Wednesday, November 28, 2018

War and Peace

War and Peace

by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird December 2018)

One hundred years ago we fought the “war to end all wars.” The war was devastating. Over ten million people died and many times that number were injured in what was then known as the Great War. New weapons like poison gas, tanks, and aircraft made killing more efficient than ever before. The horrors of that war were so grim that many thought mankind would never go to war again. 

This sentiment was summarized by H.G. Wells in The Daily Newson August 14, 1914 when he wrote:

“This is already the vastest war in history. It is a war not of nations, but of mankind. It is war to exorcise the world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!”

How wrong we were. The war that ended on Armistice Day a century ago was just another in the long history of wars among men. We even had to rename the Great War when just a few decades later we were in the midst of World War II.

I have always felt that a strong military promotes peace by acting as a deterrent to war. As a submarine officer on patrol carrying nuclear ballistic missiles, I believed that if we ever had to carry out the orders we were trained to execute, it would mean our mission of deterrence had been an utter failure. Success was the avoidance of nuclear war. Success meant peace. Success was met through strength.

As I was preparing to commemorate the centennial of the World War I armistice at the Bells for Peace gathering on November 11, I reflected on my thirty-year career in the military and my thoughts on war and peace. Did military strength really ensure a lasting peace? That certainly hasn’t been the case in my lifetime. I realized that the horrors of war do not alone lead to a lasting desire for peace. 

Hundreds of millions of people have died as a direct result of war in the last century. Hundreds of millions more have been displaced. Today, the wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq continue to destabilize the world. Armed conflict is ongoing in Africa, Mexico, Asia, and Eastern Europe. And the United States is at least partially involved in every one of them.

We are currently fighting the longest war in U.S. history. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we invaded Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda and have been at war in that country ever since. 
We have become so inured to the war in Afghanistan that it barely makes the news. We celebrate our veterans, but forget the fact that we are still at war. Fewer and fewer Americans serve in the military and the majority of us are insulated from the reality of war. 

War is expensive, not only in lives, but in dollars. The wars in the Middle East have cost U.S. taxpayers $5.9 trillion since 2001.[i]Those costs will continue to grow well in to the future as we care for veterans and pay for ongoing obligations in the region. 

Is the cost of war really worth it? If the goal of war is indeed peace, perhaps there are other ways to achieve it. 

I know that peace isn’t easy. I know that evil exists in the world and that we must protect ourselves from those who would do us harm. I agree that we should be ready to use our military strength to defend our allies and ensure stability in the trouble spots of the world. But I also think that we can use our strengths and resources to combat the things that lead to war. 

Poverty, hunger, social injustice, and a lack of education tend to lead to civil unrest that spills over into violence and war. War, in turn, leads to more human suffering. Breaking the cycle can reduce the tendency towards war and help usher in an era of peace.

We should be promoting peace through humanitarian efforts backed up by our economic, diplomatic, and military strength. Our resources can be better spent helping others instead of funding the military industrial complex for an endless cycle of war. I’m not anti-military, I’m pro-peace.

We need a strong diplomatic corps to promote peaceful solutions. We need to work with our allies to resolve conflicts. War should be a last resort. 

On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation to commemorate the first Armistice Day with these words:

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

If only we could promote peace and justice around the world without going to war to do so.

[i]“Costs of War,” Neta C. Crawford, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University, November 14, 2018.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Taking a Knee is Not Disrespectful

Taking a Knee is Not Disrespectful

by Ted Miller
(Originally published in Tumbleweird November 2018)

I am a veteran. My parents are both veterans. I graduated from the United States Naval Academy, swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, and served thirty years defending my country. I am proud to be an American.

Members of the military are taught specific rules of respect for the symbols of our nation. We stand and salute when the flag is raised, lowered, or passes by with a color guard. We stand and salute whenever and wherever the National Anthem is played or sung. When driving on a military installation during morning or evening colors, drivers pull over to the side of the road and stop out of respect. 

We do these things as a sign of respect for our country because the flag and the anthem are symbols representing the ideals that bind us together as citizens. And those ideals are embodied in the Constitution. Not a person, not a party, not the President of the United States. Not a piece of red, white, and blue fabric. We show respect for an idea—an idea contained in a document that we swore to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

And so, not standing, not paying attention, or ignoring the National Anthem can seem disrespectful. 

