Vaccine for Racism: Compassion

Sen. Kamala Harris, accepting the Democratic VP nomination on Aug. 19, 2020

During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, Kamala Harris made the memorable statement that, “There’s no vaccine for racism.”

She’s right, of course, there is no single or simple way to end irrational racial hatred.

BUT a newborn doesn’t start life hating anyone, and in fact thrives with love and attention. In order to feel hate, we have to learn it. We have to be taught, either directly or by observation of how others behave, that racial enmity and prejudice are “normal.”

BUT we all have the capacity to unlearn old messages, and re-learn better ones. Every strategy for learning more tolerant ways to see the world — every antidote to hatred — is grounded in compassion, when we realize that another is hurt or harmed, and we take action to help lessen their hurt or suffering.

We are more likely to turn to our own compassionate natures if we:

  • understand that the trouble that invokes compassion is serious;
  • realize that a sufferer’s troubles are not self-inflicted;
  • and when we can picture themselves with the same problems.

These are the conditions and insights that help turn another person from a target of hate to a human being deserving of our compassion.

Healing with compassion. The organization Life After Hate was founded by Christian Picciolini, who broke away from the white supremacy movement and now works to help others do the same. “Empathy and compassion are the only things I’ve ever seen truly break the cycle of hate. It’s also what saved my life.” Picciolini’s 2018 3-part series BREAKING HATE is on YouTube.

We have other necessary ingredients to create racism vaccine built on compassion:

Protest that’s peaceful. A large majority of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have been peaceful–until the police responded with violence. In at least two places, police officers have been arrested for using excessive violence against protesters who remained peaceful. We have the models of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis to guide us to make peaceful good trouble.

Making community bigger. I’ve appreciated opportunities to meet more people of different skin colors and lived experiences through organizations that are purposefully fighting racism and offering education and conversation. One is Bridge the Divide, another is the YWCA Milwaukee Conversations on Racism series. There are lots of opportunities, podcasts, gatherings with masks/distancing too. Sometimes I’ve been uncomfortable (“Am I saying the right thing the right way?”) but I’ve always been welcomed to conversations. I don’t have to befriend every Black person in Milwaukee (!) to be working toward racial justice — I just do my best to listen and appreciate the folks I do have the chance to meet.

Schools at all levels are a focus for how to teach accurate history of BIPOC in America, history that’s missing in textbooks written by white historians, about the doings of white people. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) is one of the sponsors of The 1619 Act to fund and expand access to extensive resources about African-American history. The push to improve curriculum is coming from parents and students too, speaking truth to educators and school boards.

Every religious faith puts compassion at the heart and core of its values and teachings. Compassion is the foundation of morality in every society. Reaching people through their religious beliefs is one way to start conversations about working for racial justice as a moral act. Why aren’t more religious communities at the forefront in the fight for racial justice?

“Live in peace with everyone.” Hebrews 12:14. “Cultivate kindness.” Proverbs 3:3. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than this.” Bible, Mark 12:31.

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Rabbi Hillel the Elder

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

We feel better when we act compassionately. Neurobiology is proving it. In a variety of studies, including using MRI’s to track brain activity, scientists find that doing something helpful for other people activates the same areas of the brain responsible for our making social attachments and bonding with other people. Our brains are hard-wired to find pleasure in making social bonds and connections with other people.

We must also pass laws that make illegal any action based on hate and racial bias. Since some people may never be swayed to a compassionate view of people different from themselves, we must codify compassion into the laws of the land, for the sake of the dignity and respect for all.

“…the way it should be.”

34 stars, 1863

“You want the country to be the way it should be,” a woman named Lou Riggen wrote to my great-grandfather Ed Lybarger when he was a 22-year-old lieutenant in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, US Army. “I want the country to be the way it was,” Miss Riggen concluded.

In the reading I’ve done about Civil War opinions and politics in order to better understand my great-grandfather’s letters, Miss Riggen’s statements were social code in an era when few people were explicit about anything. What Miss Riggen meant was that my great-grandfather was willing to fight a war to save the Union and end slavery in every state. Miss Riggen meant that she didn’t think it was worth fighting a war over slavery, just let the slave states continue on with their way of life, and let life go on as it had in the North before the war.

50 stars, 2020

I agree with the sentiments of my great-grandfather Ed in the 1860’s.

