Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Self-Examination is Critical for Growth (...if I'd have known then what I know now)

Yes, YOU!
Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I believe that.

              At 20, I was certain I had figured out most things. Thirty years later I realize there's a lot I still don't know or understand.

              For instance, I’ve come to terms with my personal history of sexism, heterosexism, ableism and classism. Three decades ago, nobody could have convinced me of my participation in these -isms. In my 20s I thought, “As an African American male who experiences racism, I’ve got a firm grip on how it feels to be gay, a woman, disabled person or someone poor. There’s no way would I participate in any form of discrimination.”


              Today, I realize just how little I understand what these targeted groups go through – despite having close friendships across each group. Back then I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Today, I know I don’t know, but I’m listening, reading and learning. Huge difference.

              Speaking of racism, I’ve gone through much of my life believing it consisted merely of bad individuals actively thinking and doing prejudicial things against people of color. It wasn't until later that I came to understand the state-sanctioned policies and systems that were created to establish and perpetuate racism. And that good, well-meaning people help prop up these systems – through unconscious bias and/or their silence.

              Another biggie: I had no idea some 30 odd years ago that the physical injuries of my youth would fester until my middle ages, and begin a gradual torment that would likely follow me to my final days. Nor did I realize the significance of other sorts of injuries. The kind that occur up in your head.

              Nowadays I  understand that certain mental and emotional traumas from my childhood, teen years and young adulthood impact how I see the world and move through it. Back then it all seemed like it was “one and done.” And yet, had I not been teased and bullied, would I have embarked on my current social justice career path? One wonders.

              I used to think not having my father around after he passed in my 20s was “just one of those things” and I’d get by. Yet in later years I recognized the magnitude of no longer benefiting from the wisdom of his counsel. In him I lost an important perspective. He’d seen me at my very best, and worst. From that, he could offer viewpoints like no other man. (Thank goodness I still have mom). In my youth, I squandered countless opportunities to benefit from his wisdom. Today I’d walk through fire to hear his words.

              Which brings me to my two closest friends. They walk alongside me today with an importance that has me lamenting the rather childish ways in which I held their friendship in our 20s. Back then, trust with them centered on mostly juvenile notions, like how to get women and what gym exercises to do to look my best.

              Today I depend on them as confidants for truly important things, like how to stay in my marriage when it’s tough. I still ask about the best gym exercises, though not to look my best but rather feel it. If only I could have let go my macho insecurities to engage in more substantive conversation. But you live and learn.

              A lot of folks stubbornly cling to habits, practices, values and beliefs, even when life experiences reveal how harmful they are to one’s self and/or others. That’s sad because self-examination is the only way to achieve transformative growth as a human being. 

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


In any context and by any measure, this song -- "Stand" by Sly & the Family Stone -- represents the epitome of what it means to be engaged in struggle yet maintain your truest sense of self. It is my personal go-to song for deep, bone-tensing inspiration.

Witness what's happening around the country (world?) today among those stifled by social injustice, prejudice, oppression, bigotry or any of the -isms that are associated. This song preaches truth to the n-th degree, if you have the ears to hear it.

Whether I feel scared, depressed, disenchanted, hopeless, lost, confused, you name it, this song can refuel my spirit. That's because it's got soul, y'all. Flavor. To the max, and that's a fact.

It's old school with an eternal feel, at least rhythmically. And lyrically. Timeless in its message, profound in its tone and enduring in its legacy.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Hold Out Hope for Better Tomorrow

Help me Obi Wan; the future isn't unfolding as promised
As a child of the ‘60s, the future was supposed to be here by now. At least that’s what Popular Science magazine stated about the 21st Century. And it was to have been the start of a promising era. You know, manned space flights to mars. Flying cars. A new millennium featuring a great harmonious society. No hunger, declining disease. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Blah blah.

Instead we got diabetes, the Y2K computer scare and the Great Recession.  War continues to exist; globally and locally, politically and socially. Subjugation and exploitation, leading to oppression of entire groups of people. It’s still here.

We beat “them” down, take “their” land or other resources, and everlastingly withhold the 40-acres-and-a-mule pipedream. And we still whitewash it all so everyone feels better about what’s being done to those poor people, then insist it’s their fault they’re at the bottom of the barrel.