But people disrespect the flag and the anthem all the time. Many fans don’t bother to pause for the anthem while buying their beer, finding their seats, or making a last-minute dash to the restroom. The flag is used for commercial marketing, clothing (including bandanas and underwear), and countless ways contrary to the United States Flag Code (Title 4, U.S.C., Ch. 1). Where is the outcry over that?

In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, remained seated during the National Anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained to Steve Wyche of NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” he said.

Shortly after Kaepernick’s initial protest, former Seahawks player Nate Boyer, also an Army Green Beret, reached out to Kaepernick. He suggested kneeling instead. "Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave, you know, to show respect,” Boyer said on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. So Kaepernick began kneeling instead of staying seated.

The backlash began immediately and has continued ever since, with angry rhetoric on both sides. President Trump has said that any player who refuses to stand is a “son of a bitch” that should be fired. Fans are boycotting the NFL. Social media memes and arguments continue to flare up. When Nike made Colin Kaepernick their spokesman for a new campaign, people started burning their shoes in protest.

Some say that Colin Kaepernick should protest on his own time. They falsely accuse him of grandstanding instead of donating time and money for his cause. But the reality is that he has donated over a million dollars to charities that support oppressed communities. Many professional athletes have done the same and more. This year, basketball player LeBron James funded and partnered with his hometown of Akron, Ohio, to open a school specifically designed to overcome the challenges urban kids face.
But charity work to combat racism and police brutality has not gotten near the attention as Kaepernick’s simple, respectful protests. 

Systemic racism and police brutality are a real problem in this country. Black people are much more likely to be killed by police, are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people for the same crimes, and are all too often stopped or questioned by police with no probable cause[i]. We’ve all seen the viral videos of 911 calls on black people for doing nothing other than going about their business. 

It is disingenuous to claim that kneeling during the anthem is unpatriotic and disrespectful to veterans. To me, it is those claiming to speak for all veterans who are being disrespectful to those who fought and died to ensure Kaepernick’s right to protest.

Blind loyalty to the country, blind loyalty to symbols, and blind participation in patriotic displays isn’t patriotism. Coercing respect for a symbol is no respect at all. Respect must be earned, not demanded. We respect the United States and its symbols for what we as a nation aspire to be. That we can be a more perfect union with dignity, equality, freedom, and justice for all of our citizens. Taking a knee to call attention to how we’ve fallen short of those ideals is as American as it gets.

[i]Police shootings and brutality in the US: 9 things you should know,” edited by German Lopez,, September 11, 2018.

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Free Press Keeps Us Free

A Free Press Keeps Us Free

by Ted Miller
(Originally published in Tumbleweird September 2018)

Our government has always had an antagonistic relationship with the press. 

Breaking from a tyrannical monarchy, our founders didn’t trust a government without checks and balances. The Constitution divides power between three branches of government, each with the responsibility and authority to hold the others accountable. But still, some were afraid those checks and balances weren’t enough. They knew that a well-informed citizenry was essential to a government accountable to the people. 

There is a reason the press is specifically protected by the first amendment. It is the press that tells us what our government is doing and shines a light on darkness, corruption, and abuse of power. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” And Ronald Reagan said, “Our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is as important as ever.” I would say that is even more true today.

Not since the founding of this nation has any president so virulently and consistently attacked the press as Donald J. Trump has. “Fake News,” he shouts whenever something unfavorable is reported about him. He repeatedly labels the media the “enemy of the people.” He incites his audiences against reporters at his rallies. In Trump’s divisive world of friends and enemies, anyone critical of him is the enemy. And enemies of Donald Trump are, in his mind, enemies of the country.

But the press is not the enemy of the people. To the contrary, the press is the protector of the people. Journalists are members of our communities. They have friends and families, pay taxes, and live and work among the rest of us. They are our eyes and ears. And when they find something that isn’t right, they report it.

Watergate was exposed through investigative journalism, in spite of Nixon’s efforts to control the media, leading to a criminal investigation and ultimately to Nixon’s resignation. Publication of the Pentagon Papers told the public how they and Congress had been lied to about the Vietnam War. Reporting of sexual abuse and coverup continues to drive reform in the Catholic Church. Every day, local and national news organizations dig in to the stories and issues of the day to report it to the people. Local governments are held accountable through local media.

