Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Let's Educate the Crap Out of This

I was a member of the Lamar County (Georgia) High School class of 1976, the first class to graduate from the new high school.

Yep, I still call a school building constructed in the mid-1970s “the new high school.”

Well, take me to dinner and call me dated!

I didn’t actually attend the new high school, though. I entered Mercer University after my junior year. But I did come back to graduate as the Valedictorian of my class. I don’t know how they felt about it. I was afraid to ask.

I’m glad they tolerated me.

During the first few years of desegregation, which began in Lamar County with the 1970-71 school year (seventh grade for me), racial integration gave way to gender segregation. The stated reason for that was, as I recall, that there was no facility large enough to house a coed high school. Interestingly, though, they put boys and girls back together in the 1974-75 school year, which was the year before the new high school opened. All of a sudden, the Forsyth Road School (formerly Booker T. Washington School) was large enough to hold not only a coed high school, but the middle school grades as well.

One wonders if there was another agenda in keeping the girls and boys separate, doesn’t one?

I don’t remember when I first heard that plans were being made to build a new high school. I do remember that the vote on the bond referendum to fund its construction was controversial. I remember hoping and praying that it would pass, because I knew we needed a new facility.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was back then a member of the now defunct Lamar Civic League. One night he returned from a meeting visibly upset.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

“Oh, somebody did a program about how we ought to oppose the school bond referendum. When he finished, I pointed out that I had a child in the school system and he didn’t, and that I resented his program. Nobody backed me up, so I told them they could have their club, and I walked out.”

“Champ, you didn’t.”

That little smile that indicated he knew that he might have done wrong, but was glad he’d done it anyway, crept onto his face.

“Yeah, I did.”

And he never went back.

My education, and the education of all the other children in Lamar County, was important to my father. Thankfully, it was important to lots of other people, too, and so the bond referendum passed.'

I also believe in education. I especially believe in public education. I believe that education is the best way out of the various messes our nation and our world find ourselves in.

To be more precise, I believe that we need broad, sweeping, excellent, amazing, world-encompassing education.

I mean, think about it. Ignorance and misunderstanding lie beneath and behind most of the problems and tensions with which we deal in this nation and on this planet. We need to make sure that American young people learn all the science and math they possibly can so we’ll be able to keep moving forward technologically. We also need to make sure they learn all they can about history, literature, religion, and culture—those of America and those of other people and places, including non-Western societies.

The more we grow in our understanding of each other, the more likely we are to develop and maintain peaceful, helpful, and productive relationships. The more we know, the better off we’ll be.

That’s why we all need to champion education here at home and around the world.

I believe that we should do everything we can do to provide a college education to as many of our people as we possibly can. I furthermore believe that we should do everything we can to do expose our people to as many other cultures as we can, and that we should do everything we can to bring students from other nations to our country to learn about our cultures.

The more we know about each other, the more we’ll understand each other, and the more we understand each other, the less likely we are to want to kill each other.

Shoot, we might even find out we like each other.

In the film The Martian, when Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) realizes he’s been stranded on Mars, he says, “I’m gonna have to science the [crap] out of this.”

When I look at the nation and the world, I say, “We’re gonna have to educate the crap out of this.”

So let’s get to it …

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter: A Word to White Folks

A line in one of my favorite songs (“Hey Lover”) by one of my favorite bands (Dawes) says, “I may be white, but I don’t like my people much.”

I actually like most white people just fine. I’m sure they’re relieved to hear that.

But let’s face it, folks—we’re limited by our whiteness. And one of the ways we’re limited is in our inability to comprehend and appreciate blackness.

That’s why it may be entirely inappropriate for me to try to say anything about the Black Lives Matter movement. Todd Rundgren once observed that he might be the whitest singer in the world. Well, I may be the whitest writer in the world. So maybe I shouldn’t write about Black Lives Matter.

But I’m a white guy talking (in this instance) to white folks. So let’s take a chance.

On the one hand, black folks don’t need white folks to explain or defend them. They do that very well for themselves. On the other hand, it’s basic to Christian practice to care about, speak up for, and act on behalf of others. So, I hope that I’m speaking out of Christian love and not out of some less appropriate motives.

Some of my white Christian sisters and brothers mean well—they really do—when they respond to “Black Lives Matter” by insisting that “All Lives Matter.” They say—and they’re not wrong—that all human lives come from God, that God loves all people, and that every life matters. Yes, Jesus loves all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white (and all of the variations and combinations thereof), they are precious in Jesus’ sight.

But there’s something that many of my white Christian brothers and sisters don’t understand. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from a specific context: the recent spate of killings of black men by police officers. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” thus makes a specific assertion: something must be done to change the circumstances, mindsets, and structures that make it too likely—five times more likely than for a young white man—that a young black man will die a violent death at the hands of the police.

To say “Black Lives Matter” isn’t to claim that other lives don’t matter. As someone recently said, to say “Save the Rainforests” doesn’t imply “Screw All the Other Forests.” It’s just that the rainforests have specific and critical needs because they are, at this time, in specific and critical danger. So it is with young black men.

So for white folks to try to broaden the phrase to include “all lives”—again, well-intentioned as that effort may be—is to attempt to lessen the specific contextual meaning and importance of “Black Lives Matter.” It is to deny that African-Americans have a particular experience with institutional violence that is largely beyond white people’s comprehension.

Of all the things I worried about whenever my son left the house, his being killed, or even harassed, by the police was never—not once—one of them.

If you can say the same, then please join me in admitting that we can’t comprehend the experience that inspires the Black Lives Matter movement. Please also join me in acknowledging the experience that inspires the movement and in affirming the movement that the experience inspires.

