Can we imagine a world where all belong and get to participate?

Belonging is based on the recognition of our full humanity without having to become something different or pretend we’re all the same. We have to construct stories that allow space for others. Our story cannot just be about us in the narrowest way, nor can it reproduce othering by consigning an other to be just a villain in our story. At a deeper level, bridging is about co-constructing a larger we, with shifting differences and similarities. Through bridging, people experience being heard, being seen, and being cared for.

Because we are moral beings, our actions cannot stand solely on legal footing. We must operate, teach, and practice from a set of shared beliefs that honor our commitment to a society built on belonging. The path forward will not always be straight, and there will be disagreement about the boundaries of our pluralism, but that must not stop us from working to secure an America that is moving towards, not slipping away from, a more inclusive society.

JOHN A. POWELL, Bridging or Breaking? The Stories We Tell Will Create the Future We Inhabit, January 14, 2020

We are experiencing a time of deep uncertainty and change. Both the depth and speed of change are creating growing anxiety in our accepted norms, in our political institutions, and in our very sense of self. These changes are reflected in five critical, interrelated areas: climate change, globalization, technology, the economy, and migration. We don’t always appreciate the interconnection of these forces; indeed, we often try to deal with them separately. This is not only a mistake but also means that many of our efforts are inadequate and ineffective.

The rate and intensity of the change threaten to outpace our ability to adapt. This is widely experienced as stress and anxiety.

These forces are happening in virtually all parts of the world. Even our language and ideas are often inadequate to understand and develop appropriate responses to these changes. The stories we collectively hold are an important part of how we respond, and will help determine whether our responses will be up to the task. Leaders play an oversized role in helping to give energy and meaning to the stories we tell ourselves and each other. This impacts not just how we see the world but also our actions in the world.

So we need to interrogate the stories we have and identify what might be the most productive and life-affirming story that we can inhabit. And we need to find some ways to get there.

I hope it is clear that by “story” I am not suggesting a simple fiction—or that we can, in a facile way, just choose one story over another. Of course, we can sometimes choose, but our choices are often limited. Indeed, we are not fully transparent, even to ourselves.

That is just one lesson of the role structures play. We are often blind to the presence and impact of structures on lives and decisions. And one of the insights of cognitive science is that many of our intentions are implicit, meaning we are not consciously aware of what we are doing and why. We are not helpless, but we need to understand what we are facing and become more aware of some of our options moving forward.


How should we respond to this heightened change and stress? First, we need to have clarity. While most people recognize that we face in our communities a growing disquiet, they would not agree on what it is, nor on what is causing it.

Where to begin? One fruitful place, I believe, is to examine our plight through the frame of belonging. Every society, every group, addresses the question of who belongs and what belonging means or what it is we belong to. Despite the ubiquity of these questions, they are seldom explicit; they are more likely to be background assumptions that seem normal, natural, and stable. But during rapid change, these questions and assertions are much more likely to surface. Yet the tools and skills needed to deeply engage them, even as they become more salient, are too often lacking. I have already suggested here, and in other writings, that these issues will likely grow in intensity.1

It is not surprising that the Constitution of the United States starts off with the issue of addressing who belongs: “We the people.” And while most people in the land that was to become the United States of America were not included in that we, in many ways the history of the country has been about continuing to both address and define who is in the we.

To be in the we was to belong—and therefore participate in creating the society and in creating the meaning that was attached to that belonging. Being outside the we was to be othered: without the recognized right to participate in the constitution of the country, to give meaning, and in many cases even be seen as fully human. The country’s relationship with indigenous nations, women, and enslaved people from Africa was very much bound up with the issue of who was in the we. It still is. In Dred Scott, one of the most important and infamous Supreme Court cases, the Court took on the question of whether Black people, enslaved or not, could be considered part of the we. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney answered for the Court, and therefore the country, with an emphatic no. In one of the most famous political speeches in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln called on the country to reject this narrow we and write a new story, with a new birth of freedom.

Out of these various struggles came a redefinition of who could be in the we. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed shortly after the Civil War, rejected Taney and asserted that all people born in the United States were citizens.

This assertion of being part of the we, of belonging, is now being challenged again, by Trump and many of his supporters. The struggle of who belongs—and who can be part of the we—continues. And, in this country, that struggle has always had a relationship of white dominance attached to it. These questions have been and continue to be foundational for our country and, indeed, the world.

This same impulse is showing up in Europe, Asia, and Africa: Who is really British? Can Muslims belong in India? The threat of the other is met by some with a call for a small religious or ethnic we, but the same foundational question remains of belonging. To not belong is to be othered. To be less than. To be, as W. E. B. Dubois said, a “problem.”

To belong is not just to be a citizen or member in the weakest sense, but to be able to participate in cocreating the thing you belong to. This makes it different than inclusion. This is exactly what many white nationalists reject.

Samuel Huntington argued that we are not a country of immigrants or native peoples, but a settler country.2 The rules, the norms, the culture are set by the settlers, and everyone else does not get to influence or change the norms. For the white nationalists, those norms include whiteness and what they associate with whiteness. They believe they get to decide because they are the we. It is a small closed we that does not want to be threatened by the other.

What we’re witnessing around the world today with othering is the result of nuanced and long processes. And part of those processes is anxiety. Yet anxiety does not have to turn into loss and fear. While we are all exposed to the rapid changes in the world, some are turning to fear and even hate, while others look at opportunity and even love. We need the latter instead of the former.

This brings us to the issue of bridging and breaking, and the stories that we live by, and how to promote belonging or othering. While rapid change may be an adequate explanation for our increased anxiety, it does not by itself explain the deep polarization and fear that are sweeping the world. Natural anxiety and stress can become either productive or hateful. Our possible responses are largely influenced by the stories we inhabit. There is robust research that shows that when Americans, particularly white Americans, hear that we are moving toward a country where white will not be the majority, it pushes them to the right—and this is true even for liberal whites. This research is based on peoples’ unconscious reactions. The conscious response is much more positive, especially from liberals.

The anxiety triggered by change does not just impact whites; it affects all people and, indeed, our living earth. Some will see the rise of white nationalism, supremacy, nativism, and other dominant ideologies as always having been there, just not with the space and permission to be expressed openly. But this is not likely the case. The kinds of changes we are discussing create a new set of responses and new stresses. And as we experience this anxiety, we will not, on our own, be able to figure out how to respond to it or even know what it is. We will need a story—a story that will help us name both the underlying anxiety as well as our appropriate reactions; it will give voice and shape to the anxiety.

There are two main types of stories that get used. One is a breaking story and the other is a bridging story.