That's one small step for man, one giant leap backwards.
The pendulum of change is swinging, but not toward societal bliss. Rather, we seem headed for more difficult days ahead. That’s sad, because there was a time when we faced a bright and shining turning point – men on the moon, no more Vietnam, women’s lib, war on poverty, affirmative action – humanity at its most aspirational.

Today, we’ve got white kids rioting about pumpkin festivals, losing (or winning) ballgames, and trashing Michigan ski resorts. Down in Baltimore, some communities of color are cutting up in ways that conjure nightmares of the 1992 “Rodney King verdict” insurrection.

Baltimore, the capitol of one of the wealthiest states in the country, continues to experience, “poverty, lack of jobs [and] disenfranchisement from the political process,” as one Baltimore clergy member said in a news report. The result is a hopelessness that simmers to frustration, which boils into rage – leading to civil unrest.
Much ado about pumpkins

And about our treatment of folks who are disabled, yes, laws and municipal codes helped increase access to buildings and such. But it’s all window dressing. Deep down, culturally, nondisabled do-gooders still operate from a charity perspective.

Few of us are moving and doing from the heart. Instead, we “give” with a heady sense of duty and honor. And the Big G: guilt. Words like empathy and compassion this century take a backseat to mechanical rituals fueled by well-meaning but largely ineffective nonprofits and their funders.

Instead of focusing on the means through which people enter the room (i.e., wheelchairs, scholarships, etc.), we should instead be open to the reality they might just be the brightest one present. View individuals who are different from a place of abundance rather than deficit.

Easy access. Not.
Despite the rather dismal first decade-and-a-half of the 21st Century, remain hopeful. After all, in the last 15 years we saw great things unfold. The United States elected its first president of color. And despite the continued unhealthy consolidation of food manufacturers, more and more people are paying attention to what they eat.

Then there’s the budding interest for increased understanding and cooperation among different groups of people. For instance, in Battle Creek and Marshall, police chiefs are investigating approaches to carrying out their duties in more equitable ways. Translation: they’re noodling approaches to policing that take into account unconscious biases that can surface and sometimes derail even the most seemingly just ways of going about their duties.

Speaking of bias, there’s an increasing sense that the general public is migrating away from overt prejudice and inching toward compassion and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. Although the greatest movement is happening in larger cities, smaller ones like Battle Creek are experiencing declining levels of open, hateful prejudice. A little, at least. Small moves, I keep telling myself. Small moves.

Just when Michigan is turning a social justice corner, this...
Of course, no sooner than I write this, antigay billboards go up around my home state of Michigan. One step forward, two steps back.

Somebody once said it is darkest before dawn. Let’s hope in these difficult times we can remember that as we face forward toward the future. 

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Friday, May 1, 2015

He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brotha’ (or why I love young African American men & boyz)

Hand up not a handout
Dear Brothers. Or rather, brothas’. I’m referring to young black guys who bear the inequitable experiences of race prejudice and the accompanying fear and discrimination it brings. This is for young’uns like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Trayvon Martin and others. Like them that is, except still alive. This is my message: I see you.

              To the resourceful, nonconforming African American boys and young men who must endure, rather than thrive:

              I see you. Now more than ever.

              Y’all got heart. I bear witness to the strong, steadfast, often unimaginable ways you move through the world. I recognize the disproportionate number of challenges you face because your skin is dark. I appreciate and celebrate all that you are and what you represent, my brothers. Even as mainstream America rejects you and media vilifies you, I lift you up.

          I see you on the streets, in the library at the store and in the park. You're doing you. That means with flair. Flavor. Strutting proud, with a confident swagger that belies the oppressive tyranny you and other men in our families have experienced for generations.
           I see you gettin' your cool on, despite the searing overt and covert racism you steadily get burned with. Fighting that self-doubt with a energetic panache designed to counteract the frequent overdoses of prejudice brought on by the random store clerk, bus driver, school teacher, college professor and elevator rider.
Y'all turn the world on its head with your creativity
          And I bear witness to the tidal wave of negative images on TV and movies that try to tamp down your spirit like a steel-toe boot on your neck. Unlike most, I appreciate that stone face that's oh so quick to burst into loud uproarious laughter, but only when you feel safe. Which sadly is not so often. Some game faces are more serious than others.
          You take nothing and turn it into marketable fashion statements. Like lemons to lemonade. Words to music. You claim what little you have as yours, then make it all the rage, even as you enrage those who secretly embrace it (and steal it) - all the while denying their jealousy of your genius for doing so much with so little.
              We are the same; yet we are also different.

