I'm Flummoxed And It's Time To Talk Tachles
What is going on with race, police departments and our society has me flummoxed, and not because I do not understand that racism permeates the soul of our society and is reflected in our laws and their enforcement. I've known that for a long time.
Why is Jesus White By Muhammad Ali
So, what do we do about it? At times like this I come back to my Grandma Rose, who was born in Lithuania and came to this country at the turn of the 19th century to escape the programs . Her advice would have been that if we want to live as mishpokhe, and stop this mishigas, we need to stop kibbitzing and get down to tachles (translation: If we want to live as a family, and stop the craziness, we need to stop just chatting about race and get down to direct conversation.)
Let's take Grandma's advice.
I've known about racism since 1969 when I was 12 years old and walking precincts for the black Councilman Tom Bradley. He was running for Los Angeles Mayor. Before that I was aware that there were blacks and whites and that there were conflicts between the two. The 1965 Watts riots had taught me that, but it had not directly touched my life or that of my family. We lived in the nearly all white Los Angeles suburbs and were "protected" from such things.
During the Bradley for Mayor campaign, I walked for days with a couple of my friends, putting “Vote for Bradley” hangers on peoples door. I was frequently confronted with many who did not like Bradley. Most were civil and a few bordered on rudeness. But it was the few who were openly racist that taught me lessons that are still fresh today. Remember, I was a 12 year old, just handing out literature, who viewed things from the perspective of a white child of privilege who was oblivious to the tumult that was around me. I was not much of a threat to anyone. Regardless, as I was putting a door hanger on a home, the door swung open and a crazy man sprang out yelling that he wanted us "nigger lovers off his property."
To this day, more than 40 years later, I can still feel and taste my fear and the anger of this gentleman. What made it worse was the accompanying racial hatred. It was visceral for him. I don't remember running faster in my life as I sprinted away from his hatred. I did not understand why he was so angry and that made his actions all the more frightening. I have to admit that I still do not understand it today.
Nor am I flummoxed by the police acting the way they have acted in Minneapolis, Buffalo, Atlanta and other places. I spent two decades as a criminal defense attorney in both Los Angeles and San Francisco and a longer time doing civil rights cases. A good portion of my clients were those who could not afford their own attorney. That means predominately black and Latino clients. It takes about a second and a half of participation in the system to learn that
Minority defendants are presumed to have committed some bad act, even if it isn't the one charged.
Some crimes are based solely on race such as DWB - driving while black - or if an arrest warrant calls for a black man it's justified to simply arrest any black guy at the location listed.
Law enforcement officers routinely lie about material facts in order to convict defendants who they believe are guilty of something and the court and district attorneys know that they lie.
As a general rule, district attorneys do not care that the police are lying as long they get a conviction or a good plea.
The chances of a police officer or a district attorney getting in trouble for committing perjury or suborning perjury is about the same as me running a mile in under 4 minutes.
Judges and white juries tend to believe the craziest explanations that police officers use to justify their lies, even if they would scoff at the same explanation from someone without a badge.
So you might ask why am I flummoxed, given that I understand our country's racial reality. The explanation starts with our original sin.
OUR ORIGINAL SIN
In case you don’t get it, our original sin as a nation was and is slavery. But for the presence of slavery there may not have been a successful revolutionary war against the British. Forgot about Lexington and Concord and the "shot heard around the world." It wasn't about the ride of Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party or even "no taxation without representation." For the southern colonies, whose participation in the revolution was pivotal, it was the fear that the British mother ship was going to outlaw slavery.
The American slave owners' fear was real and justified. Britain, in the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, abolished the slave trade in the British colonies and made it illegal to carry enslaved people in British ships. In the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, Parliament abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa, as well as a small number in Canada.
But it was the 1772 decision of a British Court in Somerset v Stewart that convinced many southern slave owners that remaining a part of Britain could endanger their ability to own, buy, and sell blacks like they were cattle. Parliament had never passed any laws authorizing slavery. In Somerset, the Court of the Kings Bench ruled that, absent a Parliamentary decree, slavery was illegal. American slaveholders were terrified that the Somerset decision would be applied to the colonies and that they would lose their human chattel. Their fears contributed to the decisions of the southern colonies to join the revolution.
And with that decision the slave owners bought themselves and our nation over 130 more years of slavery, which is a pretty good deal if you are morally bankrupt.
