Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. –Psalm 119:28
When the soul is crushed with the weight of unanswerable questions, how do we begin to bind up our wounds? How many times have we gone through this? How many more can we endure?
We experience such shock each time we hear the news. But at what point do we refuse to dismiss such instances as “random” and “unheard of”? When do as a society begin to take collective responsibly for the lives that have been lost? How many will it take before we examine the “cultural pathology” of mass shooting?
There is a double standard that exists around the explanation of such events. It would not take very many mass shootings in which the perpetrators were black, Muslim, or Latino before we would hear comments about “violent cultures” and the ‘moral bankruptcy‘ of an entire group.
Jared Lee Loughner shot former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, AZ. on Jan. 8, 2011. Six of those shot died.
This is the danger of maintaining cultural white male default. We are blind to the ugly aspects of a culture that is perpetually considered ‘normal.’ If these shooters were black men, there would be a collective shaking-of-heads at their ‘inherit violent nature‘. If Latina women were committing mass shootings at a similar rate, the media would certainly be asking what the cause of it might be. But after the Newton shootings, we will see no law enforcement policy changes that will increase the racial profiling of white men.
It is a chilling aspect of white privilege to be able “to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group” (Chauncey DeVega). Time and again, the white men who commit these mass shooting are framed as “lone wolves” and “outliers,” with little examination or reflection on a broader cultural responsibility.
On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes shot multiple guns into the audience at a midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ killing 12 people and injuring 58.
“When white people do something bad it is due to circumstances, a bad upbringing, a psychological disorder or something. Because, apart from a few bad apples, white people are Basically Good. Everyone knows it. But when black people do something bad it is because they were born that way.”
When the shooter is white, we dig into school and psychiatric records in search for explanationsas to why someone so “normal” would do such a thing. The shooter is often perceived as the quite, unremarkable “boy next door” that no on ever dreamed would suddenly snap.
Charles Carl Roberts murdered five girls and injured five others at an Amish school in Lancaster County, PA., on Oct. 2, 2006.
As sensationalized as inner-city violence is, mass shootings of strangers in public settings like schools and shopping malls are virtually non-existent in urban neighborhoods. And despite gun-blazing stereotypes, the majority of people of color are pro-gun control, in stark contrast to the white voting public.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and injuring 24.
Finally, the understandable horror that is felt after each mass shooting is in stark contrast to the silence and apathy with regard to the children that are dying on the streets everyday. There are daily cries for change and regulation coming from the mouths of mourning mothers that are never heard. The shock expressed after the events like those in Newton subtly sends the message that “this shouldn’t happen here, in our idyllic white suburban community. We’re not like those neighborhoods where you expect random violence.” These attitudes are reflected in the difference in public attention span depending on the race of the victim, whether it’s a shooting at a Sikh temple, or a missing child report.
When white is seen as the default, any deviant behavior can be excused as the exception to the rule. Conversely, when we limit our interactions with those of other races, we are forced to rely on heuristics to generalize about the “other.” If Adam Lanza were black, it would reaffirm stereotypes of a violent culture. If he were Muslim, the shooting would be a “clear act of terrorism.” But as a white male, he is characterized as a disturbed individual, wholly distinct from the race and culture to which he belongs.
Gene Marks has rocketed to the top of the notoriety heap with his recent Forbes.com article, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” in which he attempts to offer bootstrap advice to young inner-city minorities. “I would read a lot of books,” and so on. One of my favorites is “I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in school.” Though Mr. Marks appears somewhat clueless and almost refreshingly naïve in his piece — and apparently so controversial that one of Forbes’ own staff writers has questioned Marks’ journalistic motives — I appreciate the fact that he has, however awkwardly, started a conversation about an important issue in today’s society. No, not the disenfranchisement of America’s underclass, or even the gaps in technological access and opportunity inherent in today’s educational system. No, the issue to which I refer is the rampant underachievement of Rich White Men.
Rich White Men are failing left and right to realize the promise of the opportunities that are afforded them in today’s world. Why should they have to suffer? Sure, it will take some hard work and a little luck, but there is no reason why Mr. Marks and his friends can’t reach their full potential one day.
If I were a Rich White Man, I’d start by making sure I got into a good college. I’d prefer Harvard, of course, but I’d settle for Yale. I suppose it would depend on where others in my family had attended. I’m sure it’s totally based on merit, but if my father had graduated Yale, I think I can make a pretty good case of why I should be a Yalie. While in college I wouldn’t spend too much of my energy and time studying, I would instead concentrate on making the right connections and laying the proper groundwork for my future endeavors. After all, it’s often not what you know but who you know.