But the continued demonization of the media by those who try to control the narrative has undermined the trust of the people.  It is unfortunate that so many in our country are no longer willing or able to trust any media source other than the ones that align with their beliefs. To some, it doesn’t matter whether the “news” they are consuming is rooted in fact or is made up fiction to rile the masses and appeal to their base. The result is deepening division and an inability to find objective truth.

The truth is under attack. Statements like “alternate facts,” “truth isn’t truth,” and “your truth is different than my truth” question the very existence of objective truth. 

It is not a stretch to say we live in Orwellian times. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on July 24thof this year, Donald Trump said, “"Stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. ... What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."

That sounds eerily like George Orwell’s 1984 where he wrote, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” We are in peril if the only source of “news” people believe becomes that promoted by the occupant in the White House.

There are such things as facts and objective truth.  We as citizens must sort through the noise to find it. And the free press is our constitutionally protected source of that truth.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Freedom of the press is essential to the preservation of a democracy; but there is a difference between freedom and license. Editorialists who tell downright lies in order to advance their own agendas do more to discredit the press than all the censors in the world.”

Yes, there is such a thing as “fake news.” Editorial spin and propaganda have grown rampant with the information explosion enabled by the internet. Social media is a terrible source of news, yet unverified memes and fabricated conspiracy stories spread like wildfire when they align with what we already believe to be true. It is much too easy to hit “share” without fact-checking, and the truth suffers.

Discerning the truth is hard work and we have to protect ourselves from becoming isolated in our own echo chambers.Opinion, gossip, entertainment, and tabloid are not the same as reporting and investigative journalism. Those who fail to understand the difference and cry “fake news” at anything they disagree with are part of the problem.To lump all media into the “fake news” category undermines efforts by the press to hold to journalistic standards and ethics.

As a nation, we must protect the freedom of the press. We need to support responsible journalism so the press can continue to do the job the founders envisioned. Recognize the difference between opinion and objective reporting. Cut through the spin and biases of multiple news sources to find the truth. Don’t spread the stories you see on Facebook and twitter without fact checking. Be skeptical but open minded. And avoid the cynicism that leads to hopelessness and inaction. 

Cherish the right to a free press. It helps to keep us free.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Vote As If Your Life Depends On It

Vote As If Your Life Depends On It

by Ted Miller
(Originally published in Tumbleweird August 2018)

If you neglect to vote because you think your vote won’t count, you are correct. You have to vote for it to count. Yet almost two-thirds of registered voters in the Mid-Columbia didn’t even bother during the last mid-term election.

Last year, the outcome of Virginia’s 94th legislative district was decided by a single vote. Democrat Shelly Simonds was running against Republican David Yancey. Yancey was ten votes ahead after the initial countless than one hundredth of one percent margin. An automatic recount put Simonds ahead by just one voteAfter a challenge by the Republicans, a panel of three judges ruled that ballot with questionable markings was valid and should be counted for Yancey. That one ballot put the race at an even tie with 11,608 votes to each candidate. In accordance with Virginia law, the election was ultimately decided by a random drawing and Yancey was declared the winner (source:

In the Virginia case, not only was the election decided with onecontested vote, but control of the evenly divided state legislature was decided with this single race. Imagine how the democrats in that district who failed to vote felt about the outcome. Never think that your vote doesn’t make a difference.

Statistics tell us that voter turnout is overwhelmingly higher for older, more affluent whites than for any other demographic. For a variety of reasons including cynicism and barriers to voter participation, persons of color, young people, and low-income citizens are disproportionately less likely to vote (source: And yet the younger non-white demographic, particularly those in a marginalized group, are more adversely affected by regressive policies that favor corporations and the wealthy. Issues like equality, gun violence, health care, immigration, wages, and education are only addressed when we who care about those issues make our voices heard.

Following the February 14th shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, student survivors responded with political activism. They started the March For Our Lives movement, inspiring national protest marches and vigorous debate about gun violence. Gun rights advocates vilified them and gun control activists hailed them as heroes. These teenagers organized their efforts and used their unexpected fame to call for change. And unlike the responses to previous shootings, theknew the key to change was the ballot box. They began a relentless call to register young people and are working across the country to electrepresentatives who will take action to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. These young leaders know that the path for change begins with local elections. 