In the 2020’s, I want to live in a country the way it should be, where:

  • Every person is treated equally and with respect.
  • It’s easy for every citizen to vote, without restriction or suppression.
  • Every voting district is drawn ethically and equitably.
  • Maybe the US has 3 or 4 political parties, giving us a fuller discussion of social solutions.
  • Actions caused by hate are as illegal as we can make them.
  • Policemen live in the communities they serve, and are accountable to those communities when they fail to protect and serve, by use of excessive force.
  • Workers’ unions are supported as much as police unions are.
  • We welcome immigrants, as our immigrant forebears were welcomed to this country, not turned away.
  • We make meaningful reparations to the indigenous Americans whose land and way of life our forebears lied and stole to acquire.
  • Our children carry on less of our racial bias, and their children carry on even less racial bias, and etc.

It’s difficult for me to understand that anyone could purposefully choose not to “hold these truths to be self-evident.”

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Ed Lybarger and Lou Riggen (a wartime penpal) arranged to meet for the first time. But their letters ceased, and they never met as far as I know. Ed returned to Millwood, Ohio and married his hometown sweetheart Sophronia Adams, the love of his life. She wanted the country to be the way it should be, too.

I’m grateful to have an ancestor who fought on the right & winning side of the Civil War. He enlisted with his friends at the start of the war in order to preserve the Union and not let George Washington down. I’m grateful that when the fight came down to ending slavery before the South could be defeated and the Union preserved–he stayed in the fight until the Union won and slaves were free men and women. And I’m grateful that he came home alive.

Julian Lewis, 60

Died on Aug. 7, 2020 in Sylvania, Georgia

Julian Lewis, a Black man, was driving on Stoney Pond Road to get his wife Betty a grape soda. When he was pursued by Georgia State Patrol Trooper Jacob Thompson, who is white, for a burned-out taillight, Lewis did not stop. Thompson pursued him, using his patrol car to force Lewis’s car into a ditch. As Trooper Thompson got out of his car, he drew his gun. Claiming to be in fear for his life that Lewis would drive into him, the trooper fired, killing Lewis with one bullet to the head. The next day, Trooper Thompson was fired. On Aug. 14, he was charged by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations with felony murder and aggravated assault.

Joy Reid’s Smile

Joy Reid and her new MSNBC nightly show The ReidOut.

The ReidOut is Black journalist Joy Reid’s new primetime weeknight program on MSNBC. Since Biden announced his VP pick of Kamala Harris, Joy Reid hasn’t stopped smiling. Just hours after the announcement, Reid interviewed a panel of three prominent Black women: a Congresswoman, a national activist, a mayor. Their faces were in separate boxes across the screen and none of them could stop grinning. In answer to Reid’s questions about the significance of Kamala Harris being on the Democratic ticket, they used words like excited, validated, relieved, it’s about time, we’ve got her back. We.

Over the past 4 years, I’d watched Joy Reid on her Saturday morning show AM Joy, and wished it was on at a better hour. Then I watched as she more and more often filled in for other MSNBC hosts. Then one day her hair was short and natural, not its usual, smooth texture. A few days later, her hair was in long braids wound around her head. A few days after that, she had another natural hairstyle. I’m learning that “Afro-centric hairstyles” is an inclusive term for all the variations of textured hair: braids, dreadlocks, afros, etc.

My first reaction was Wow, that must take a lot of work and time. My next reaction was that her on-air presence seemed bigger, more natural and authentic too. Since July 20, 2020, she hosts her own show The ReidOut, a Black woman with an increasingly strong national voice and on-air presence. It turns out that my impression of this transformation is exactly what she intended. She traveled to South Africa in 2018, and wore braids during her trip. Returning on-air, she defied the years of having her hair straightened at the TV studio and kept her hair in braids in front of the camera.

White culture, you may have noticed, has strong explicit and implicit bias against Afro-centric hairstyles. A 2016 study actually found that white women have the strongest bias against textured hair of Black women. There are recent, awful examples of this white prejudice giving a young Black wrestler the option of cutting his dreadlocks or not getting to compete with the team in a championship match, a young Black girl told she couldn’t participate in graduation with her natural braids, etc. There’s a national movement now for every state to approve the CROWN Act — Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair — and make it illegal to discriminate against hairstyles.

Discrimination because of your hair has to be one of the blatant examples of white supremacy in our culture. Can you imagine a blonde woman being discriminated against for her naturally straight long blonde hair, and sent home from work until she styled her hair with dreadlocks?

Joy Reid is the Brooklyn-born daughter of immigrants from Guyana and the Democratic Republic of Congo who wears her textured hair in Afro-centric styles on national TV as part of her own empowerment, and to help empower other Black women. And she intends to use her MSNBC program to find “all of the smartest and most diverse voices in this country…and amplify them and make sure that they do have a place in primetime,” she told reporter Selena Hill for blackenterprise.com in July.

