Tag Archives: race

Why You Should Care about Felon Voting Rights

Something important happened in Virginia this week: Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to Virginia felons who have served their time and completed the subsequent probations. In the age of mass incarceration, that’s a lot of people: more than 200,000 in Virginia alone. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million people have lost their voting rights because of felony convictions. That’s bigger than the winning margin in every recent presidential election other than 2008.

But the question that probably leaps to mind is: Why would changing that be a good thing? The class of felons includes a lot of bad people, so why do we want more bad people picking our leaders? But felon voting rights are important for both micro and macro reasons.

The individual ex-con. The micro-level reason is that we want an ex-con to have a path back into normal life. (John Oliver did a great segment on this a few months ago. The ex-con’s difficulty re-entering society also made it into pop culture through the recent hit movie Ant-Man.) The old-fashioned notion was that by the time a prisoner got released, he had “paid his debt to society” and everything was square now. But in reality, many ex-cons can only hope for a second-class citizenship, which permanent disenfranchisement symbolizes. And if you can never hope for a normal life, returning to crime becomes more tempting.

Decades ago, you might start over by taking the Jean Valjean approach: Move far away and keep quiet about your criminal history. But in this era of universal databases, the relentless Inspector Javert has been automated: Your past is bound to catch up with you.

Large-scale voter suppression. The macro-level reason is that our criminal justice system is biased, so disenfranchising felons is a way to diminish the voting power of blacks, the poor, and other over-policed segments of society.

The racial difference might be defended if it were solely the result of blacks committing more crimes than whites, but that’s far from the whole story. An ACLU report says:

[R]acial disparities result from disparate treatment of Blacks at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, arrests, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing. Race matters at all phases and aspects of the criminal process, including the quality of representation, the charging phase, and the availability of plea agreements, each of which impact whether juvenile and adult defendants face a potential [life without parole] sentence. In addition, racial disparities in sentencing can result from theoretically “race neutral” sentencing policies that have significant disparate racial effects, particularly in the cases of habitual offender laws and many drug policies, including mandatory minimums, school zone drug enhancements, and federal policies adopted by Congress in 1986 and 1996 that at the time established a 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Racial disparities in sentencing also result in part from prosecutors’ decisions at the initial charging stage, suggesting that racial bias affects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion with respect to certain crimes. One study found that Black defendants face significantly more severe charges than whites, even after controlling for characteristics of the offense, criminal history, defense counsel type, age and education of the offender, and crime rates and economic characteristics of the jurisdiction.

Governor McAuliffe invoked the racial issue by comparing felon disenfranchisement to the poll tax, but I think a better comparison is to another Jim Crow relic: literacy tests. The literacy test had a similarly virtuous rationale: Do you want illiterate people picking our leaders? But it was applied in biased ways, and combined with other systemic discrimination (i.e., separate-and-unequal school systems) to keep blacks from voting.

Partisan politics. As so often happens these days, what ought to be a simple good-government argument has gotten swamped by partisan power politics. Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so Republicans are against anything that enfranchises more of them. (This has the cycle-completing effect of motivating more blacks to vote Democratic.) And so, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steven Beshear issued a similar order as he was leaving office, but the incoming Republican Governor Matt Bevin rescinded it before it could take effect. Felon disenfranchisement effects about 1 in 19 Kentuckians, but 1 in 6 blacks.

As Mike Dukakis learned when he became the Willie Horton candidate in 1988, felons (especially black ones) make for bad political optics. And that puts governors on the horns of a dilemma: Like Gov. Besmear, they can wait until they’re leaving office to restore voting rights, when critics can claim that they didn’t dare do it until they were slinking out the door. Or, like Gov. McAuliffe, they can restore rights earlier in their terms, and face the criticism that they are trying to remake their own electorate.

Optics or partisanship aside, though, it’s the right thing to do. We’ll have a hard time tackling the racial biases in our justice system as long as they continue to give one side an advantage on election day.

My Racial Blind Spots

What if I had to answer that debate question?


“What racial blind spots do you have?” CNN’s Don Lemon asked Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Their answers weren’t all that impressive, and I suppose I shouldn’t have expected them to be. After all, the question resembles the standard “What is your biggest weakness?” challenge that job interviewers have been throwing at applicants forever, usually with disappointing results.

Probably nobody’s answer to Lemon’s question would be 100% accurate, because your biggest blind spots are always the ones you aren’t aware of, what Donald Rumsfeld used to call the “unknown unknowns“. If you can describe a blind spot, you’ve already taken a step towards filling it in.

So while it would be easy to stand in judgment over Bernie and Hillary’s answers, the more interesting question is: How would I answer Don Lemon? What are my racial blind spots?

Blind spots come mainly from the holes in a person’s experience, and I certainly have some. As a white person, I have been in the racial majority almost everywhere I’ve gone. I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, went to mostly white schools, and earned my living in mostly white workplaces. In stores I (mostly) stand in line with other whites. If I find myself sitting next to a stranger at a bar, it’s usually another white. On TV dramas, I mostly watch white people deal with the problems of other white people. And on TV news shows — Don Lemon notwithstanding — I mostly watch whites interview other whites.

Being white may not be mandatory in my world, but it is normal.

I understand that not every white person’s experience is that limited. You might have been the one white guy on your high school basketball team, or the lone white waitress at a Mexican restaurant, or something like that. But I never was.

And that (lack of) experience gave me this blind spot: Thinking about race seems optional to me.

It’s not that I don’t think about race, or about the ways that non-whites’ lives are different from mine. Those sorts of issues come up all the time on this blog. I’ve written about how the Obamas’ experience in the White House has been different than other First Families. I’ve researched the racial history that my formal education swept under the rug. I wrote about Trayvon Martin and Ferguson. I’ve explained what dog whistles are, and how to notice them.

But I think about that stuff when I choose to. I have, for example, read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And while I was reading, I thought a lot about growing up black in the Jim Crow South. But as soon as I put that book down, Angelou’s reality vanished for me as completely as Westeros does when a Game of Thrones episode ends.

And so, I have a hard time grasping that thinking about race isn’t optional for American blacks. To be black in America is to be constantly aware that many of the people around you are white, and that they might at any moment start reacting strangely to your blackness.

