A Culture Worth Celebrating

Yesterday I read an article that talked about an incident at a California public school where some students were not allowed to wear American flag shirts during a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Understandably, some people are pretty upset about potential free speech issues associated with what happened. The whole situation is really messy (with some students threatening violence against the kids sporting American flags), and there are certainly complex constitutional issues worth discussing. But the legal issues are not what I want to talk about right now.

Two things really bothered me about the incident and the article that I read.

First, reading the details of the incident (as retold in a 9th Circuit court decision) makes it pretty obvious that some of the students in this school were not being at all accepting of the Mexican-American students and their culture. During Cinco de Mayo the previous year, “Some students hung a makeshift American flag on one of the trees on campus, and as they did, the group of Caucasian students began clapping and chanting ‘USA'” (9th Circuit court decision). Think about how bizarre it would be to bring an American flag to an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day (or to a Synagogue on Yom Kippur) and start chanting “USA!” How is one supposed to interpret that as anything other than opposition to St. Patrick’s Day and–ultimately–to Irish culture in the US?

Of course, there’s no popular perception that Irish people “aren’t assimilating” in the US today (though there almost certainly once was), so it’s hard to picture such an anti-Irish protest actually happening. The wearing of American flags to a Cinco de Mayo celebration happened in a context where many people (including some people I know and love) are truly concerned about Latino-American culture and how it may impact the US. I’ll say more on that in a minute. For now, I just want you to consider how unwelcoming it might feel to have other students provocatively proclaiming their patriotism to the US on a day that is supposed to celebrate the unique culture and experiences of you and your family.

A second thing that bothered me was that the article said “the 9th Circuit upheld the rights of Mexican students celebrating a foreign holiday over those of our own exercising their speech rights.” It’s certainly accurate to note that the court privileged other concerns over free speech rights. But notice the language that’s used in this sentence. It casts things in such stark us-versus-them terms: “the rights of Mexican students celebrating a foreign holiday over those of our own exercising their speech rights” (emphasis added). The wording implies that students of Mexican birth or descent who take offense at students wearing American flags to a Cinco de Mayo celebration are not part of “our own”–not part of the American identity. Even labeling Cinco de Mayo as a “foreign holiday” (despite the fact that it’s probably celebrated more in the US than in Mexico) communicates an assumption about what it means for something to be American. Why can’t a celebration of Mexican-American culture be an American holiday?

Just to be clear, I’m not in any way trying to argue that responding with violence or threats of violence is appropriate. And I’m not trying to make a statement about whether or not school officials responded in an appropriate manner.

What I am saying is that it’s a real tragedy when kids are told by others that their culture is not one worth celebrating.

That’s a recipe for producing shame. Today, I read some powerful words from a Latina woman named Noemi Vega:

I grew up wrestling with the model minority identity, as I would hear statistics about my Latino people that caused me to internalize shame. I felt embarrassed for my people who got pregnant before graduating high school or when my friends would ask why my lunch was a burrito instead of the cafeteria food. In order to overcome all of these negative stereotypes, I tried to be the “best Latina” that I could and earn the best grades that I could, but I never felt like my best was “enough.” Shame prevented me from seeing the beauty of my culture and of who God made me to be. (http://intervarsity.org/blog/importance-understanding-your-latino-identity)

For most people, freedom isn’t found in shedding the cultural identity that they inherited. Freedom is found in learning to see the beauty in who they are. Noemi Vega continues:

As I started to learn about God’s intentionality in designing our cultures, I began to see the beauty in being a Latina. We have a joyful style of worship that celebrates God’s role in our lives and a strong value for familia that helps us be welcoming Bible study members. I have also found that the more I am aware of the gifts from my culture, the more I am able to connect with my familia; instead of shame about our immigrant background or our economic status or our acculturation, I am able to feel embraced by my God who once was shamed on the cross and shamed by being born in the most humble of places. Jesus, who was supremely rejected, supremely welcomes us and calls us friend, brother, sister. We are his familia. (http://intervarsity.org/blog/importance-understanding-your-latino-identity)

Latino culture isn’t ruining America. It’s part of America.

