Thursday, September 17, 2020

Police Misconduct Is Another White Privilege

At an age when remembering names gets increasingly difficult, I cannot recall all the victims of the many notorious instances of white police, abusing, suffocating, wounding, or killing black men and women.  Gratuitous, excessive abuse of blacks is commonplace, but perhaps the most outrageous instance occurred in Kenosha, WI, when police chained Jacob Blake to his hospital bed; in critical condition, with damaged organs and spine, from seven bullet wounds, police seemingly feared that he could still escape and elude them.  The choice is between thinking Kenosha police slow-footed or sadistic.


(Although I emphasize police shooting of blacks—police shoot proportionately more blacks than whites—police are simply reckless of human life, especially in pursuit.  In Salt Lake City, a distraught mother called for medical intervention to help deal with her 13-year-old autistic son.  A “trained” police officer responded, tried to forcibly restrain the boy, who got free and fled, and shot him several times.  The boy is hospitalized in serious condition, and police are telling the usual story, unsupported by them and contradicted by his mother, that the boy had a weapon and threatened others.)


Two questions are why police outrages against blacks are more frequent and why police do not learn from the media that their misconduct has dire consequences for their communities.  One answer to both is that they are reacting to and resisting pressures to change their conduct in ways contrary to personal and political beliefs, motivations for becoming police, accustomed practices, and community expectations.  They do not become police to be social workers.


Mitt Romney might say, “police are people, too.”  Agreed: still, the questions remain: what kind of people, what kind of backgrounds, what kind of attitudes and values.  I am no sociologist, yet I know that almost no police come from rich, college-educated families in wealthy communities like Darien, Winnetka, or Malibu, or go to the Ivies, the Seven Sisters, or Stanford.  They come from lower-middle- or low-income families, with little family history of higher education or professional occupation.  Most are born and raised in white urban enclaves, or towns or cities in rural areas, of conservative politics and various bigotries against racial, religious, or ethnic minorities.  When they become police, they do not check their predispositions at the door.


In these respects, police share this profile with Trump’s base and many of his other supporters.  A sign of kinship is the NYPD union’s unprecedented endorsement of the Republican presidential candidate.  Police belief in “law and order” is not surprising or inappropriate, but, in the context of race-based policing, the union endorsement means that a majority of police are racist, that policing is political, and that it will be practiced accordingly.  Police unions and chiefs downplay publicized episodes of outrageous police misconduct with an abridged version of the adage about “a few bad apples.”  They omit the rest of it: “spoil the barrel.”  Police unions are barrels, members are rotten apples, and their political stance allies them with politicians who tolerate or encourage those likely to perpetrate more abuses and killings, especially of those protesting misconduct.  By contrast with their killing of Jacob Blake, police gave a “pass” to armed, white Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and wounded several protestors in Kenosha—clear evidence of police racist propensities.  Everywhere, police will continue to give preferential treatment to “law and order,” pro-police groups and individuals—paramilitary groups, organized vigilantes, and “lone wolves”—and permit right-wing violence when anti-racist protesters gather or march.  Yet people are people, too, and police are becoming their enemy.


Such police prejudices reflect the prejudices of the white majorities who control most communities.  Of course, police fight crime, guard buildings, prevent violence, control quarrels, catch speeders, stop drunk drivers, etc.  The large racial disparities in charges, especially misdemeanors, reflect society’s racism in using the legal establishment—police, prosecutors, and judges—to keep blacks docile, down, and debt-ridden.  So actual police misconduct—physical and verbal abuse, harassment, excessive force, injury and death, etc.—is a function of race.  To privilege whites for being white and punish blacks for being black, states laws protect police conduct otherwise liable to legal action.  Different legal standards for police admit, tolerate, even encourage race-based misconduct and enable them to operate with impunity because of immunity.


What state governments leave undone, Internal Affairs (IA) divisions of police departments get done.  Police departments rely on IA divisions to obstruct citizen complaints about police misconduct, make a muddle of investigations, and issue reports of results ignoring, or diminishing the seriousness or soundness of, the complaints.  I take IA in the Las Cruces Police Department as typical.


The approach begins by handling complaints about citizens and complaints about police differently.  Police accept an anonymous citizen-on-citizen complaint for investigation and assume the complainant is truthful.  But IA requires a signed statement for citizen-on-police complaint which implies that the citizen is likely to be untruthful.  The complaint form warns the citizen about possible prosecution for false charges as determined by the police and requires willingness to take a polygraph test as administered by police—a threatening advisory meant to deter citizen complaints.


IA assumes the officer’s honesty, gives the officer opportunities at self-exoneration, and protects his or her response from informed scrutiny.  IA gives the citizen’s complaint to the accused officer for rebuttal, allows days to prepare for an interview, and requires no signed acknowledgement of a warning about perjury or agreement about a polygraph.  It gives the citizen no chance to address the officer’s rebuttal and expose self-protective dishonesty.  Meanwhile, police unions or chiefs offer false narratives about the episode or make discrediting comments about the complainant.


In the end, IA validates few citizen complaints and issues final, often vague or evasive reports.  Except in the most extreme episodes, IA lives up to its name by doing its best to keep citizen complaints internal affairs, hidden from scrutiny.  The last things which the police want are transparency and accountability.  A city law office often helps them to resist requests for public information by redacting or withholding documents.


In Las Cruces, the mayor has long resisted or eroded police reform for reasons of his own, but a majority of Councilors may be willing to take police misconduct seriously.  So far, Council’s only decisions have been to hire a Police Auditor and a group of police experts to review LCPD performance.  The problems are that an auditor is no better than the data which IA provides and such groups have ratified double standards, and police policies and practices, which have allowed police misconduct everywhere forever.  They euphemize the facts and fiddle with problems lest they lose contracts from cities and support from police unions.  So long as reform is delayed or denied, so long city government—mayor, councilors, and staff—remains complicit in police misconduct.

Monday, September 7, 2020

A Third Word about White Racism

My nannie is not the whole story.  In my neighborhood lives a couple of elderly whites who are long retired, live in comfort, but are not in good health.  They relocated from a state to figure prominently in this fall’s election.  As long as I have known them, I have known that they are angry people, particularly roused by politics.  Recent news from Kenosha about the police near killing of Jacob Blake, the protests and vandalism, and the talk about white racism has infuriated them.

 

Back in 2008, while we walked our dogs together, Rex (so I shall call him) and I talked about serious topics from our different perspectives, until he got angry and we changed the topic.  One day, months before the election, I said that I was having difficulty writing a blog on the Republican Party because I could not figure out what it stood for, since it was divided on so many traditional positions.  Rex got angry, shouted an obscenity, and stalked off.  We eventually resumed a cordial relationship and civil conversations.  Still, I shall not mention that the Republican Party has now taken a pass on a platform and has nothing to stand on as a political party, only a cult figure to kneel to in worship.

 

Years later, while I walking my dogs in a field below their house, Regina (so I shall call her) screamed at me, “You Liberals are to blame for everything wrong with this country.”  I said nothing, waved, and kept walking.

 

Recently, Rex and I accosted me in a local store.  He began by telling me that I would think him a racist because of his views on the Kenosha protests.  I told him that I neither discuss issues by labeling others nor like being told what I would think about them.  As his remark suggests, Rex was too quick to protest too much.  It was a pre-emptive defense of what he knows or fears may be, and be seen to be, his underlying racism.  I silently accepted his self-identification, though but I seldom care and rarely leap from a person’s views to a person’s biases.  Ad hominem-ism is not my thing.

 

The specific issue was the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the twists and turns of our exchange illustrates difficulties in justifying a political position reflecting prejudice and disregarding fact.  Rex was already angry and got angrier as our exchange proceeded.

 

Rex began by deploring the violence and damage which attended the protests, and stressing the need for law and order.  I agreed but added that law and order addresses only the consequences, not the causes, of the protests, with others likely until the causes are addressed.  I added that shooting a man in the back is not law and order.  (If the conversation had occurred a few days later, I might have asked him whether law and order applied to President Trump, who urged North Carolinians to cast both by-mail and in-person ballots—a deliberate act of double voting being a felony in the state.)

 

Rex shifted to justifying the police because the victim resisted arrest.  I disagreed by noting that he had not been charged, was walking away from the encounter, and was threatening no one.  Rex insisted that walking away itself was resisting arrest; I said that it was no such thing.  I added that any charge, if one had been made, was no reason to shoot the victim, much less in the back seven times.