I just finished reading Democracy in Black by Eddie Glaude Jr. Mostly it’s a book about politics written by a Princeton professor. But a few personal stories sneak in. At one point in his childhood, Glaude’s family moved from the black part of their small Mississippi town to the “good” part, a section occupied by whites and a few upwardly mobile black families. On his first day in the new neighborhood, Glaude and another boy were playing in the dirt with their toy trucks, until the boy’s father came out and yelled at his son: “Get over here. Stop playing with that nigger.”

Another story concerned Glaude’s son Langston, who he sent to Brown. Langston’s urban studies class was assigned to visit a rich Providence neighborhood and make various observations. But in a wealthy neighborhood, a young black man sitting on a park bench with a notebook draws police attention, and being an Ivy League student or the son of an Ivy League professor is no excuse. With a hand on a weapon, a policeman intimidated Langston until he voluntarily left.

You can listen to stories like that (which nearly all blacks seem to have) and think: “Those are just isolated incidents. I’ll bet that doesn’t happen very often.” But how often would it have to happen before you came to the conclusion that you had to be on your guard all the time?

Blacks can never “check out” of race. They can’t say, “Today I’m just going to be a human being and forget about being black.”

But I can forget about race whenever I want, and so sometimes it seems strange to me that they don’t. “I don’t see race,” a lot of whites say, and I know what they mean: Of course I notice that the new guy at work is black, but it’s not a thing. I’m not going to go all In the Heat of the Night on him and act like black people shouldn’t have these sorts of jobs. I’m not going to harass him or insult him or treat him badly in any conscious way. If somebody makes it a thing, it’s not going to be me.

Because that’s how my blind spot tempts me to think about race: It’s optional. I can choose not to think about being white and he can choose not to think about being black, and then there won’t be any race problem.

But the new guy can’t just stop thinking about being black, any more than I could stop thinking about being white if somebody dropped me into the middle of Africa. What’s more, he shouldn’t, for the sake of his own safety. What if, when the policeman put his hand on his gun, Langston Gaude hadn’t thought about being black, and instead had thought about being an American citizen in a place where he had every right to be? Might he not have become the next Eric Garner or John Crawford?

That’s what “the talk” is about: Making sure that when the police show up, your black son will never forget that he’s black.

If you’re black in America, you never know when your blackness is going to become an issue. And if it is becoming an issue, you’d better not be slow to catch on, because you’ll need to implement some strategy — challenge, retreat, deflect, avoid — before things get out of hand.

Of course, race wouldn’t seem optional to me if I didn’t also have a second blind spot: a belief that unconscious racism doesn’t count. If I’m not trying to be a racist, well, that should be good enough. So of course it would be wrong for me to say (or even to think) “I don’t want to hire that guy because he’s black.” But if I just have a bad feeling about him, while one of his white competitors impresses me for no quantifiable reason — what’s wrong with that? Don’t I have a right to have hunches about people?

Sure I do. But before I act on those hunches, I ought to take into account the ways my thinking and feeling have been shaped by the cultural stereotypes built up over centuries. Even today, being black in America is like playing golf on a course that is more sandtrap than fairway. Getting to the green isn’t impossible, but just about anything blacks do exposes them to negative judgment, because there’s a very narrow path between lazy and pushy, between too sloppy and too flashy, between looking stupid and being a know-it-all, between refusing to stand up for yourself and being scary. That cellphone he’s taking out of his pocket looks like a gun because … well, it just does. And when Barack Obama acts like he’s President of the United States, it looks uppity. Who does he think he is?

We may not call people niggers any more, but the stereotypes that were designed to keep niggers in their place are still with us.

But if unconscious racism is something I have to take into account, then I have to think about race all the time. And that’s another thing to project onto blacks and resent: Why do they make everything about race? Why can’t we just be people together?

There’s an answer to that, but I hate to hear it: One big reason we can’t just be people together is that I don’t know how. I know how to pretend that I’m doing it. I know how to act as if I didn’t notice race. I know enough not to use certain words or tell certain kinds of jokes. I think I know how to get past my unconscious racism with individual people, eventually, once I get to know them. (But whether that’s true or not, you’d have to ask them.)

But I don’t know how to be people together with everyone, regardless of race. All I know is how not to notice when I’m failing. I can just take all that evidence and shove it into a blind spot.

Back to Ferguson

If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?


In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, the eyes of the country were on Ferguson, a city of 21,000 that is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Through the subsequent fall and winter, I discussed Ferguson several times on this blog, including “What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get about Ferguson” about the protests, and “Justice in Ferguson“, which covered the two reports the Justice Department issued last March.

The gist of what the Justice Department found was that in the specific case of Michael Brown, the evidence matched the account of the shooter, a white police officer, well enough that no charges were called for. (I felt good about my coverage here: I hadn’t claimed the officer was guilty of murder, but only that local authorities hadn’t performed a fair and credible investigation. The Justice Department’s investigation satisfied me.)

But Justice Department found that the more general complaints of Ferguson’s black community were justified: Policing in general was racially biased, and excessive force was commonly used, including inappropriate use of tasers and dogs. Complaints of excessive force were largely ignored, and officers were not disciplined. (As the Justice Department’s lawsuit — which we’ll get to in a few paragraphs — charges: “The supervisory review typically starts and ends with the presumption that the officer’s version of events is truthful and that the force was reasonable.”)

The Department’s report found that the root of the problem was even bigger than the police: Ferguson used its municipal court system to wring revenue out of the poor, creating an adversarial relationship between the police and the community. In short, the primary mission of the police was not to maintain order, but to find violations for which people could be fined. The city budget called for and depended on regular increases in revenue from fines.

Last month, Ferguson and the Justice Department worked out an agreement to reform Ferguson’s police and court practices without taking a lawsuit through the courts. But Tuesday, Ferguson’s City Council unanimously “approved” that agreement with seven unilateral amendments.

