Is Louisiana ignoring its many problems because of institutional racism?

By Robert Mann

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'” — Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If 47 percent of our white children lived in poverty, Louisiana would do something about child poverty. If the rate of white women living with an HIV diagnosis were 11.8 times that of black females, Louisiana would declare a public health crisis. If chemical plants were located next to wealthy white neighborhoods, Louisiana would get serious about environmental justice.

If white people were shot and killed by police at a rate far exceeding their share of the state’s population, policing would change quickly. If wealthy people were required to pay a disproportionately high percentage of their incomes in sales taxes, Louisiana would promptly slash that tax.

If payday lenders preyed mostly on white people, the Louisiana Legislature would crack down on this unethical practice. If our prisons were suddenly full of young white men, Louisiana would reform its criminal justice laws overnight. If the median income of white households were half that of black households, Louisiana’s political leaders would pass laws to promote income equality.

Let’s be honest: These problems are not major concerns to most people in Louisiana because they affect primarily African-Americans and other minorities. They aren’t issues that cause most affluent white Louisianians much heartburn or consternation. 

My children have never gone hungry. I’ve never needed a payday loan. There are no chemical plants near my house. Police officers don’t pull me over for no reason. And if I do get stopped, I never fear for my life. I earn enough that sales taxes aren’t the major portion of my tax bill. I don’t worry about contracting HIV.

The problem, however, is I’m in the same boat with all the souls burdened by these and other issues. Cops who are racist aren’t just someone else’s problem. They work for me. The payday lender rips off the poor family with my tacit permission. The sales taxes that punish and crush poor people are high so that my income and property taxes can be a little lower.

There is a term that describes this collective indifference to poverty, disease, discrimination and suffering: institutional racism.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

There is hope for everyone, even racists and Nazis

By Robert Mann

I love redemption stories because they show, as someone once observed, “Nothing is exempt from resurrection.” And few are more inspiring than one who renounces violence or hate and becomes an exemplar of tolerance or love.

Last week, I came across what first appeared to be a powerful redemption story about a Virginia Catholic priest who revealed his Ku Klux Klan past. Father William Aitcheson wrote about his white supremacist college days, which included burning a cross in the yard of a Maryland black family in 1977.

Besides the cross burnings, he mailed threatening letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. After publishing his confession, Aitcheson stepped down from his Fairfax City church. My first thought was that I hope, for his parishioners’ sake, he returns to his pulpit because we need all the inspiring examples of redemption we can get.

Aitcheson’s story summoned images of other haters who buried their former selves and embraced a new life. I recalled the zealot Saul persecuting early Christians. An accessory to murder, he held the cloaks of those who stoned a man. After his dramatic conversion, St. Paul wrote most of what Christians call “the New Testament.”

Unlike Aitcheson, Paul didn’t hide his past. The same goes for my favorite redeemed sinner, the Englishman John Newton. Of his debauched early adulthood, Newton recalled, “I don’t believe that I have ever since met so daring a blasphemer as myself.”
Newton’s depravity got him sold into virtual slavery in West Africa. He almost starved and was left for dead. His dramatic escape — part of what he called “many dangers, toils and snares” — later persuaded Newton that God preserved him for a higher purpose.

Newton’s spiritual awakening occurred during an Atlantic storm that nearly sank his ship. Despite his renewed faith, Newton entered the slave trade, making three voyages to transport human chattel. “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders,” Newton wrote in his 1788 pamphlet, “Thoughts on the African Slave Trade.”

Newton’s conviction about the wickedness of slavery happened gradually. When he renounced slaving, it was not out of disgust with his wicked work but because he desired more time with his wife. Only as he studied to become a Church of England priest, did he reflect on his wretchedness.

During his 16 years as a priest in the village of Olney — about 60 miles north of London — attendance exploded as the charismatic, self-educated man shared his life story.

On New Year’s Day, 1773, Newton delivered a meditation to his congregation about God’s use of flawed individuals. He also recited the simple poem he wrote about his redemption: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”

Keep reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Teach your children well

By Robert Mann

When violent white supremacy exploded in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, many of us wondered how these young men could have gone awry, descending not only into bigotry but hate so virulent that they could embrace Nazism and murder in service of racial purity.

Where and how did they acquire their sick ideology? What did their parents teach or model for these men that led to their acceptance of such dark and cancerous evil? What could have been done to point them in another direction?

This week, I’ve also asked myself if i have done enough to teach my children about the dignity and inherent worth of every person.

I pray I have. This I know: If my daughter and son have learned anything about love and tolerance from their dad, it’s because my mother taught it to me.

In recent decades, few weeks have passed that I haven’t recalled a seminal, searing event of my childhood, a moment as inedible in my early memory as the Kennedy assassination or Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk. It was the Sunday morning in the late-1960s when my mother — outraged by the humiliation of a black woman who visited our church — dressed down our pastor.

The middle-aged woman was driving to worship when her car broke down in front of the Pinecrest Church of Christ in Beaumont, Texas. Not wishing to miss worship, she came inside. Most members welcomed her warmly. In acknowledging her, however, our pastor explained to the congregation the unusual circumstances that brought this interloper to us, the subtext being we could rest easy knowing she wouldn’t return.

My mother was livid.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link. 

