The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

Continue reading “The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism”

Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 5, 2020

As I write this late in the morning on Thursday, November 5, the outcome of Tuesday’s election is still in doubt. Biden does seem likely to win the initial round based on the vote. We’ll have to see about what happens with the Trump-resisting-that-outcome round. Right now, it’s hard to see what grounds there could be to overturn the outcome—but we have little reason to have a lot of confidence in the fairness of the final decision-makers. The Senate looks likely to be 50-48 for the Republicans with two Republican-leaning seats in Georgia set for a run-off.

So, wow! This is not what I expected. It actually seems fairly disastrous. Here are a few interim thoughts.

The effectiveness of the Republican strategy

Clearly, the Republican efforts to repress the vote played a huge role—given that the vote was close. Florida, Texas, and Georgia would all likely have gone for Biden if the voting process had been like, say, Oregon’s where the state actually wants everyone to vote. Even if somehow enough of the remaining undecided states tip to Biden it is far from certain that all of the Republicans’ legal shenanigans won’t overturn such an outcome.

The key here, though, is that the vote had to be close for the Republican strategy to hope to succeed. If the election had gone as the polls seemed to indicate, I suspect Biden’s margin of victory would have been large enough that the Republican tactics could not have turned things around. That leads to a big question—how could this election have been that close?

The hope I allowed myself to cultivate was that a Democrat in the White House and Democratic control of the Senate would have at least one potentially huge effect (pessimistic as I am about the corporate Dems in general). That is, that Congress would quickly pass and (following the Senate eliminating the filibuster) the President sign House Bill #1 from 2019 that would enact significant reforms in the US election processes and make it much more likely that Republican voter suppression would be curtailed and that we could hope for more honest elections. The idea was that Trump’s venal incompetence in face of COVID-19 would open the door for a genuine move toward democracy.

However, the Democrats failed to take advantage of the situation. The day after this election, the US topped 100,000 new COVID-19 infections for the first time. The Republican Party, led by its president, has utterly failed in its responsibility to the country in relation to this pandemic—and yet surpassed all expectations in electoral success. This is the biggest shocker of the election, I think. When satirist Andy Borowitz tweets: “If Trump cared as much about stopping COVID as he does about stopping voting, we’d still be able to spend Thanksgiving with our families,” I think of that truth as a condemnation of the Democrats. How could they allow Trump and his Party to get away with this?

Continue reading “Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7]”

On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]

Ted Grimsrud—October 7, 2020

It’s an interesting thought experiment for compassionate people to wonder how to feel about the COVID-19 sickness of Donald Trump. In a recent New York Times essay, “Wish a President Well Who Doesn’t Wish You Well,” Bret Stephens—perhaps the most reliably rightwing Times columnist but a self-described opponent of Trump—gives a list of reasons to wish Trump well.

The gist of Stephens’s argument is that while certainly Trump is a terrible president and a terrible person who has revealed himself to be thoroughly non-compassionate, he still deserves our well wishes. Stephens basically echoes Michelle Obama’s famous directive: “When they go low, we go high.” His last sentence: “We wish him well because it’s the right thing to do. It’s more than reason enough.”

Not wishing Trump well?

As someone who seeks to be compassionate myself, I find Stephens’s argument pretty persuasive. But I can imagine a counterargument. One could say, we wish Trump himself ill because we feel compassion toward all the people he will hurt the longer he remains in power. The sooner he is gone the better. Or, one could say we wish Trump ill because his demise as a consequence of his own recklessness and disregard for needed COVID-19 safety measures (a recklessness and disregard that has had disastrous consequences in our nation that only continue to accelerate) would only be his just desserts. Trump’s demise would reinforce for all of us the need to pursue strategies that enhance all of our safety and wellbeing.

Continue reading “On wishing Donald Trump well [American politics #6]”

A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2020

In his new book, Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance (Herald Press), Messiah College theology professor Drew Hart has given us a much-needed theological resource for embodying the way of Jesus in our troubled times.

A theology for Christian social engagement

The most attractive aspect of this engagingly written book is how Hart synthesizes three streams of Christian theology: (1) a Jesus-centered biblical radicalism that has a visionary suspicion of the mainstream Christian tradition, (2) a socially-engaged sensibility shaped by the black experience in America (a legacy Hart calls “the black prophetic tradition”), and (3) an Anabaptistic orientation that emphasizes the call to transformative nonviolence.