Those seven conditions on acceptance are that (i) the agreement contain no mandate for the payment of additional salary to police department or other city employees; (ii) the agreement contain no mandate for staffing in the Ferguson Jail; (iii) deadlines set forth in the agreement are extended; and (iv) the terms of the agreement shall not apply to other governmental entities or agencies who, in the future, take over services or operations currently being provided by the City of Ferguson; (v) a provision for local preference in contracting with consultants, contractors and third parties providing services under the agreement shall be included; (vi) project goals for minority and women participation in consulting, oversight and third party services shall be included; and (vii) the monitoring fee caps in the Side Agreement are changed to $1 million over the first five years with no more than $250,000 in any single year.

The arguments for these changes amount to: We can’t afford it. Ferguson can’t afford to raise police pay to attract better officers, particularly if the other reforms are going to reduce the city’s revenue. It can’t afford to monitor compliance with the agreement. It can’t afford to change as quickly as the Justice Department would like (and maybe stalling will allow it to strike a better deal with a Trump or Cruz administration). Revision (iv) gives the city an additional card to play: It could nullify the agreement by disbanding its police department and contracting out to some neighboring town or to St. Louis County. (Other nearby towns — a report by Arch City Defenders named Bel Ridge and Florissant in addition to Ferguson — also misuse their municipal court systems, and probably don’t like the precedent the Justice Department is setting in Ferguson. )

The Justice Department responded the next day by filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit does not ask for specific remedies, but that the Court “Order the Defendant, its officers, agents, and employees to adopt and implement policies, procedures, and mechanisms that identify, correct, and prevent the unlawful conduct”. Presumably, the government has a court order in mind and thinks it has a good chance of getting it.

It’s possible to tell this story in a way that creates sympathy for Ferguson’s officials: Even if they now have the best of intentions, their budget is already in deficit, and that deficit will only get worse if the police and courts stop shaking down poor blacks for money. And if change also requires additional expenditure … well, where is that money going to come from?

On an abstract level, Ferguson raises issues similar to the ones in Flint: Once we segregate poor people into their own city or town, how does that municipality raise enough money to provide the basic services civilization demands? Where does the money come from to pump in clean water and truck out garbage? How are roads paved and buses run, so that people can get to their jobs? Who puts out fires? Who drives the ambulances and where do they take people for care? Who educates children and protects the innocent from crime?

If no external help is available, the answer is often to victimize the poor and voiceless. If somebody has to suffer, why not somebody the larger public doesn’t care about?

But we need to recognize where this financial-necessity logic leads: If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?

The Justice Department may have no practical answer to the question of how Ferguson can afford to start policing its citizens fairly, with due regard to their rights as Americans. But nonetheless it must insist that the buck not stop there. If a Ferguson that respects the rights of its citizens is not financially viable and is doomed to bankruptcy, then the county and the state and even the nation have a problem. In truth, that problem already exists. The question is whether the rest of us will be allowed to hide it inside the borders of Ferguson and then look away.

Themes of 2015: Black Lives Matter

The third theme running through 2015’s Sifts has been Black Lives Matter. All year in the weekly summaries, I called attention to whatever the latest case was of unwarranted police violence caught on tape, from Walter Scott to Laquan McDonald.

In March, the Justice Department ripped the veil off the predatory police-and-municipal-court system in Ferguson, and the racist policing that enforced it.

[T]he City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The counter-attack from the Right was that BLM is anti-police, or even promotes violence against police. I tried to answer that in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“. (The choice was between the bad racist policing so many black communities see now, and no policing at all.) I drew the implicit conclusion from Lowry’s BLM-slandering article:

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

A second objection came from people who claimed to sympathize with BLM’s issues, but found BLM tactics unnecessarily rude, as when two young black women shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in August. In “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“, I raised the question “What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?” and quoted an activist:

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In “Protesting in Your Dreams” I called out Ben Carson, and all the other people who somehow blame BLM for the non-existence of the protest movement they’d prefer to see, but who don’t lift a finger to start that “better” movement.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

And finally, in “Samaritan Lives Matter“, I answered the “all lives matter” point, using a frame that Christian social conservatives should be able to understand.

The point, I believe, of making the third man [in the Good Samaritan parable] a Samaritan rather than a generic human, is precisely that saying “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract feel-good idea a Judean could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

The same thing is going on with “Black Lives Matter”. It isn’t meant to say “Black lives matter more than white lives” any more than Jesus was trying to say that Samaritans are better than Judeans. The point of saying “Black lives matter” is that it sticks in the throat of a lot of white Americans. By contrast, “Lives matter” and “All lives matter” are nice, feel-good abstractions. When we say them, we can think about generic people — who we probably picture as white.

How Republicans Trumped Themselves

You can’t complain just because somebody demagogues better than you do.


This week the airwaves were full of Republicans wringing their hands: What can the Party do about the wave of bigotry and hatred that Donald Trump has unleashed on their presidential primary race? How can they avoid a backlash that could wash away their 2016 chances?

That sentiment had been brewing for months, but it came to a head last Monday afternoon, when Trump made his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. So let’s start there: Exactly what did Trump propose?

Keeping Muslims out. His initial announcement wasn’t very specific — Trump’s proposals seldom are — and the first campaign spokesperson who elaborated said that American Muslims who leave the country wouldn’t be able to come back. (“Mr. Trump says ‘everyone’.”) But Trump backed off of that. So fine, Shaq can attend the Rio Olympics if he wants, and Dave Chappelle can do a show in London. They don’t have to quit America for good because of their religion.

But if a businessman from Indonesia wants to come over to negotiate a deal, or his wife wants to shop on Rodeo Drive, or his children want to see Disney World or study engineering at Purdue — no. They can’t come, because they’re Muslims. Now, their passports don’t have MUSLIM stamped on them, so it’s not clear how we’d know to keep them out. (Asking would only keep out the honest Muslims, which kind of misses the point. Maybe the Trump administration could require everybody who goes through customs to spit on a Qu’ran or something.) But let’s not get lost in the details of enforcement. Trump hasn’t thought about them, so why should we?

Trump supporters wave off criticism by pointing out that the ban is supposed to be temporary. But Trump defined the end point as “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. When CNN’s Don Lemon asked what that meant, Trump replied:

Why is there such hatred and such viciousness? Why is somebody willing to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center? … Where does this hatred come from? Why does it come? We need to figure it out.