And while I am focusing on stories, we should address practices as well. What ethnic nationalist leaders like Trump in the United States and Modi in India talk about is the world being scary and in decline because of the other. They might describe the other as insects, an invasion, a wave. The point to raise in such stories is that the other represents a threat. That threat might include an economic aspect, but it is likely to speak to a more profound threat. A threat to one’s very existence. Think of the Proud Boys in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” The perceived threat does not have to be real, but the anxiety and fear are likely to be. And the true threat in such cases is to the existence of the targeted group. This is the drumbeat of the far right. This is quintessential breaking. And once the environment is created, it is possible to pass discriminatory and hateful policies directed at those targeted groups.

There are several things to notice. One is that there is an anxiety that is turned into a fear about the future. This fear is attached to the undeserving other. There is also a romanticizing of some mythical past, and a claim that we will restore or return to that era. The future is scary, so let’s reject the future in favor of a past that never really was and certainly never will be. What I am describing is hard breaking—which is the inclination to deny the humanity of others, and see them as a problem and a threat—and it can lead to placing children in cages, building walls, or even genocide.

Many will associate hard breaking with authoritarianism and ethnic populism. As people experience anxiety about change and the other, the ethnonationalist is likely to flirt with purity and cleansing, as the other is seen as not capable of being part of the we. Historian Ibram Kendi makes the point that hard segregationists are often in this space.3

It is also important to note that there is no natural other. The other is largely constructed by the stories we tell. While for thousands of years people lived in small tribes, these tribes were not like races or religions of today.

There are also forms of soft breaking. This is likely to be the kind of breaking that occurs within liberal spaces. It might entail not being willing to listen to others’ stories—or assigning groups a role where they are not able to fully participate. The position of allyship, which at certain times may be appropriate, can also become a type of soft breaking. In this type of soft breaking, it may be suggested that friendly others called allies are in a permanent state of being outside, and that at best they are just junior partners, whose stories and concerns are not our main concern. The role they are assigned, then, is of being there only to provide support, and not really to be part of the central we.

The vast majority of stories and practices today are either hard or soft breaking. The liberal response to this othering too often engages in what I call same-ing, while the response from the far right is to try and retreat into a static and pure past. The liberal response is that the other who is being demonized for all the changes is just like us, and therefore no real change is necessary. This claim often seems hollow. Many people do not experience the other as just like them. Should we expect or want the country to stay the same as it becomes more diverse? Are our histories and experiences all the same? So, while the far right are likely to see Black, Brown, Asian, or nonheterosexual people as an existential threat, liberals may argue that we are all the same. Both positions are problematic—and wrong.

The liberal position has too often been afraid of difference and therefore is constantly looking for something that will erase any difference—like a focus on economics without questions of identity attached to it. The far right is likely to see only identity as the key issue.

One can have a position that recognizes economic concerns together with concerns that are associated with identity. An existential threat cannot be reduced to just material things.

As economist and philosopher Amartya Sen noted, when a group is attached to some characteristic, such as poverty or crime, their identity is likely to become more salient.4 It is not identity that is the problem; the problem is breaking.

BRIDGING – Belonging is based on the recognition of our full humanity without having to become something different or pretend we’re all the same.

The intervention for othering is not same-ing, but belonging. Belonging is based on the recognition of our full humanity without having to become something different or pretend we’re all the same. We are always both the same (humanity) and different (human), and are also multiple and dynamic, constantly renegotiating who we are.

Belonging requires both agency and power to cocreate. But true belonging means we are not just creating for our group(s), but for all. One of the major ways of promoting belonging is by bridging.

Bridging requires that we create space to hear and see each other. It does not require agreement. As the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky states, we recognize each other by recognizing our respective sacred symbols.5 Bridging is about creating compassionate space and practices where we can acknowledge each other’s stories and suffering.

We have to construct stories that allow space for others. Our story cannot just be about us in the narrowest way, nor can it reproduce othering by consigning an other to be just a villain in our story. At a deeper level, bridging is about co-constructing a larger we, with shifting differences and similarities. Through bridging, people experience being heard, being seen, and being cared for.

There are a couple of key things related to bridging. As my friend—cultural critic, author, and feminist—bell hooks and I have spoken about, bridges are made to be walked on. This means that the folks who bridge are likely to be challenged—not just by the others who oppose them but also by their own group. Some will insist that marginalized people should not have to bridge, as that is putting too much on them. And yet they may practice soft breaking, which also promotes a small we. I would not insist that any group bridge, but we should understand what the alternative is.

The question is often presented: Do I have to bridge with my enemy, with Trump, with Trump voters, with racists, with the devil? My response is to start with short bridges. Maybe that is your family, a group you have something in common with but where you need to practice more listening, more acknowledgment of their suffering, more understanding of what you share—not what divides you. As we get more practice, we can explore long bridges. But I also caution against assuming someone is the devil.

There are many things that I have not addressed here, such as bonding with your own group without hating a perceived other. There is also the question of power and institutional gaps. This is leaned into by linking bridging with explicit power building, although bridging by itself can also be a very effective way of building power.

There is also the issue of the level at which the bridging is taking place. Is it between individuals, groups, institutions, or something else? This will matter in how bridging is done. There is also the issue of trust. What is the right level of trust for bridging to work?

What I would say to people in philanthropy—and in movement building and civic engagement as well—is that while policies are important, the essence of the struggle is about who we are. For funders, you should be funding work to help people exercise this muscle. Don’t only fund separate issues or separate groups.

Given that change is happening across so many domains, some may ask, Why focus on identity and othering, and not technology or climate? But this is a dynamic that is already changing. Young people are not only leading the way with a focus on climate but have much more inclusive acceptance and new understandings of difference and identities, including gender and neurodiversity. But part of the answer to the question above is about the stories we are fed. It’s not that corporations or elites refuse to engage with the environment—it’s that prioritizing our earth as part of our shared story would make their story of unchecked greed and building separate we’s harder to sell. It may be more satisfying and expedient to blame a person instead of nature.

What we need instead is a compelling story that shows how all these issues are related. Can we imagine a world where we all belong and can all participate? Or are we consigned to a world of small, warring wes? Those who share the vision of a world of belonging must focus on a new story. Our existing institutions and story will not carry us to the future we want. There may be more questions and there is a lot to learn and do. The pace of change will not slow down. Let’s get on with it.

This piece was originally published on Non Profit Quarterly

John Powell, Yes! Magazine, NOV 11, 2019

At a time of heightened polarization and intense inequality in the United States and around the world, social differences run the risk of being turned into fault lines, and exploited for divide-and-conquer politics. As political scientists Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi recently observed, inflammatory us-versus-them rhetoric “instigates neural mechanisms from the evolutionary desire to be part of the group.”

