What If It's True?

The other day, I posted on my Facebook page a long extremely well-researched Washington Post  article by Radley Balko about the municipal court systems of North Saint Louis County. These municipal courts exist to extract money from the mostly poor African American people who live there, through court fees and fines. The money is a significant revenue stream for the municipal governments and for a cadre of lawyers who serve multiple communities as prosecutors and municipal judges. It's a grim article, loaded with detail about the system, and about individual people who get caught up in the system. It reminded me of the insight made by Ta-Nehisi Coates that institutionalized racism serves to separate African American people from the wealth and capital that they create through their labor and redistribute it to individual whites.

 And when you read the story of a young man, Antonio Morgan, whose efforts to create an auto repair shop have been hampered by an endless round of minor license violations, regulations, fines, and penalties, you have to wonder how much potential wealth has been looted by this system. Enough of me; go read the article.

After I posted the article, a white friend of a white friend posted on my timeline a video of a young African American man speaking to other African Americans about "personal responsibility". This, after conceding that slavery was awful, and that some police behave badly. The core message was that conditions of black communities were their own fault.

I delete such posts when posted on my timeline. Facebook is a place of relatively open and free debate, but I don't feel responsibility to post every point of view on my timeline. I have a small (under a thousand) list of people who read my Twitter, Facebook posts and this blog. This white friend of my white friend can gather his own readers; I don't have to give him mine.

It was also obvious that the guy had not really read and thought about the story. Antonio Morgan, the guy with the auto shop was exercising all the personal responsibility and individual initiative that should have endeared him to pro-business conservatives everywhere. But he was being extorted and fleeced by a parasitic legal system created and sustained by racism.

But I digress from my intention here. I don't really want to recapitulate all the arguments over suburban St. Louis justice. And I am not really about discussing whether I should delete posts I don't like from my timeline. What I really want to talk about is how people take in other people's stories when those stories challenge their worldview.

I have come to believe that there are two big stories in contention now in our culture. One is that the system is essentially fair and good and just; the other is that it is not. In the first story, people and peoples suffer because they fail the system. The system will reward all those who exercise "personal responsibility" and punish those who do not. The poverty and suffering we see are unfortunate, but they are not injustice. If there is injustice, it small, temporary, local, and individual. In the second story, injustice, oppression, exploitation, and exclusion are the system.

There is a lot of information out there that supports the second narrative. And it comes to us through individual stories: stories that range from tiny micro-aggressions to dead bodies lying in the street. It takes a lot of mental work to maintain faith in the first story. It means that a lot of incidents, facts, statistics, experiences have to be neutralized, or batted away, or fed down the memory hole. To keep alive that story that everything is fundamentally just, a story on someone's timeline about the exploitative suburban St. Louis justice system has to be countered by a video of a black man admonishing other African Americans. Even if it doesn't speak to the point of the article. (Expect to see a lot from Dr. Ben Carson between now and 2016.)

This is not just other people. It's hard for me to take in and absorb other people's experience of oppression or injustice, especially where they challenge my own loyalties. This is why I find stories of oppression or exclusion on people of color in Unitarian Universalism so hard to take in. I want to, in some way, minimize them or explain them away.

The question that helps me is this: "What if their story is really true?"

What if every story in Mark Morrison-Reed's books are true (and why wouldn't they be?) Suppose it is true that the nickname of the Washington DC NFL team is offensive to many Native Americans? Suppose Radley Balko's article is accurate? Suppose popular culture is a "rape culture" in fact? What if William Lloyd Garrison's charge that the Constitution was a deal with the Devil of slavery is true?

Which of these two stories, the one about the system being essentially fair, and the one that the system is exploitative and exclusionary, can absorb the truth of the other?

Political Junkie, Future Senator
and mild reformer.
I have come to believe that our system is grotesquely racist on a systemic level. This has been the work of a lifetime, for a straight white man who was a political junkie from the age of 10. But I can believe that Dr. Ben Carson has succeeded in that system, and that Clarence Thomas rose from the depths of that system's oppressive underbelly to the Supreme Court.

But I don't believe that the story that all is well, except for some minor anachronistic bigotry, can absorb the truth of North St. Louis justice system, as an on-going, fully functional, legally legitimate system of parasitic exploitation of poor African American people.

Accept that as true, really true, not an exception, but the reality, and that whole first story crumbles. And if you are not ready to make that concession to reality today, there will be another story, from an acquaintance, on your feed, or in the news, tomorrow that will do the same, if you just ask "What if it's true?"


  1. If it's true, we have to confront the fact that our privilege helped us to have a comfortable life; it wasn't just our merits and efforts. That's scary and guilt-inducing, and so we cling with all our might to the first story. (But of course if WE suffer any reverses it wasn't our fault; it's because "they" are trying to take things that rightfully belong to us. That's also a comforting story.)

    We UUs have our very own "first story", of course, the story that ignores the dark undertones (which you've recently discussed so ably) of the fellowship movement and the move to the suburbs. And so we prefer to focus on- highly worthy, don't get me wrong!- issues like immigration rather than confront the racism that lies behind both our history and the history of places like Ferguson. And we lament our whiteness without actually doing much about it, because confronting our ghosts and being willing to change will loosen our grip on our own "first story".

  2. There are two fascinating books that try to deal with the paradox of systemic racism contemporaneous with African American success stories. Both are by African Americans. I've read "Distintegration" by Eugene Robinson and saw Sheryll Cashin speak about "Place Not Race," just published by our own Beacon Press, on C-Span/Book TV. Something's happening here, and we're not sure what it is.

  3. Hi Tom,

    I agree with you analysis and envy your clarity. My comment is a rhetorical one. The word "grotesquely" can suggest that US society is racist in ways that exceed others, that is exceptionally racist. I am not sure I agree or that the facts do. I have yet to find a society that does not embody some for of racism. If you mean we are profoundly racist, which is akin to fundamentally or some other word that conveys a foundational aspect I would agree heartily. But "grotesquely" means something else.

    I also wonder if such language is useful, except to as preaching to the choir. That may be your point, but then what?

    Liberal white outrage does little good, I have found. Of all the things that have stood the test of my time in this work, it has been relinquishing my right to moral outrage as a liberal and asking from those who have borne the affliction what they need me to do. The needs of those who are oppressed are the agenda, not my need to be morally indignant.


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