In other words, lifting the ban is tied to a question from 14 years ago, one that has been answered many times, but with an answer that Trump and his followers don’t like. Why do they hate us? Because for decades we overthrew their attempts at democratic governments and installed brutal dictators who would sell us oil. Because our troops kicked down their doors and dragged their fathers off to hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Because we send our killer drones wherever we want, and deny that most of the people we kill are innocent. In short, many of the people who hate us have very good reasons that Trump and his supporters have no interest in doing anything about, except possibly adding to them.

So basically, Trump’s ban would stay in place until he’s willing to learn things he doesn’t want to know. That doesn’t sound very temporary to me.

This time he’s done it. The immediate talking-head response to Trump’s proposal was that this time he had finally gone too far: The American people would recoil in horror at the thought of turning away refugees and immigrants and students and tourists because we don’t approve of their religion, a religion shared by millions of loyal American citizens, decorated American soldiers, and two members of Congress.

Well, most of the American people, maybe. Whether or not they are horrified, 57% told an NBC/WSJ poll that they disagree with keeping Muslims out of the country, while only 25% agree. (Count CNBC pundit Larry Kudlow among those who disagree, but only because he wants something more sweeping: “I say seal the borders. … We need a wartime footing if we are going to protect the American homeland.” And Laura Ingraham: “I’d do a pause on all immigration.”)

However, this is a primary campaign, not a general election. And Republican respondents were split: 38% for Trump’s proposal and 39% against. So in a multi-candidate field, the Muslim ban seems to be helping him. His lead in the RCP polling average is as big as it has ever been.

Locking up the racist/fascist vote. The anti-Muslim proposal increased the number of people willing to describe Trump as either a racist or a fascist — a term I discussed two weeks ago. But whatever you think of that usage, the undeniable racists and fascists have started welcoming Trump to their ranks. Former KKK leader David Duke has endorsed Trump, saying that he “understands the real sentiment of America”.

Buzzfeed reports:

Visitors to the website for the Council of Conservative Citizens — a white nationalist group cited by Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof — will find a steady stream of pro-Trump articles.

BF quotes the white supremacist website American Renaissance:

If Mr. Trump loses, this could be the last chance whites have to vote for a president who could actually do something useful for them and for their country.

and neo-Nazi Stormfront radio personality Don Advo:

whether or not Trump wins, his campaign is “gonna give people the ability to come openly out of the shadows and really work very hard for something that will have a lasting effect.”

“This anger, this fire, is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s not going to go away at all. And that has not been noticed by the neocons — or perhaps we should them neo-Cohens — in the Republican Party.”

The Establishment still doesn’t understand. Republican establishment types may not grasp the implications of being “neo-Cohens” yet, but they finally do seem to be getting the message that Trump could be nominated, with catastrophic short-and-long-term effects on the Party. A year ago, it seemed possible that Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio might finesse a campaign that appealed to the Republicans’ Southern white base without being so blatantly bigoted as to drive Hispanics and all other non-whites and non-Christians into a coalition against them. But that option has pretty well vanished. (Second place in national polls and first place in Iowa have been taken by Ted Cruz, who is not that different from Trump.)

What Republicans still don’t seem to grasp, though, is that they did this to themselves. William Greider traces the problem back to the deal between Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond that created the modern GOP, the “Southern strategy”. All that time, country-club Republicans and racist working-class whites have had little in common, but

Nixon and his successors hid behind ideology and obscured the contradictions by pursuing a strategy I would call “no-fault bigotry.” Every now and then, especially in election seasons, the Republicans played the race card in dog-whistle fashion to smear Democrats, with savage effect. The GOP never attempted to repeal civil-rights legislation but sought cheap ways to undermine enforcement and remind whites, South and North, that the party was on “their” side.

So what caused the current rebellion in the GOP ranks? It finally dawned on loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers. Their causes always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The GOP made multiple promises and fervent speeches on the social issues, but, for one reason or another, the party establishment always failed to deliver. … the Republican establishment brought this crisis on itself by cynically manipulating its own rank and file.

Paul Krugman echoes the point:

But there is a strong element of bait-and-switch to this strategy. Whatever dog whistles get sent during the campaign, once in power the G.O.P. has made serving the interests of a small, wealthy economic elite, especially through big tax cuts, its main priority — a priority that remains intact, as you can see if you look at the tax plans of the establishment presidential candidates this cycle.

Sooner or later the angry whites who make up a large fraction, maybe even a majority, of the G.O.P. base were bound to rebel … So along comes Donald Trump, saying bluntly the things establishment candidates try to convey in coded, deniable hints, and sounding as if he really means them.

And Timothy Egan writes:

What [Trump has] done is to give marginalized Americans permission to hate. He doesn’t use dog whistles or code. His bigotry is overt. But the table was set by years of dog whistles and code. The very “un-American” sentiment that Republican elders now claim to despise has been a mainstay of conservative media for at least a decade.

When truth stops mattering. One more point is needed to complete the picture: the Republican embrace of post-truth politics. A party that exploits ridiculous conspiracy theories to energize its base — Birtherism, known falsehoods about Benghazi, Obama is a Muslim, the persecution of American Christians, the “war on cops” — has no defense when a better liar comes along.

Republican Congressman Deven Nunes has only been in office since 2002, but he reports a startling change in his communications from constituents.

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

This trend may have gotten worse recently, but it isn’t new. David Frum wrote about it in 2011:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

And AutoStraddle‘s Heather Hogan more recently described the effect on a personal level:

Over the last ten years, everyone I know has lost a friend or family member or mentor to Fox News. Like me, they have watched helplessly as people they love have become part of the conservative punditry herd and, over time, traded their compassion for paranoia; their thoughtful opinions for manufactured outrage; and their empathy for hateful rhetoric.

It seems quaint now that, back in 2008, John McCain corrected a questioner who said that she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was “an Arab”. He defended Obama as “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. (Trump, facing an even more outrageous questioner this September, did nothing of the kind. He later criticized McCain’s response, saying McCain was “harsh” when he “ripped the microphone out of the woman’s hands”. Actually, McCain reached for the microphone while saying, “No, ma’am.”)

But the McCain of 2008 was already a dinosaur in Republican circles. His younger running mate, Sarah Palin, catered to misperceptions of her audience, understanding that anything goes if it whips up your supporters.