 

Rex shifted to defending the police because he was protecting himself from a man with a knife.  I disagreed by noting that the knife was on the floor, nothing indicated that the victim was reaching for it, and, given the locations of knife, victim, and police, the police could not see or know about a knife on the floor before shooting the victim.

 

Then I added three points which caused Rex to break off and hurry away.  One, police accept risk in taking the job; if they cannot, they should seek a job less dangerous.  I referenced Army policy when I was in Vietnam (as he was, in the Air Force).  There, a rule of engagement permitted soldiers in hostile populated areas to fire only after being fired upon.  Two, resisting arrest is not a crime justifying enforcement which risks the victim’s life.  Such enforcement (aka, “excessive force”) is an execution.  Three, police violence in the name of law and order should matter less than the value of a human life.

 

Whatever Rex thought of my other responses, my last one may have hit home.  He is a member of a mainstream Protestant faith and of a weekly Bible study group.  He may have read about the value of human life and learned that Jesus loves everyone and that Christians are enjoined to love others, even enemies.  If so, my final comment may have unintentionally shown him the gap between his angry political position and his earnest religious convictions.  The discrepancy is painful, and the pain from the tension between his two contradictory sets of values fuels his anger.

 

This discrepancy between political and religious thoughts and feelings explains a lot about why many Christians can be Trump supporters yet believe themselves righteous Christians.  Trump represents himself as straddling the gap, so that supporting him gives temporary relief to underlying tensions between conservative politics and Christian faith.  The great danger to American democracy comes from the Christian right, whether conservatives or white nationalists, which conjoin the political and the religious rather than accept what can be a tolerable tension in their separation.  Poor Rex and Regina, still divided—racist and Christian—and more angry than loving. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Word or Two on White Racism

 My long-since-retired nannie—yes, I was to the manor born and with a silver spoon fed—feared that young black men from inner-city Cleveland 7 miles away were going to come to her house, and rape and murder her.  She watched more television than she saw her situation: life in a house on a 2-mile, winding, dead-end road through a white suburb and atop a high, steep, heavily wooded escarpment.  She was an attractive woman even in her 80s, but how young black men were going to single her out and why they would come all that way to rape and kill her she could not explain, even to me, who asked ever so gently how and why.  But there it was, up front and personal: this absolutely irrational fear of people of color, especially young black men.  Nothing—not her faith, her friends, or her family; no facts, no argument, no appeal—could relieve her fears.

 

Before war’ end, she left our service to marry, we moved into the “big house” next to a country club, and my parents replaced her with a black woman to be a nannie more for my sister than for me.  They added a childless, middle-aged, black couple also as live-ins.  Katherine was cook and maid; Eddie was handyman and chauffeur.  They thought of me as their son, and I knew them as loving adults, a second set of parents.  I spent much time in the kitchen with Katharine; at my urging, Eddie, a local Golden Gloves champion, organized a boxing club to meet only when my piano teacher could come to the house (so much for lessons).  When my parents spent summer weekends golfing, they took me to their relatives in the country, where I played with their nieces and nephews.  And there was John, forever my paternal grandmother’s handyman and chauffeur, and butler at my parents’ small, select dinners and great soirees.  Though he always called me “Master Michael,” he did so out of an affection which was reciprocated, and we talked.  As soon as I could—it was 1968—I became a life member of the NAACP to honor him.

 

Throughout my adult life, I have, in one or another of many ways, been involved with minorities.  So it is hard for me to understand persistent bigotry.  It is learned; it can be unlearned, and ignorance is no excuse.  My theory is that bigots prefer either to go silent or to plead ignorance rather than to admit their reliance on prejudice to buck them up.  (Appalachian Whites supported the Confederacy, less because they believed in slavery—few owned slaves—or in “states’ rights” than because they believed in the whiteness of their skin as a sign of superiority.)  Whatever their facade of strength, bigots are weak people who need a belief in their superiority to others to persuade themselves than they are not inferior.  But they are, and their racism proves it.

 

Racism takes strange guises, the more interesting ones among Whites who think themselves enlightened.  In a self-examination of the suburb at the turn of the century, Cleveland Heights—a self-proclaimed “Nuclear-Free Zone” (you get the idea)—undertook a citizens’ survey in various areas of concern.  I signed up for the group on diversity.  A dozen people attended its first and only meeting: nine male and female whites, and three female blacks.  Most of the whites discussed the need to better integrate residents; the three female blacks sat silent throughout the discussion, as I did.  As the end of the hour approached, I pointed out that no black men were present and said that many were not likely to want integration; and I pointed out that no Orthodox Jews were present and said that they were uniformly opposed to integration.  I said that the group on diversity needed to recognize how diversely diversity manifests itself and that some may perceive integration as a threat.  After some uncomfortable stirrings in silence, the meeting broke up.  The three black women quietly thanked me for saying what they were reluctant to say.  As I left the building, the white woman group leader accosted me, accused me of looking like one of those western men who beat their wives, and stomped off.

 

Not too many years later, I attended meetings of the Outreach Committee of my wife’s church in Ashland, OR.  My punishment for missing a meeting was appointment to attend a session of organization representatives to discuss racism.  We sat at tables of eight participants each and watched a movie called The Color of Fear.  The people in the movie represent Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Caucasian Americans—all male, as I recall.  One of the white men is the “mark” of unconscious racism, and one black man is silent but increasingly agitated.  Finally, he bursts out in a furious tirade at the hapless “mark,” and the movie soon ends.  The people at my table, some of whom were liberal ex-pats from San Francisco, were stunned.  Since some knew me, they asked for my opinion; I deferred to hear their opinions first.  All expressed surprise and shock, with a dollop of fear thrown in for good measure.  I asked questions: why, since they read newspapers and magazines, and saw newsreels (years ago) and television, with beatings, murders, sit-ins, marches, and riots the regular fare, did they not know that blacks were angry; how, except for denial or a lack of empathy, could they not understand why blacks were angry; and what did they think that their reaction said about their racial stance.  They answered with a silence of shame or resentment.

 

Nearly 20 years later, the tactic of some white anti-racists is to accuse all whites of being racists because all have been raised in a culture tainted by racism.  They allege that those who appeal to their friendships with blacks or to their involvement years ago—they take careful aim at people of my generation—in the civil rights movement are merely displaying credentials which prove nothing about their racial prejudice.  By a perverse logic, they interpret the denial of racism as evidence of racism; by a perverse anti-factuality, they imply that white partners in interracial relationships are racists.  My take on these white anti-racists is that they protest too much.  A good way to deflect scrutiny and accusation from themselves is to direct scrutiny and accusation at others.  Business in anti-racism is good, and Robin DiAngelo has made herself rich and famous.  Yet there are many “tells” in her White Fragility which indicate that she herself is racist: no background with minorities, especially blacks; no education in the streets, as it were, only education in college; no experience with blacks except as professional colleagues; and an insulting rhetoric arousing white resistance then taken as proof of white racism.

 

I want to end with some words of comfort on white racism.  I have no such words, only pity, for people who are racist, know themselves to be racist, and need to be racist as a necessary prejudice of self-support.  But to conscientious, well-intentioned whites concerned that they may be racist or complicit unawares in racist beliefs or conduct, I say, skip the guilt.  No whites can be free of some degree of taint of racism in a culture in which racism figures importantly.  The Devil is in the denial.  But that same culture also contains the resources to reduce that taint of racism in an on-going process of moral cleansing.  I am not free of sin, but I am no sinner.  Those who wish to confront racist sin can, not by prayer (only), but by courageous introspection, gritty determination, and constant vigilance educate and thereby reform themselves.  Along the way, they can, as the late John Lewis said, cause “good trouble.”

Friday, August 21, 2020

Helping the Other Americas Help Themselves

In 1998, I retired to Cleveland Heights, OH, the home town of my early years.  At the turn of the century, it undertook a citizens’ review of its quality of life.  Politically, the city was overwhelmingly liberal and ever so thoroughly enlightened.  As one entered the city, signs declared it a nuclear free zone.  Demographically, it was slightly more than half white, slightly less than half black, with a growing number of blacks qualifying for Section 8 housing.  It was predominantly Christian, with a large minority of Jews, of whom a large minority were Orthodox.  I signed up for the committee on diversity and attended its only meeting.  The chair was a white woman; the other members were a half dozen or so white women and men also dressed casually, three black women dressed as the professionals who they were, and me, the only senior, dressed in jeans and a work shirt, and wearing a Stetson.