Diversity can be a great strength, but it is susceptible to manipulation when not accompanied by community leaders from all backgrounds willing and able to bridge across difference. The idea of “bridging” provides a path to healing the practices of “breaking” across communities of difference that are so prevalent today.

Now used more broadly, bridging originates in social capital theory. It’s a concept used to investigate trust and social cohesion, as well as reciprocity and civic bonds. It describes relationships between and among different groups of people in society, and is a form of social capital, which examines connections that connect people across a cleavage that often divides society (such as race, class, or religion). Bridging occurs when members of different groups reach beyond their own group to members of other groups. Examples of this would be moving into integrated neighborhoods or joining sports clubs or places of worship where people hold different identity markers than oneself.

 Several years ago, here at the University of California, Berkeley, we began to examine bridging through the lens of “othering and belonging.” “Othering” occurs when a person or group is not seen as a full member of society, as an outsider or “less than” or inferior to other people or groups. It happens at an interpersonal level across many dimensions such as race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and others, but is also expressed at the group level. When governments and other elites participate in the othering of certain groups, othering reaches its most dangerous level, and can lead to violence, and even genocide.

One of the mechanisms of othering is the practice of breaking—the antithesis of bridging. Breaking occurs when members of a group not only turn inward (known as “bonding,” in social capital terms), but also turn against the “outsider” group or the other. The otherness and threat of the out-group can be used to build psychological or physical walls. It tells the other, “You are not one of us. You don’t belong and you should not get the same public resources or attention and regard that my group gets.” Breaking emerges from a belief that people who are not part of the favored group are somehow dangerous or unworthy. It is largely based on fear, and a feeling of insecurity. These emotions may be grounded on a belief that “those people”—whoever they are—are stealing our jobs, harming our neighborhoods, or that they pose a threat to our sacred values and norms.

In the U.S. political environment today, there are multiple “others.” Immigrants, Muslims, and people of color are prominent “others,” and our current administration advances breaking policies and employs divisive rhetoric that enflames fear of these others. But even well-meaning liberals undermine bridging and perpetuate othering through strategies such as assimilation.

For example, the notion of “not seeing difference” or assuming that one group is just like another, more favored group, can undermine the building of bridges. Saying that “Muslims are just like Christians even though they attend a mosque instead of a church” erases any differences, and tries to assimilate the marginalized group into the dominant one.

Meaningful bridging—like real integration—must acknowledge, respect, and appreciate difference as a starting point, not try to erase differences. Bridging requires more than just acknowledging the other but listening empathically and holding space for the other within our collective stories. This, of course, is not easy. As author bell hooks reminds us, bridges get walked on.

There are different types of bridges. Short bridges require less effort, less risk, and less vulnerability to erect. Longer bridges are those that require more of us and our communities. They entail greater risk, but also greater reward.

To bridge requires strength and empathy, but it does not require that we sacrifice our values or our identity. It also entails vulnerability, as when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to New Zealand’s mass shooting by affirming values of diversity, refuge, and compassion.

Bridging is so important because only bridging can heal a world of breaking, which is the dominant practice and discourse today. Breaking not only feeds off broad-scale social changes and polarization, it also propels them.

By imagining together, we can use bridges to hear the other and help construct a larger more inclusive “we” where no group dominates or is left out.


Us vs them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them

November 8, 2017

We are in the midst of a rapidly changing world. More than 300 million people are currently living outside their homelands. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise – from the Rohingya people forced out of Myanmar in what many are calling the world’s latest genocide, to neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in an action President Trump pointedly refused to condemn.

Humans can only process a limited amount of change in a short period of time without experiencing anxiety. It’s a natural human reaction – but how we respond to that anxiety is social.

When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society – a process I call “Othering”. An alternative response is seeing the change in demographics as positive, and regarding the apparent other as enhancing our life and who we are. This is what I refer to as “belonging and bridging”.

Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group. It is largely driven by politicians and the media, as opposed to personal contact. Overwhelmingly, people don’t “know” those that they are Othering.

So while today’s global anxiety has been precipitated by globalisation, technology and a changing economy, demographics play a crucial role in the process of Othering. The attributes of who gets defined as Other differ from place to place, and can be based upon race, religion, nationality or language. It is not these attributes themselves that are the problem, of course, but how they are made salient, and how they are manipulated.

I am therefore particularly concerned with how Othering shows up in today’s power structures: how it is used to divide and dehumanise groups, and capture and reshape government and institutions. For society’s leaders and culture play an oversized role in helping us make sense of change – and so greatly affect our responses to anxiety.

In the United States, politicians used to engage in what scholar Ian Haney-Lopez calls “dog whistles” – they could make references to Others but only in a coded way; never saying “those Mexicans” or “those Muslims”, for example. President Trump, however, has opened a space where people are emboldened to be more explicit. We now have not only our nation’s leadership but many of our information networks amplifying these explicit calls to exclude and dehumanize.

The rhetoric and language coming from Trump has begun to both define and normalise Othering. This is a threat to all the things we value. When Mexicans can be called “rapists and drug dealers” in direct contradiction to the facts, it becomes a much easier step to call for their deportation, and for a literal wall to divide us.

The language being used by many national leaders not only activates people’s anxiety and fear around a perceived Other, it creates new processes of exclusion and dehumanisation.

While it is common to focus only on economic changes to explain the rise of right-wing nationalists and Othering, the loss of economic power is not the only thing stirring anxiety around the globe. Sweden is experiencing a rise of group-based nationalism, yet its economy is not suffering. Trump voters included a large number of affluent whites, not just the poor or working class.

It’s not that the economy is unimportant, it’s just that it doesn’t tell the whole story. After a number of important civil rights victories in the US in the 1960s, the conservative elites strategised how to trade on smouldering white Southern resentment of these gains. With the Southern Strategy of stoking white resentment, they succeeded in remaking the Republican Party – ultimately moving government away from protecting people and towards protecting capital.

Conservative elites know how to strategically create and use fear of a perceived Other, by organising and manufacturing fear. When Nixon began using the term “law and order”, his popularity was cemented among a certain base because he was appealing to a specific kind of conservative white fear: not primarily about jobs, but rather the changing social order. This was not precipitated by a specific economic downturn, yet the outcome of Nixon’s strategy was the securing of an economy rigged for the rich.

People don’t just figure out on their own that collectively they need to be afraid of another group. Leadership plays a critical role. Often people who have been living with one another for years are made to feel suddenly that those differences have become threatening.