Eight years later we have Donald Trump, who doesn’t know or care much about reality, but is really good at whipping up his supporters. Unreality, along with the irrational fears and passions it commands, is a powerful weapon in politics. The problem is that no one can own it. If you use it, you have no safe refuge when someone turns it against you.

Why are middle-aged whites dying?

I’m doing fine, but my cousin is dead.


Look at this graph:

In 1990, the death rate for American whites aged 45-54 (USW) was within the normal range of similarly aged people in comparable countries, and similar to the death rate for middle-aged American Hispanics (USH). In all the other countries, death rates continued their centuries-long trend of dropping, with USH tracking the United Kingdom rate almost perfectly. But starting in 1998, USW turns up.

A good summary of this new study is in The Atlantic. The upshot is that about half a million American whites are dead who would be alive if USW death rates had followed the downward track of other first-world countries. The effect seems concentrated in the less-educated classes, and the cause is a sudden jump in the rate of what are called “poisonings” — mainly deaths related to alcohol and drugs — as well as an increase in suicides and other causes related to not taking care of yourself. Atlantic concludes that middle-aged whites “are dying of despair”.

This feels personal to me. My father was a high-school-educated white who was an adolescent during the Depression. For most of my childhood, he had a good-paying factory job that allowed him to buy a small farm that he worked on the side. Needless to say, he was a hard-working guy. But he also saw himself as extremely successful: He owned a house nicer than the one he grew up in, sent his kids to college, and after he retired had a winter home in Florida. He lived to be 90.

I took advantage of the opportunities my parents gave me and got a PhD. I also feel successful, and am in excellent health at 59. But what if, rather than reaching for a better life than my father’s, I had tried to duplicate his success? It wouldn’t have worked. The good-paying no-college-needed jobs went away during my lifetime. I probably would have bounced from one low-status job to another, always wondering why I couldn’t live at the level I had thought was normal for people like me. Compared to my father, I would be a failure.

That pretty well describes one of my cousins, who had alcohol problems for most of his adult life and died a little younger than I am now.

What we’re seeing here, I believe, is the end result of privileged distress. It’s still not objectively harder to be white in American than non-white, but the traditional privileges of whiteness have shrunk, particularly for the working class, while visions of how life is supposed to be (for white people) are pegged to the achievements of our parents. Consequently, it gets harder and harder for working-class whites to live up to the expectations they were raised to have. By middle age many feel like failures, and live with a corresponding lack of self-regard.

Is it any wonder they look for scapegoats, like the Hispanic immigrants, and are attracted to anger-channeling politicians like Donald Trump? They cheer when Trump says America is going to start winning again, and they love to identify with him when he calls his opponents “losers” — because looking down on somebody else is very satisfying when you feel like a loser yourself.

Samaritan Lives Matter

Why don’t we say “All lives matter”? For the same reason Jesus’ parable isn’t called “The Good Person”.


The picture shows a Black Lives Matter banner put up by a Unitarian Universalist church in Reno. Someone has edited the sign in red paint, replacing black with white. In recent months it’s become a thing among liberal churches to put up BLM banners, and it’s become a thing among vandals to deface them.

Usually the unwanted edits aren’t as blatant as turning black to white. At my church in Bedford, Massachusetts, black was just painted out, leaving “Lives Matter”. No doubt the painter thought he had made an improvement, because “Lives Matter” is a true statement of broader applicability. Other banners are “improved” by changing black to all, yielding another true statement: “All Lives Matter”.

What’s wrong with that? As a matter of logic, “Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” each imply “Black Lives Matter”, so we should still be happy, shouldn’t we? And if our anonymous editors are now happy too, then we’ve had a dialog of a sort and reached a consensus. Win-win.

What’s wrong with that?

People who make that argument are coming from such a different place that it’s often hard to figure out how to bridge the gap. But if they consider themselves Christians, I can at least suggest a place to start: Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Have you ever thought about why the hero of that story is a Samaritan? Samaria was the next province over from Judea, where Jesus was probably telling the story. The Samaritans were ethnically related to Judeans, and practiced a similar but not identical religion. But Judeans looked down on Samaritans. [In John 4, Jesus is passing through Samaria and asks a local woman for water. Verse 4 reads: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)]

In Luke 10, Jesus is in a discussion with a lawyer, who makes the lawyerly suggestion that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might be more complicated than it sounds. “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. To answer him, Jesus tells a story about a man (presumably a Judean) who is beaten and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass by without helping, and then a Samaritan helps him. “Who was a neighbor to him?” Jesus asks. And the lawyer responds, “The one who had mercy on him.” (Some theologians speculate that the lawyer phrases it this way because he can’t bring himself to say “The Samaritan was a neighbor to him.”)

My question is: Why did Jesus make it all so specific? The third man could have been anybody, and the point could have been “Anybody can be your neighbor.” (If he’d put it that way, the lawyer probably would have had no trouble saying it.) That’s a nice, broad principle, and even if it doesn’t specifically say that a Samaritan can be a Judean’s neighbor, the implication would still be there for those who want to draw it.

So why didn’t Jesus tell it that way? Would we be improving the parable if we crossed out Samaritan and wrote in person?

The point, I believe, of making the third man a Samaritan rather than a generic human, is precisely that saying “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract feel-good idea a Judean could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

The same thing is going on with “Black Lives Matter”. It isn’t meant to say “Black lives matter more than white lives” any more than Jesus was trying to say that Samaritans are better than Judeans. The point of saying “Black lives matter” is that it sticks in the throat of a lot of white Americans. By contrast, “Lives matter” and “All lives matter” are nice, feel-good abstractions. When we say them, we can think about generic people — who we probably picture as white.

Sometimes I fantasize about Jesus coming to speak to my mostly white congregation, and wonder what he’d want to tell us. I can easily imagine him wanting to impress on us that we ought to take the lives of other people more seriously. Maybe he’d tell us a parable to get that idea across. But would his main character, the one whose life we should take more seriously, be a generic human being? I doubt it. I think he might well tell us a story about a person of color, maybe even a big scary-looking one. Until we understood that his life mattered, we wouldn’t have gotten the point.

Protesting in Your Dreams

Ben Carson knows exactly what BLM should be doing.


