Red, White, Black, and Blue: Toward a More Truthful National Narrative

Honolulu Pride 2013. (Honolulu, HI, 01 June 2013)

A fabulous sense of joy came out at Pride celebrations across the nation last week, following SCOTUS’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that individual states can’t legally deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said the right to marry was a fundamental one, part of the very fabric of individual liberty. “Under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment,” he reasoned, “couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.

It was a shining moment in the ongoing battle for LGBTQ equality.

Yet, I can’t help but think how the ruling has everything to do with America’s legacy of racism.

After all, the 14th Amendment was hardly the lofty product of a nation seeking to define itself as a shining example to the world. The 14th wasn’t around in 1776. It wasn’t there in 1789, as part of the original Bill of Rights.

Instead, the 14th Amendment—the notion that the states owe Due Process and Equal Protection to all of their citizens—was the product of the Civil War. It was the product of a nation eating itself alive over questions of race. That’s why it comes right after the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of slavery. The 14th is a constitutional backstop—an attempt to ensure the Confederate states could not reenact slavery through other means.

Which makes it all the more poignant that the win for LGBTQ activists in Obergefell came the same week that a hate-fueled white gunman killed nine African American worshipers at an AME bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

The same week that at least three black churches were torched in what appears to be a wave of racist attacks.

The same week that racist groups across the South rallied to the Confederate flag as a symbol of “white pride.”

In Columbia, South Carolina, Bree Newsome had enough. She scaled the Statehouse flagpole and removed the Confederate flag, that “symbol of white supremacy that inspired the [Charleston] massacre.” State leaders and police responded by arresting Newsome and restoring the flag—just in time for a Statehouse rally by a white supremacist group.

As we saw the circle of protections offered by the 14th Amendment enlarged in a beautiful and meaningful way through Obergefell, we also gained a series of potent reminders that laws are hardly the only thing that count.

What do “Due Process” and “Equal Protection” even mean in a context where there is almost zero legal recourse for the police slayings of unarmed black men and women? Zero recourse for the disproportionate rates at which black and brown people are arrested and convicted? Zero recourse for the fact that they are far more likely than whites to be brutalized or neglected by police or prison workers?

What could they mean in a context where white Americans dismiss the slayings of nine black worshipers as the work of an insane man, rather than a racist one?

What could they possibly mean in the context of a nation where courthouses and statehouses and public schools persist in flying the Confederate flag, that oh-so-galvanizing symbol of “white pride” and black death?

Those famous 14th Amendment guarantees mean something…but not enough. Not even nearly. We can do a certain amount through legislation and litigation. In the long term, however, there can be no justice in a nation where divisiveness and hate are allowed to flourish.

Driving toward an historic victory for equality in the courts begins to look like child’s play compared to the task of changing cultures of hate.

Particularly when we’re not even willing to admit they exist.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

That’s the maddening part: the incredible mental gyrations that white Americans go through to on a daily basis to disavow the racist implications of…pretty much anything.

An overtly, avowedly racist white man slaughters nine black people in their own house of worship? White Americans talk about how this is the result of mental illness, not racism—and certainly not terrorism.

Police officers gun down yet another, young, unarmed black person, virtually without warning? White Americans latch on to a trumped-up claim of shoplifting to dismiss the racist implications.

The Confederate flag continues to be flown at government buildings across the South as it has since slaveholding times—continues to be flown even as we mourn those slain at Charleston, like a swastika flown at Nuremberg? And still so many white Americans insist they don’t see the problem; they insist the Confederate flag is about southern heritage, not racism—even as groups like the Ku Klux Klan plan rallies in its honor.

All this gives new meaning to the term “crazy making.” How do black Americans survive it? How they can live among so many white people so resolutely not seeing the forces that push so hard against their communities and their lives?

And given how hard it is for white America even to see racism, how can we begin to repair its divides?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Peter Beinart asked why “the American media [has] been so obsessed with his capacity for forgiveness?” Instead, Beinart suggested, we would do well to remember Mandela’s “insistence on truth first.”

Insisting on truth first is important. As Americans we just love stories of quick redemption. We drink in sitcom after sitcom, where a single hug cures decades of family tension. We drink our coffee in mugs with slogans like “Forgiveness isn’t something we do for other people; it’s something we do for ourselves.” Yet in all this rush to the nice and satisfying end, we forget the hard path that leads to true forgiveness, to meaningful reconciliation.

In South Africa, even the saintly Desmond Tutu did not expect black South Africans to forgive without first getting something meaningful from the perpetrators of Apartheid. Instead of blanket forgiveness, on the one hand, or violent retribution on the other, he said, “Our country chose a middle way of individual amnesty for truth.”

Truth is the prerequisite to healing.

I fear in America the truth has fractured. That truth has become whatever story each of us needs to feel we are always in the right. Truth has become whatever story we need to feel we never have to make changes or make sacrifices.

That’s not truth. That’s delusion.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Getting our kicks on Route 66. (Eureka, MO, 04 July 2012)

So here we are, right up against the Fourth of July. I am a lover of the Fourth. I love it all. I love the cookouts and cold slabs of watermelon. I love the sparklers. I love the fireworks. I love those miniature American flags. I always have.

This Independence Day, however, I’m worried for my nation. Mandela and Tutu are right: for there to be reconciliation—for us to move forward as a nation, given our deep history of racial injustice—there has to be some actual truth-telling first. It means letting go of some cherished self-concepts and beginning to admit that maybe, just maybe, there are cracks and fissures in our perfect sense of the world.