The recent rhetoric around people who are undocumented in the US, many of whom have lived here for their whole lives, has created a culture of fear for millions, has demonised children, and has created suspicion and anger in communities where none had existed before.

A friend from the deep south tells the story of her father asking with all sincerity if he should turn in to the authorities a waiter at a restaurant he suspects doesn’t have “papers”. Five years ago, this concern wasn’t even part of his consciousness, and the same waiter had been serving him for far longer than that. Who activated that concern? A demagogue understands the power of language and the deep ontological forces that are essential to how people experience their lives. It’s not necessary that these demagogues believe what they say.

The stories we tell, and live, are not about facts but our values, fears and hopes – all of which, to a certain degree, are malleable. Our narratives don’t just reflect them, they also shape them. While anxiety about change is natural, Othering is not. Othering is socially and culturally constructed.

So how do we respond to our collective anxiety today? Either we “bridge”, reaching across to other groups and towards our inherent, shared humanity and connection, while recognising that we have differences; or we “break”, pulling away from other groups and making it easier to tell and believe false stories of “us vs them”, then supporting practices that dehumanise the “them”.

Part of the solution to Othering must come from the stories we tell. As the world undergoes profound shifts, how do we build true societies of belonging? We can look to Canada as one positive example. While it still has its difficult issues, Canada has said to its multi-racial, multi-ethnic population, “Keep your identity”. Canadians have held on to their religious and ethnic backgrounds while they also connect with others. And the far right-wing in Canada has not cracked 10%.

If we are to combat the rising tide of extremism across the globe, we must actively create bridges across difference, and resist strategic exploitation of our collective anxiety. For when we bridge, we not only open up to others, we also open up to change in ourselves – and actively participate in co-creating a society to which we can all belong.

The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.

This piece was originally published on The Guardian

On speech and belonging, September 19, 2017

Over the course of this month there are those scheduled to make appearances on our campus who are not coming here for dialogue. These speakers are not using their right to speak merely to communicate, they are using speech carefully crafted to harm, to demonize, to disparage, to create a sense of fear about anyone they deem Other. Their speech is intended to provoke and to divide. Many of these speakers, who are coming under the guise of freedom of expression, publicly target specific groups and people from those groups, including transgender people, Muslims, women, people of color, people with disabilities, and their list goes on. They are exploiting democratic principles meant to protect and expand our communities. In doing so, they are attempting to co-opt and pervert the concept of free speech itself.

In thinking about free speech, we must first take a look at ourselves, understand who we are, who we should strive to be, and remember the core values we share as Americans, including justice, equality, and liberty. While there will always be disagreements, what we cannot do is deny the worth of any individual or our common, shared humanity.

A lot of the discourse around free speech has been predicated on the notion that speech doesn’t “really” harm. But freedom of expression, as well as liberty and equality, does not allow for total impunity when it comes to speech. There are reasons we have laws against libel and sexual harassment, both of which can take the form of speech.

We must not let the narrative about free speech itself be narrowly defined by a set of extremist viewpoints. There is an ongoing subtext in the conversation around speech today that if certain people are not welcomed in our public squares or in our public universities or in our communities, that they have been silenced. Yet these are people whose viewpoints and voices have been continuously validated, centered, and reinforced in our media and from our highest seats of power — who are supported by and aligned with a president who has equated the beliefs of white supremacists and neo-Nazis with those who protect justice and equality. The “freedom” to practice the discourse of Othering has rarely been less silent.

This is not about a simple disagreement between two equal but differing viewpoints. When we have right-wing, ethno-nationalist groups publicly calling for the expulsion of Jews, blacks, and other groups, we must respond. There are people coming into our communities saying “You are not human. You do not belong.” We have people in power saying to members of our society, “Get out of our country. You do not belong.” Those of us who believe in equality will find it necessary to resist all attempts to institutionalize Othering, not only in speech but also into policy and law.

This doesn’t mean we should ban speech or silence those with views we may not like or agree with. We should not. But at the same time we must also recognize the need to protect those who are concerned for equality, free from harassment and intimidation. The concept of free speech is a critical topic, and the Haas Institute is committed to engaging in public dialogue about what the First Amendment covers and the evolution of the law on what is considered speech. Who would have thought that corporations giving money to political candidates was “protected speech” 10 years ago?

We are committed to elevating research and dialogue on how speech can injure. What is sometimes called by the name of speech could actually be called injurious speech acts. There is often an effort to ignore these harms by calling such speech offensive or hateful, but not injurious. Several of our faculty are studying the effects of stress on life outcomes, how the effects of institutionalized racism plays a crucial role in the lifespan of people of color, how trauma and isolation are directly connected to higher suicide rates, earlier deaths, addiction and illness. All of these issues are deeply intertwined with speech and what is normalized in public discourse and practice — they do not exist on in a place outside of where free speech sits, protected.

The more we recognize that certain kinds of speech can not only offend but can cause mental and physical harm, and that the harm can be lasting, the more we will be able to properly protect the rights of all — not just of people to speak, but also of their very existence and right to survive and thrive. The exact boundaries for doing this may be difficult to determine, but we must not let be an excuse to not engage. Nor should we put aside our core values as merely abstractions and only discuss free speech from the perspective of the strictest letter of the law as currently defined. The law evolves and is dynamic. What would we have said to the students that challenged the segregated lunch counter, or to the freedom riders—that segregation laws prohibited their actions? These laws proved to be not only legally wrong, but morally wrong as well.

Yet as we uphold and respect the law that protects freedom of expression, we also call for the resources of our institutions and the state to be directed towards the protection of those standing against organized hate and who advocate for justice for our most vulnerable communities. Those who participate in nonviolent demonstrations, who practice boycotts, who engage in civil dialogue, who create sanctuary cities, who are using their positions as faith leaders, engaged scholars, and community organizers to advance equality and justice—these are people helping America be its best self, who are claiming a more inclusive “we” in “we the people.”

Because we are moral beings, our actions cannot stand solely on legal footing. We must operate, teach, and practice from a set of shared beliefs that honor our commitment to a society built on belonging. The path forward will not always be straight, and there will be disagreement about the boundaries of our pluralism, but that must not stop us from working to secure an America that is moving towards, not slipping away from, a more inclusive society.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

 Comment 0 Likes Share

Hate and hurt in America: On Charlottesville

August 14, 2017

Like many people, I am deeply bothered by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. I give my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to those who went to Charlottesville to stand up for decency, fairness, and equality, and who put their beliefs on the line against hate. I apologize to Heather Heyer’s family that we as a country did not do more to protect her life. I hope we do more going forward to honor her and protect the values she gave her life for.