I would use those connections to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that could easily derail me. Is an unpopular war going on? I would by all means necessary avoid the actual battleground and would prefer to serve my country by joining the National Guard. I would be sure to take lots of pictures while in uniform, as these will definitely come in handy in the future. I’d make every effort to become a pilot, because people tend to view pilots as heroic and smart. I’d also technically be able to say that I was a pilot during the war, even though the closest I’d ever been to the actual war would have been a postcard. Actual warfare is for poor people anyway.
I would get involved with the business world as much as I could. I would find some money somewhere (perhaps some small inheritance from a distant relative) and buy an oil field, or maybe a sports team. It’s not important that these businesses succeed, only that I establish myself as someone who is good at “making things happen.” I’d use my influential friends to help me run for some political office — maybe senator or governor. Who knows? Perhaps I’d even try for the White House.
As a C.E.O., I’d take advantage of all the generous tax breaks offered to me to keep my company from relocating to another town or state or country. After all, the jobs I’d provide will be essential to the economy, so the government will owe me at least that much. I’d also be sensitive to the needs of my stockholders, since they are people too. If restructuring my workforce becomes necessary in order to enhance the return on their investment, I’d put my own self-interest aside and act on their concerns. And during times of economic downturn, like we’re facing now, I’d even be willing to sacrifice a few million from my $10 million annual bonus.
At age 55, I’d retire to my ranch, secure in the knowledge that I’ve fulfilled the promise of the opportunities afforded to me, and that the blame for any mistakes I may have made will be left with my successor. “Passing the buck” is, after all, one of the more important strategies in the Rich White Man arsenal.
So that’s what I’d do if I were a Rich White Man. I’m kind of at a loss to explain why ALL Rich White Men are not attempting to go down this path. To quote Mr. Marks, “the opportunity is still there in this country for those who are smart enough to go for it.” Maybe they’re just lazy.
HAWAII'S SON: President Obama Aloha Bobblehead dolls are among the touristy souvenirs available at gift shops like this one in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
The word “Hawaii” conjures up scenes of grass skirts, surfboards, gorgeous beaches, and volcanoes. Recently, images of our current President have been added to that list. Whether one is for or against his style of leadership, one thing is certain: it is unfamiliar. His strong centrist stand is not a popular modus operandi of past presidents, and for this reason it garners attention — unless, you have the “aloha” in you. For those, like myself, who were raised within the group-centric culture of Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s brand of leadership is nothing new.
Those from the “mainland,” what those of us from Hawaii call the continental U.S., rarely understand how truly different Hawaii is from the rest of the United States, particularly for people of color. It is one of the few (and perhaps only) places the European Standards for culture, beauty, power, and “justice” are not in effect. They are replaced by the East Asian and native Polynesian standards that reach back farther in history than the United States of America as country. These standards were social norms I was first introduced to, much like the president. I was torn from my Pacific Ocean-bound paradise as I was entering my tweens. My father’s military career took us from our colorful, diversity-filled oasis to the Midwest cosmos of corn, soybeans, and snow.
How significant is being raised in such a truly diverse, non-Eurocentric, group-driven, island-based culture?
It is significant enough that any person of color who is socialized in Hawaii and then leaves must go through a process of re-learning American race relations within their own group (colorism) and in relation to mainstream American culture. They also have another task: learning their new place on the racial totem pole.
I can say from experience it is a very ugly, cruel, bewildering process. I spent my early childhood on Oahu. Once you go through it, you know it, and you behave accordingly. That is why I will admit to smiling whenever I hear the president pronounce Hawai‘i properly; it’s done deliberately. Hearing “Hawai‘i,” “luau,” and “ukulele” pronounced properly makes me giddy these days.
COMING HOME: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a 2009 vacation. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
To be sure, Hawaii is not free of racialized class structures, and it harbors its own brand of racism; yet, this too takes a different strain. It is far less disruptive to the almighty Group-with-a-capital-G to simply ignore members it finds undesirable. The Group limits interaction with them and is as polite and distant as is practical when its members must interact with Outsiders. In this way, everyone inside and outside of the Group may save face. “Saving face” is another important East Asian tenant. While this is just as wrong, burning crosses, throwing tomatoes, hate marches, and interesting costumes are not as conducive to “perpetual harmony.”