The original sin of slavery did not evaporate with the end of slavery and the Civil War. The nation was presented with the difficult question of how to deal with the traitors who had fought against their own country, how to reconnect the south with the rest of the nation and what to do about slaves who were now free. In the end, we choose to forgive the traitors, allow the southern states to reenter the union, and turn our back on real freedom for the ex-slaves and the promise of forty acres and a mule. It has been lost that Abraham Lincoln's memorable words in his second inaugural address were about binding the wounds between the north and the south, not the wounds between the slaves and the enslavers. Lincoln spoke about the need for national reconciliation:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Lincoln did not demand justice for the enslaved. Instead of executing the traitors who led the Confederacy, such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, they were allowed to live. And, in the case of Lee, worshipped as an icon of freedom. Worshipping Robert E. Lee as an icon of freedom is as hypocritical as holding out John Belushi as the pinnacle of sobriety.
Instead of ripping apart the system that was built around slavery we allowed it to be replaced with the new system of sharecropping, which made the ex-slaves virtual chattel. We allowed the slave owners and their brethren to create myths about how humanly the slaves were treated and the nobility of the southern cause. A war that was fought by the north over slavery became the war of northern aggression.
We did not come to terms with our original sin in1865. I recall visiting my relatives in Selma, Alabama in the 1990's and deciding to take a tour of a slave plantation. Before taking the tour I assumed that this location of such pain and injustice would be presented similarly to a tour of Auschwitz; for the two had much in common. When the tour guide, a perky and attractive young lady, with a deep southern accent, began explaining how well the slaves were treated by their owners I almost screamed. All I could picture was the same you lady, this time with a deep german accent, tell me how well the Jews were treated in Auschwitz.
Although we, as a nation, have made great strides in the ensuing 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we still have not come to terms with the core emotional issues that flowed and continue to flow from that original sin. Through the work of Dr. King and many others, we have overwhelmingly eliminated the laws that were explicitly racist. We passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In 2008, we elected Barak Obama as our first black President.
In some ways, though, the elimination of explicitly racist laws and the election of President Obama were the easiest part of fighting racism. Note that I do not say they were easy, but rather that they were the easiest. None of these victories required us to search our souls and come to grips with what was in our hearts and minds. We can be against laws that call for explicit segregation and still believe in our hearts that blacks are inferior. We could have voted for President Obama and still believed that he was one of the good, well-educated, blacks. We will have only succeed in atoning for our original sin when that perky you lady who led the plantation tour focuses on the barbarity of the slavery system and acknowledges the immorality of the society that allowed it to exist.
What is left now is the hard part: the need to talk about what we believe deep in our loins. It's a battle for hearts and minds. Many whites, who would swear that they are not racist, still instinctively look to police as the wall protecting them from violent blacks. They subconsciously echo the words of Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men.
You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall -- you need me on that wall.
The races in America, and that includes more than blacks and whites, have never had a real conversation about race and what that entails. We gingerly walk around the issue, either because we do not want to say something that may be insulting or because we are sure that we will say something insulting. We're primed to see every equivocal statement by the other as insulting and are not able to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We're so used to yelling at and mistrusting each other that we cannot tell when the other side is whispering.
What we need is the ability to talk tachles. Tachles (Ta-chles) is Israeli slang that is derived from a Yiddish variation of the Hebrew word for essence or purpose – tachlit. It is used where directness is requested, when there is the need to get down to the brass tacks, to cut the shit, to stop beating around the bush. For example: "I'm tired with all this blabbering about the contract. It's time to talk tachles." In other words - GET TO IT!
Growing up, when my entire family, a horde of Eastern European Jews, got together for a holiday, we talked tachles about politics. We all knew where we stood with each other, for better or for worse. Disagreements were brought out and after some yelling and impolite language we all ate a little more desert and mostly happily went our way. It worked for us, but I do admit that a few friends and my wife thought we were crazy and rude.
The best historical example of tachles and race relations is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that came with the end of apartheid in South Africa. The end of apartheid could have very easily ushered into a wave of violence and revenge. The violent battle between the African National Congress and Inkatha just prior to the end of apartheid was certainly a bad omen for what was to come. Yet, Nelson Mandela and the leaders of the ANC recognized that no one would profit from a race war that coincided with the creation of a black South Africa. The purpose of the TRC was to provide a venue for the victims of apartheid to seek justice and to confront the perpetrators of the criminal acts.
