Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Riots: A Challenge to White People in America

I am not in favor of violence. I do not approve of riots. Judging the riots in Baltimore yesterday as wrong is entirely appropriate.

But, lest you be too quick to make an easy judgment, it may do you some good to think about what you would do if you lived in West Baltimore.

Imagine living amidst violence, or the threat of violence, on a daily basis. Imagine not trusting, or even being afraid of, the police. Imagine being confronted by police armed with riot gear when you exit school, being denied the right to get on a bus to go home to safety, being herded into a small public space and not being allowed to leave.

At what point would your anger erupt.

Langston Hughes, in his famous poem, "Harlem," expresses this eruption well:
What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Were I a teenager, I very well may have been involved in the type of rioting we saw in Baltimore yesterday. Now, my teenage years were nothing like those experienced in Gilmore Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested. But I did have my run-ins with the cops, despite the fact that I wasn't doing anything wrong or breaking any laws. In my hometown, riding a skateboard was enough to draw the ire of the police.

Even though the preps and the rednecks both congregated in groups of 30 or 40 in the grocery story parking lot, drinking beer underage and disturbing shoppers, the police never messed with them. But they never missed an opportunity to stop us.

And so, when my friends and I saw a police cruiser, we would take off, just like Freddie Gray did. We had experienced enough harassment. We didn't run because we had done anything wrong; we ran because we were tired of being harassed for no reason.

We were angry.


By no means do I mean to equate my experience with theirs. But what I do intend is to draw a parallel, a way for me (and you?) to understand why one would start or join a riot. Not to justify rioting, but to understand the forces behind a riot.

One of my favorite songs in high school was Rancid's "I Wanna Riot," and I think it does a good job expressing the tension that leads to rioting. When I was angry, this was the soundtrack in my head. I felt helpless, powerless, voiceless - as teenagers often do - and the lines, "'Cause I'm a kid who's got a lot of problems / If I throw a brick, maybe the brick will go and solve them," spoke to me.

Did I actually have a lot of problems? No. But, then again, I lived in Warner Robins, Georgia, not West Baltimore.

Here's the thing, though: If, in my relative comfort, the anger that built up inside me when the police harassed us for skateboarding made me drawn to violence, just imagine what living with the weight of a dream deferred for generations will do for you.

I understand the impulse towards violence. All too well, I understand it. That's one reason why, in college, I was drawn to Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke professor of theological ethics, and pacifist, who was named TIME magazine's Theologian of the Year in 2001.

"I'm a pacifist," Hauerwas said, "because I'm a violent son of a bitch."

For Hauerwas, though, one can only be a pacifist in community, a community of shared beliefs that shares in the practice of nonviolence. Hauerwas said that he needed others to help him resist his violent tendencies, to hold him accountable to his beliefs that violence is wrong, to call him out on his violence.

But what happens when we lack such a community?

Listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing for The Atlantic, respond to the calls for nonviolence in Baltimore:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.
 It's one thing when a community of nonviolence, like the one Hauerwas describes, calls members of that community to uphold their commitment to nonviolence. It's another thing entirely for members of a violent community to call for nonviolence when those who have felt the brunt of its violence get fed up and lash out.

And yet that's exactly what's happening.

Coates goes on:
And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
The point isn't to defend violence or to justify riots. I can't say it enough: Violence, of any kind, is wrong.

But it's not that simple. It's especially not that simple for us white people. And it's especially not that simple when white people critique Black violence.

I think back to James Cone, the Black liberation theologian, who expressed his frustration with the (white) Christian response to the riots during the Civil Rights Movement:
The most sensitive whites merely said: "We deplore the riots but sympathize with the reason for your riots." ...That response was not only humiliating and insulting but wrong. It revealed not only an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also...a theological bankruptcy. The education of white theologians did not prepare them to deal with Watts, Detroit, and Newark.
We should add Baltimore. And Ferguson. And many more.

No, violence is not wise, is not correct.

But neither is defending what Coates calls "the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community." This is especially true when that law and order has white skin and that community has brown skin. Such law and order has lost its legitimacy. And those who defend such illegitimacy have lost their own legitimacy.

As Cone said, "How did whites muster the gall to lecture oppressed blacks about love and nonviolence? How could whites be surprised by the anger of American blacks?"

The problem, though, is that, like Cone said, we (white people) are not prepared to deal with Baltimore. We know that violence is wrong - it is wrong, after all - and yet calling for nonviolence reveals "an insensitivity to black pain."

I think back to one of my heroes, Will Campbell, one of the leading white people behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960s, Brother Will, as he was known, accepted Stokely Carmichael's challenge for white people to stop worrying about what Black people ought to do and start worrying about what white people ought to do. And so Campbell started reaching out to Klan members and ministering to them.

What if we accepted Carmichael's challenge today? What would that look like?

I think Carmichael would tell white people today to stop worrying about Black people rioting and start worrying about the violent actions of white police.

Are you up for that challenge?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Guest Blogging on RTI²

I'm exciting to be contributing a series on RTI² over at Bluff City Ed and invite you to check it out.
For those who don't know what RTI² is - and that's most people, really - think of it as a support system for struggling students. It's the extra help, called interventions, that about 15-20% of kids need.
Sixteen scholars entered our school in 6th grade this year as non-readers. Non-readers, meaning they did not even have a grasp on basic letter-sound correspondence. That’s over 15% of our population, which is consistent with what we saw last year. Obviously, there’s a problem when so many kids go through six years of elementary school without learning how to read.
This is a big reason why, about a year ago, Tennessee announced an exciting new education reform initiative, RTI².
To learn more about RTI² and how it can benefit kids like our non-readers, hop over to Bluff City Ed to read more.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Finding A Good School Is Hard

Our son will begin Kindergarten in the Fall. But circumstances have conspired to make the transition much more difficult than it ever should be.