We the people have the power to make change, and the way we do that is with the power of our vote. 

We live in a representative democracy. The Constitution gives citizens the right to elect those that best represent them at all levels of government. In some areas of the country, voter suppression, district gerrymandering, and similar efforts to maintain politicalhold on power against the will of the people are very real. But as long as the Constitution standswe the people have the power to ensure our own future. We have to exercise that power to make a difference.

When you vote, make sure you are an informed voter. Remember not to believe everything you see in a meme on social media. Seek out multiple sources of informationResearch the candidates and how they stand on the issues important to you. Vote your values. Don’t ever think your vote isn’t important, or that it “won’t count” because you think your opinion is in the minority. That cynicism is why the demographics of our elected officials often do not reflect the demographics of our communities.

Washington makes voting easy and accessible. Registration is simple and can be done on-line in most cases. Voting is secure with paper ballots filled out at a time convenient to the voter. Ballots can be mailed (postage-free starting with this election) or placed in a local ballot box. There are relatively few barriers to voting in our state. 

If this is the first time you are old enough to vote, make this the first in a lifetime of regular voting. If you are eligible to vote but aren’t registered, register now. If you are registered and haven’t yet voted in the primary, do so today. If you missed the August 7th primaryelection daymake a commitment to register and vote in the general election this November.

I believe in progressive values and I believe there are those who want to reverse the progress we’ve made on women’s rights, LGBT equality, help for the poor, tax fairness, expansion of health care for all, and legal protections for the most vulnerable in our society. I vote for the candidates and the issues that best reflect my values. I encourage you to do the same.

If you want your government to reflect you and your values, vote. Vote as if your life depends on it. 

Because it does.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Brown Skin Isn’t a Crime

Brown Skin Isn’t a Crime

by Ted Miller
(originally published July 2018 in Tumbleweird)

The “zero tolerance” immigration policy of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions is less about the rule of law and all about furthering the divisive politics of hate and discrimination. Central Americans desperately seeking asylum in the United States under international law are instead put into for-profit prisons and detention centers while children, including nursing infants, have been forcibly separated from their parents, sent hundreds of miles away with no apparent plan to reunite them with their families. 

To justify this treatment and stoke the fires of racial intolerance, Trump and Sessions use dehumanizing terms like “animals” and “illegals” while describing immigrants as “infesting the country,” “pouring in by the millions,” and being a part of murderous gangs. Trump would like nothing better than to abolish the constitutional guarantees of due process for asylum seekers. “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Mr. Trump tweeted on June 24th. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”

"Hopefully, people will get the message and not cross the border unlawfully," Sessions said on June 19th, claiming the policy would act as a deterrent.

But the use of such cruel treatment of immigrants seeking safety is misguided and its claims of effectiveness as a deterrent are dubious at best. The reasons cited for this inhumane treatment are not based in facts. The rate of undocumented immigrants is at its lowest in four decades, crime committed by immigrants is significantly less than for native-born citizens, immigrants actually improve the economy without increasing unemployment or lowering wages (no, they aren’t “taking our jobs”), and immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in public assistance benefits.[1]

Asylum seekers are not criminals. At most, they are guilty of a misdemeanor if they cross the border illegally. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even those entering a country illegally have a right for protection from violence and oppression in their home country. 

There is a concept in our legal system that the punishment should fit the crime, derived from the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” It would certainly seem that ripping a nursing baby from her mother’s arms for the misdemeanor of illegal entry into the United States is cruelty disproportionate to the offense. 

This spring, Nazario, a 32-year-old family man, fled Guatemala to escape continued death threats from a local gang, bringing his 5-year-old daughter Filemona with him across Mexico. On May 16th, he crossed the border east of San Diego intending to seek asylum and safety. Border agents apprehended him and told him he was being taken to jail. As Filemona tried desperately to cling to her father, crying and scared, she was forcibly taken away with no explanation. Filemona ended up over a thousand miles away in New York while Nazario waited for weeks in a San Diego jail. After several weeks, not knowing where his daughter had been taken and realizing the United States was not a safe place that would protect him, Nazario pleaded guilty to illegal entry in the hopes that he would be reunited with his daughter.