The biggest obstacle a protest movement faces isn’t resistance from people on the other side. Quite the opposite: One purpose of protest actions is to make your opponents come out of the shadows and demonstrate the previously hidden power dynamics that hold the status quo in place.

So when Sheriff Clark deputized all the adult white males of Dallas County and met protest marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he didn’t break the Civil Rights movement, he made it. He showed the world that the relationship between the races in Alabama was predicated on officially sanctioned white violence.

Clark didn’t know it, but he was following the script Martin Luther King had laid out two years earlier in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Drama needs a villain, and Clark had unwittingly signed up for the role.

So if people like Sheriff Clark and Bull Connor are not an activist movement’s biggest obstacle, what is? The people who say, “I agree with your goals, but you’re doing it all wrong.” They compare an actual social-action movement, one that is organizing in the real world and doing things, to their own fantasy movement, which they are not lifting a finger to make real. So what their criticism actually promotes is not a competing real-world program of action, but a passivity that says: “Not this. Not here. Not now.”

In MLK’s day, the criticism centered on timing: Wasn’t King pushing for too much too fast, without giving his white moderate allies time to take the smaller, more deliberate actions that seemed reasonable to them? His Birmingham-jail letter answered:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

This is the proper context for reading Ben Carson’s recent op-ed in USA Today: “#BlackLivesMatter misfire“. Carson’s objection to the BLM protests isn’t time, it’s target. But his message is otherwise very much the same as the pseudo-sympathetic moderates who bedeviled King: Not this.

Carson’s fantasy protest movement (which he is not lifting a finger to make real) would find a better target than police violence against blacks.

The notion that some lives might matter less than others is meant to enrage. That anger is distracting us from what matters most. We’re right to be angry, but we have to stay smart.

Of course, the protesters are right that racial policing issues exist and some rotten policemen took actions that killed innocent people. Those actions were inexcusable and they should be prosecuted to deter such acts in the future.

But unjust treatment from police did not fill our inner cities with people who face growing hopelessness. Young men and women can’t find jobs. Parents don’t have the skills to compete in a modern job market. Far too many families are torn and tattered by self-inflicted wounds. Violence often walks alongside people who have given up hope.

He goes on to list some better targets for protest: school boards that don’t educate black children, entertainment corporations that glamorize black thuggery, city governments that tolerate unsafe black neighborhoods, crack houses in black neighborhoods, and the two major political parties.

And you know something? There’s no point in arguing with him about those targets, because they’d all be good. In the same way that Carson can say “the protesters are right” about racial policing issues, I can likewise support his fantasy protesters.

But you know who is perfectly positioned to start such protests in the real world? Ben Carson. He is a presidential candidate with a considerable following — second to Donald Trump in a lot of recent Republican presidential polls. TV crews and newspaper reporters follow him wherever he goes. They’re just waiting for him to make some actual news.

Imagine if Carson had closed his op-ed by announcing a march on Baltimore’s city hall or a sit-in in front of the Chicago Board of Education. Unlike most BLM leaders, Carson could absolutely guarantee coverage on all major TV networks. Pundits all over the country would talk about his demands and the problems they addressed.

Who knows? If Carson is right in his criticism of BLM, if they have legitimate grievances but are misguided tactically, then his better-targeted protests might change the whole national conversation. He might make BLM irrelevant by drawing bigger crowds, raising more energy, and having a more direct impact.

Or consider one of the other things he says needs to be done:

Finally, we need to go over to the Republican Party. We need to tell them they have ignored us for too long. They need to invite us in and listen to us.

But Ben: You just appeared in a Republican presidential debate that 28 million people watched on TV! The GOP invited you in and they were listening to you. Why didn’t you raise any racial issues then?

Imagine if Carson had used his closing statement to call out the Republican Party for ignoring the black community and minimizing its issues — exactly what he says needs to be done. That clip would have been replayed on every news network in the country. It might even have taken Donald Trump out of the headlines for a day or two.

But he didn’t do that.

Here’s the point Carson’s op-ed glides over: There’s room for more than one protest in the world. Nobody has given BLM the monopoly on expressing black frustration or fighting for social justice, so nobody has to stop BLM before starting a rival movement. Just because one group picks one set of targets doesn’t stop another group from picking different ones.

Anybody who thinks he has a better way to promote change and racial justice is perfectly free to go that way. If you think BLM is doing it wrong, then go out and do it right.

If that’s really what you want to do.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave

What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?


In the mostly white professional-class suburbs where most of my friends live, I have frequently seen this bumpersticker:

It tends to show up on Volvos, Priuses, and other cars popular among middle-aged women with advanced degrees, though now and then it appears (in the company of many other stickers) on a less expensive car that is as much billboard as transportation.

The point (which is well understood by the kind of people who have spent their lives testing whether a glass ceiling will break if you hit your head against it hard enough) is that playing by the rules may keep you out of trouble, but it probably won’t get you where you want to go.

In the 70s and 80s when this sticker was becoming popular, the rules in just about every bureaucracy and corporate ladder in the world were made and adjudicated by men. So if a woman played by them, kept to the agenda, didn’t interrupt, waited her turn, and colored inside the lines, she would likely wind up in whatever place men had left on the org chart for a well-behaved woman, a place safely isolated from the levers of power. So the turn she was waiting for would never come. The evidence and arguments she had assembled in her carefully-written memo would likely never be read, or, if read, would never be taken seriously.

In some parts of the economy and government we’ve gotten past that by now, to the point that many young women don’t grasp why confrontational feminism was ever necessary. But even today, when women reach for the top rungs of the ladder, the standards are different. A Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina has to walk a narrow path that Donald Trump (or any male candidate) isn’t constrained by: She must be forceful without sounding angry or shrill, authoritative without talking down, dressed to perfection but not obsessed with appearance. Those rules — still mostly made and adjudicated by men — will tie a woman in knots if she lets them.

Even today, a well-behaved woman has trouble making history.

Now let’s think about well-behaved black women. How much history are they going to make?

That’s the question to start with if you want to understand disruptive protests like the one that kept Bernie Sanders from talking about Social Security in Seattle.