The TRC was empowered to grant the perpetrators amnesty on the condition that they give a full and complete rendition of their conduct. The victims were also given the opportunity to tell their stories, and to express their pain, anger and suffering. The hearings were televised. In this way the country could come to grips with the effect of apartheid and hopefully in a peaceful manner move on. Bishop Desmond Tutu explained the thinking behind the creation of the TRC:
For our nation to heal and become a more humane place, we had to embrace our enemies as well as our friends. The same is true the world over. True enduring peace—between countries, within a country, within a community, within a family—requires real reconciliation between former enemies and even between loved ones who have struggled with one another.
How could anyone really think that true reconciliation could avoid a proper confrontation? After a husband and wife or two friends have quarreled, if they merely seek to gloss over their differences or metaphorically paper over the cracks, they must not be surprised when they are soon at it again, perhaps more violently than before, because they have tried to heal their ailment lightly.
True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done. We know that when a husband and wife have quarreled, one of them must be ready to say the most difficult words in any language, “I’m sorry,” and the other must be ready to forgive for there to be a future for their relationship. This is true between parents and children, between siblings, between neighbors, and between friends. Equally, confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the lives of nations are not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic. They are the stuff of practical politics.
This is the type of discussion that the races need to have with each other. It must be direct, honest, and sometimes loud. But it must also occur with a recognition that we all live in the same country and that our destinies are intertwined. It must occur with the recognition that it is OK to get angry and even to yell. Honesty and politeness are not always interconnected. We need to learn that we are not perfect and we need to admit that we all have made many mistakes.
Whites need to acknowledge directly and publicly that as the power party in the conversation they have the greater responsibility to make things right. Whites have been the beneficiary of the system since slavery was first introduced into the colonies. Slave labor built much of the economy and our failure to come to terms with our original sin has made the rotten fruits of that sin fester for centuries.
For white Americans there needs to be a recognition that it is a small miracle that blacks for the most part want equality and not revenge. I'm not sure why revenge is not desired, but I'm glad that it is not. Maybe it is a recognition by the black community that there are many things about America that are worthwhile and that if our better angels prevail then there is a benefit in not burning the place to the ground. If that’s true, that is extremely hopeful and generous.
For me to talk about issues that stifle communication from blacks is more difficult. I'm not black and I haven't walked in their shoes. But in the spirit of tachles I'm just going to let it fly. I know that we live in a racist society and that this society has stifled and crushed blacks for centuries. I know that racism permeates police departments, which are viewed as occupying forces. I know that as a society, we have taken advantage of white privilege and as a result we have the obligation to make things right.
But, all that being said, that does not make me personally a racist. My family was not in this country until the late 19th century. We never owned slaves. I may not have done all that I could to counter white privilege, but that cannot be equated with a lack of good faith. If you call me a racist it is likely the discussion will end. The deal is this - don't assume that because of the color of my skin I am a racist and I will not assume that because the color of your skin you are a criminal.
The statement "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" was the catchphrase of British and American abolitionists. It was designed in 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery firm and was widely used by British abolitionists in a campaign to change the perception of blacks in Britain from slaves to people. That phrase has equal power today and can be applied to both ends of the discussion.
In the end, the secret may be for each side to treat the other as people, as human beings, and not as representatives of their race.
SO WHY AM I FLUMMOXED
When one is flummoxed, he or she is bewildered or perplexed. The word derives from the mid 19th century English word “flummock”, which meant "to make untidy, confuse". So, what about the events of the past weeks has me flummoxed.? It's not the death of Mr. Floyd or the assault on protesters by the police. For those events, my unfortunate reaction is "been there, seen that." Neither holds anything new to understand.
I'm flummoxed because the greater societal reaction appears different now. Maybe, just maybe, we, our country, our people are ready to come to grips with our original sin and we, our country, our people want to do something about it. There is both anecdotal as well as objective evidence that something different is going on. In a very recent Manmouth University poll (June 2, 2020), 76 percent of Americans, including 71 percent of whites, called racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States. This is a 26-percentage-point increase since 2015. Importantly, over 80 percent found that the demonstrators’ anger was fully or somewhat justified.