 

In the discussion, the whites did most of the talking, mainly about the importance of welcoming Section 8 blacks to the city and integrating them into the community.  The black women and I did most of the listening; they ventured occasional, bland comments, but I stayed silent until the very end.  As the meeting neared its conclusion, I spoke up, noting that the committee on diversity was not very diverse: three quarters white, one quarter black—not the proportions of the city population.  I noted the absence of black men and Orthodox Jews, which I interpreted to mean that not everyone in Cleveland Heights believed in integration and that some objected to it as hostile to their culture, race, or religion.  I posed two questions.  Was integration an appropriate community goal?  Was the committee prepared not only to recognize diversity, but also to respect it?  The chair, noting the hour, adjourned the meeting.  After the others left, the three black women thanked me for saying what they thought but felt that they could not say.  Later, in the lobby, as I was leaving, the chair came up to me and, obviously furious, sneered, “You look like one of those cowboys who beat their wives,” turned, and strode away.

 

I recalled this episode recently in my ruminations about the current state of affairs in the Democratic presidential primary contests.  For months, a large but slowly shrinking number of candidates have been campaigning for voter and financial support.  I have given to a few of them: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.  Only one of these women begins to understand the electorate outside her ideological boundaries.  None of them (and, by the way, none of the other candidates) offers a vision of America larger than the sum of their fix-it remedies, some dubious, for a hyper-inflationary healthcare system, a hypo-deflationary educational system (both public and private), structural under- and unemployment, and sundry other humongous problems like climate change/global warming, environmental degradation, infrastructure deterioration, inadequate housing, inhumane immigration policy—to name some.  Any vision of confronting these problems and adjusting to their solutions cannot be narrowly limited to piecemeal solutions however expansive or expensive.  It must include culture—religion, social mores and customs, political and personal values—at the local level and the effects of demographic, social, economic, and technological change.  No one-size-fits-all-and-we-of-the-government-know-what-size-that-is approach can appeal to those who feel left out and looked down upon.  I am thinking of rural and small-town America.

 

It would make a lot of sense for Democrats pay attention to rural and small-town America and to campaign for its restoration and revitalization, if only for pragmatic, political reasons.  The Electoral College privileges land, not people.  The residents in rural areas and small towns in America occupy most of its land and thus have more of its power in the aggregate than do the residents of big cities in urban America.  Political power makes them important, though no one would know it from urban, mostly liberal, attitudes toward them.

 

Such attitudes are a national misfortune.  The need to give attention to rural America transcends, or should transcend, political calculation.  For example, consider coal-mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia, now the sites of their own Great Depressions.  The towns are decrepit, homes and churches deteriorating, schools dilapidated or shut down, stores shuttered, medical services diminished, roads in disrepair.  Many people are under- or unemployed; though proud, poverty-driven to survive on federal and state welfare of one kind or another; under-or uneducated; and ill-nourished and unhealthy in many ways.  The opioid crisis is not only a serious health problem in itself, but also a symptom of an even larger, more complex problem.  As older people die and some of the younger people move away, the population shrinks, the tax base erodes, services decline, and the blight spreads.  What non-rural Americans can want their fellow Americans to live in such conditions?  If urban Americans care about minorities, why do they not care about this minority?

 

The well-meaning with their good intentions most commonly advocate job-training for work elsewhere as a remedy.  It is a remedy proposed by people who do not live in rural areas and small towns, and who do not appreciate their church suppers, sewing circles, high-school football teams, and hunting and fishing seasons.  Yes, I speak in terms of folksy stereotypes but do so to indicate the truth of social rituals which bind rural-area and small-town neighbors to one another and the land.  Most love where they live, with whom they live, and what they do.  They resent outsiders coming in and telling them what their problems are and that the solution is to be more, and to live more, like the outsiders.  As one who has driven across Kansas from east to west dozens of times, I understood a Wichita Eagle editorial which responded to a USDA report on the High Plains with a two-word heading: “Butt Out.”  (I read the report; the USDA, not the paper, got it right; the paper was fronting for agribusinesses; the editor did not like my letter saying so.)  Of course, not all love where they live: the realities of perpetual poverty drives many to crippling despair, to various addictions (methamphetamines, opioids, etc., and, of course, alcohol) or to suicide.  Still, if I were a local, I would likely feel as they do in resenting outsiders—read: urban liberals—dissing them and their way of life.

 

Local solutions should be developed to solve local problems.  Back to my example.  The coal-mining areas of Kentucky and West Virginia are beautiful, but scarred.  Coal mining has ravaged and damaged mountains and rivers with excavation—the greatest sin being mountaintop removal—, mine tailings, and effluent discharges.  Although they have harmed the environment, coal companies have not repaired, and are not going to repair, it, and federal and state governments are slow to do it.  But lemons can be made into lemonade.  If repairs were part of a larger, integrated program for environmental restoration and economic recovery, many social problems could be addressed as well.

 

I, an admitted non-expert in regional planning, imagine this solution: an integrated program to provide opportunities for residents to remain in their homes, rebuild their communities, have good employment, and, by diversifying the economy, protect their way of life from the uncertainties of reliance on a single industry.  To these ends, I propose a consortium of federal, state, and local governments relying on local residents and resources to restore the environment and revive the economy.  These governments would contract only with locally owned and staffed companies to do the work which governments ordinarily contract with large corporations to do.  The local workforce has most of the knowledge and skills to do the work associated with such remediation efforts.  Coal companies, instead of being charged and fined for failures or refusals to do environmental remediation, would be required to contribute facilities, equipment, and any locally unavailable, long-term technical support to these companies.  Federal and state agencies involved with small business start-ups or environmental restoration (e.g., Small Business Administration, Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency) would provide financial, technical, and management support, as necessary.

 

Government contracts would create revenue streams for local residents and other local businesses.  As their work in environmental restoration tapers off and concludes, the companies transition to related construction work.  The parallel growth of other businesses reduces or eliminates the need for government contracts.  As the environment recovers and the economy revives, towns improve existing and build new housing (owned or rental); upgrade schools and teaching staffs; attract tourists needing accommodations and restaurants; promote sports like hunting, fishing, riverboating, skiing, and cycling (using abandoned rail lines); and promote local arts, crafts, and manufactures.  Because of improved quality of life, towns also campaign to attract start-up technology firms to relocate and thereby further enhance the community.

 

Different geographic areas have different cultures, capabilities and resources, and problems and solutions.  What may work for Kentucky and West Virginia, according to my imagined program, would not likely work in other areas, like the rest of Appalachia, the upper Old Northwest, the Great Plains, the Northern Rockies, the arid Southwest.  But a similar approach can.  Anyone who doubts that rural-area and small-town residents can help themselves with government help, if they want it, needs to watch Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl.  The key point is to assist local populations by ensuring that they take the lead to preserve by making viable what is valuable to them.  Politicians of all parties should want to promote self-support and self-determination in rural areas and small towns, and thereby demonstrate the respect for those “other Americas” which deserve it.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The White Fragility of Robin DiAngelo

 NOTE: Prompted by Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart’s interview of the author, I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Talk about Race, a best seller.  As a purgative, I wrote the following long review.  Contrary to the opinion of those who look to book sales or ideological fashion as a measure merits, mine is that the book is flawed in its approach and likely to prove largely ineffective in realizing its purpose, to help whites address racism.  Its in-your-face confrontationalism may be satisfying to self-righteous practitioners, but it is rhetorically and pedagogically unsound and probably self-defeating.

 

The White Fragility of Robin DiAngelo

 

I am a white woman.  I am standing beside a black woman.  We are facing a group of white people seated in front of us.  We are in their workplace and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race.  The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility.  I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgement that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color.  A white man is pounding his fist on the table.  As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!”  I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white.  Why is this white man so angry?  Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger?  Why doesn’t he notice the effect this outburst is having on the few people of color in the room?  Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out?  I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism. (p.1)

 

With this first-page, first-paragraph narrative, Robin DiAngelo introduces readers to White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism and to herself.  What do we learn?  A very great deal.  Told from her perspective as the episode unfolds, the narrative is neither dated nor located in her career.  As it is timeless, so, it turns out, it is typical.