Donald Trump is taking us into the heart of darkness

By Robert Mann

Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction.” ―Susan Sontag

With his profanity and crude insults, his threats of violence against opponents and his insults of the disabled, women and prisoners of war, President Donald Trump has contributed much to the coarsening of American society and politics.During his six months in the White House, he has made the U.S. government callous — even hostile — to the poor and powerless. More troubling, he’s abetted in his immoral enterprise by so-called Evangelical Christians, who ignore Jesus’ admonition to care for “the least of these,” or as I prefer to call them, “God’s beloved.”

Trump didn’t prompt his Evangelical and other supporters to abandon the poor and the sick. Many of them had done so long ago. He has, however, fortified their animosity and vitriol toward the powerless.

What, in God’s name, has happened to us? The United States was once a country people in dark, violent corners of the world saw as a refuge from persecution and torture. People everywhere knew America stood, not only for freedom but for universal human rights.

They had faith the U.S. government — embodying the decency and goodwill of its people — would help them after earthquakes, floods, famines, genocide and war. They knew when no one else would take them in, Americans would throw open our doors to the “poor . . . huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

America has long been a beacon of hope and a staunch defender of the oppressed. Under Trump, however, that’s ending.

We are becoming a sick and sad shadow of our former self. A president elected by a minority of voters and buttressed by a gutless GOP majority in Congress is taking the country on a terrifying ride into the heart of darkness.

Trump and his shrinking but still-potent base oppose offering refuge to oppressed people from other lands, especially if they are from the Middle East. Trump imposes a cruel travel ban against Muslims, and people cheer. Neither he nor his supporters find it within their hardened hearts to defend immigrants with young children before they toss them from the country.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Donald Trump, Republican Party are marooned on Know Nothing Island

By Robert Mann

Marooned on an island of discarded ideologies and false beliefs, members of the modern-day Republican Party are like Japanese dead-enders from World War II who thought the conflict was still raging and that victory — long ago lost — was still possible.

Simply put, the U.S. Republican Party is the most extreme, isolated major political movement in the Western world.

Regarding man-made climate change, Republicans are as anti-science as the church officials who persecuted Galileo in 1615 for claiming the Earth revolved around the Sun. They cling to ignorant, antiquated views in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence. Most of the world’s people accept peer-reviewed scientific research on the world’s climate. Only 15 percent of conservative Republicans do.

Among the world’s developed countries, there are more people who believe NASA faked the Moon landing than say society shouldn’t care for the sick. Only 32 percent of Republicans believe the government has any role in guaranteeing health care to its citizens.

And in Europe and other developed nations, more people than ever can vote, while the Republican Party tosses millions of minorities and young people off the rolls. Only 35 percent of Republicans say “everything possible should be done to make it easy for every citizen to vote.”

Across the developed world, people accept that climate change is real, more people should vote and everyone deserves good, affordable health care.

Among developed nations, however, only the United States has a ruling political party devoted to the minority view on these questions and others (including marriage equality, greater rights for women and minorities and affordable college education).

It’s difficult to understand what a radical, know-nothing retrograde outfit runs the United States government if you follow only American politics. What appears normal to domestic eyes is among the most unusual set of political and scientific beliefs in the developed world.

In two cases — voting rights and health care — the questions are about what it means to call ourselves a democracy devoted to equality and human rights. In the other — climate change — it is a willful decision by party leaders and their propaganda arm (Fox News) to deny and lie about the near-unanimous results of decades of peer-reviewed research.

Consider voting rights. From our beginning, the nation has argued over which people will elect our leaders. Since 1776, the franchise has expanded to those without property, to women, to blacks and other minorities, to young people and to ex-offenders who have served their time.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Mitch Landrieu’s speech on race was one for the ages

By Robert Mann

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu last week (May 19) delivered one of the most honest speeches on race I’ve ever heard from a white Southern politician. I know, that’s not saying much. It’s a low bar Landrieu vaulted over. But just because so many white elected officials in the South won’t speak frankly to their constituents about race doesn’t mean what Landrieu said isn’t worthy of praise.

With his courage in presiding over removal of three Confederate statues and a white supremacist memorial — and his sensitive, spirited defense of those actions — Landrieu has not only secured his place as one of New Orleans’ more notable mayors; he also might have propelled himself into the conversation for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

If he runs, having torn down a few statues and delivered a historic speech won’t guarantee Landrieu any convention delegates. Among other things, he must overcome his mixed record on the city’s deplorable crime rate.

But just as Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable 1860 Cooper Union speech about slavery propelled the little-known Illinois lawyer toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, so might Landrieu’s Gallier Hall speech prompt Democrats to give the Louisiana mayor a closer look.

That would be a good thing. The last time the nation noted a speech by a New Orleans mayor was in 2006, when the now-imprisoned Ray Nagin demanded the return to “a chocolate New Orleans.”

I urge you to read Landrieu’s speech online to appreciate its poetry and power. What most impressed me is that, like many great leaders, Landrieu did not cast blame or condemn his political opponents.

Yet he was refreshingly honest about the city’s racial history. “New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousand of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture,” he said.

He forcefully refuted the ludicrous notion that the statues should remain because they are part of that history. “When people say to me that the monuments are history, well what I just described is real history, as well, and it is the searing truth.” That, he said, “begs the question: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks?”

Landrieu’s extensive discussion about why city leaders installed statues and monuments (“to rewrite history and hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity”) was as powerful and persuasive as anything I’ve seen on this question.

It was Landrieu’s closing passages which were most impressive and should be studied by historians and students of political rhetoric. Evoking his personal “journey on race,” Landrieu described a friend who “asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African-American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?”

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.