exploring deeper connections with broader gender justice movements including women and transgender people, black men can not only lift up what makes them uniquely valuable to our society, but also explore the depths and breadth of the masculine of center orientation.  An affiliation with these other efforts will not “de-masculinize” or “ghetto-ize” the crucial work around black men.  Rather, these movements should serve as examples to declare a fully developed and enlightened masculinity for black men that does not oppress others to achieve its place in society.  This is a male identity that takes responsibility for ending rape; it is a manhood that does not deny or shame same gender love; it is a masculinity that embraces its own femininity. It is father, protector and provider as well as being fathered, protected and provided for.  It is, in short, what it means to “come out” as a whole, healthy and complete black male.

-AD

Point of View

20130720_071432My word for the day is ‘perspective.’

Yesterday, President Obama did something unprecedented.  He completely personalized an issue that he didn’t have to.  Until yesterday, He was treading the road of Washington D.C. professional, political navigator…insider.  But yesterday he made a surprise statement about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.  For at least a portion of those 18 minutes, he was no longer the President of the United States, but the president of black men in America.  A risky stance when it’s open season on black men.  But this was an important step and a step that only he could take.  Black men have never had a president say “I am unapologetically one of you.”  Conservative pundits are critical of him for identifying, for reminding us that 35 years ago it could have been him who was shot by a local vigilante; for reminding us that he has had people lock car doors when he walks by, women clutch their purses when they see him…just as I and millions of black men have had happen to them as well.  But where were the criticisms when George W. Bush put in place tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (largely white men) or when he made any number of statements about ‘conservative’ values (abortion, gay rights, affirmative action) that only spoke to a specific demographic of white Christians again, largely men?  Yesterday, black men in America finally had their moment.  Deal with it.

Yesterday, there was also a wonderful program on KQED, Forum with Dave Iverson, Assessing Racial Equality and Justice in 2013 America.  His guests, Angela Glover Blackwell (PolicyLink), Eva Paterson (Equal Justice Society), and Peniel Joseph (Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University) brought about a rich conversation that highlighted both the passion and the data behind how we actually see race today in America.  The conversation between the panelists was extremely well balanced and full of great moments, including one where Angela Glover Blackwell said in response to a listener who said they were tired of the conversation about race, “I’m tired of having to come back to the same issues again, and again…but until I see progress, I’m not going to stop.”  You can listen to the conversation and view the comments here.

I’m using the word perspective today and pointing out these news items because I think it is crucial in this conversation, and as we start conversations about race that we maintain perspective.  That we realize that our personal perspective is always skewed in the direction of our personal experience.  If you have never been called a nigger in the street, you can’t understand what that feels like or what that does to your personal sense of safety.  That is the only word in the American English language that carries with it an immediate association with specifically white oppression, violence and privilege.  It is a word that no matter how much one may thing that blacks have ‘reclaimed’ it, will never be able to be anything other than a word of pure “otherization.”  It creates a barrier with its history.  In my comments on the KQED program, I reminded people who were complaining about the focus on “black/white” in the current conversation about race that our American perceptions of race are based almost entirely on the historical relationship between black and white.  You cannot have a conversation about oppression and bigotry against Asians or Latinos or Native Americans in America without talking about blacks.  Just look at the fact that the three groups I just referenced are identified by location or language; yet blacks are identified primarily by a color.  It is the total anonymizing and obliteration of a history and the complete packaging in the context of oppression that s contained in the word nigger and that is why this conversation must continue.  One can claim, Scoth-Irish ancestry, French, Chinese, Spanish, Mayan ancestry, but blacks in America can claim only a vast continent…Africa.  We can’t point to tribes or recognized ethnic groups within the African diaspora, it was erased when our humanity was erased.  When we simply became bodies that were part of the machine of America.

Although I believe that sexuality and gender oppression is the worst global issue, I believe that the lack of understanding between black and white is America’s worst issue by far.  But that is my perspective and the perspective of every other person who has lived with the fear and cultural restriction that goes with our history.  My perspective would, I’m sure be very different if I woke up every morning and never had to think about justifying my education or worrying about publicly expressing my solidarity with other black men for fear of being seen as a threat.  But I will never know that for sure.  All I can do is have compassion for your perspective and ask you to have compassion for mine.

Add your photos to my ‘un-mugged’ project on facebook or tumblr #adamdyersays

Un-mugged

Sometimes all it takes is one word to start a conversation.  This is an invitation to start the conversation.

Choose a word, write it on an envelope or similar sized piece of paper, take a picture of your self holding that word like a ‘mug-shot’ and post it to your facebook wall, twitter account or here in my comments.  Share it everywhere you can.  We need these words if we’re ever going to get past the current conversation.

What ONE word would you use to start the conversation about race in America?

Listen - Un-muggedIn the last few days, I have seen people writing and posting about how hurt they are, or how justified they feel; I’ve heard people speak about feeling abandoned and feeling angry and also feeling proud and honored to be American.  My friends sit on both sides of the Zimmerman verdict and I have resisted the urge to unfriend those I disagree with because I believe in dialogue.   But REAL dialogue.  No matter how I feel, I refuse to discuss the case because I was neither victim, accused, judge, jury or witness.  The dialogue we can all legitimately have…and that we NEED to have, is the conversation about race, today in our society.  America has a problem. When communities start destroying their own property because of how impotent they feel in the system and when the media chooses only to talk about that destruction instead of the beautiful way those same communities that have come together to hold and reassure their children that they are safe and loved, we have a problem.  When we start comparing only black and white, not just in skin color, but in actual issues, we have a problem.  When we start whispering how we really feel instead of speaking it aloud, we have a problem.  This is how we know we have reached the end of the silent road, of suspicion and hatred.  This is the end of silence and the beginning, hopefully of millions of voices shouting “let me be heard!”

Why “un-mugged?”  I have spent a lifetime of watching women clutch their purses when they are alone with me on a subway car. I have also (just this weekend) watched someone cross a street because we were the only two coming toward each other.  I have spent 30+ years watching police cars slow down when I’m alone on a street, or follow me when I’m driving.  I am no criminal, no mugger, no thief.  But I have brown skin and dreadlocks and I look young.  I fit a profile.  And although you may think this is something in my imagination, there are millions of black American men who will back me up.  I should never expect to have a “mug-shot” taken of me unless I’m in a protest, but the odds say that my chances of that happening are much higher than any other demographic in the country.  I shouldn’t have to live like that.  I don’t intend to ever see it happen…and neither should you.  This is the only mugshot that will ever be taken of me.  This picture represents my way of eliminating that chance…being ‘un-mugged’.

Let’s get rid of both the racism we endure and the racism we ignore.