 

DiAngelo and her colleague are standing, and the audience is sitting; dominance and subordination are clear.  She notices “a group of white people.”  Later, she reports they number thirty-eight in a group of forty; she did not initially see or “see” the two people of color.  She knows that the employees attend unwillingly; she senses the tension and hostility of those forced to attend.  Yet she makes no attempt to put them at ease with, say, a joke (how many would prefer to be getting a root canal at the dentist?), a nod to the tension and hostility, or both.  She does not lead them in dialogue by seeking their ideas about racism and racists.  Instead, she starts by stipulating a definition of racism which states that whites have power over blacks, before she explains its terms or links it to their experience.  Thus, she cannot build on their responses and work toward her objectives.  (She tacitly admits this error when she claims that later in her career she does not “walk in and lead with those statements; I strategically guide people to a shared understanding of what I mean” [p. 117].  However, none of her other narratives shows this strategic approach, none ends satisfactorily, yet she never asks why of herself.)  Since her stipulated definition implicates all whites in racism, she should have known (how could she not know after her specialized study?) that whites, whether racist or not, whether thinking themselves racist or not, would be offended.  She is unaware of the range of likely responses to the angry man whom she seems to think should not have spoken out or as he did in front of others, especially the people of color.  She sees whites agreeing with him or tuning out; she does not see the people of color reacting, remaining silent likely, surely not agreeing, probably not tuning out.  She sees no other reasons for silence: discomfort, embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger, resentment, or fear.  She asks rhetorical questions about the man and other employees but avoids a question whether anything which she said or did might have prompted his outburst.  Indeed, she shrugs off responsibility: “after all, [I] only articulated a definition of racism.”  “Only” does not exonerate; it makes an excuse.  She does not end by telling how she responds to the man.

 

*       *       *

 

There is more to learn, first about the book, then about the author.  DiAngelo’s book, first published two years ago, became a best seller after the 25 May police killing of George Floyd.  It is not a scholarly tome, but a resolute polemic against white racism.  It reflects fashionable academic doctrines of anti-racist reformers and received favorable reviews of Katy Waldman in The New Yorker (2018) and Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post (2020).  Despite its favorable reception and worthy purpose, DiAngelo’s book makes little contribution to the discussion of race in America and is likely to have little benign effect even on earnest self-doubters and self-reformers.

 

The book is not original or profound in its assertion of commonplaces about racism and racists.  Yes, white racism is America’s original sin.  Yes, white racism stains many individuals and many institutions.  Yes, white racism by early socialization and later re-enforcements reflects and reinforces a culture with pervasive racist elements.  Yes, white racism does not always express itself in ill feelings or bad behavior toward blacks, but it always assumes the superiority of whites because of their whiteness, with a concomitant sense of entitlement or privilege.  Yes, whites think and act in racist ways without being aware that they do so.  Yes, whites respond defensively when accused of racism.  So, yes, whites have work to do to confront racism, in themselves or in society, but not alone.

 

The title and subtitle of her book make an appeal to whites seeking information and advice about racism from experts, and DiAngelo qualifies as one, as a specialist in race sociology.  However, in general, her information is suspect; her advice, unexceptional, superficial at best, problematic at worst.  It may give a little help to those anxious to search and scrutinize their souls and, if necessary, rectify attitudes, thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds.  It may offend, discourage, or mislead others.  For her approach is inappropriate to her intended ends.  Her manner is often not only dogmatic, accusatory, and aggressive, but also insensitive, callous, and belittling.  She little comprehends and little empathizes with those who may or may not be racist, who may or may not be ignorant and, if ignorant, almost innocent of their racism.  Her righteousness assumes that all whites equally racist, although she gives lip service to “exceptions.”  All in all, her manner is as likely to provoke as much resistance as her message.  She mars discussions by over-generalizations, misconceptions, confusions, and inconsistencies.  Even at only 159 pages, her book is too long, repetitive beyond need for emphasis, tonally erratic, and jargon-indulgent.  Those who can ignore these flaws may be able to consider the possibility of their racism and accept the fact of racism in America.  But her book is as likely to offend as to inform.  She should know not to try so hard and not to justify an inept approach by zeal in the cause of racial reform.

 

*       *       *

 

DiAngelo tells us selectively about her background, some examples of her work as a trainer in race relations, and some instances of her struggles to deal with her racism.  Her family lived in a white neighborhood.  She grew up in poverty and was ashamed to be poor.  Yet she knew that it was better to be white than black.  She does not explain why she went into sociology, specialized in race, and became a professor and a diversity trainer.  She is presently an Affiliate Associate Professor at The University of Washington, Seattle.  Her expertise about race derives largely from study, little from experience with blacks.  “I was a full adult, a parent, and a college graduate before I ever experienced a challenge to my racial identity or position, and that experience was only because I had taken a position as a diversity trainer” (p. 101).  How she could get through her studies in race without being challenged she does not explain.  Although she now has friends and colleagues who are black as well as white, her limited experience with blacks remains limited by her career roles as professor or trainer.  Her responses to blacks not known to her are racist reflexes.  Her background has precluded knowledge and insight acquired and absorbed from living in close quarters and having frank discussions with blacks.  Since her ideological intensity is greater than her personal intimacy with race, a question about her motives is in order.

 

I speculate about DiAngelo’s motives because of her manner and message: an ardent accusation that all or almost all whites are ignorant about racism and are racists in a society which reinforces racism.  They say that some people major in psychology to deal with their issues, then point out disorders in others but not themselves.  They also say that the best defense is a good offense.  These devices distract from one’s racism and divert attention to racism imputed to others.  So DiAngelo may have studied race to help her deal with her racism and learned to allege racism in other whites as a distraction from her own.  She briefly admits to white racism in earlier years and to some, but not all, residual racist responses in the present (see narratives at pp. 53 and 139), but her strong claims about others’ racism may signal that her issues, active and energetic, abide—her white fragility.  Even so, since, by herself and with the help of others, she mitigated her racism, she should have made her growth an example.  It makes sense for her to admit, not deny, some residual racism; otherwise, it would be hard to see how her denial of racism would differ from others’ denials—denials being, to her, diagnostic of racism in a racist.  I do not know; I offer this possibility to show that it is hard to know whether a person’s self-representation reflects the truth of his or her inner self.  These considerations urge that those who wish to examine their (possible) racism or engage in discussions about race should be cautious about accepting her analyses and advice.

 

*       *       *

 

As a sociologist, DiAngelo studies the nature and behavior of and relationships within or among groups, which must be defined: identifiable, bounded, discrete, describable.  Some are notoriously difficult to define.  (Who is a Jew?  Even Jews debate the answers to the question.)  In most of the text, DiAngelo talks as if she is talking about the group of all white people, all of whom are racist and ignorant about racism in themselves and society.  Yet she is not explicit about what defines a racist and what defines racism.  But at the very beginning, she identifies and addresses a different, more limited, group, her readership.  “This book is intended for us, for white progressives....  I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it’” (p. 5).  Her definition is about as confusing as anything in the book.  It begins with confusion generated by the author herself.  On the one hand, since she admits to being racist to some degree, she is not a white progressive; on the other hand, since she identifies herself with her readership of white progressives, she is racist because she denies being a racist.  The question is: is she racist regardless whether she affirms or denies being racist, because she is white?  In other respects, this definition is mystifying and muddled (and enmeshed with a claim about damage which they do).  In a book about racism, it is mystifying that she defines “white progressives” without explaining why them and not racists, and by defining them as racists by their denial of being racist.  It is muddled because it includes millions of white people whom no one thinks progressive and who do not think themselves racists and excludes millions whom many think progressive and who think themselves racist but want to abate racism in themselves and society—like many readers of her book.  One consideration cuts through this muddle: white partners in the ever-growing number of mixed racial relationships would deny being racist, yet DiAngelo would use their denial as evidence of their racism and as proof of membership in the group of white progressives.  Her assumption of group uniformity, without due allowance for exceptions, exposes a common anti-racist fallacy: a denial of racism indicates racism.  The bizarre definition awaits an explanation, but her use of the word “progressive,” with its political overtones, suggests personal bias or unstated purposes.

 

A word about denials of racism is in order.  DiAngelo lists claims and assumptions (pp. 119-121) usually made in denial of, or in defense against, accusations of racism.  Of course, both racists and non-racists invoke them.  Although she admits in passing that there are exceptions, non-racists, she does not discuss them.  She may believe that they prove her rule rather than refute it, so there is no need to discuss them.  Or she may believe that the exceptions are so few and know them to be so far removed from her background that she does not bother to infer that some whites have different socializing experiences based on different cultural influences and develop as children and become adults essentially free of racism.  Undeniably, all whites have some taint of racism; racist influences are pervasive even if they are not always predominant.  But the omission of exceptions matters, for they qualify her assertions about racism.  In this book, DiAngelo, less a trained sociologist than an ardent anti-racist advocate, fails to recognize that exceptions are important in any discussion of race and that generalizations are neither necessary nor helpful in race reform training.