The Seattle protest makes no sense if you come at it from the point of view of an aging, white, progressive, Sanders supporter who came out wanting to hear about Social Security: Neither you nor Sanders had any ill intent. The meeting wasn’t a plot to maintain white supremacy. There was an announced topic, a topic that needs the public’s attention. Sanders wanted to talk about it and you wanted to hear him.

And then those damn women got in the way.

Their tactics are easy to criticize: By targeting Sanders, they’re pissing off the whites most likely to be on their side. On TV, they looked really rude and obnoxious, making white viewers less sympathetic with their cause. It would have been a lot braver if they’d disrupted a Republican rally, where they might have wound up in jail or worse.

“Why are you picking on us?” the progressives wonder. “We’re the good guys. If you’d just asked nicely, we might have paid attention to your issue.”

Why can’t you behave? Wait your turn. We’ll get to your concerns at a more appropriate time.

On her Facebook page, Dominique Hazzard answers:

People are always wanting to know- why are black people rioting? Why are twoc of interrupting the president? Why are those black women disrupting the Netroots panel? Why are they shutting down Bernie’s campaign stop? Why are the coloreds doing things that *i* consider to be unstrategic?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In later post, she addresses the “Why Bernie?” question:

IF YOU WANT TO BE STRATEGIC, you target the people with power who are in your sphere of influence, and who can actually be persuaded to give you what you want. A lot of the time (not all of the time, but often), those people are your allies- allies who are close to getting it right but not quite there.
(Bernie Bern is not ‘there’ yet. Last time he got interrupted, it was disruptors wanting to talk about the criminalization of black women. He centered his answer on unemployment… mere days after Sandra Bland died *on her way to a new job*)

Disrupting a Huckabee rally would be a worse idea, because not only would he not listen, but

your action might backfire, causing Mike Huckabee to double down and racists to respect him even more, rewarding him with more votes.

But however it looked to white suburbanites watching on TV, the Sanders protest got results. A new racial justice page appeared on the Sanders web site, with detailed proposals that met with substantial approval.* The bar has been raised for Clinton and the other Democrats.

Even more than that, though, is the mirror this event places in front of white liberals. (Protests are always part street theater, and the response a protest evokes is part of the production.)

Racism in America today is largely underground, and among liberals it’s completely underground: Nobody ever comes up to me throwing the N-word around and asking how we’re going to keep “them” in their place. But underground is not the same as gone, and a lot of us don’t see our own racism until we’re confronted. That’s why it was instructive to watch how angry the crowd got in Seattle, and how quickly all the paternalistic let-me-tell-you-how-to-protest-better responses popped up.

Very few white liberals’ first reaction — not even mine, I have to admit — was to ask: “Why do you feel like you have to do this?” And even those who asked that question seldom waited for an answer or listened to that answer.

Bernie, to his credit, seems to have listened: not immediately, not in the moment, but within a few days. Maybe the rest of us can follow his lead.


* A legitimate question is: What was wrong with the Sanders platform before this racial justice page was added?

From a BLM point of view, the problem was that Sanders’ message had been class-based and largely color-blind, as if the problems faced by black people in America were just artifacts that stem from being unemployed or underpaid or living in dangerous neighborhoods or having bad public schools. Just create more good entry-level jobs, and solve the crime and education problems in general, and black people will benefit.

And that’s true as far as it goes: If blacks are disproportionately poor and the poor are disproportionately black, helping the poor will help the black community. But what BLM is trying to get across is that race is not a side-issue; the obstacles blacks face do not arise merely from unfortunate circumstances or historical accident. Racism is a very real problem here and now. White people may not like to talk about race, but you can’t solve racial problems in a color-blind way.

You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot

Throughout American history, most bigots have been nice folks who had sincere religious reasons for treating other people badly.


Social conservatives were all over the airwaves and print media this week, explaining how and why the battle over marriage equality is not over. The Supreme Court may have spoken, but the other branches of government, they promised, could still step in somehow, if we elect the right people. Or county clerks could just refuse to issue licenses. Or ordinary people could practice civil disobedience in some unspecified way. There are, Glenn Beck has promised us, ten thousand pastors willing to “go to prison or to death” over this issue (though exactly what charges will brought against them or who might try to kill them is a bit vague).

To me, the most revealing moment of this Alamo-like refusal to surrender came when Texas Senator Ted Cruz was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show. Cruz was defending the “religious freedom” of Texas clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, when Guthrie made an analogy:

GUTHRIE: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
CRUZ: There’s no religious backing for that.

Religion and interracial marriage. To anyone who remembers the 1960s or has read the history of interracial marriage (or civil rights in general), Cruz’ response is simply ridiculous. Opposition to interracial marriage was constantly expressed in religious terms.

For example, the reason the Supreme Court had to decide Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide in 1967, was that when Richard and Mildred Loving tried to get their conviction for miscegenation overturned (so that they could legally come back to Virginia), Judge Leon M. Bazile was having none of it:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Judge Bazile’s decision says nothing about hating black people or even interracial couples. Yahoos on the street might have taunted Richard Loving as a “nigger lover”, but the judge did no such thing. He just saw the sense in a Virginia law that upheld God’s plan for the races.

Segregation. Opposition to school desegregation could be similarly respectful and devout. In 1958, Rev. Jerry Falwell preached a sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?”. (Like all of Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons, this one is sadly unavailable online. Perhaps Liberty University might want to rectify this.) In it, he expressed his religious objection to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

That polite-but-concerned religious defense of segregation goes all the way back to 1867, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court OK’d segregated passenger trains. Chief Justice Daniel Agnew wrote:

We declare a right to maintain separate relations, as far as is reasonably practicable, but in a spirit of kindness and charity, and with due regard to equality of rights, it is not prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts.

Slavery. Even slavery had religious justifications, and the breakup of the Union was presaged by the splits in major religious denominations between Northern churches who found slavery immoral and Southern churches who taught that it was part of God’s plan. As Josiah Priest wrote in 1852:

“If God appointed the race of Ham judicially to slavery, and it were a heinous sin to enslave one, or all the race, how then is the appointment of God to go into effect? …. God does never sanction sin, nor call for the commission of moral evil to forward any of his purposes; wherefore we come to the conclusion, that is is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner.”