We know there are people, called by various names and euphemisms, that believe in hate and white supremacy—these beliefs and these groups are not new. These people feel threatened by the idea of equality. When a person embraces the concept of supremacy, then equality is viewed as an attack. They believe this country belongs to whites. They believe that having people of color in positions of respect and power is un-American. There has been no greater example of a threat to their belief system than President Obama. It was not Obama’s policies they objected to, but his humanity. These people are dangerous and they must be contained.

However, I am just as concerned with the many in power who are complicit with this hate, and who are willing to exploit hateful ideologies for their own purpose. While no American political party has a monopoly on the sick and dangerous strategy of supremacy, it has been the mainstay of the Republican Party since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Their Southern Strategy played up and played on white resentment of the Civil Rights movement to move Dixiecrats to the Republican Party. The elites who were architects of the Southern Strategy did not necessarily believe, nor did they need to believe, whatever racist tropes they were selling when using dog whistles such as “inner city violence” or “welfare queens.” To accomplish their goal of being able to garner support for programs reducing taxes on businesses and gutting regulations that protected the public, they needed something clear enough to signal to and woo resentful white voters, while retaining the ability to deny they were explicitly talking about race to more moderate whites.

This Southern Strategy has now clearly morphed into a national strategy. But the once coded messages are now explicit, loud, and clear, and are coming from those in the highest positions of political power. President Trump has been embraced by white supremacists and has only nominally rejected the endorsement of these groups. He has backed up his speeches to make America great again (read: white again) with actions and policies. He has taken one of the architects of the white nationalist movement and made him his chief strategist.

But Trump is only one aspect of the national politics of hate. The Republican Party is vigorously rolling back voting rights, gay rights, protection of Native American land, public education, and affordable housing—reforms fought for since the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and for which many paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure.

For those who say this is nothing new, I respectfully disagree. There is definitely a clear historical precedent but the coordinates of the moral compass of what’s acceptable in this country are shifting. We are embroiled in a number of current and potential disasters from a callous and mean-spirited president, as well as a Republican Party that has lost its values and its backbone. The stakes are raised when the president refuses to publicly condemn white supremacist groups (or is too late and too lukewarm when finally doing so), yet is more than willing to attack those like Kenneth Frazier, a member of one of his advisory councils who resigned in protest over the President’s silence over the past weekend. Frazier is African-American. What about his white colleagues?

Yet there remains much cause for hope. This hope comes from people like Heather who stand up to hate with love. This hope comes from cities who challenge some of the worst aspects of Trump’s immigration policies. This hope comes from organizers who insist on defending the best American values. This hope comes from all who believe in these values and are willing to fight for them.

We must continue to organize and participate and do more in the face of organized hate. We must come forward with not only messages but policies and platforms that advance equality and inclusion. We must protect the protestors who take a stand against hate. These are people helping America be its best self. If we are to pull America back from hate, there must be supporters from all political persuasions and voices from every race, ethnicity, religion, and faith. If we are to stand for equality and love, we must ground ourselves in these values and we must indeed take a stand. We are America’s present and its future.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

 Comment 0 Likes Share

Trump and race

July 21, 2017

Many months after the election of Donald Trump, new data and research findings continue to provide fresh light on that critical historical moment. The main strand of this research is a search to understand who voted for each candidate, and what motivated their vote. The results are not entirely intuitive, increasingly complex, and, as pundits like Nate Silver have noted, surprising – and certainly not consistent with the prevailing opinion on election night.

In particular, there appears to have been a gradual reversal of election night consensus on the role and relationship of economic anxiety and “racial” anxiety, or anxiety of the “other,” in terms of motivation and voting patterns. Recent elections have increasingly demonstrated the importance racial polarization among the electorate. Yes, 43 percent of whites, according to exit polls, did not vote for Trump, and the more recent survey evidence suggests that number might be slightly greater. But, the number of whites supporting Democrats has been in a general decline since President Lyndon Johnson. Most whites, especially in the South, were uncomfortable, at best, with civil rights since the civil rights movement, and political tacticians such as Lee Atwater brilliantly preyed on this anxiety with the so-called Southern Strategy, using coded appeals to appeal to racial resentment. The country quickly and relatively easily moved from the promise of a more racially fair society to de facto segregated schools and housing to racially based mass incarceration. The march to Trump started in the ’60s.

Until the civil rights movement, the Republican Party had been a largely northern party, associated with the “war of northern aggression,” and the party of big business and an urban, industrialized economy outside of the South. While most southern whites did not, in fact, own slaves, there was widespread support for that “peculiar institution,” and southern white identity was deeply connected to, and even constituted by, an ideology of white supremacy. The refrain of local control in response to the Brown mandate and knee-jerk antagonism to Washington, D.C., was bound up with protecting a way of life that largely included domination, exploitation and control of black labor, black bodies and black life.

The South, since 1896, was largely a one-party system dominated by the Democratic Party. But it might be more accurate to assert that American politics since then has been controlled by three, not two, parties: Democrats, Republicans and the South. After the New Deal, which was largely pushed by northern Democrats, Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to accept a greater role for the federal government in not only protecting civil rights in the South (recall the Little Rock incident), but also protecting people from corporate excess and the more extreme havoc caused by boom and bust cycles. We have a name for this. It is called regulations, like Glass-Steagall or the Wagner Act, which regulate market dynamics.

Although the economic effects were far more severe than recent downturns, the Great Depression, we might note, did not produce a dominant ethnic nationalism as it has more recently in Western nations. Instead, it produced the most robust welfare state in American history up to that point. How did that happen? How did the Depression lead to Social Security, public works programs, unemployment insurance on an unprecedented scale, the Wagner Act and so on? Why didn’t the South exercise its power in Congress and prey upon the racial fears of its constituents to thwart these developments, like Trump today?

In part, it did. Southern leaders in Congress, where they could, built racial ramparts into the heart of the New Deal, creating exclusions for black workers and black labor and in old age insurance, housing programs, etc. These accommodations to white supremacy, demanded by the southern Democrats, ensured that white privilege was maintained.

The Great Depression did not automatically shift white working-class support to reactionary demagogues (although there were many, like Father Charles Coughlin), as many today might suppose. Instead, by accepting a white racial hegemony, there was space for more liberal populists, like Huey Long, who were less vulnerable to a politics of race-baiting.