 

Although DiAngelo neither defines the group of people who are racists nor defines racism, she implies that racism is the belief, and a racist is a believer, that one race is superior to another however the “superior” race chooses to distinguish itself from an “inferior” race.  Her view is that whites learn racism by socialization in a culture which is racist, and remain racist because society upholds racism by individual re-enforcements and institutional arrangements.  Her subtitle suggests that she places greater emphasis on individual than institutional racism, but she indicates that the two are interactive and urges individuals wanting to deal with their racism can also do so by dealing with society’s racism.

 

*       *       *

 

DiAngelo’s generalizations about culture are particularly pernicious quite apart from their inconsistency.  DiAngelo uses inconsistent views of culture to discredit others, readers and audience members alike.  Throughout most of the book, she views culture as universal, homogenous, and conventional.  In a racist society, culture transmits and supports racism, and makes whites racists.  Anticipating an objection to this allegation, she offers a defense:

 

How can I say that if you are white, your opinions on racism are most likely ignorant, when I don’t even know you?  I can say so because nothing in mainstream US culture gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years (p.8).

 

DiAngelo’s view about the absence of mainstream cultural resources to counter racism enables her to make ignorance an identifying feature of a white racist.  Her belief in a uniformly racist culture enables her belief that all whites are racists in a racist society.

 

No one need quibble about what a “nuanced” understanding is, but everyone can question the need for extensive study of race.  DiAngelo claims that only someone who has studied race as she has can have that “nuanced understanding” about race and, with due allowance for residual traces, be just a little bit racist.  “Unless we have devoted intentional and ongoing study, our opinions [on race] are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant” (p.8).  Bad enough is her unbecoming academic elitism: one must be an expert in the field to have a reasonable opinion.  Worse is her notion that academic knowledge about race is the sine qua non of anti-racism.  Some people whom she would regard as poorly taught are not racist, and others whom she would regard as well-schooled are racist.  Racism is not a matter of informational or intellectual deficiencies.

 

Toward the end, however, she indicates a second view of culture emerges, and it reveals that she knew from the start (see p. 56) that culture is, as one expects it to be in a pluralistic society, segmented, heterogenous, and controversial.  As she reports,

 

When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?”  It is a sincere question.  How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? (p. 144).

 

Indeed, it is.  Cultural resources in all their diversity, with much on racism, are available to all, in radio, television, internet news; newspaper and magazine articles; books, plays, movies; school courses and public lectures; and private conversations.  For example, originally controversial in its representation of black/white relations and a racist judicial system, the well-known novel, on many middle or high school reading lists, and the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, contribute toward an understanding of the clash between racists and non-racists.  DiAngelo’s strangely unnecessary profession of sincerity does not cover her inappropriate response—belittling and aggressive.

 

Cultural resources are sufficiently diverse that they neither determine people to be racist or not nor cure racism.  All whites are liable to racist influences according to their circumstances and dispositions, and react accordingly.  Despite informal awareness of, or formal education involving, anti-racist cultural resources, many, perhaps most, people remain racist in their belief in their superiority to people of other races.  But others do not; some are socialized differently, and others re-educate themselves, as DiAngelo has done.  Otherwise, prevailing racist beliefs could not be rejected or opposed precisely by those whose different circumstances or predispositions enable anti-racist influences.  So generalizations about the culture and society must be cautious; culture makes it possible for whites to vary in kind and degree in matters of race; they and their differences must be recognized and respected; and generalizations about all whites, like generalizations about any group, must not be fallaciously and, in the case of race, insensitively or insultingly applied to individuals.

 

*       *       *

 

DiAngelo’s book focuses on her anti-racist message and glances at white responses to it.  So she or her message get most of the attention, but her audiences and their settings, and her approaches to her audiences deserve some attention because of the subtitle, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.  Her notion that it is hard for whites to talk about race is far from the whole truth, but true enough in some situations.  It is certainly true when she is talking to or at, not with, students in college classrooms or employees in corporate conference rooms.  But whether it is hard for whites to talk about racism in all settings is a question to be asked.

 

Talk about race is not something which can be done in all circumstances and is influenced by many factors, among them, occasion, nature of participation (voluntary or not), structure of the discussion (formal or not), setting (home, school, workplace), and people involved (family, friends, co-workers, speakers; white, black, both).  Most talk is usually informal, involves people known to each other, and goes on in informal settings like family dining tables, living rooms, workplace lounges or cafeterias, and bars.  The subtitle over-generalizes the difficulty which whites have in talking about race.

 

Even so, in favorable circumstances, the discussion of white racism can be a difficult one for most whites.  They know that people have different opinions, strongly held, about race; they usually want to avoid discussions often made unpleasant by vigorous, vociferous, even violent expressions of these differences and often made worse by long-lasting ill-feelings afterwards.  They know that racism is wrong, and being a racist is bad. Most are unaware of their racist inclinations and inventory, and ignorant of racism in their words and deeds, and in their social institutions or structures.  But they are aware that they may be tainted by racism unawares.  They fear saying or doing anything which may reveal what they do not want known or believed about themselves and thus prompt accusations of being a racist.  With the exception of avowed racists on the political fringes, whites regard an accusation of racism as the greatest possible stigma (unless it be sexual molestation, with antisemitism third). 

 

Whites can find it hard to talk about race in classrooms or conference rooms.  They are in captive-audience situations in which their teachers or classmates, or trainers and co-workers or employers can disapprove, criticize, correct, censure, stigmatize, and even penalize them for stating views not favored or sanctioned.  Teachers and trainers with strong, even ideological, views may be more dogmatic than pedagogic, with an evident cause-oriented agenda.  Students, employees, or other attendees who agree with their teachers or their employer-approved trainers might talk; those who disagree—those whom DiAngelo says find it hard to talk about race—would likely either remain silent to be safe or speak up at the risk of incurring adverse judgment and severe penalty.

 

So they do not find talking about race easier when DiAngelo accuses them of being racist and ignorant of racism, and justifies the accusations by declaring them culturally determined by socialization and reinforcement to be racists and to embrace racism.  It is not surprising that, thus accused, whites angrily deny and otherwise defend themselves, often with counter-accusations of their own—arrogance and naivetĂ©—and sneering dismissals of political correctness.  Any anti-racist crusader, not matter how zealous, must recognize how threatening the discussion of race can be to whites’ self-esteem and must treat whites with respect.  I cannot speak of other anti-racist reformers, but DiAngelo does not.

 

*       *       *

 

It is hard to imagine that teachers or trainers address their address their audiences on the intimate, provocative issue of race by accusing whites of being racist and ignorant about race or that they do not expect unreceptive responses: silence or outbursts.  But such is DiAngelo’s approach.  Aware, but dismissive, of the reaction of her audiences, DiAngelo declares herself “quite comfortable generalizing .... I understand that my generalizations may cause some defensiveness for the white people about whom I am generalizing, given how cherished the ideology of individualism is in our culture.  There are, of course, exceptions.” (p. 12)  She knows that she causes defensiveness, a condition which does not encourage people to reflect on their possible racism.  Yet she offers a blame-the-victims-for-taking-offense excuse in sarcastic terms about their allegiance to a “cherished ... ideology of individualism.”  This excuse for the reaction of people accused, rightly or wrongly, of racism substitutes an impersonal abstraction for an understanding of people.  This disregard of her audience suggests why DiAngelo reports not a single success in her work as a diversity trainer.  Instead of lessons learned to review and revise her approach or message, her response is to blame the audience or justify her manner or methods.  It is even possible to imagine that the inappropriateness of her approach is meant to provoke responses to serve as evidence of her beliefs about white fragility.