Nazario was deported to Guatemala on June 20th, but Filemona is still in custody somewhere in the United States. Nazario and his wife (whom he left behind when he fled) have no idea if they will ever see their daughter again.[2]

And this is only one of thousands of similar cases. Parents separated from their children, not knowing when or if they will ever see each other again. After they are ripped from their families, children as young as toddlers are being prosecuted as unaccompanied aliens. These stories are truly heartbreaking. 

Terrorizing asylum seekers, separating families, using “the law” to justify the immoral and inhumane treatment of other human beings is NOT making the United States a safer place. It could be argued that it is in fact doing the opposite. So then why is this happening?

Sessions and Trump, along with their supporters, are using this manufactured crisis of illegal immigration as a political tool to further their populist stronghold on the country. It costs billions of taxpayer dollars (with much of the profit going to private prisons and detention centers), undermines the rule of law, diminishes our international standing, and creates hate and division among the American people. 

Like so many of this administration’s policies, demonizing “the other” is a tool they use to divide us while enacting laws and policies that benefit the wealthy and those in power. We’ve seen these divisive tactics used against the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen it in the misogynistic reaction to the #metoo movement, we’ve seen it in the gun control debate, we’ve seen it in the Muslim travel ban, and we see it in this misguided attempt to keep brown people from Central America out of the United States.

We the people must continue to stand together against tyranny and fascist ideas. We must continue to march, continue to speak out, and most importantly, we must use the power of our vote while we still can to put people in office who will work for all of us, citizens and non-citizens alike, with equality, justice, and fairness. 

[1]The Washington Post, “There’s no immigration crisis, and these charts prove it,” Christopher Ingraham, June 21, 2018.
[2]KQED, “One Migrant Family’s Story of Separation at the Border,” Tyche Hendricks, June 26, 2018

Friday, June 1, 2018

It’s Still Tough to be Gay

It’s Still Tough to be Gay

by Ted Miller
(originally published June 2018 in Tumbleweird)

We’ve come a long way with LGBT rights in the last thirty years. Marriage equality is the law of the land and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in most of the country. LGBT personnel are allowed to serve openly in the military. Olympics athletes like Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy have become positive role models for millions. LGBT characters are portrayed positively in movies, television, and on stage with their sexual identity as only a part of their humanity. 

But, there are those who actively work to undo all that progress. So-called “religious freedom” bills seek to allow discrimination against LGBT in employment and business, placing religious belief over civil rights for our fellow citizens. Laws and regulations meant to ensure equal treatment are being attacked with an attempt to overturn them. The Department of Health and Human Services has cancelled policies aimed at LGBT Americans and the Department of Education has said it will no longer enforce Title IX protections for transgender students.

Hateful rhetoric and bullying of LGBT youth is often unchallenged and, in some cases, perpetrated by the authorities responsible for protecting young people. At North Bend High School in Oregon last month, the principal was fired and the resource officer reassigned after years of hate driven discriminatory action against LGBT students. In an essay to the ACLU, Liv Funk said that a pattern of harassment from students and teachers had been occurring for years. In one of the worst examples, Funk and her girlfriend were taunted with homophobic slurs and attacked with a skateboard. When she reported the incident to the school resource officer, she was told that being gay was a choice and that she’d better get used to the treatment. Then he told her homosexuality was against his religion and she was going to hell.

School is supposed to be a safe place, family life even more so. LGBTQ youth who don’t have supportive families and school environments have more difficulty in school and are at higher risk for bullying and harassment. Those who are not out to their families and friends face a constant fear of rejection. Often, they hear negative comments against LGBT people at home and among friends, making it even more difficult to be themselves.

But things are getting better. In our local schools, anti-bullying policies and support for LGBT students are being put into place. Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) and similar clubs are present in most of our middle and high schools. Local groups like PFLAG advocate for our LGBT youth and caring community members speak up at school boards, city councils, and community events. When protesters with an anti-gay message show up outside local high schools harassing students, a local group called the Love Army mobilizes to counter with messages of love and acceptance. 

The annual Pride Festival gets bigger every year, celebrating the LGBT community with positive activities for everyone. Many local businesses show their support for an open and inclusive community that values everyone. 

It’s still tough to be a teenager who identifies as LGBTQIA+. These young people face a daily challenge to maintain a sense of dignity and self-worth in a world that often tells them they are unworthy of love and respect just because of who they are. 