While Hart writes explicitly as a black theologian, what he provides is not a narrowly focused “contextual theology.” His first book, the well-received Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, focuses on the African American context. This new book, Who Will Be a Witness?, may in turn more accurately be understood as a much broader Christian theology of social engagement that Hart constructs through the lens of the black Christian tradition.

Thus, Hart’s book may be seen as a contemporary expression of what theological historian Gary Dorrien presents as “the black social gospel” in his recent magisterial two-volume history of that tradition in the United States. Dorrien argues that the black social gospel has been a perspective that speaks to all Christians with a profound awareness of the concrete relevance of the Christian gospel for life in this world. Like the great practitioners of the black social gospel such as Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hart gives us a powerful challenge for all Christians to understand that at the very core of our faith lies a call to be an active presence in the world witnessing to God’s work of justice and healing. Continue reading “A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis”

The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2020

At this stage in my life, especially during our new era of social distancing, I am more an observer than active participant in American politics. Even from a bit of a remove, though, I have experienced this year, 2020, as an emotional roller coaster. It has made me think of the old ABC Sports show, “Wide World of Sports,” and its iconic opening with brief glimpses of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

The ups and the downs

I was thrilled when Bernie Sanders won the Nevada primary, looked to be the leader in the race for the Democratic nomination, and appeared to be showing that a candidate advocating for policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal actually could realistically hope to be elected to the presidency. Then, all too quickly, came the triple whammy of Joe Biden snatching victory from the jaws of defeat versus Sanders, the emergence and shocking spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Donald Trump continuing his descent into unfathomable presidential malfeasance and incompetence. Trump’s failures were made all the more devastating in face of our need for a constructive governmental response to the pandemic.

More recently, though, I have again been thrilled with the emergence of what seems like one of the most radical popular uprising in our nation’s history—a direct challenge to the ever-strengthening hold of militarized policing and an empowering of the victims of our nation’s centuries-old plague of white supremacy.

So, it has been and continues to be an emotional yo-yo. It’s quite a time for political junkies—and for everyone else who is interested in what is going to become of our society. In all this, there is always a tension for me, what I will call a “pacifist ache.” I felt even in the height of my hopefulness about Bernie’s chances, and I feel it even when I am most hopeful about our current uprising. It has to do with lack of interest in pacifism (by which I mean the conviction that all of life is precious which leads to a rejection of war and other forms of lethal violence). Of course, this is not surprising. Pacifism has almost always been ignored or dismissed in American politics. Still, it’s too bad. I have spent a lot of time over the past 45 years imagining how a pacifist sensibility could help things out a lot in our society. Continue reading “The pacifist ache: What’s missing in our politics? [Pacifism/Peace Theology #2]”

Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Continue reading “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]”

Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2020

Since we are in the midst of the turmoil, we don’t yet fully understand just how earthshaking this first half of 2020 will turn out to be. Right now, though, it feels as if we are in the midst of rapid and dramatic events that will change the world as we know it. It’s exciting but also unnerving. I wonder what thoughts those with pacifist convictions might have to offer.

What do I mean by “pacifist convictions”? I think of pacifism as an aspiration to live and think as if nothing matters as much as love. This leads on the one hand, to a commitment to resist domination and injustice, and on the other hand, to a commitment to avoid violence. I don’t think of pacifism as a quest for purity and total consistency so much as holding ahead of us the goals of healing, of justice, of compassion and recognizing, with Gandhi (perhaps our most important theorist of pacifism), that the means of achieving those goals must be consistent with the goals themselves.

This blog post will be the first of many as I try to return to more regular blog activity during our time of upheaval. I am being challenged to revisit my core convictions and try to imagine their relevance to the world I am observing. It’s a good time to try to think one’s thoughts through. Let me reflect on three pacifism-inspired questions: (1) What about the impact of property destruction during the current demonstrations? (2) Is it possible for people seeking change to resist the polarization that seems so pervasive in American society right now? (3) Is it important to raise issues related to our nation’s warism even as we deal with more immediate crises? Continue reading “Pacifist questions during an uprising [Pacifism/Peace Theology #1]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]

Ted Grimsrud—May 15, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the up and down of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. Here’s Part I: Sanders Ascendent and Part II: Biden Takes Control.]

Part III: Taking stock

April 14, 2020

How did Trump get elected? [The first of three sections]

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this year’s presidential election is the most crisis-surrounded one since 1932. No one knew then what kind of president Franklin Roosevelt would be. He was far from perfect, but he rose to the occasion and helped make things better. I have no hope for such an outcome this year. How should we think about this? Let’s start with the 2016 election.