I don’t think we always realize the power that our words can have to slice. When we talk about people needing to speak English or integrate into American society, others hear us saying that there’s something inadequate about who they are. They hear us saying that they need to be more like us. That who we are is better than who they are.

I’ll close by sharing a really powerful article by another Latina woman about the day she gave up her Mexican last name. I highly recommend that you go read the whole thing here, but I’ll also post a short excerpt:

It was sometime in fifth or sixth grade that I started looking for ways to mask my Mexican-ness. I mimicked clothing choices of the preppy white girls, attempted to play sports and tried out to be a cheerleader, got competitive with academics, and tried to maneuver social circles to prove to everyone I wasn’t like those “other Mexicans.” It worked to some extent; I was told multiple times throughout junior high and high school that “Oh, you’re not really Mexican, you’re white,” which I wore like a badge of honor. Because Mexicans got pregnant in high school, Mexicans did drugs and dropped out, Mexicans didn’t go to college, and I was not one of them.

But it didn’t matter what I was or what I wasn’t, because my last name wasn’t something I could hide on an application or a résumé. Years of striving to be different from a stereotype didn’t matter. The minute someone read or heard the name “Rodriguez” they made assumptions – that I’m not educated, that I’m poor, that I’m promiscuous, that I’m unable to write well, and that I’m someone who can’t be trusted. . . .

So when push came to shove, I changed my name to Angela Prilliman.

I saw the opportunity to appear “more white” and finally receive some of the advantages that come along with that change.

And I immediately was disappointed with myself.


A Premature Response to the Michael Brown shooting?

I’ve read a lot of people saying that the protests in Ferguson are premature, that people need to wait for an investigation and learn all the facts surrounding the shooting of Mike Brown before they react. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know all the facts surrounding the shooting. But I don’t think the people in Ferguson are just reacting to what happened in this one event. They’re frustrated with a police force that’s been mistreating residents for years. So I can understand why they aren’t exactly willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to the police in this one case. The shooting of Michael Brown was just the spark that lit a much bigger fuse.

This is a police force that arrested two journalists who were working in a McDonald’s, and during the arrest, one of the officers “slammed [the journalist’s] head against the glass purposefully on the way out of McDonald’s and then sarcastically apologized for it.” [1]

This is a police force that arrested the wrong guy and then locked him up anyway for “getting his blood on their uniforms” (the arrested man claims he was beaten by the police). Then, the officers offered contradictory statements under oath regarding whether blood ever got on their uniforms:

however lax the department’s system and however contradictory the officers’ testimony, a federal magistrate ruled that the apparent perjury about the “property damage” charges was too minor to constitute a violation of due process and that Davis’ injuries were de minimis—too minor to warrant a finding of excessive force. Never mind that a CAT scan taken after the incident confirmed that he had suffered a concussion. [2]

Of course, every institution has its bad apples. But institutional practices appear to have played a role in allowing such behavior to exist:

“On September 20th, 2009, was there any way to identify any officers that were subject of one or more citizens’ complaints?” he asked.

“Not to my knowledge,” [former police chief] Moonier said.

“Was there any way to identify any officers who had completed several use-of-force reports?”

“I don’t recall.” [2]

I know I’m angry. And I don’t even live in Ferguson.

Something’s got to change.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/13/huffington-post-reporter-arrested-ferguson_n_5676829.html

[2] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/15/the-day-ferguson-cops-were-caught-in-a-bloody-lie.html

So here’s the thing about what Mark Cuban/Stephen A. Smith said…

I get what they’re saying. And I think I actually agree with a lot of it.

Almost everyone has subconscious (or conscious) racial biases which affect how they perceive, for example, a man walking down a dark alley (perhaps not the best example, as Mark Cuban has now acknowledged). Race isn’t the only thing people take into account when perceiving such situations (a bald, white man with lots of tattoos on his face might concern many of us too, as Mark Cuban also pointed out). But the race of a person can affect how many of us perceive people in certain situations. I think that’s one of the points that Mark Cuban and Stephen A. Smith were making.