The “East Asian Cultural standard” I refer to is an amalgamation of major tenants of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. It is the cultural norm of Hawaii along with native Polynesian culture. Together they create an entirely different American experience. It is an experience that challenges mainland perceptions of race, class, and gender relations.
Hawaiian popular and native culture is group centric. In the native culture (keep in mind, it is not monolithic) the idea of “ohana” comes to mind. Translated simply as “family” in true practice, it means far more than that. A great representation of the highest form of “ohana” is what the body of Christ is called to be and what the Christian church is to be, as modeled in the New Testament book of Acts.
The Group always comes before the individual. Life doesn’t revolve around being a special snowflake. Rather, it is more important to lend your talents to the betterment of something above and beyond yourself. This is not a popular sentiment in mainstream American culture, where our love of the anti-hero rings loud and clear.
For instance, a state like Texas, the home of former President George W. Bush, as well as current GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, is a great example of the “Cult of Individualism” that is a part of the mainland American consciousness. This mentality is the polar opposite of the Group/ohana mindset. When Gov. Perry subtly implied in 2009 that secession could be a possibility for Texas if things didn’t change in Washington, it reaffirmed the image of the Lone Star State as a collection of cowboys (and girls) who answer to no one. This isn’t to say that focusing on the individual is detrimental. But it’s no secret that the worship of self can cause far-reaching negative consequences throughout society, a fact the Bible and secular history have made abundantly clear.
In the case of President Obama, some say he’s too willing to compromise and that he doesn’t assert himself enough when it comes to playing the political game. In a recent, widely discussed Washington Post essay, White House reporter Scott Wilson charged President Obama with being “the loner president,” an isolated politician who prefers policy over people in Washington. “This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observed. “There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.”
But what his critics see as a flaw might actually be a strength, at least from the perspective of ohana. It could be that his great skill in being so centrist (to his party’s and the GOP’s annoyance) comes from the ability to set his gaze solidly on The Group and put its needs before his own, as a matter of upbringing and personal conviction. While caught in the political throes of his own party, the GOP, and the Tea Party, he has delivered the tow-the-line stance he promised during his 2008 campaign — perhaps too well, for the mainland.
In this case, we — the American people, in certain instances — are President Obama’s Group, not necessarily the Democratic Party.
So, why is this a problem?
Did we not elect our congressional leaders, in good faith, to put our needs before donkeys and elephants, red and blue, lobbyists and Wall Streeters? Didn’t we ask them to put aside their own personal (often financial) interests and fight for all people to have a chance at living the “American Dream”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: President Obama in 2010 with the staff of Island Snow, a shaved-ice shop in Kailua, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Newscom)
If Congress practiced the concept of “ohana” according to its popular understanding and placed the Group ahead of personal gain, Washington, D.C., and America in general, could become a very different place. That’s not to say everyone in the Group would receive what they desire. However, the Group as a whole would be better off than, say, a privileged 1% of the Group at the expense of the other 99%. The tyranny of the majority is tempered by a hint of the Confucian principles of the Five Ideal Relationships: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Within this environment, there is an understood expectation that those that are submitted to will take care of those that submit to them. These obligations are taken seriously; otherwise one risks dishonor and the loss of his status in society.
In this context, political bias would have to kneel before the desires of the Ultimate Group: the American people. Lobbyists, Unions, Big Business, and personal gain would have to wait their turns as the needs of the American “ohana” — the American family — came first.
We the people — America, the Group — would always come first.
That is a Washington I would love to say “aloha” to.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
A repost of our March 23, 2010 book review.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.
ACTING PRESIDENTIAL: Obama impersonator Reggie Brown onstage at the Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, before getting the hook. (Newscom photo/Lee Celano)
The top story in politics from this past weekend was the gathering of GOP candidates at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the main topic of conversation around water coolers on Monday morning wasn’t what the candidates said but what was said about them on Saturday night by an intrepid Barack Obama impersonator. After delivering jokes aimed squarely at President Obama, the Faux-bama suddenly appeared to (forgive us, Mrs. Palin) “go rogue” with sharp zingers aimed at the GOP contenders. It was at this point that the performer’s microphone fell silent, and he was abruptly escorted from the stage.
An equal opportunity comedian, Reggie Brown is undaunted by the criticism from multiplequarters regarding his performance, and particularly the race jokes he shared during his act. UrbanFaith news and religion editor Christine Scheller spoke to Brown by phone Tuesday afternoon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you ever had this kind of response before to one of your performances?
REGGIE BROWN: No, this the beginning. This has been amazing.
What’s your reaction?