In the Monmouth poll, 57 percent of Americans said police officers were generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. In both surveys, about half of the white people said so. This comprises a drastic change, particularly for white Americans, who have not historically said they believed that black people continued to face pervasive discrimination.
Attitudes on race and criminal justice have been consistently moving leftward since the first protests ignited over the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. However, since the killing of George Floyd, there has been a meteoric leap leftward. The most recent support for Black Lives Matter has increased by almost the same amount as the last two years taken together. By nearly a thirty point margin, American voters support the movement. This is up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.
There is also non-polling data that gives me hope. Perhaps the most significant is the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events. NASCAR has not been known as the pinnacle of racial tolerance. It was born a child of the south and photographs from races showed an overwhelming number of Confederate flags flying during races. The fact that the flag has been banned, whether for humanitarian, business, or other reasons. is a recognition that the symbol of the confederacy is no longer consistent with its business model. The same can be seen from the National Football League’s 180 degree reversal on athletes kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner.
Why are these data points important? Because businesses do not lead public opinion, they follow it. Their recognition that racial justice is good business is a key barometer of where the American public is in this moment.
The evidence that something is different can also be seen by looking at who is protesting the murder of George Floyd. If it were simply young blacks and a few young whites protesting against police shootings, that would be horrifyingly passé. That is what you would expect. In Los Angeles, however, more than 50 percent of the protesters are white. In Washington and New York, that number is over 60 percent.
Moreover, there is a small but constant number of the protestors who are police officers. Officers in Queens, New York, took a knee for the protesters who marched near their police precinct. In Portland, Oregon, dozens of officers clad in riot gear kneeled. Similar events took place in Lexington, Des Moines, Spokane, Washington D.C., Norfolk and many other cities.
The police officers who are kneeling still represent a minority. Polling among police officers shows that most believe that they treat blacks fairly and that there is not much evidence that blacks are discriminated against. The polling results are greatly explained by the demographics of those hired to be police officers in the first place. They are overwhelming white men. According to the fivethirtyeight.com web site
About 88 percent of local sworn police officers are men, compared with around 12 percent who are women, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. (The country overall is about 51 percent women.) And about 72 percent of officers are non-Hispanic white, about 11 percent are non-Hispanic black and about 13 percent are Hispanic. By comparison, about 60 percent of Americans overall are non-Hispanic white, about 13 percent are non-Hispanic black and about 18 percent are Hispanic, per 2019 estimates by the U.S.Census Bureau.
Given these demographics and the pervasive blue wall of silence, the number of police officers who have spoken out in favor of the protests is both striking and encouraging.
The reaction to George Floyd's killing is also flummoxing since I do not understand what is different this time. Even so, I certainly understand that it is and that is what is important. Let's stop asking why it's different, accept that it is, and proceed as if we are right. As a country, we cannot afford to waste this moment with the question of "why?" Too much is on the line.
Equally important is the fact that we cannot tiptoe around the difficult discussion that needs to ensue in order to move forward and come to grips with our original sin and its consequences. Changing laws is important and so is hiring a more diverse police force. But those two actions do not resolve the pain that lives and breathes deeply in the heart and soul of our nation, in the hearts and souls of our black citizens. The wound can only be healed through truth and forgiveness. Bishop Tutu could have been talking about America when he wrote
Unearthing the truth was necessary not only for the victims to heal, but for the perpetrators as well. Guilt, even unacknowledged guilt, has a negative effect on the guilty. One day it will come out in some form or another. We must be radical. We must go to the root, remove that which is festering, cleanse and cauterize, and then a new beginning is possible.
As a nation we have a lot to deal with, but time is not our friend. We should have dealt with slavery when the nation was formed and we should have implemented the beautiful words that were captured in the writings of the slave owner Thomas Jefferson. We lost another opportunity when the nation after the Civil War was more concerned with national reconciliation than ending the vestiges and echoes of slavery. Yet another opportunity was lost at the end of World War I, when the racist President Woodrow Wilson wrote beautifully about the freedom of ethnic minorities in Europe but then resegregated agencies of the federal government, which had been integrated decades earlier as a result of Reconstruction.
We cannot waste this moment. It's time to put on our big boy and big girl pants and talk tachles about race. And then we must put those words into lasting action that truly heals our country and her people.