 

DiAngelo should know better from her experience in dealing with her racism, for she knows about mentoring.  Mentors meet with colleagues voluntarily seeking counsel and take into account the particulars of their colleagues; they talk one-to-one basis, with back-and-forth conversation which adjusts to shifts in interest.  Trainers meet with employees to remediate a deficiency, consider their audiences and their backgrounds; they communicate on a one-to-many basis, with a few dialogic exchanges.  Mentors talk with; trainers lecture to or at, as DeAngelo does.  Still, from her mentor’s success with her, she should know that what worked in mentoring can be adapted to work in training.  At least, her approach should be respectful, empathetic, open-ended, and responsive to the particulars.  Otherwise, she should expect efforts to get her audiences to reflect on racism as a personal matter and racist arrangements as a social issue to fail.

 

Notwithstanding her repeated failures, DiAngelo assumes that she can adhere to her script: expecting others to listen to her, not listening to them; using the same approach and repeating the same message, not adapting them to her audience; accusing others of poor responses, excusing herself for poor results; and urging others to meditate on and mend their ways without trying to scrutinize and reform her own.

 

*       *       *

 

In a time of anti-racist crusaders with their academic ideologies and with many whites trying to confront racism in themselves, in others, and in their institutions, the conscientious will seek the help of books and people to help them understand what racism is, how it manifests itself, and how it can be abated.  They should begin by liberating themselves from undeserved guilt.  They should accept that, because racist beliefs are usually acquired in childhood, racists need not apologize for being raised racist.  But they should accept that, because racist beliefs can be unlearned in adulthood, racists need to apologize for remaining racist.  Everyone should accept that residual traces of racism do not define people as racists.  They should recognize as useful guides—rarely academics, sometimes therapists, usually good friends—those who are sensitive to and respectful of their intimate feelings even as talk about race challenges concepts of self-identity and self-esteem.  Anti-racist crusaders need to think and act accordingly, if not with humility, at least without self-righteousness.  A book, lecture, or meeting based on a j’accuse disqualifies author or speaker.  When it comes to talking about race, an early and easy step for whites is to talk less and listen more.  And when it comes to ending racism, they should know that they cannot avoid a person’s race, but they must value the person.

 

Becoming My Kind of Jew

I should not be a Jew.  Born a Jew, tempted to become a Christian, I should be an ethical humanist or a Unitarian/Universalist.  Jews who hate being Jewish often want to be U/U because they want to be neither Jew nor Christian.  It is one thing to hate oneself for being a Jew, quite another to join those who have long hated Jews.

 

But I am a Jew and gratified to be one, though not of the conventional sort.  The three traditional pillars of Judaism—God, Torah, and Israel (the people, not, thank God, the state)—are not mine.  I am an agnostic; have never learned Hebrew, studied Torah, or been Bar Mitzvahed; and, not knowing the language or the rituals, I am ill at ease in a temple and belong to none.  Yet I am a strong believer in Judaism or my version of it.  So this account of my birthright faith, the youthful temptation of Christianity, my mid-life exorcism of it through criticism, and my return to a self-reformulated Judaism is less about personal growth than theological evolution, or the former as a result of the latter.

 

My quip resolves the obvious contradiction between thanking God and declaring myself an agnostic: I do not believe in God, but He believes in me.  I am fine with that asymmetric relationship.  Still, I deprecate His concern for me; He should have more important things to worry about.  As for “He,” I was raised to imagine God as an old, white, male, sort of like me, though He is shown with more hair than I have.  I now understand that “She” is a young, black, woman.  If I could change that ingrained childhood image, I would go with the latter, especially if She has nice dreadlocks.

 

The only outward evidence that I am Jewish is my circumcision.  Though I could, I do not try to pass.  I am fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and blond-haired, or was—probably a throw-back to my German ancestry.  I do not wear a yellow star on my shirt or jacket pocket which says “Jude” and do not meet people or begin conversations by declaring my faith.  If the topic is religion, I declare myself if doing so is appropriate.  Even then, some people have thought that I jested; assured otherwise, they give me that making-it-all-right riff: you-don’t-look-like-a-Jew or you-don’t-act-like-a-Jew.

 

My parents were Jewish; my mother traced her descent through the Cohens back who knows how far.  They contributed money, time, or effort to charities and social service organizations, some Jewish, some not.  As the famous Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s Temple retreated from reform Judaism in response to Hitler and American antisemitism in the 30s and 40s, they joined others in breaking away after the war to found a classical reform temple so purified of Jewish practices that the Sunday school taught no Hebrew and the temple Bar or Bat Mitzvahed no one.  I was confirmed, however—a stamp of a more or less good Jewish upbringing.

 

My early experience of Judaism was a paltry affair.  Sunday school taught me little.  My family attended temple for Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), had a casual Passover Seder with family relatives, and, for the eight nights of Chanukah, lit candles, sang “Rock of Ages,” and gave gifts.  (We also had a Christmas tree, exchanged presents, and threw a big party.)  During my high school years, I wanted to quit the temple, but my mother advised me to wait until I had graduated from college, and I did so.  At the end of my senior year, I met with the rabbi; explained that, as a philosophy major, I had given the matter much thought; and said that I wished to sever my ties to the temple.  He responded by accusing me of wanting to pass—an accusation which I denied and resented.  Although he attended some parties in my parents’ home, I said no more than civility required; he expected nothing more from me, for my parents had told him that he had made an irrevocable mistake by impugning my integrity.  Still, he never apologized.

 

During my college years, on the basis of my major, a comparative religion course, and much outside reading and thinking, I almost self-converted to Christianity.  I wanted something morally superior to the eye-for-an-eye principle of revenge, which I believed to be Jewish.  Then, while writing my master’s thesis at home, I was tempted by a high-school classmate, a twelve-on-a-scale-of-ten, drop-dead, beauty.  Our relationship was poetic, not Platonic; we discussed marriage.  My response to what she told me her Baptist parents expected, namely, that I say that I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, ended it all.  I told her that I did not think of myself as philosophically or religiously Jewish but did think of myself as culturally and socially Jewish, and that I could not say such a thing in making wedding vows.  She pleaded that I would only have to say it, not believe it, but I said that the truth of my views and the falsity of my vows would cause no end of trouble for everyone.  That was that until we met again at our 30th reunion.

 

I must have been in the marrying mood.  A year later, after I had gone into the Army as an officer and a gentleman, my father’s elder first cousin and his wife fixed me up with my father’s younger first cousin’s daughter.  Her mother was Episcopalian, her father Jewish—and there, in the family tree, lurked the serpent.  To work in his intended profession in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, her father had to pass, and her mother helped.  The sad fact is that children of Jewish parents who pass often feel dirty or guilty; unawares, they often become antisemitic.  My fiancĂ©e unhesitatingly agreed that we would raise our children as Jews.  But when it came time for us to join a temple and our children to begin Sunday school, my wife realized her inner antisemitism and passive-aggressively eroded her pre-marital promise.  We struggled; our son accepted Bar Mitzvah, our daughter refused Bat Mitzvah, both children were confirmed.  Soon thereafter, we divorced.

 

*      *      *      *      *

 

This story is the context of the origins of my reaffirmation of Judaism.  No hypocrite, I; when we sent our children to Sunday school, I knew that, knowing little about Judaism, I needed to know more.  I enrolled in introductory classes at a Jewish community center and learned much.  I read books.  Instruction and reading added to my knowledge of Judaism and helped me to draw out and develop knowledge absorbed unconsciously in childhood and adolescence.  (Many Christians absorb Christianity in the same way.)  I thought much, soul-searched, and came to admire Judaism.

 

In the process, I had to unlearn many errors about Judaism which I had absorbed unconsciously from the prevailing Christian culture.  For example, I unlearned that the “eye-for-an-eye” principle, or lex talionis, is, as Christians think, a law of revenge; and learned that it is, as Jews believe, a law of just compensation, something quite different and quite civilized.  I probably have come to know more about Christianity than most Christians know about it.  I certainly have come to know more about Judaism than most Christians know about it or, because of what they are taught about Judaism, think that they know about it. 

 

The difference between what I know and what Christians know about these two religions is Christian privilege.  It allows them to assume the superiority of Christianity, to think little enough about Christianity and less about Judaism, and believe what they have been taught, and remain unaware that they are ill-informed about their faith and misinformed about mine.  When I lead non-competitive, non-judgmental discussions comparing Christianity and Judaism or addressing antisemitism, I work remedially.  Participants appreciate my efforts, claim to have learned much, but do not shake the canards of early Christian instruction.  Here, I am not obliged to religious neutrality or instructional balance, only to honest exposition.  I criticize some common Christian beliefs which Christians seldom question but which I questioned in returning to Judaism.  These criticisms may help Christians to realize that their religion is not self-evidently superior to other religions and not immune to scrutiny and skepticism.  I hope that they encourage a modicum of respect for Judaism from a Jewish perspective.

