Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

May 31, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

There’s one phrase that keeps shouting at me over all the images of the protests. The phrase comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me (2015).

Reflecting on his childhood, Coates describes what it was like growing up as a black boy in the United States. The phrase that haunts me today appears in that account. Coates says he learned to be “powerfully afraid.”

It’s so short that you could assume that it means nothing. The power of that two-word combination is impossible to forget.

Coates recalls growing up and trying to make sense of what the world expected of him. That’s how you come to understand the power dynamics of that short phrase: 

“Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out. I was a capable boy, intelligent, well-liked, but powerfully afraid. And I felt, vaguely, wordlessly that for a child to be marked off for such a life, to be forced to live in fear was a great injustice. And what was the source of this fear?”

Coates writes in the shadow of James Baldwin, who wrote The Fire Next Time in 1963. Baldwin wrote to share his advice with a young nephew. Coates addressed his book to his son. Growing up black in the United States of America requires following instructions. As they write, both authors wrestle with the depth of what they know. Even with these instructions, they can’t guarantee the health and safety of their families.

Because Baldwin and Coates attempted to write these instructions, we can borrow their perspective by reading their work. We can see the world through their eyes for a moment. When you look out at the world again after reading Between the World and Me, you have to see the United States as something different from what you’ve seen described in most other places.

I look at the images of burning buildings, flash grenades, and war-ready police vehicles, and I see the world of the “powerfully afraid.” The acts of police violence caught on video, and the protests that come once something goes viral require us to confront a question Baldwin asked in 1963: 

“How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?” 

It’s a question for all of us. The question reflects a problem we’ve all accepted as long as we don’t have to watch video evidence of the contradiction.

And then there’s the answer. Coates’s account of his childhood includes identifying the source of his fear:  

“…Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear, was connected to the [American] Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and the green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

This world shaped by fear is a world that includes all of us. This world exists in the United States in the same way that dark matter exists in our universe. It has always been there.

In these protests, we see the rage of the unheard confront the violence that makes this world of fear possible. It’s painful to see, but that doesn’t mean it’s new. 

Once we can all see this pain, we can share it. We can work together to demand a new world, a world that doesn’t rely on fear.

There’s one more effort to think like Baldwin that you should know about too. Jesmyn Ward, an award-winning author, published a collection of essays in 2016 titled The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race

She had powerful last words for her essay in the collection: “I burn, and I hope.” That’s the response to those shouts of the powerfully afraid.

Let’s confront this fear together,

Shellee

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Questions of Civic Proportions

“And what is it America has failed to hear?…

It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met”

—Reverend Martin Luther King, Civil Rights Leader

Are we protecting facts or free speech when we talk about the President’s feud with Twitter?

You might not have realized it, but we’ve been debating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for years. It’s getting a lot of attention this week because it’s the grounds for his Executive Order putting social media companies on notice. They have been shielded by Section 230 for too long. Vox has an excellent explanation of the 1996 law and why the President’s Executive Order will not fare well in court challenges. They also suggest that isn’t the point. 

The Washington Post explains how Twitter’s policy was two years in the making. CNET reports that Mark Zuckerberg is sticking to his usual script that Facebook shouldn’t be “the arbiter of truth.” He continues to insist that this position is about free speech rather than ad revenue. 

What are the problems with vote-by-mail that we’re not talking about?

Before President Trump threatened social media companies fact-checking his tweets, he threatened states working to expand vote-by-mail programs. While mail-in ballots solve the problem of navigating public spaces during a pandemic, the proposal comes with challenges too. 

The Monkey Cage has all the numbers on how many ballots never make it to voters’ homes, never make it back to the elections office, and are ultimately rejected so that votes go uncounted. Are these reasons to oppose vote-by-mail? No. But these are reasons why delaying efforts to tackle the logistics will have real consequences. The New York Times tries to walk through the logistics:

“For states that rely mostly on polling places, adapting to mail voting means a sea change in equipment and planning. Tasks like printing and tabulating ballots that can be spread over local election offices when people vote in person become more demanding, and often more centralized, when elections are conducted by mail.”

The disinformation delaying these efforts is also working to further erode trust in our elections so that this November will come with many threats. 

What makes protests essential work for a free society?

There’s a Frederick Douglass quote that you might already know well: Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will. But do you know what comes next?

Writing over a hundred years before Baldwin, Frederick Douglass explains how keeping people powerfully afraid invites tyranny to live among us. The quote above is short enough to fit on a protest sign. The extended quote from his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” makes clear why these protests are essential to a free society:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Without protests, tyranny goes unchallenged.

Good Work: Todd Johnson on Preaching with Hope

Pastor Johnson has a message to help us all refuse to give in to despair.

Todd Johnson preaches to one of the oldest Baptist churches in his county. When he addresses his community, he has to keep in mind that he is talking to people who “lived through segregation and Jim Crow, and some who participated in protests and advocated for change.” With that history present in the congregation before him, he reminds himself that:

“I’m another link in the chain of progress, and I have this legacy that I get to look at every day to encourage me that, yes, it can be done.”

PBS NewsHour provides these short interviews as part of their series, “Brief But Spectacular.” Johnson contributes a “Brief but Spectacular take on preaching with hope.”

Johnson is also preaching in a community coping with its own incident of police officers shooting and killing a young man in the community. While many in the city have worked to make sure the officers are held accountable for their actions, the county prosecutor decided not to press charges.

But Johnson continues to see hope in his community. He wants young people to see themselves as a “bridge with the historical knowledge that we have.” The last moments of the video are powerful:

“When I’m letting some young person know that they really do have a future ahead of them, and I’m letting some older person know that their best days really aren’t behind them, that’s when I feel the most free.”

Pastor Johnson works to help us all remember that we’re a link in that same chain of progress.