The point is that the politics of “the other,” in this case race, has been important in shaping our political and economic policy agenda, especially in times of economic crisis. The New Deal was not the first such economic crisis, nor would it be the last. The politics and structure of the New Deal was strongly informed by race. The Great Recession, triggered by fraud in the mortgage market, led to an aggressive federal response that created the Tea Party as a resistance movement, blaming the victims of the crisis as the culprits, with unavailable racialized overtones, epitomized by Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent.”

There is a general recognition that economic anxiety, stress and instability are fertile ground for demagoguery and various strands of right-wing nationalism. Yet, we have a more difficult time seeing how anxiety of the “other” generates a neo-liberal policy agenda that hurts the working and middle class. This is a blind spot for too many.

From one perspective, we are still contesting the aftermath of the civil war, whose fundamental questions of citizenship, belonging and equal rights remain unresolved in many respects. The South lost militarily, but won the fight over Reconstruction, and gained ground politically and culturally for several generations. Why was the virulently racist movie, The Birth of a Nation, the first Hollywood blockbuster?

The Republican Party achieved national ascendency by appealing to hostility to civil rights and racial resentment, and flipped the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. The specifics of the Southern Strategy continue today: attacking integrated education, affirmative action, fair housing, welfare, unions, and promoting “right to work laws,” the War on Drugs and mass incarceration as well as new, nefarious laws like “Stand Your Ground.” The through-line is policies that are punitive to blacks while promoting, at least symbolically, the prerogative of white supremacy with the intent of further entrenching economic elites.

What made the Southern Strategy so clever was that it appealed to racial resentment and hostility to civil rights without repelling whites who would be disgusted by a more vulgar or explicit racial hatred. So, the goal was to communicate a racial message to the base while maintaining plausible deniability that race was an issue. This was the dog whistle, or what Ian Haney Lopez calls “Dog Whistle Politics.” Arguments about the Second Amendment sound not only as constitutional claims, but as resonant fears of an aggressive federal government harkening back to the Civil War. Similarly, demands for local control are more than assertions for greater democracy, but appeals against federal courts enforcing the rights of minorities. Attacks on the welfare state and unions were not simply critiques of a profligate government or labor unrest, but about control of black labor. And “special interests” were not corporate elites, but blacks, environmentalists and unions.

If these concerns were primarily economic, then they would not have succeeded. What does gay marriage have to do with the economy? Hostility to gay marriage is not simply about protecting the family or traditional values, but about identity, including a conservative white Christian identity that Robert Jones writes about his book, The End of White Christian America. Trump’s appeal is for a continuation of that imagined white, Christian America. Why did Trump insist that Obama was a Muslim? And, perhaps more importantly, why did so many Republican voters believe him? The message is that he is the “other,” and a threat to who “we” are.

After the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee post-mortem suggested outreach to a growing Latino electorate. But the rank and file emphatically rejected this détente with the nomination of Donald Trump. Instead, they doubled down on white, rural, ethnic Protestant voters. They appealed to a mythical past instead of a diverse, and changing, present.

These appeals not just cognitive, but they are deeply emotional, animated by fear and anxiety. And they are not just economic, they are ontological and spiritual. While the left complains about inequality, the right complains about the “takers,” and Donald Trump complains about Mexican labor and Chinese trade negotiators. But are these genuine economic plans, or are they better understood as emotional and ontological appeals? Is preserving 50,000 coal mining jobs going to change the economy? We must look more deeply to understand what these claims are really about.

Many of the 43 percent of whites who voted for Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson were put off by the implicit and explicit racism, misogyny and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s message. Instead, some Trump voters admitted similar reservations, but were ultimately willing to overlook them. Trump, more so than any other major American party candidate since the 1960s, broke the strategy of sticking to the dog whistle, and not being too explicit. And yet he won.

And while deep economic anxiety might explain part of what happened, it does not explain enough. For all the calls to avoid identity politics, to double down on economic, class-based appeals, Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary, in no small part because he failed to mobilize black voters while Hillary did, opening her campaign with a call to end mass incarceration. Moreover, in the battleground states where the economy was the top issue, Hillary won. If economic anxiety truly explained the election results, how, too, to explain the votes of millions of working-class black, native and Asian voters, who did not bolt to the right?

And yet, there is a way of doing identity politics that should concern us, where the critics have a point. And this is when we assert, implicitly or explicitly, that one group is more deserving of attention or remediation than another. I call this “breaking.” When any group is only concerned with its own group, and fails to connect or link those struggles with the struggles of other groups, they are leaning towards breaking. When a group shuts out other voices, perhaps even defensively, this is breaking.

There is almost always a way to frame, link and connect a group’s struggles with another group. This is called “bridging.” This happens when the causes of immigrants and the currently and formerly incarcerated are connected to fight for housing, labor rights and full civic participation. This happens when Latinos and African Americans join forces to fight against gentrification and displacement. This happens when Muslims and disability advocates jointly call for greater accommodation in schools and workplaces for prayer and physical access.

The solution to breaking — which is also othering, as it denies the full humanity of the “other” — is not “saming” or creating a false universal that erases the needs or situation of the suffering group. The solution is bridging and belonging. While belonging can recognize that we are not all similarly situated in our interest, or structures, we are not categorically different but situational different. Belonging can recognize the “other” without engaging in othering.

The ontological anxiety that is gripping America and other parts of the world may be a natural human response to rapid change. Recognizing that anxiety and helping folks negotiate is an important role for the stories and frames we use. I believe the right has been better at engaging this anxiety, but offers an “us versus them” solution. The left wants to avoid the conversation and talk about the economy, and how we are all the same. We need to move toward a bridging. empathic story not unlike the one in Canada. The story needs to be inclusive, sensitive to the anxiety and suffering and recognize that we are both the same and different. This is not the story on the left or right. We need a new story of “we” that deals with both the economic anxiety, our group-based situatedness, and our ontological need to belong.

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog.

 Comment 1 Likes Share

Can we tell a different story?

July 18, 2017

The past two weeks have ripped at the heart of America.

We have had to witness senseless killings and we’ve had to witness far too many of them.

The nation witnessed with outrage and grief the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, their names added to a list that is already disproportionately heavy with those of black people killed by police. These were not just any killings, not that there is any such thing as just any killing, but these killings were done by those sworn to protect us from harm. These killings were done by those who have the power of the state behind them. These killings suggested to us that some lives, indeed, black lives, do not matter.

The nation witnessed with grief and shock the lives of police taken by different gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as we added the names of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, and now, from Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald to the list of those killed in the line of duty. The killings of police officers were not just ordinary killings, not that any killing is ordinary. These were killings of people who have sworn to protect us. These were killings of people who put themselves in harm’s way. These were killings that remind us the police have dangerous jobs. When the people who are empowered to make us safe do not feel safe themselves, what does that say about all of our safety?