There’s actually a lot of scientific support for the idea that most people have subconscious racial biases, even people who don’t want to have any racial bias. There’s a book called Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I understand that it summarizes (for a popular audience) the mountain of social science research that has accumulated on this topic over the last couple of decades using Implicit Association Tests.

In fact, Anthony G. Greenwald, coauthor of the book and a professor at the University of Washington, did an interview with the Washington Post in response to the Mark Cuban incident. As he explains, “We find that about 75 percent of white Americans, and almost that exact same percentage of Asian Americans, have what we call an ‘automatic white preference’ in a test that compares white and black [races]… Even many black Americans have an automatic white preference, because they’ve been raised in a society that’s white-majority and white-dominant.”

So Mark Cuban is correct?

Well… his point about most people having racial biases is spot on. But there’s a little more to the picture, in my mind.

Setting aside concerns about comparing hoodies to prison-culture tattoos and how such imagery might relate to the Treyvon Martin case (for which Mark Cuban apologized), I guess my big remaining concern (as a white man) is the ways in which Mark Cuban’s and Stephen A. Smith’s words might be received by many white Americans.

Keep in mind, Mark Cuban made these remarks in response to a question about Donald Sterling. Mark Cuban was asked, “How do you prevent that kind of ugliness from getting out? And how do you keep it out of the league?” The first thing he said was, “You don’t.” Several sentences later are his now-[in]famous words.

(To clarify, there are two fairly similar but distinct interviews of Mark Cuban with Inc. magazine that I’ve seen on the Web. The one that strikes me as more provocative is harder to find, but it’s the one I refer to here.)

Using the fact that most (all?) people have subconscious racial biases to justify inaction (or less rigorous action) against overtly racist people is kind of an alarming thought-process (to me at least). But this line of thinking is bolstered by Mark Cuban’s use of the terms “prejudice” and “bigoted” rather than something like “[unintentional] racial bias.”

Now, I’ve watched enough of Mark Cuban’s interviews at this point to realize that he expresses deep concern over minimizing the “prejudices” of himself (except for “safety issues”) and his employees. That’s great, and maybe Mark Cuban is not the real problem.

But I’m worried about what his words mean to other white Americans (of which I am one). I’m worried that, especially as context is lost, his words come to mean that a little racial prejudice is everywhere, and there’s little we can do about it, and maybe it all evens out. It’s not our responsibility.

But the stark reality is that racial biases harm minorities. Even if the biases are unintentional.

Want proof? There’s actually a lot of social scientific evidence (which has been very poorly communicated to the public, in my opinion) indicating that these biases do more than just cause people to walk on the opposite side of the street. Take, for example, the experiment where researchers sent resumes to a bunch of employers in response to job listings. All of the resumes the researchers sent out were identical except that some had a stereotypical “black” name listed on them while the others had a stereotypical “white” name. Employers (who believed the resumes were real) were 33% less likely to call if they were sent a resume from a “black” person. (The experiment is nicely explained in this YouTube video taken from Freakonomics: The Movie.)

Other studies using similar research designs indicate that people with stereotypical “black” names are also less likely to receive a response from their state legislator or a potential landlord. The book Blindspot discusses numerous other studies.

Okay, so there’s some racial bias. And it’s unfair. But life’s not fair, it’s unintentional, and what are you going to do about it?

Well, for starters, I hope that more white people will actually begin to acknowledge that racial bias is still an issue that harms minorities. According to Gallup, 74% of white Americans believe that “blacks have as good a chance as whites in [my] community to get any kind of job for which they are qualified.” Another survey found that 58% of white millennials think that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

In my opinion, it would do our nation’s race-relations a lot of good to have more white Americans come forward and say, “We acknowledge that (often unintentional) racial bias is persistent throughout society, and we know that this, unfortunately, harms minorities. And we want to try to help find ways to counteract this.” Figuring out how to help is the difficult part. I won’t really get into it here, except to note that counteracting racial bias doesn’t necessarily have to look like a bigger government program or an affirmative action policy.

As a final note, I’m concerned that part of the reason the words of figures like Stephen A. Smith resonate so strongly with some white people is because they hear someone talking about a response to racial inequality that requires no action on the part of white Americans. It’s easy to stand by and cheer on a successful African American telling other African Americans to care more about how they present themselves and to stop blaming other people for their failures.