It’s just something I thought I should say—one white guy to other white folks.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Targeted" in America

Some groups in America think they’re targets. They have reason to think that.

Young black males think they’re targets.

There are statistics to back up their thinking. The rate of young black men (age 16-34) killed by police officers in 2015 was more than five times that of white men in that age range. About 25% of blacks killed by police were unarmed, compared with 17% of whites. Economist Sendhil Mullainathan has made a good case that the higher rate at which blacks die at the hands of police is as much, or even more, about unjust economic policies and structures as about racism.

Police officers think they’re targets. As in the case of young black men, some statistics support their thinking. Twenty-six officers have been shot and killed so far in 2016, which is up from eighteen at the same time last year, a 44% increase. Someone has ambushed police officers eleven times this year, up from eight at this point in 2015. The recent sniper attack on Dallas police officers reminds us of the dangers law enforcement officials face.

I’m not a young black man. I’m not a police officer. I’m a white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual writer, editor, and preacher.

You’d think I’d be nobody’s target. That’s what I think.

I’ve noticed, though, that some people who would describe themselves with the same terms I use to describe myself do think they’re targets.

Lots of people who fall into my general demographic think they’re the targets of society and culture. They think that the nation and the world are developing in ways that will lessen their heretofore privileged status.

They’re more or less correct about that, and they (we) might as well embrace the new situation and learn to thrive within it. In the long run, the country and the world will be better with its new situation. We can make that so by enthusiastically seeking and responsibly filling our place in the developing new order rather than kicking and screaming against the changes that are in the process of happening.

Some people who fall into my general categories also think they’re the targets of their government. I’ve heard several of them say that’s one of the main reasons they are adamant about the broadest possible interpretation of the second amendment: they need to be as fully armed as possible in case they need to defend themselves against their own government.

I’ll offer the passing observation that, if the government ever sends its planes, missiles, and drones against you, all the semi-automatic rifles in the world aren’t going to help you much.

It bothers me that folks worry that their own government really poses that kind of threat.

I’ve noticed that such thinking seems to have increased with the Obama presidency.

Maybe it was always there, and the various social media platforms have just brought it more out into the open. Still, I didn’t hear Americans talk about feeling threatened by their government before 2008.

Some people’s attitudes toward President Obama are fueled by racism, but I don’t think that’s the case with the people I’m talking about. Their fears are driven more by what they perceive to be his perspectives and policies, especially what they regard as his emphasis on “big government.” And they figure that, since one of the banners under which Secretary Clinton is running is “Secure President Obama’s Legacy,” they’re probably about to face four or eight years more of the same.

I think such fears are way out of line with reality. But okay. If that’s how you feel, then fine.

I will offer another passing observation: I didn’t worry that the government was likely to come after me when more right-wing, potentially despotic, ready and willing to limit civil liberties administrations were in place.

I guess I just have that kind of naïve trust in the American people and in the United States Constitution. As one who came of age in the 1970s, I figure that if we can survive Watergate, we can survive anything.

Here’s my point: thinking you’re a target makes you think and act like a target. And thinking and acting like a target makes you think and act defensively. And thinking and acting defensively makes it even more likely that something bad is going to happen.

So if you’re not really a target, it’s to your advantage—and to everyone else’s—for you not to think and act like you are.

Now, there are people among us who need to be on their guard. Others of us—well, maybe not so much.

Lots of things will help us find our way out of the situation we’re in.

One thing that will surely help is for those of us who are not at any great risk not to be unreasonably afraid.

Of course, having said all of this, I guess I’ll be looking over my shoulder now …

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The High Dive

During my boyhood, this time of year was all about going to the Barnesville (GA) swimming pool, which was located about where the Gordon Highlanders now play baseball. I’d join many others in purchasing an annual pass and using the laminating machine outside of Carter’s Drug Store to render it waterproof. I’d use it to gain admission to the pool every blessed day (except when I had a Little League game that night, because the coaches said that swimming tired you out too much).

I’d enjoy snow cones, frozen candy bars, and Cokes. I’d saunter up to the concession stand like it was a bar (I’d seen such things on television) and order a “Suicide”—a mixture of Coke, Sprite, Fanta Grape, and Fanta Orange.

It was my first mixed drink.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” and Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” repeatedly blared from the jukebox. Being an eleven almost twelve-year-old boy, I’d marvel at the high school and college girls. And they were marvelous.

It was 1970, so do the math—you know who you were …

I’d even spend a little time in the pool.

The Barnesville pool had two diving boards—the low dive and the high dive (the picture is the only one I've been able to find that shows the high dive). I eventually worked up the courage to jump—not dive, mind you, because I’d look silly diving while holding my nose—off the low board, but I never managed to take the death-defying plunge from the high dive. I thereby cost myself some fun and some memories.

Looking back, I wish I’d jumped off the high dive.

I’ve come to realize that, when it comes to swimming in the Christian pool, there are all kinds of people. Let’s splash some water around and see what I mean.

Do you practice “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? Then you’re just sitting on the edge of the pool, maybe occasionally sticking your big toe in.

Do you refrain from striking back when someone harms or insults you? Then you’re becoming a pretty good swimmer.

Do you, in addition to refraining from striking back when people harm or insult you, also stand your ground in a way that forces them to come to terms with who they are and what they’re doing, even if it means taking more hurt onto yourself? Then you’re diving off the low dive.

Do you actually and legitimately love your enemies? Do you love them enough to give yourself up for them? Do you love them enough to pray for them in ways that put their real needs ahead of yours? Then you’re diving off the high dive. Congratulations!

I still wish I had the guts to do that …