 

To prevent misperceptions of my stance on Christianity, I must state that, however critical I am of it and some conduct which derives from its doctrines and rituals, I am not “anti.”  Many members of my families—original, extended, and marital—are Christians; I love those who love me, tolerate those tainted by antisemitism.  I admire Christianity for its inspiration of great art: literature, music, paintings, sculptures, and churches.  If I could have any one work of Christian art, it would be El Greco’s “Crucifixion.”  Each time I see it, I am moved, not to belief, but to what I think that a believer feels.  Christianity tells a beguiling story about Jesus’ birth, dubious ones about his life, and a troublesome one about his death.  It is strong on aesthetics, weak on ethics.  Years ago, bookstores carried a book entitled Christian Ethics; a jest in earnest, it is just blank pages! 

 

I do not admire its proselytizing efforts.  When Christian missionaries have visited my home, I politely inform them that I am committed to my faith.  If they persist, I properly tell them that they give offense in presuming that their religion, whatever it is, is better than mine, unknown to them.  If they still persist, I pointedly identify my faith and indicate that their further attempt to proselytize me would be antisemitic.  In fact, any attempt to proselytize Jews—Jews for Jesus is an obscenity—is antisemitic.

 

Christian antisemitism, the most repulsive feature of Christianity, is an anomaly.  No other successor religion repudiates and reviles its predecessor—Islam from Christianity, Buddhism from Hinduism—and relies on loathing it and its followers to support its own faith and followers.  The anomaly is not accidental.  Roots matter.  Judaism traces its origins to Abraham’s second son, Isaac; Islam, to his first son, Ishmael; Christianity, to Abraham only indirectly by long, convoluted, inconsistent genealogies through Judaism.

 

Resentment also matters.  Antisemitism arises early in Christianity and grew as the earliest followers of Jesus realized that most Jews were not following him, but pagans were.  Paul attacked Jewish law; Gospel writers attacked it and Jews; such attacks have continued to this day.  When not censored or sanitized, the history of Christianity and Judaism is one of prejudice, persecution, plunder, pillage, torture, forced conversion, murder, exile, or extermination.  For example, The Oxford History of Christianity (1990) says little about Christian origins in Judaism and nothing about antisemitism later.  A corrective is William Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (1993), a book which bookstores hid in their Judaica sections from Christians.  I find little appeal in a religion the followers of which mistreated, and still mistreat, Jews while preaching that their god is a loving one and enjoins people to love neighbors and enemies alike.

 

*      *      *      *      *

 

Christianity has always offered me as a Jew a medley of mysterious, misinformed, or mistaken positions which it cannot explain, does not correct, and expects to be taken on faith.  Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but I could not leap after I looked.

 

The most basic consideration of all, God, creates a major theological divide between Christianity and Judaism.  Both claim to be monotheistic, but only one is.  Judaism posits one God, indivisible, without distinct or separable constituent components; the Jewish God is a simplex.  Christianity posits one God of three persons: Father, Son (aka Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit—a complex.  Language tells me that simplexes and complexes are not the same.  Explanations of the Trinity are little more than metaphor-mongering and word-spinning.  Most Christians, trained up to this belief, shrug off this mystery and do not worry themselves.  But I believe what is clear, not confused.

 

Close behind as a theological divide is Jesus.  Unlike some Jews, I have no problem with Jesus or Jesus Christ and do not associate his name with Jewish suffering or death.  Indeed, eager to learn more about him, I joined the Jesus Seminar in the mid-90s and did learn more about him.  But I also learned that its academic members knew less about Judaism than they thought.  Paula Fredriksen’s Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews is a better account of Jesus as a Jew, perhaps because Fredriksen was a Catholic before she became a Jew and liberated herself from the influences of her upbringing.

 

Even so, I still do not think that I know who or what the man was or any way to know him, despite—truly, because of—his representations in the Gospels.  The problems of knowing Jesus seem insurmountable.  The Gospels, suspect because of uncertainties of transmission and the influences of parochial doctrine, comprise little reliable evidence.  Their different inclusions, exclusions, inconsistencies, and improbabilities contribute to their unreliability as biography or history.  They fail to provide a consistent, credible account of what Jesus said or did which made him so special, the messiah, even the Son of God.  On the contrary, he was not the kind of messiah whom most Jews had expected: a political, military, and religious leader like David, to whom Matthew and Luke link him by different genealogies.  Neither his work as miracle worker, exorcist, healer, or teacher; nor his words as a prophet of an impending apocalypse were unique.  If a prophet, he was no better than others and not a very good one; he predicted that it and the kingdom of God were soon to come.  But Christians are still waiting for them and making excuses for the delay.  Some even want to use Jews by getting them to gather as a prompt to The Rapture.  Jews no longer look for a messiah, but rather a messianic age; I look for more of the same of what we already have unless we make our own apocalypse by nuclear warfare or climate change.

 

The Gospels present an unreliable account of Jesus’ life and an implausible account of his death in their story of Passion Week.  Although I distrust the Synoptic Gospels, I still use them to imagine Jesus: I see him as a charismatic cult leader with a message aligned with the fashionable apocalypticism of his day.  His success, though limited, led him to take himself a little too seriously.  He came to Jerusalem as he often had and expected to leave it as he often had.  Only this time, he somehow overdid it during a holiday when the city, swollen with an influx of worshippers, was on edge.  Roman occupiers arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified him, as it had dealt with other Jews, including itinerant Jewish prophets, for being inconvenient or troublesome.

 

One episode is so unlikely that I regard it as a pagan come-on: the offering (later, the Eucharist) at the Passover Seder or Last Supper.  When Jesus symbolically represented bread as his body and wine as his blood, he evoked a pagan ritual without precedent in Judaism.  It defies belief that Jesus, a Jew having a Jewish meal with his Jewish apostles, could have even symbolically enacted god-eating, or theophagy, and had their approval.  Yet the idea made sense to Gospel writers pitching their appeals to pagans with a story which made Jesus one of them.  The pagan legacy of this ritual has less than no appeal to Christians today.  A conservative Catholic website banned me for life for noting this point in reply to a commenter who had called all non-Catholic Christian denominations pagan.  Of course, neither cannibalism nor god-eating, literal or symbolic, appeals to me.

 

A historical note: This prejudice against paganism is misplaced, at least in explaining the spread and success of Christianity.  The Synoptic Gospels promoted Christianity by rendering Jesus as a demigod joining the godhead.  A structural parallel between the lives of Jesus and Dionysius, who was popular in the eastern Mediterranean area, not least in Tarsus, a center of his cult and Paul’s birthplace, is clear.  Dionysius’s parents were the highest god Zeus and woman Semele; Dionysius lived a life which got him into trouble with authorities; was tried, convicted, executed, and resurrected to the pantheon of gods; there, served as an intermediary to his followers on earth.  Moreover, despite a shared belief in resurrection, incorporation into or junction with the godhead was a pagan, not a Jewish, idea.  Intriguing is the omission of the birth story from Mark but its occurrence in Matthew and Luke, as if their invention meant to complete the structural parallel.  The result is that the structural similarities of Dionysius’s and Jesus’ life stories promoted the success of Christianity.  They made Jesus a familiar, accessible, acceptable figure to pagans.  Although the doctrine of the Trinity came later, its components in the Christian godhead existed from the beginning; this complex served two audiences: one God for Jews; three gods for pagans.  Christianity may be an ethical backsliding in its abandonment of the law, but its emphasis on love for others was a distinct contribution to paganism, which lacked any such virtue, and to civilization.

 

The story of Passion Week is equally offensive in blaming Jews for killing Jesus.  Whatever role, if any, a few Jews may have played in his crucifixion, the great majority of Jews then had, and all Jews since have had, nothing to do with his death.  Christians have abused an entire group for the possible involvement of a few individuals—excessive revenge which the Jewish principle of lex talionis, or just compensation, repudiates.  Any claim today that the Jews killed Christ is vindictive antisemitism armed for murder.