We have also had to face again the reality of hate crimes. If all killing is abnormal, then a hate crime is itself a special type of killing because hate crimes are perpetrated against someone specifically because of their group membership.

We are not talking about addressing personal bigotry. Yes, there are some people who kill blacks not just out of fear, but out of racial hatred, but they are a small minority and should be dealt with. Yes, there are some blacks who are indeed dangerous and would take the lives of others who they believe stand in their way, but they are a small minority, and all communities need protection from them too.

But most bigotry is not personal, it’s institutional. Institutional racism is not only expressed in the taking of black and brown lives, it is happening in every quarter of our country. It happens in the drinking water of Flint, it happens at the voting booth in Florida. It happens as we accept the destruction of public schools in Kansas City and Minneapolis. It happens in the way we give credit at the banks, it happens in the way we pick the themes of our movies. It happens as a large number of people refuse to accept that Obama can be a real American. It happens as we create a war on drugs as an excuse to incarcerate large segments of the black and brown community. It happens in New York City as stop-and-frisk policies are carried out on thousands of black bodies.

It is happening everywhere we look.

As a number of studies have shown, many Americans live in fear of black Americans not because of the actions of blacks, but from a deeper unconscious place, resulting in the false belief that “dangerous blacks” are part of our national story, going back to the days of slavery in this country. And there is a pattern that for black people, no matter how young or how innocent, that gaze of fear can disrupt or even end their life.

There is a lack of symmetry between the police and the communities they are charged to protect. Yes, like all of us, the police are human and want to go home safely at the end of the day. Also like all of us, the police are likely to carry unconscious racial biases. Unlike all of us, however, the police have been given the power of the state to stop people, to question them, and then far too often have inflicted violence on people from black, brown, and poor communities with little or no accountability by the system. When the law extends the protection of the police to discharge their guns because they are in fear, there is a problem. Even as we recognize that the police may truly be afraid, that cannot ever be an excuse to take innocent life.

Can we learn from these tragedies? I believe we can and we must. In order to make sense of these events, we must hold several things in our minds and hearts at once. Here are some of them.

Things have gotten better: we have people of color in positions of power and authority. Things have gotten worse: we have a criminal justice system that is much more destructive of black lives today than in the 60s and 70s. Things have gotten better: we are much more likely to have people of color and women on the police force than a generation ago. Things have gotten worse: we have a police system that is fearful, militarized, and largely unaccountable to the black communities they have sworn to serve. One could continue with this comparison through the lens of our schools, boardrooms, cultural spaces, and neighborhoods.

Learning from these tragedies requires us seeing how some lives, yes black lives, do not matter now. It requires recognizing that the lives of police matter, but that we are not all similarly situated. It requires recognizing that there are in fact dangers that we must confront, but we are safer when we confront them together. It requires us to pay closer attention to what our structures and institutions are doing to either shorten and devalue life or to enhance and promote life. It requires challenging those who, through their words or their practices and policies, deny that some lives matter. Even while challenging them, we must also hold on to their humanity in order to fully claim our own.

We must engage and hold on to the humanity of black people. We must engage and hold onto the humanity of police. It is not enough to support the police and ignore black lives being killed with regularity by the state. It is not enough to only care about black lives and ignore that most police take their role to protect seriously and that it is a dangerous job. And it is very problematic to insist that because people of all stripes are protesting in our democracy— in our country that was born of protest—that the protesters are un-American.

Can we tell a different story? I believe we can and we must. It starts by recognizing there is not just one story. There are many stories and they all touch on part of the truth. When we learn to hear each others’ stories and build a more inclusive story, we will make progress. Our country is in flux and it’s also increasingly polarized. But when we insist on giving into polarization, there is little room for hope.

We must reach for a new story. This story requires a new language that is not binary. A language that can hold respect for the police while challenging structures that do not serve us well. This requires dropping the impossible demand that blacks must first prove that their lives matter. This requires being willing to ask more of the black community, but not the impossible.This requires asking more of the white community, but not the impossible. This requires recognizing that the black, white, brown, Asian, Native American, and mixed race communities are all our America. This requires that we be willing to do things differently, whether it’s in how we fund and populate our schools and police departments to how we approach guns and violence in our society.

Most importantly this new story requires that we recognize that we are all a part of each other and that we make all our practices reflect this. This new story requires more than words. It requires actions. It requires reaching inside ourselves and out across the gulf that threatens to divide us. This new story requires that we lean away from hate and into love. We will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, but we can collectively give birth to a new story and a new way of being.

Some will insist that things have improved. And they have. Some will insist that things have gotten worse and they have. The question we must ask is: How do things get better? And equally important: What is our role in creating a new story to ensure things will?

This blog post was also posted on the Berkeley Blog and HuffingtonPost.

JOHN A. POWELL is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society, the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity & Inclusion, and professor of Law, African-American, & Ethnic Studies, at UC Berkeley.

Shannon Martinez, right, does her deradicalization work at home on a phone, surrounded by her family, including daughter Jane Foley.YES! PHOTOS BY SARA WISE

Deradicalization in the Deep South

How a former neo-Nazi makes amends. DJ CASHMERE Nov 2019

On a late summer morning in Athens, Georgia, Shannon Foley Martinez sits barefoot on her back patio, still in her pajamas, and clicks “follow” on the Twitter profile of a White nationalist named Adrian. He has almost no followers, so he notices her within minutes. “Hello,” he types via direct message. “Hello!!!!!” she responds as her 3-year-old son plays nearby.

Martinez is a former neo-Nazi who now works to deradicalize people who are still in the movement. She was referred to Adrian by a friend of hers who researches right-wing extremism. When Adrian (not his real identity because of the sensitivity of the conversation) first started speaking to the friend, also via Twitter, the friend asked Adrian if he’d like to talk to someone who used to hold similar beliefs. “In response to your offer of a turncoat to talk to, that would be great,” Adrian replied. “As small a chance as it is, there is still a technical possibility I am misguided, and I owe it to myself to see that if I am.”

Adrian and Martinez talk about the findings of an earlier study she’d conducted on the online viewing habits of the far right that he’d also taken part in. Birds are chirping, the sky is blue and the temperature is in the 70s. Then he asks her, “What convinced you that the Jew’s were right after all?”