Hatred of men, or love of God? Like most people who oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians today, past opponents of racial equality were not necessarily the screaming haters we see in the more dramatic videos from the civil rights movement. Far more were sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone. They just held a sincere belief — “in a spirit of kindness and charity”, they would tell you — that blacks were an inferior race who were better off among their own kind, or perhaps under the “tender, fatherly and thoughtful” guidance of a white master.

Most believed that God agreed with them, and could cite you chapter and verse to prove it. Freeing the slaves, desegregating the schools, allowing interracial marriage — at the time, those changes were all seen as aggressions against the religion of large numbers of American Christians.

And it is a mistake to think that such beliefs are dead relics of an era long past. There are still white supremacist churches today. As the web site of Thomas Robb Ministries in Harrison, Arkansas puts it:

For the mission God has bestowed upon His chosen people, the white race, he requires their separation.  They must honor their heritage, not despise it. Other races must honor their heritage as well. In a well ordered world, this is God’s way.

Granted, such groups are small compared to the Catholics or Southern Baptists. But your First Amendment rights don’t depend on the size of your congregation. If the religious freedom Ted Cruz wants for himself applies to Thomas Robb’s parishioners as well, then of course the county clerk must be able to refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple.

Conservatism and progress. It’s not hard to see why Cruz doesn’t want to remember or identify with the historical tradition of social conservatism: When we look back from today’s perspective, we see that the slavers and segregationists were wrong. Most of them were probably very nice people if you met them in the right circumstances, but they were wrong. They had sincerely held beliefs that were firmly anchored in their understanding of Christianity, but they were wrong.

So hardly anybody wants to claim their legacy today.

That’s the general pattern of social conservatives and progress: Eventually, progress catches up to them as well, so they can look back and see that the previous revolution in social practices and public morality was justified. The slaves should have been freed. Blacks should have been served at the Greensboro lunch counter. Women should be allowed to vote and run for office and enter the professions. (I didn’t get into the religious arguments for keeping women in the kitchen, but trust me, they were plentiful, and are also still with us.)

But this time it’s different! It always is. With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.

Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They’re nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don’t hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today’s amoral radicals from upsetting God’s appointed order.

In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them. The analogy with Josiah Priest and Chief Justice Agnew and Judge Bazile and the young Jerry Falwell (who later reversed himself, removed his segregation sermons from circulation, and quietly pretended he had never believed anything else) could not be more apt.

Bigotry is not the same as hate. Bigotry just means believing that certain groups of people do not deserve the same kind of consideration you want for yourself. Their suffering and distress doesn’t count, or they must have brought it on themselves in some obscure way. You don’t have to hate those people any more than you hate your dog when you keep him penned in your yard, or hate your children when you make them eat something they hate. (The analogy of parents and children, in fact, was often applied by pro-slavery writers to the master/slave relationship. Husbands, similarly, needed to make decisions for their wives, because women were pure but unworldly creatures. That’s what men loved about them.)

I don’t know precisely why Ted Cruz or the four dissenting judges in Obergefell believe that gays and lesbians don’t deserve the equal protection of the laws, but I doubt hate has much to do with it. It doesn’t have to. The Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses — I’ll bet they’re nice people with sincere beliefs. But they’re also bigots.

Conservatives blanch in horror at that word, when someone applies it to them. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he imagines this dystopian future:

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

How unfair, that those who find their neighbors’ relationships unworthy might themselves be examined and found wanting. How unfair, that they might be lumped together with the past bigots they so closely resemble. Don’t we understand that it’s different this time? That these are nice, thoughtful people of sincere beliefs?

We understand quite well.

Hidden residue. On the surface, bigotry against gays and lesbians may seem unrelated to racial bigotry. But when you deny your unattractive roots rather than repent and atone for them, their influence can linger in the back of your mind, occasionally peeking out at inopportune moments.

In an Alternet article picked up by Salon, Tim Wise called attention to the lingering racial bigotry implicit in some prominent denunciations of the recent marriage-equality ruling. Congressman Louie Gohmert, for example, warned of divine retribution:

God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn [from America] as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear. I will do all I can to prevent such harm, but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.

Gohmert is far from the only person to make this point, and his statement contains no overt racism. But think about its implications: God kept the U.S. under His special protection and showered us with blessings while we committed genocide against the Native Americans and enslaved Africans by the millions. But as soon as we celebrate people of the same gender living together in loving, committed relationships, He’s done with us.

I don’t see an alternative to Wise’s interpretation: Gohmert’s statement only makes sense if you assume that the suffering of non-whites is beneath God’s notice.

Wise goes on to discuss another Ted Cruz interview, this one with Sean Hannity. The Obergefell decision coming so closely on the heels of the Court’s refusal to gut ObamaCare made for “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”. (“I couldn’t say it more eloquently,” Hannity responded.)

Put aside the many-people-died events in American history (like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 or the bloodiest battles of the Civil War) and just restrict your attention to Supreme Court history. Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, so I assume he knows about the Korematsu decision that OK’d putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and Dred Scott, where the Court declared blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; and the 1883 decision in the Civil Rights Cases, which gave the green light to Jim Crow. To be some of the darkest 24 hours in the Court’s history, preserving ObamaCare and establishing marriage equality has to rank with those.

Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the suffering of non-whites just doesn’t count. Wise draws his conclusion:

Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.

You don’t have to hate anybody to be bigoted against them. Believing that they don’t count is more than enough.

Summing up. There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation. Throughout American history, most people have been pretty nice — even the bigots. America has seen nice slaveholders, nice segregationists, nice male chauvinists. And from the beginning, we have been a religious people, who could not have lived with ourselves if we couldn’t justify our bigoted beliefs in religious terms.

So we did, and we do. It’s normal.

Bigotry has a long history in the United States. And while that tradition includes haters, they’ve never been the majority. Today’s non-hateful bigots, with their sincere beliefs and their Biblical justifications, stand in a line that goes back to the beginnings of our nation. But the people in that line have consistently been wrong, and eventually even the people further up the line see it.

That’s why they never claim their legacy or own the authenticity of their place in that line. But the rest of us don’t have to humor their historical blindness. Bigotry today looks no different than bigotry 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. There’s no reason to call it anything else.