              I am privileged in a lot of ways. And it’s helped me overcome a lot of barriers. Many of them race-based.

              For instance, my light brown skin color. It gives me an advantage. It helps my blackness blend into places frequented by white people. There’s more. Through luck of the draw I was born into and raised in a stable household. That’s a biggie in terms of life outcomes for a male person of color. Mom and dad held steady employment. A government worker and school teacher. How stable is that?

              Not rich by any stretch. But stable. That’s important. It’s the same with single parent families. Stability of the family system, however it’s configured, is key.

This is not every family's reality
              As a kid I always started mornings with Corn Flakes, Cap’n Crunch, oatmeal or whatever. Left the house everyday with lunch money, so never worried about being hungry at school. Funny how getting enough to eat facilitates greater focus.

              Speaking of stable, the only time I changed schools was when Dad got a job transfer. Yes, going to a new school was stressful. But not in any kind of way that triggered anything but the normal stresses associated with change. Not like being evicted or jumping from place to place because of money. My stable home life instilled in me resilience; it’s served me well in the wake of the institutional racism I’ve faced as an adult.

              In my youth, I never felt threatened. I mean when it comes to life and death and such. Not like some brothers who were born into heavy circumstances. Yeah, I was bullied at times and had my share of bumps and bruises. But I never had to literally fight for my life. Never had a gun pointed at me. By police or otherwise.

              For that matter, I’ve never been physically beat down in my own home by my father, mother, relative or other person staying at our place. That sort of violence leads to a kind of trauma that can make a person look at and act in the world in a certain kind of way.

Oops, wrong example of sagging. Or is it?
              This isn’t to say none of this kind of stuff doesn’t happen to white boys and other kids of color. To the contrary, it happens across all racial groups. It’s just that the legal and social penalties leveled on young black boys in American society are different. That’s a fact.

              Finally, like a lot of folks my age, I abhor this whole sagging pants thing. Sometimes it’s enraging. At the same time I marvel at how this ridiculous but ultimately harmless fashion has been elevated to the level of more serious matters – like how government is systematically decimating access to quality education within communities of color.

              Despite their fashion choices, I’m ready and willing to bear the weight of young black men. Why? He ain’t heavy; he’s my brotha’. 

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Stop Shooting the Messengers: Racism is a Systemic Problem

It can be tough living as part of a target group.
It’s easy to ferret out individuals who say and do blatantly racist things. Take the debacle in which Oklahoma University white frat boys engaged in a racist bus ride sing-along that was caught on video. It seems some folks are so “white” – that is, part of a system that promotes the supremacy of one race over others – they truly don’t realize they’re treading on their own humanity.

              That’s right, their own humanity. Yes, they’re also stripping people of color of their humanity too. But white people who engage in racist behavior also lose. Problem is, most don’t realize it.

              They can’t fathom a system of oppression exists that is based on the color of a person’s skin. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable because most refuse to accept how racism was firmly cemented into our social way of being through nation-founding documents. Unbelievable because it’s not happening to them.

              The U.S. is my home and I love it. But just like in families, sometimes you gotta pull back the curtain and just tell it. Except most white folks don’t want to hear it. They’re afraid. Some of them. Too much to lose. Privilege, power. Worst of all, their reality as they’ve been conditioned to see it.

              In the nation our Founding Fathers envisioned, people have to share. Not equally but equitably. However, the way our society is set up, sharing is a bad word. Which brings up another bad word, at least within the context of racism: system.

Yes it is a big deal
              Since the bus video incident there have been a string of media reports outing white students engaged in racist behavior. The most recent was a week ago down south at Duke University. According to reports, a white student there admitted to hanging a noose from a tree.

              (For those unaware, a hanging noose carries significant torment in some communities of color. It is particularly so among African Americans, who were systematically lynched by the thousands throughout the 20th Century.)

              Last month, up north at Connecticut College in New London, classes were cancelled. The controversy there was a posting of illicit images that bore heinous racist graffiti. The foreboding message stated, “No Nig*ers.”