 

Jesus’ crucifixion marks another divide between Christianity and Judaism, one on a person’s accountability for conduct.  Christianity posits that Jesus sacrificed himself in an act of universal atonement for each person’s sins.  This belief implies that everyone is born a sinner, lives a life of sin, and may be absolved of sin only by God’s grace.  My objections to this core Christian belief are theological, practical, and moral.  To the idea that sin is a condition of being, not a contingency of conduct, thus accountable for being a sinner without having done anything sinful.  To the idea that a person cannot hold himself responsible for his conduct and, if he sins, cannot redeem himself by making amends or accepting punishment.  To the concept of vicarious atonement, by which someone makes sacrifices to redeem another.  To the notion of salvation, conditioned but not certained, by a belief, necessary but not sufficient, in Jesus as savior.  Salvation on these terms diminishes the first and second persons of the Trinity.  God and the Son of God require a person’s love and belief, yet may not return his love and save him even if that person fulfills His need.  Truly loving persons do not bargain for love.

 

Historically, this Christian belief has been a dangerous, even a deadly, one to Jews.  Christians make it dangerous by presuming that they have the right to judge others according to the Christian idea of sin and to punish Jews as sinners.  Either to punish or to save Jews from what Christians view as their incorrigibly unrepentant, sinful souls, they make it deadly by hounding Jews to death’s doorstep and across the threshold.

 

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My major objection to Christianity, however, is not its antisemitism but its rejection of Jewish law, one prompt to antisemitism.  It begins with Jesus, who reportedly said, “Think not that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil....one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt 5:17-18).  In all other places, he debates, defies, or undermines it.  His injunctions—“resist not evil” (Matt 5:39), “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1), and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17)—contradict the core Jewish obligation to live righteously, which requires judging what is evil and opposing it.  They relieve Christians of social responsibility; they substitute charity of effects, for reform of causes.  Christianity made peace with the state; Judaism never has—which explains why Jews are over-represented in reform movements, like civil rights in matters of race, gender, and religion.

 

Jesus reduces the law to two paramount commandments.  When asked, “which is the great commandment in the law,” Jesus answers, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:36-40; also Mark 12:28-31 and Luke 10:27).  His first commandment quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 but substitutes “mind” for “might.”  His second is the Golden Rule, which, far from being distinctively Christian, is nearly universal.  The earliest Jewish and the Christian version of the Golden Rule in its positive form justifies intervention for better or worse in others’ lives.  For better, it justifies helping others in distress: hungry, sick, injured, infirm, ill-clothed, homeless, and the like.  For worse, it justifies hindering others in their life choices: contraception, abortion, marriage, alcohol, drugs, smoking, music, clothing, and hairstyles, etc.  I prefer the later Jewish version articulated by Rabbi Hillel (d. 10 C.E.), an aged contemporary of Jesus, do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you, for three reasons: it respects others, rules out infringements of their freedom, and rejects coercion.  Yet this version implies empathy for others which obliges assistance to people in distress.

 

The rejection of Jewish law is prominent in Paul, whose account of law is an allegory of two figures: the law, which defines a sin, and Sin, which causes one to violate the law.

 

Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.  But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.  For without the law sin was dead.  For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.  (Romans, 7:7-9)

 

Paul means that knowing a law against a sin empowers Sin to make a person commit that sin and that, without that law, Sin would lack the means of empowerment.  That is, you would not speed if there were no speed limit, but you would if there were.  Or, as Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “for we were little Christian children and early learned the value of forbidden fruit.”  Yet, even if Paul’s argument were plausible for the two commandments on coveting, it would be variably implausible for killing, adultery, stealing, and false witness.  People may be tempted to commit these acts, but knowing the laws against them is rarely a temptation to commit them.

 

Yet, with respect to Jewish law, Christianity is inconsistent.  Many Christians claim to reject it, notably the codification of 613 laws widely accepted by Jews, and to replace it with love, but they respect the Ten Commandments.  However, Paul’s argument rejects all Jewish law, possibly excepting the first four commandments, which constitute a loose construction of Jesus’ commandment to love God.

 

  What Christianity lacks, Judaism has.  Admittedly, some of its laws are outdated, unexceptional, or repetitious; others remain applicable or adaptable to circumstances and conditions today.  Yet, without having read them, lay Christians dismiss them as too numerous or too onerous.  Having read them, Pope Frances declared them “dead” if they do not lead to Christ.  His position, which disregards Vatican II pieties, is evidence that most Christians are religiously incapable of respecting Jewish law, Judaism, and Jews.  Although traditional Christianity gives Christians many reasons for hating Jews, the root of this evil is Judaism itself, with its core demand to live righteously by God’s law.

 

The reason for such traditional Christian responses to Jewish law arises in the earliest Christian writings.  Paul opposes law (bad) versus love (good).  The Gospels denigrate Jewish law not only by stories of the Pharisees’ sinister efforts to trap Jesus in violations of law, but also by their Passion Week accounts of Jesus’ trial, a legal setting.  Implied in their dubious accounts is that his trial under Jewish law led to Jesus’ crucifixion.  Thus, the foundations of antisemitism and the canard about Jews as Christ-killers, respectively, Jewish law and Jesus’ post-trial crucifixion, are integral to the most important doctrinal and narrative books of the New Testament.  By virtue of denominational doctrine, early religious education, or church services, most Christians are unavoidably more or less antisemitic.  The British witticism on antisemitism is almost apt here: antisemitism is hating Jews more than is necessary.

 

Christian repudiation of Jewish law is one thing; discomfort at or downright hatred of Jews for their continuing allegiance to their God and their law, and their refusal to follow Jesus is another.  This insecurity implies that Christians find their faith in a resurrected Jesus, his intercessionary assistance in life, and his promise of immortality after this life, all without reference to Judaism and Jews, insufficient.  It makes Christians addicted to Judaism.  They believe that rejecting Judaism or reviling Jews—or worse—props up them or their faith—despite the irony of disobeying Jesus’ instruction to love one’s enemies.  If they cannot take comfort in their faith, they cannot expect others to seek it there.

 

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My return to Judaism I attribute to Jewish law, not the 613 laws, but the idea of law.  Judaism was the first of two—Islam is the second—of the world’s major religions to make law essential to it.  Judaism promotes the paramount idea of law, and advocates for fair or just laws as an imperative means to make civilization possible, a civilizing influence in society, and, by their internalization, a self-discipline for the moral character of civilized people.  The opposite of Judaism is pagan religion, with its lack of a code of conduct.

 

One attractive aspect of the law is its independence from the vagaries of human passions and impulses.  Jesus’ injunction “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44) may be a vain one if one does not.  Then one often treats the enemy badly, even hatefully.  (Jesus introduces this injunction with a lie: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” [Matt 5:43; no text supports the second phrase].)  Decades ago, the media showed the faces of Baptists in Little Rock and Catholics in South Boston filled with anger at and hatred of blacks integrating their schools.  Recently, the media showed alt-right marchers protesting the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville and promoting a white Christian ideology of racial and religious bigotry.  By contrast, Jews do not have to love their enemies; they have only—not to minimize this challenge—to treat them respectfully and equally under the law.  I like the law and the laws because they are of the head and define duties which a body can perform.

 

Another attractive aspect of the law is its reasonableness in all senses of the word.  Jews are known as “The People of the Book,” which traditionally meant The Holy Scriptures (not its Christian translation The Old Testament, which loses much, gains much, like rendering “maiden” as “virgin”).  Over centuries of changing circumstances, the “book” has become a metaphor for education generally.  Jewish parents once rejoiced to have a son who was a Torah scholar; today, not so much, but something else.  To wit, a Jewish definition of the beginning of life is the day when a child graduates from law or medical school.  The tradition of the “book” continues in typically Jewish respect for learning and argument.  I value both.

 

One exclusively Jewish story brings law and learning together.  With the Archangel Michael at his right hand, God and the most learned rabbi of the day are debating the meaning of a Torah law.  Back and forth it goes.  Finally, God delivers His last and best argument.  The rabbi ponders it and then replies.  He demolishes God’s argument and asserts his last and best.  God concedes defeat, turns to Michael, and, beaming with pride, says, “That’s my boy!”  No such story exists in all of Christian literature or lore; only Jews can have such a story.  Why?  Christians cannot argue with God because they have no contract with God.  Jews can and do because their contract with Him gives them, though junior parties, standing to debate its terms.  Accordingly, unlike Christians, who kneel when they pray, Jews never kneel but stand to pray.

 

In conclusion, I became my kind of Jew for two principal reasons typical of Judaism: ethics and education.  I can think of no better religious practice than living and striving to live according to standards of righteousness and rationality, with due regard for facts, logic, and judgment seasoned by experience, reflection, and empathy.