I’m looking forward to how Joy Reid, the 1st generation daughter of immigrants and first Black woman primetime TV news host, helping us all navigate the impact of Kamala Harris being the first Black woman nominated for Vice-president of a national party, herself the 1st generation Oakland, California-born daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India.

Wow.

Today’s Microaggressions

A few days ago I posted about Microaggressions, because I want to learn how to recognize them. Today, the whole country got a nasty example, twice.

Example 1 – After Joe Biden announced that Sen. Kamala Harris was his pick for vice president, the current president called her “nasty” and “disrespectful.” Have you noticed that he tends to accuse his opponents for what are his own worst qualities? And dismiss women? Just saying.

Example 2 – Then on Fox TV, soon after Biden announced his pick, Tucker Carlson mispronounced her name. A white male panelist interrupted to explain that Kamala was pronounced like punctuation, COMMA. Accent on the first syllable: COM-ma-la.

Carlson shrugged off the correction with the comment that it didn’t really matter. He let his disrespect stand against a Democratic woman of color who will be a formidable opponent to the white male incumbent he champions, Mike Pence. “Or whatever,” Carlson said before he changed the subject. I saw this as a clip on another cable news program, not because I watch Carlson or Fox.

I’m looking forward to the Oct. 7 vice-presidential debate, when we’ll all get to see the bi-racial former prosecutor, attorney general, and current US Senator Kamala Harris demolish the white guy.

What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are exchanges that are subtle, stunning, often automatic, verbal and nonverbal. They are put-downs, often denied or excused as unintentional. They reveal conscious and unconscious racial bias by whites against BIPOC. They are unwelcome, unkind, often cruel.

Psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce created the term in the 1970s. “Micro” means they are frequent, not that they have no impact.

What is the impact?

The effect, on Black women professionals for example, is “like a thousand paper cuts,” one internal medicine doctor said. Other Black medical professionals agree, the consistent put-downs by colleagues as well as patients begin to affect their confidence and increase their self-doubt.

  • A white male doctor assumes that a Black female doctor is a technician, or has come to take out the trash.
  • A white male patient can’t remember the name of his Black female doctor, but always remembers his male white doctor’s name.
  • White colleagues question a Black doctor’s diagnosis or treatment.

What causes microaggressions?

Conscious and unconscious racial bias by white people. The white supremacy permeating our society continues to make white assumptions and bias “normal,” and BIPOC sensibilities of less importance, or invisible to many whites.

Is there anything similar that white people experience?

I don’t think so. Not based on other people’s bias against people with white skin.

The closest thing may be when someone white looks visibly “different” from most other whites – like having a distinct physical appearance or accent or some type of disability.

A slighter version of this has happened to me most of my life. I’ve been 6 feet tall since I was 10 years old, a head taller than all my peers for years. A lot of kids, and adults too, felt free to point this out to me. “How tall are you?” This unwelcome reaction communicated to me that tall was odd and bad, shorter was good and normal. To take back my right to be 6 feet tall and proud of it, I first stopped answering the question. Then I started saying, “One hundred and eighty-two point eight centimeters,” because most people had no clue how many feet and inches that was. They usually laughed awkwardly, maybe for a fraction of a second realizing it was none of their business, or unkind to have asked me. Or maybe not. Of course my experience was nothing like BIPOC lived experiences of repeated microaggressions from any direction.

Sources include “For Doctors of Color, Microaggressions Are All Too Familiar,” by Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, Aug. 11, 2020.

Update: Breonna Taylor

The September issue of O Magazine features a photograph of Breonna Taylor, demanding that her killers be charged with her murder. Oprah has also paid for the magazine cover to be on 26 billboards around the city, one billboard for every year of Taylor’s life.

Protests in the streets of Louisville have continued every night for 70 days. Protesters are also demanding the arrest and indictment of the three police officers who killed Taylor: Brett Hankison (who has been fired), Jon Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove. The Louisville Metro Police yesterday announced that protesters will no longer be allowed to march in the public roads, but must stay on the sidewalks. Several protesters were arrested last night as the police began enforcing these new restrictions.

Louisville District Attorney Daniel Cameron (R), elected in late 2019 with 58% of the vote, has not filed charges against the policemen who killed Breonna. He has not met in person with the Taylor family. He was recently married at a “small, private outdoor ceremony,” to which Sen. Mitch McConnell was a guest.

Update: Elijah McClain

After no criminal charges were brought against the 3 Aurora, Colorado police officers who caused the August 30, 2019 death of Elijah McClain, his parents have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and police department.

The Colorado attorney general has called for an investigation into McClain’s death, and a “patterns and practices” comprehensive review of the Aurora Police Dept.

For more details, see Elijah McClain, 23 and a New York Times article.