              Around the same time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on the campus of Bucknell University, three students spouted racist rhetoric on air. It involved a campus radio broadcast in which they spat racist comments. One used the N-word. Another proclaimed, “…black people should be dead.” The third said, “lynch ’em.”

              Like the racist bus frat incident, responses from the various universities were swift and decisive. Campus presidents suspended, expelled or otherwise disciplined offending students. To those leaders and others, that was the end of it. But such punishment should have only been the beginning, if it should even happened at all.

              Most believe punishing the racist behavior of a few ignorant students should be the focus. “Eliminate the behavior of the offensive people and the problem is solved.” If it was only that easy.

              It’s sad but true: behind the behavior of the few individuals acting out is a larger, systematic issue: prevailing attitudes. Collective biases, conscious and unconscious, preserve and promote systems of inequity. And like an iceberg on the ocean, we only see the tip of an immense but largely invisible threat that plagues our nation.

To quote Yoda, "You must unlearn what you have learned."
Sure, make the students pay for what they did, but do it in meaningful, not punitive ways. Educate them through means that hold them socially accountable. Compel them to enroll in anti-racist workshops, conceptually tough but ultimately spiritually nurturing experiences. They are places in which all truths are shared, not just the white perspective.

              If you want to dole out punishment, here’s an idea. Penalize our institutions by stripping them of racism. Education, finance, housing, courts, healthcare. Media. Churches. But do it in a systematic way, one that scrutinizes policies rather than people. One that savages inequitable practices as opposed to reprimanding individuals.

              It hurts, but people of color can handle the random racist citizen; been doing it for centuries. What’s harder taking down the institutional racism that’s tearing us all apart, one human being at a time.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Culture, Bias Hinders Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women

Remember Rosie?
Equal pay for equal work. That’s a concrete value proclaimed by most employers. Yet reality is different. When it comes to gender, women make less on average than men. And it’s inhuman.

              What chaps me about this is how some folks nit-pick this human rights issue. They prefer wrangling over the degree of disparity rather than helping find ways to remedy this systemic, institutional injustice.

              Because women earn less, they must work longer for the same amount of pay as men. That’s what Equal Pay Day is about. This year it was April 14. It was started by the National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) in 1996 with the goal of raising awareness of the gap between men's and women's wages.

NCPE selected Tuesday to represent how far into the work week women must work to earn what men did the previous week.

              According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), among full-time, year-round workers, women were paid 78 percent of what men were paid in 2013. That is, for every dollar a man earned, a woman’s wage was on average 22 cents less.

              The percentage is even worse among women of color.

              Race is but one dimension of this problem. The pay gap between women and men living in the United States can be significant, depending on other variables as well. Among them age, education and geography. The pay gap also exists among (surprise) women without children.

              According to AAUW’s “Graduating to a Pay Gap” report, among full-time workers one year after college graduation (nearly all of whom were childless) women were paid just 82 percent of what their male counterparts were paid.

              Another inconvenient truth: women face this gender pay gap regardless of profession. Be it female-dominated, gender-balanced, or male-dominated occupations. From elementary and middle school educators to computer programmers, women on average are paid less than men.

              Some pay gap debunkers cling to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Labor that concluded in part that the wage gap may be almost entirely the result of “individual choices being made by both male and female workers.” Translation: women choose professions that pay lower wages. Rubbish.

NFL ref Sarah Thomas
              The report fails to take into account the historic and catastrophic social dynamics that until the 1970s legally, culturally and socially curtailed women from entry into certain male-dominated jobs. What’s worse is the marginalization, harassment and isolation forced on them. It happens to this day in some vocations. Video game programming comes to mind. So does church pastoring.

              Detractors also claim the unequal pay for equal work assertion is statistically flawed – that it does not account for differences in occupations, positions, education, job tenure, or hours worked per week. They say when all these factors are taken into consideration, the average wage gap narrows. Fair enough; it’s changing.

              But a disparity remains.

              Starting this fall, Sarah Thomas will be wearing a ball cap bearing a National Football League (NFL) logo. This month the league hired her as one of nine new referees for the upcoming season. This makes Thomas the first full-time female official in its 95-year history.