I love it. It was an opportunity to get in front of a huge audience. When I first got the invitation, I was extremely excited to come down and speak at the leadership conference. … I’ve been building a reputation in the corporate world, with speakers bureaus and other private events, but for the most part, a lot of America didn’t really know who I was yet, and this gave me the opportunity to get out there. I did my job, did my material. From what I’ve heard, everyone thought I did it very, very well, including pretty much everyone at the conference who came up [to me afterwards]. I’ve been getting thousands of fan mails and new subscribers. Even the organizers thanked me and told me I did a great job.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, it sounded like the Republican Leadership Conference president sold you out. He said he would have pulled you sooner and had no tolerance for racially insensitive jokes. What did you think about that?
I don’t even want to touch that. People are intelligent enough to know when I delivered the jokes and when I was pulled. That was in the beginning of my material and it wasn’t until later when I brought up the candidates that I was pulled off the stage. From what they told me, I was over my time.
Do you get more gigs with Republican organizations than with Democratic ones?
So far, yeah. I think I have worked more for Republican parties than Democrat, but I work with Tim Waters, who was the number one Clinton impersonator and he said during [Clinton’s] reign, he found that to be true also. He said, “You’ll always find the opposing party hires you more.”
There was some debate about your race jokes in African American media outlets. What do you think about that?
My mother’s white and my father’s black, so I would have that in common with the president and I wouldn’t do anything towards any race to set them back … For my jokes to be called racist initially by a lot of reviews that came out, it’s absolutely ridiculous.
I thought they were done in a tasteful manner. It’s nothing I would have felt ashamed with if I was in that audience and someone said it. I don’t think the president took offense to it. He actually cracked jokes at the Correspondent’s Dinner referring to his background. When he opens a door on a topic, that opens it for me as well.
I don’t ever want to offend anyone in my material. Basically what I do is bring humor to situations. That’s comedy. I think it was one individual who made that statement. The media took it and started running with it. I urge people to watch the full appearance. I felt that I did well and everyone else pretty much has too.
Do you feel like you can’t win doing race jokes as a biracial person or can you address the topic from both angles?
I can address things from both sides, especially nowadays, it’s more common for people to be biracial and mixed. … I know it was tough for my mom to raise me in the neighborhood we grew up in, especially taking us to certain pools and doing things like that. Now it’s just becoming more widely accepted and that’s a beautiful thing.
Do you have any tips for a comedian trying to work a tough room?
You just need to know your audience. I performed at a comedy club in Times Square really late one night, doing my political jokes and a lot of the material that normally kills fell flat, but it was because at 1:00 in the morning at a comedy club, most of them wanted to hear the F-bombs being dropped and I came with really witty political humor. I didn’t do too well. I got off stage and saw the next couple comedians, and immediately they’re like eff this, eff that, and everyone was rolling on the floor. So, you just have to know your audience and anticipate what they want.
YES, HE CAN: Reggie Brown says Obama's own jokes about his background open the door for him to be more daring about race.
Did the Republican Leadership Conference audience laugh less at the Republican jokes than at the race jokes as reported?
That audience was awesome. They were amazing. That’s why the performance was so good. As a performer, for the most part, doing what I do, you gain off the energy. After I got pulled, they were coming up to me, [saying], “Why’d they pull you off the stage? You were the best part of the conference for me.” … They were great. Even when I was getting the oohs and ahhs, I was still getting a strong reaction.”
On your website, it says you offer clean comedy for corporate events. Is that qualifier based on anything in particular?
Basically, it’s the character protection. There are other guys out there trying to do the Obama character and they’re doing it in ways that I feel are disrespectful, not only to the president, but to … I’m not even going to go there, but I just don’t agree with what they’re doing. There’s a YouTube video of this guy drinking 40s and smoking joints as the president. That’s ridiculous. That does nothing for the progression of comedy in my mind. For comedy to be funny, it’s gotta’ be witty, intelligent, and have something behind it. That’s what we do.
Are you primarily a clean comedian even when you’re not doing the Obama character?
Yeah, for the most part. I’m an actor first and foremost, so I would accept roles that aren’t necessarily clean. Sometimes in my material as myself, I tend to keep it PG-13, but I’m not one of those guys that goes out there and just swears, swears, swears. It’s gotta have some intelligence behind it and some motivation behind it.
What are you up to next?
A surprise appearance at a major sporting event on Thursday, but we have tons of bookings coming in. … Most of the time, I’m a surprise guest so I can’t really reveal where I’ll be, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of me very soon.