Finding a good school, apparently, is hard.

And that's coming from someone with a graduate degree and who works in education. So imagine what it's like for a parent who struggles to read, a parent who lacks transportation, a parent working multiple jobs.

What's so hard?

Well, to start with, while we aren't poor, we are certainly far from rich. And so we live in a small, two-bedroom house in North Memphis. We live in the 'hood. No joke. Pizza Hut won't deliver to our house, and on occasion we hear gunshots. Fortunately, the few blocks around us are safe, because we can't afford to move to a better neighborhood.

However, if you can't afford to live in a better neighborhood, you generally aren't zoned to attend quality school. And so it is with us. The school we're zoned to is nice and new on the outside, but I don't trust what's going on inside. It's a failing school.

There's hope, though. If you are zoned to a failing school, you have an opportunity to transfer. So that's what we did. And, because of our failing school status, we were bumped up the list. We felt confident that we would be accepted into our school of choice.

Wrong. The letter came a few days ago saying that we didn't get in (not in our first choice or our second) and would need to enroll at our zoned school, the one that's failing.

That news left us scrambling to figure something out. Private school is not an option -- remember, we can't afford to move out of the 'hood, so there's no way we can afford private school.

So, what is one to do?

Charter school, here we come!

Memphis is relatively new to the charter school scene, and there are some bad charter schools around town. But there are a lot of really bad traditional public school as well. That's why we're in this situation to begin with. I just want my son in a good school. As my boss likes to say, I'm "operator-neutral." It doesn't matter to me who is running the school, as long as it's a good school.

Lucky for us, with the district failing us, there happen to be a few quality charter schools nearby. And, lucky for us, I think we're going to have our choice. We applied the other day and visited them today. We know we're in one, and we're number two on the wait list at the other, with the assurance that we'll get in.

It's such a relief to get that behind us.

As a parent, you feel so much more empowered, so much more in control, when you get to choose which school your child attends. Being forced to send your child to a failing school is the worst. No one wants that, but that's how things are. And things have got to change.

Charter schools are not a magic bullet. But they do allow for a greater degree of parent choice. And, as a parent, I appreciate that. Even though we didn't get in our first or second options, we weren't forced into accepting a bad situation. Instead, I am confident that our son will be served well.

But, again, what if we weren't savvy enough to negotiate this complicated process? Many of our neighbors aren't. That's why things have to change. And they can't change fast enough.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Guest Post: On Disability & Education

I was asked to "think aloud for the common good" from my area of expertise, which happens to be special education. This is the first of what will be a semi-regular blog posts over at A Blog of Bears.

Check it out: http://ablogofbears.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/on-disabilities-education/

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


I don't generally do resolutions, but that doesn't mean that I don't set goals. This year, though, I'm going to put myself out there. So, here are a 25 resolutions for 2013.

  1. Save up enough to finally take our long-delayed honeymoon. We just celebrated 10 years of marriage. It's time. (*Note: See below for the long story.)
  2. Pay off our car note. Early. It's scheduled for 2014 and we're on pace to pay it off a few months early already, but I want to make it happen sooner.
  3. Take the kids camping.
  4. Take my son to his first Grizzlies game. And to his first Tiger basketball game. And to his first Tiger football game. He's old enough now.
  5. And take both kids to Redbirds games. At least once per month during the season. It's just $5.
  6. Ride the trolley. Once per month. The kids love it.
  7. Take family strolls. VECA Greenline, Mississippi River, Patriot Lake at Shelby Farms, etc. Once per week, weather pending.
  8. Have regular date nights. Could we afford once per month?
  9. Shave. Keep my neck and cheeks shaved, and my beard trimmed.
  10. Eat breakfast. More than once or twice per week.
  11. Bring lunch to work from home.
  12. Cook more, entertain more, eat out less.
  13. Exercise. I'm so out of shape. And my belly is getting too big.
  14. Laugh.
  15. Listen.
  16. Have a good attitude. And complain less.
  17. Email less. Have conversations instead.
  18. Read a book to the kids each day.
  19. Read a book for myself each month.
  20. Write regularly. Once per week. And submit proposals for conferences.
  21. Do the dishes more often. Three times per week.
  22. Watch more movies with my wife. (We sit next to each other in bed, with his and hers laptops, watching separate shows and films on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon.) Is once per week doable? Can we agree on what to watch?
  23. Give away some money. Give365, maybe?
  24. Give away some time and energy. It's hard to do with a busy schedule and kids, but it's possible.
  25. Apply for the New Memphis Institute (formerly Leadership Academy) Fellows program.
*Note from #1: I worked at FedEx when we were married, which meant two things. One, I didn't have much money, and I paid a large portion of the rehearsal dinner myself, so how to afford a big honeymoon was a problem. Two, we got married during peak holiday time, which at FedEx means you don't get days off; we were doing well for me to get Friday night off for the rehearsal dinner, so I definitely had to be back on Monday night. But we did stay downtown at the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse and have a great couple days. We've been broke ever since, then had kids, and are only now starting to get in a position to save up for a long-delayed trip.