If you are one of those who feel marginalized and unable to be your true self in your family, your school, your church, or your workplace, there are people and organizations who will love and accept you for who you are. If you are struggling, don’t struggle alone. Look for friends who will accept you as you are and ask for help when you need it.

If you consider yourself an ally or advocate for the LGBT community, speak up when you see an act of bullying or hate. Help make our community a safe place for all. Remember the words of Desmond Tutu who said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Imagine a World Without Irrational Fear

Imagine a World Without Irrational Fear

by Ted Miller
(originally published May 2018 in Tumbleweird)

Imagine you are a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school. Your father is deployed to the Middle East and your mother isn’t home yet from her night shift at the hospital. You oversleep and miss the bus. You don’t want to be in trouble, so you decide to walk to school. You take a shortcut through the neighborhood, but you are soon lost. You go up to a house in your neighborhood to ask for directions to your high school. 

You knock on the door and step back. You know you are going to be in so much trouble for missing the bus. You hope your neighbor can help. A lady opens the door and yells, “Why are you trying to break in to my house?”

“I’m just trying to find my way to school,” you innocently reply.

Suddenly a man comes running down the stairs yelling and aiming a shotgun at you. Heart pounding and fearing for your life, you turn and run. Gunfire rings in your ears.

The shot misses. 

You scramble into some nearby bushes to hide, sobbing in mortal fear. You remember the many lessons your mother taught you about how to avoid looking like a threat, how to be nice and respectful, how never to make a sudden move. You wonder what you did wrong. You wonder if this is what your life as a black man is going to be like.

Fourteen-year-old Brennan Walker doesn’t have to imagine this. On April 12th, this story was his reality. 

An innocent young high-school freshman sparked an irrational fear in this white woman and her husband. To them, young Brennan Walker was a threat. Why?

On the home security video from that morning, the woman clearly says, “Why did these people choose my house?” 

“These people.” 

Does she mean the neighborhood high school kids? 

No, she means scary black boys. 

She couldn’t imagine that this was just a kid looking for his school. Black people are “those people.” Her primeval reaction was that he was a threat. Because he was black. You can’t convince me that if he had been white, she and her trigger-happy husband would have reacted with the same irrational fear.

These incidents of imagined threat and irrational fear happen every day. Too many of them end in the death of an innocent black person. Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Jr, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and countless others whose names didn’t make the national news.

There is something in our human DNA that causes us to divide others into friend or foe, and appearance is a powerful trigger for that instinct. But we can overcome our irrational fear of people who don’t look like us. We have to internalize the fact that we are all human. We all have the same human hopes and aspirations for a better life. We love the same, laugh the same, and live the same. In this country, we all have the same rights, but for those of us who don’t share the same skin color, we don’t all receive the same treatment.

We need to work much harder at acknowledging the depth of this tragedy in our society. In particular, those of us who are white must accept the facts of this disparate treatment. Rather than rationalizing how each incident wasn’t about race, we must try to understand how race almost always plays a factor. 

Last week I heard an interview[1]with poet Kwame Dawes that describes how imagination and empathy can make a difference. In responding to a question about how hatred and racism are predicated on a lack of imagination, he said:  

I think, fundamentally, empathy represents the idea that I can imagine what somebody else is going through. In my humanity, if I can imagine that, I can understand that pain … because I wouldn’t want to be hurt myself. So, the act of empathy is fundamentally an act of imagination.  

When somebody says to me “Kwame, I can’t imagine what you go through as a black person,” I’ll say, “Try.” 

Because in the act of trying, you’re going to imagine. And if you don’t practice imagining, then you don’t practice empathy. And if you don’t practice empathy, then fundamentally you are building a circumstance in our world where that lack of empathy creates wars, creates violence, creates racism. 

So, I do believe that very often those pernicious things, racism and so on, are a failure of the imagination. A failure of being able to enter into somebody else’s experience and, therefore, to act in love, and act in compassion.

Imagine a world where young black men don’t have to live in fear that a wrong move will cost them their lives. Imagine a world where young black men aren’t feared just because they are black. Imagine a better world for all of us, and work together to make that world a reality.

[1]Transcribed from an interview with Kwame Dawes on “The World,” April 20, 2018, Public Radio International (