Barack Obama won the 2012 election fairly comfortably, and most expected Hillary Clinton to follow suite. She did win the popular vote by about 2% but lost in the electoral college. My sense is that two key parts of the electorate that had supported Obama did not give Clinton the same support: (1) some white working class people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump and (2) some younger people who voted for Obama and then didn’t vote for president in 2016 (e.g., supposedly in Michigan the number of people who voted but left the line for president blank was four times higher than Trump’s margin of victory). The numbers didn’t have to be huge, just enough to make a difference. It appears that Trump did not out-perform Mitt Romney (46.1% of the vote compared to Romney’s 47.2%); the difference was that Clinton under-performed Obama, especially among those two groups.

Clinton, it seems, ran a campaign focused more on putting Trump down than on offering a strong, positive vision that would give undecided people a reason to vote for her. She barely campaigned in the key rust belt states that turned the election. She showed inadequate interest in and empathy toward working people (white and black) who had been hurt by the economic crises of 2008-9. She did little to build bridges to Bernie Sanders’s constituencies. Her tone was that “everything is great” in America, something that may have felt tone-deaf to people who struggled to get by. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [3]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]

Ted Grimsrud—May 2, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts. [Here’s Part I: Sanders ascendant]

Part II: Biden takes control

March 11, 2020

The Democratic Party’s presidential primaries have taken a dizzying turn these past couple of weeks. It’s been amazing, really.

One of the stunning aspects is how Biden has all of sudden become the presumptive nominee without actually doing anything to earn that status. He has scarcely campaigned and remains the same tepid candidate who was given up for dead just a short time ago.

My sense is that the most powerful factor among Democratic Party voters has been terror at the idea of another Trump term. That extreme fearfulness has been skillfully exploited by the corporate interests. They turned the fearfulness into an anti-Sanders fear (this has included, for months, an endless drumbeat of hostility toward Sanders in the corporate media), so when all the other “moderates” dropped out and left Biden as the only alternative to Sanders, fearful voters turned to him.

The end result, of course, is a terrific victory for the corporate interests—they have their boy in place (though it is a bit unsettling to have the sense that they were close to completely abandoning Biden just weeks ago until it became clear that none of the other candidates had much of a chance; they also seemed to be recognizing his weakness as a candidate). So we are left with a choice—vicious corporatocracy vs. a somewhat kinder, gentler corporatocracy. Of course, this has almost always been our only choice—but for a moment it seemed that this year might be different. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 2]”

The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts.]

PART I: Sanders ascendant

January 20, 2020 notes for an unpublished post

I have appreciated Bernie Sanders ever since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, VT, in the 1980s. If I think of him as a presidential candidate in relation to my ideal of what a candidate would be like, I’d rate him only fair to good. But if I think of him in relation to all the serious candidates for president I know anything about in American history, I would rate him exceptionally good. Right now, it is looking as if he has a genuine shot to win both the nomination and the general election. For the first time ever since I began voting, I feel as if we have one candidate that I can support both in terms of my ideals and the pragmatic likelihood of actually being elected.

As a voter, I tend to place a higher priority on the candidate’s fit with my political values than a sense of who would be most electable. With Sanders, though, I don’t feel as if I have to make a choice between these two approaches.

Sanders is not an extremist. Most of his values correspond with what most American people want when they are polled. At the center is universal healthcare, what Sanders calls “Medicare for All.” He also advocates what he’s calling a “Green New Deal” that will thoroughly address that climate crisis and other environmental problems. I appreciate his critique of the domination of big corporations and billionaires that corrupts our political system. He’s less of an imperialist and warist than any of the other Democratic Party candidates.

He energizes young voters, as well as other generally marginalized groups such as Latinos and Muslims. He cares deeply about the needs of black Americans, other working people, and others at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. He’s critical of the retributivist criminal justice system, he supports unions, is more positive toward Palestinians than the other candidates. He is pushing for an increased minimum wage and for much greater access to higher education and assistance for those who have accumulated major debts from their schooling.

I am optimistic that Sanders actually has a greater potential for defeating Trump than the other candidates. He understands that the Democrats need to expand the electorate and provide reasons for many of the scandalously large number of non-voters (especially young people and people of color) to enter the electoral process. At the same time, because of his critiques of free trade and other policies that alienated working people from corporate-friendly Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, he might also be able to attract some of the “Obama/Trump” voters who might have become less positive about our current president. Continue reading “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]”