So this Fourth, I will celebrate the wonderful things this nation represents. And I’ll be praying that instead of reasserting myths and delusions, we might begin the hard process of facing our national truths.


Oppression is a Narrow Space

Heliconia standleyi (Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Papaikou, HI)


Just before the start of Passover I called David*, a friend who has been hosting beautiful, magnificent Seders for his friends since he was a teen.

“Tell me something you’ll be bringing up tonight?”

“Well…there’s the frog,” he said. “Do you know about the frog?”

“Sure, I know about the frogs! Second plague!”

“Not frogs-sss,” he said, drawing out the sss. “In the text it’s actually frog-gh. Singular. One frog that descended on Egypt. At least, that’s what Rabbi Akiva thought.”

“One frog?” “One really big frog.”

“Whoa.” I said. “They could be doing a much better job with that in the movies.”

  * * * * *

Judaism is not my tradition, but Passover has never failed to inspire me—thanks in no small part to people like David, who understand the Exodus story as a call to fight inequality and oppression in every place and every era.

“Ok,” I said, “I dig the One Big Frog idea. Now tell me something I can really meditate on? It’s been a tough stretch since my father’s death. I could use some inspiration.”

“How about this: do you know the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt?”

Of course I didn’t. What I do know is that the Hebrew language is based on a relatively small number of roots that take on different shades of meanings as they emerge in various words. By understanding the roots you can see intricate relationships among words and concepts that may not be evident at first.

“Egypt is Mitzraim,” he explained. “Strip it down, and you’ve got tzarar, which means “to bind.” As a noun, it becomes something like “affliction.” As an adjective, it means “narrow.”

So the word for Egypt, Mitzraim, conveys this sense that oppression is a narrow space. Liberation, in other words, is like moving from a narrow space into an open one.”

“It’s like the process of birth.” I suggested.

“You could go there,” David replied.

“Of course I’m going there. I’m five months pregnant.”

 * * * * *

Oppression is a narrow space.

I’ve been meditating on that idea all week, even as the drama over Indiana’s Restoration of Religious Freedoms Act (RFRA) peaked, ending in hasty amendments whose implications are unclear.

As originally proposed, the law would have let Indiana businesses and corporations use religious freedom as a defense against claims of illegal discrimination. Of course, existing State and Federal law would prevent businesses from refusing to serve or hire African Americans or Jews or women “on religious grounds.” But LGBTQ individuals have no similar protections—not in Indiana at least—and, in my opinion, it seems obvious who the bill was targeting. The law would have passed in that form, had it not been for a fierce national boycott action that even threatened Indiana’s ties to the NCAA.

As the debate raged, what surprised me most was how much attention there was to wedding cakes. The “wedding cake effect” owes in part to a couple of recent, high-profile lawsuits against bakeries that refused to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples. (Maybe after the big gains on same-sex marriage, straight America imagines the only challenge left to LGBTQ folk is how to throw the reception?) But even among critics of the law, the wedding cake scenario often seemed to define the issue.

And seriously: if the big issue were really “freedom of conscience for small business owners” versus the “right to your choice of wedding cake”, the Indiana law might start to look reasonable.

What we’re seeing is the legacy of the closet. Until very recently, LGBTQ people have not been free to speak openly about their lives, and many still put themselves at risk if they do. Because if you actually know this community’s stories, you know that wedding cakes are the least of it. You know how often LGBTQ individuals are shut out of housing by bigoted landlords…refused spots for their kids in day care…asked alarming questions in job interviews…refused employment for inscrutable reasons…relentlessly harassed on the job…denied medical services…treated in degrading ways by medical professionals…

That’s just to name forms of discrimination and degradation that the proposed law would have directly protected.

Even with the bakeries, there’s so much more at stake than wedding cake. When groups of people can legally be excluded from routine business and commerce, they inevitably appear to be less than full citizens.

What of the fact that gay men and lesbians aren’t always “obvious”? Under the law that almost passed, there’s be a subtle pressure to self-identify at every turn, just to ensure that your contracts and working relationships would be honored. (“Your Honor, I had no idea this woman was a lesbian at the time she ordered the cake. She looked so…natural!”) The sense of branding and intrusion could be pervasive.

The debate around RFRA rightfully focused on issues of law. How could the law have been drafted more fairly? What’s the right balance of rights? In the end, the only real question is whether or not we make our nation a more narrow space.

None of these kinds of discrimination I’ve been talking about ever widens the space of religious freedoms. All they do is narrow the space of dignity and equality for LGBTQ people.

  * * * * *

A follow-up call to David revealed that this year’s Seder was, as usual, a smashing success.

The One Big Frog story drew a lot of laughter and Godzilla jokes.

There were vows to continue the struggle to ensure that #Blacklivesmatter.

There were tears of sadness for the students killed in Nigeria.

And there were tears of joy over David’s recent marriage to the man he’s loved for many years. It was, I hear, a shining Passover moment.

Meanwhile, I was home on base. Last Sunday, I celebrated Easter and felt my own spirit renewed. I wait eagerly for our next child to make the passage from a very constricted space to the wide-open promise of becoming exactly who this child is meant to be.

I enter this spring hoping fervently that all of us—gay or straight, believer or nonbeliever—come to realize that we are not diminished by the presence of others. We are only diminished by the narrowness of our hearts and the narrowness of the spaces we create.

There’s no way to flee Mitzraim anymore. No more Promised Lands left to occupy. There are only the places we live and love, and we are the ones who decide how narrow or wide open they will be.

Akaka Falls (Honomu, HI)