Unequal pay? 15-yard penalty and loss of down
              What does hiring an NFL ref that’s a woman have to do with the gender pay gap issue? Plenty. It speaks to the biases, conscious and unconscious, that women in the workplace have suffered and continue to endure.

              There’s a reason it took so long for a woman to score an NFL striped shirt. It has little to do with game knowledge or the physical conditioning required to scamper up and down the field. Instead it involved antiquated notions about gender roles and men’s power and privilege to exclude.

              Somebody throw a social justice flag: inhuman procedure.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Social Justice is Transforming America

President Obama & Co. on 21st Century Selma March
When it comes social justice issues, something’s afoot, in our community and around the country. It’s been going on several years now and is picking up steam. And the results are transformative.

More and more people are becoming informed, taking stands and speaking out on topics of which they may have been aware. Previously, most remained on the sidelines. These days they’re coming off the bench and turning out to be real impact players. The beauty of it all is that it’s happening across multiple dimensions.

The latest centers on a piece of legislation, a religious freedom “restoration” bill Indiana governor Mike Pence recently signed into law.

Supporters hail the law as providing a much-needed check against government forcing those who have strong faiths to violate their principles. Opponents fear it will be used as a license to discriminate, because it might encourage business owners to cite their religious beliefs if they wish to refuse service to someone.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Yet in the wake of this law, the entire country has turned its collective eye on Indiana. And with good reason.

The initial language of the law was framed in a way that opponents insist opens the door to the immoral (if not illegal) discrimination against the LGBTQ community and possibly other historically targeted groups.

Gay Pride Flag
Back story: the Indiana legislature is still licking its wounds after a federal judge struck down Indiana's ban on same-sex marriages last summer. Some say this new law is a back door approach to get around the court decision, a claim denied by Hoosier lawmakers.

Though Governor Pence says the new Indiana law is rooted in a 1993 federal mandate, it marked a “significant expansion” over what was passed in ’93. That’s because the law not only applies to government entities, but also includes private business transactions.

The difference was different enough to garner nationwide attention. Response was swift. On the political front, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned all non-essential, state-funded travel to Indiana. Vermont and Connecticut took similar measures.

Entities that do business in Indiana, like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), voiced concern over the effect of the law. So did numerous corporations. Among them, American Airlines, Apple, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Orbitz, Starwood Hotels, Symantec, Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.

The fact that big business is paying attention is important. That’s because this issue has turned what many pundits, critics and supporters tended to consider a social issue transformed into one of business.

It’s a real game changer. Many businesses, large and small, worry that a climate of intolerance makes it harder to recruit talent, retain customers and attract tourists.

The topic is so charged that Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson reversed course and stated he won't sign his state’s similar religious freedom restoration act into law. At least in its current form.

This pattern of dissatisfaction with social injustice has its conceptual roots in the 2010 Arab Spring. You know, the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that began with the Tunisian Revolution, and swept through countries in and around the Arab League. Among many, the Arab Spring was described as a wave of popular uprisings against oppressive policies and rule.

That same year in the United States, the Internet-based It Gets Better nonprofit was founded. This movement was of a different nature, though as with the Arab Spring, injustice was at its center. It Gets Better was in response to suicides by teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or suspected of being gay.

Yes. They really do.
Then came Occupy Wall Street, the rich/poor inequities protest movement that started in 2011. Ground zero was Zuccotti Park, in the financial district of New York City. The crusade continues to this day, receiving global attention. It has spawned other Occupy movements directed at social and economic inequality worldwide.

In 2013, Black Lives Matter came into being. It began with the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter after George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It gained momentum in the months following the police-related shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, John Crawford III near Dayton, Ohio, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City.

Closer to home, in neighboring Marshall, another justice movement is underway. Youth at Marshall High School are rallying around its LGBTQ students (much to the chagrin of some parents) to let them know their school is a safe and accepting place. About 30 students stood in solidarity with the transgender community during a recent rally.

None of these movements are “agenda-driven” as some incite. Rather, they are efforts that raise awareness of social injustice that affects various groups of people (poor, POC, LGBT) who traditionally have little or no voice, and whose issues have historically been downplayed or outright ignored by mainstream America.

That’s why social justice work must maintain an intersectional footing. Because at the end of the day, the goal of each group is the same: achieve equity for all people – regardless of how different they may seem.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at 4humansbeing@gmail.com.