It’s easy to hear someone say that black America needs to change.

But I’m not black. I’m white. And white America needs to change.

It’s time to admit that we’re a part of the problem. It’s time to acknowledge that our (often unintentional) racial biases contribute to the racial disparities in our society.

White America, you need a wake-up call.

Entitled America, I’ve Had Enough

Entitled America.

Not the welfare queens, the high school dropouts, the fast food workers who want a raise.

No, I’m talking about people who believe they’re entitled to have things—healthcare, food, a nice retirement, a good school for their children, whatever—because they earned them. They worked for them, paid for them, saved for them.

These are people who believe they’re entitled (and others aren’t) to things because they’re employed at a decent job. People who act like the wages they earn are solely the result of their own merit while the “handouts” others receive are completely undeserved.

Oh let me count the ways I didn’t earn my success. My mother didn’t smoke while she was pregnant with me (or at any other time), increasing the odds that I would lead the healthy life I’ve enjoyed so far. My mother stayed home and devoted her 24-7 to caring for me and my siblings while my dad worked at a white-collar job that ensured I never knew what it meant to have a material need unmet. My parents did all they could to meet my emotional and spiritual needs as well. I have never heard gunshots outside my house. My friends growing up did not do drugs, shoplift, or carry guns on the streets. Within this context, I thrived throughout my K-12 education, an experience that was tailored to suit my individual interests and learning preferences. While my own dedication and hard work doubtless contributed to my ability to obtain multiple “merit” scholarships for undergraduate and graduate school, I have no doubt that my test scores would have looked quite different if I’d gone to a crappy high school, had apathetic parents, or lacked the raw intellectual abilities that I’ve been granted.

No, I did not earn my success. Sure, I’ve worked hard at times. But there are many women and men more dedicated, hardworking, and virtuous than I who have not been given what I have. I do not deserve it. At most, I have earned a fraction of what I have. I am lucky. Or I have received incredible gifts. I’m humbled and I’m grateful when I think of this.

I will not believe that I am entitled to the resume or wealth I build. They are the fruit of my environment as much as they are the fruit of my labor.

And the truth is a lot of people have little to show after growing up in a crappy environment.

I know I know, life’s not fair. But why is it that Entitled America is so concerned about making sure the rules about how much we get taxed and what the tax dollars go towards are fair but so unconcerned about how unfair it is that some of us had childhoods that set us up for success while others did not? (It turns out that some environmental factors, such as parents’ income, are pretty good predictors of later success.)

Entitled America, before you tell me how unfair it is that someone who doesn’t have a job gets free healthcare, explain to me why you’re not equally passionate about how unfair it is that poor kids in many states have to attend the worst, most dangerous, most underfunded public schools.

Before you tell me how frustrated you are about some affirmative action policy, explain to me why you’re not equally frustrated by the fact that blacks constitute an overwhelmingly disproportionate share of the drug-related prison population despite persistent evidence that blacks do not use or sell drugs more than whites.

Why are you so concerned about making sure that everyone has to earn what they receive once they get to adulthood but are so unconcerned about how uneven the playing field leading to adulthood is?

If you believe that big government is somehow unwise or that universal health coverage will lower the quality of our healthcare, then fine, let’s talk about that. But please, stop acting like poverty is a character flaw and that your earnings are a badge of solely your own virtue. Stop acting like a fair world produced both your success and the plight of the unemployed guy who had to raise himself because his dad was in jail and his mom worked three jobs. Stop acting like it’s morally reprehensible to set up a system that hands people things they didn’t earn unless you’re willing to give up every penny you’ve ever earned that could be traced to something you’ve been handed.

I will not be offended if the government taxes me at a higher rate when my income surpasses that of most Americans.

I won’t complain if my hard-earned tax dollars are used to pay for healthcare, education, or food for those who have less.

I will not cry foul if I am passed over for a job in favor of someone else who comes from an underrepresented background.

My name is Nathan Favero, and I have a lot of privilege. This is my blog.