Martinez, smoking an American Spirit, is unfazed. She works without an office and smokes without an ash tray. She alternates between her back patio—knees up, feet propped on the base of the deck table—and her front porch, where she reclines, legs crossed, in one of those low-to-the-ground camping-and-soccer-games chairs. She bartends about 30 hours a week, and her husband works at a restaurant. She is raising her seven children, ages 3 to 22, and a teenage stepson with autism. Her phone is a portal to her jumbled network of “formers,” academics, activists, law enforcement officers, policymakers, and amateur experts who are collectively working to counter the rise of far-right extremism. And it’s a means of connection with “actives” like Adrian, whom Martinez hopes she can help to heal.

Shannon Martinez does her deradicalization work at home on a phone. Photo by Sara Wise.

She steers their conversation away from doctrine (she’s given up on the idea of changing people’s minds via argument) and toward emotion. “Most of my change in worldview,” she types, “had literally nothing to do with the ideology. It had to do with why the ideology was seductive and felt empowering to me in the first place.”

“And why did it?” he asks.

“Because I needed an explanation for why the world seemed like a threatening and brutal place for me. Because I wanted to believe in something that felt like it mattered and was part of something bigger.”

“Do you now believe in a different explanation or none?” he asks.

“Well… I guess I have more understanding about why those needs rose to such an acute level in my life. And also an understanding that what I chose didn’t functionally meet my needs over the long term.”

She sees conversations like these as her responsibility, as amends-making for the four-and-a-half years she spent perpetrating violence on everyone—Jewish, gay, or Black people—her ideology told her to hate. “My entire life,” she is fond of saying, “is predicated on apology.” This doesn’t mean she’s mired in guilt. Instead, it means naming and working to repair the harm that she caused. “Anywhere my voice is invited to be, I will go,” she says, from Holocaust museums to universities to the U.S. Institute of Peace. “There have to be White role models for what it means to unearth and begin to deal with our relationship with White supremacy.”

Often, Martinez isn’t entirely sure of the real identity of the people she talks to. That doesn’t normally concern her. “I just need to know that I am not interacting with a bot. Which is pretty easy to tell. As long as they aren’t making direct threats I meet people where they are at,” she says.

Adrian wants to know if she empathized with a famous scene from American History X in which a Black educator asks a White skinhead, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

“This is where it gets complicated,” she tells me. “Because honestly, at the time, my beliefs did help me.” Without them, “I probably would have killed myself.”

One night in 1974, Martinez says, her father was up late doing homework for college when her mother interrupted him to say she was going into labor. “And he was kinda like: ‘Now?’” Once they got to the hospital in Lowell, Massachusetts, little Shannon came out so quickly that her mother nearly gave birth to her in the bathroom. Her upwardly mobile middle-class family valued conformity and perfectionism, and she was inconvenient: “the little girl almost born on the toilet” who “seemed to come wired asking ‘why?’”

In first grade, for example, no one could give her a satisfactory answer as to why she needed to do her homework. “It didn’t make sense to me, so I just opted out.” She could never seem to get a handle on what exactly her parents wanted from her, so “from pretty early on, I treated the rules and expectations as irrelevant.” As she got older, and started coming home late, her parents decided she would be spanked with a ruler, once for each minute she was late. “My takeaway from that was not ‘be on time.’ It was ‘I can do whatever I want if I’m willing to endure the pain.’”

A 1990s photo shows Shannon Martinez when she identified with hate groups. The man in the photo, Christian Picciolini, also does deradicalization work now, along with Martinez. Picciolini has a documentary series called “Breaking Hate,” about helping others escape the movement. Photo from Christian Picciolini.

The kids in her neighborhood tended to self-segregate, but she had Black friends at school. She said she wasn’t explicitly taught to hate, though her parents did reflect the sort of socially acceptable racism of the era, cracking racist jokes, for example, or hurling racial epithets in traffic.

At the age of 11, Martinez’s family moved from Delran, New Jersey, to the much Whiter town of Temperance, Michigan. She wound up in a largely childless neighborhood and started hanging out alone. She had trouble starting over and fitting in. She started dabbling in hippie and leftist culture, from early Vietnam War literature and The Autobiography of Malcolm X to The Beatles and the Beats. She also took solace in sports, where she had always thrived. But when she started attending a Catholic high school across the Ohio state line, she was no longer allowed to play. Though she was elected class president, she still didn’t feel like she fit in.

When Martinez was 14, two White men in their 20s forced her into sex at a party. She woke up the next morning with blood in her underwear and thought, “OK, I guess that really happened.” Her next thought was “I can’t tell my parents.” It was the late 1980s, and she didn’t have today’s language and understanding of sexual assault and consent. She figured this was just the unfortunate way she had lost her virginity, and it would be about a decade before she realized it was rape.

She tried to move on, but the trauma metastasized into a burning rage. Her music and books started getting darker. She drifted from the skateboarders to the punks, then realized the angriest people at the punk shows, the ones always getting into fights, were the skinheads. She started listening to their White power music. Things continued to fall apart with her family. “There is no access to goodness in me,” she decided. “It won’t be seen in me.” So she turned to the skinheads, figuring she was joining people who couldn’t judge her and would have to take her in. After all, “who’s worse than the Nazis?”

From the time she was 15 until she was 20, Martinez bounced around the country, living with her parents and various skinhead boyfriends. She said she dated five neo-Nazis, and four of them were physically abusive. Meanwhile, her own extremism mirrored her relationships: after the honeymoon phase, the isolation set in, and the violence started, and once it started, it escalated, and kept escalating. She became addicted to the sense of power her violence-based hate afforded her, and, in true addict form, she kept needing to take bigger and bigger risks to get the same payoff.

She posted racist flyers, including ones featuring images of lynchings, in neighborhoods and under windshield wipers and on the doors of houses of worship. She shouted racial epithets at strangers and neighbors. She started fights at shows over the tiniest of slights and jumped people of color for no apparent reason. She attended Klan rallies. She fell in with gun runners. She started engaging in paramilitary training, learning tactical maneuvers on paintball ranges and heading to the woods for target practice. She was convinced a long-promised race war was imminent. The work of dehumanization was demanding and constant.

One night, Martinez and her friends were driving in Houston and noticed the door to a gay nightclub was propped open. They hurled a can of tear gas through the door, closed it and blocked it from the outside with a cinderblock. Their plan was to head around back and beat people as they clamored through the exit. The only thing that stopped them was the approach of police sirens, and they fled the area.

It was around this time that Martinez, who was no longer welcome in her parents’ home, was in Texas and moved in with her then-boyfriend’s mother, a teacher named Carol Selby. Each time Martinez tells this part of her story, she insists she was an angry and imposing mess of a human when she showed up at Selby’s door.

But Selby remembers things differently. “I thought she was cute,” Selby says of Martinez. “She had this real short hair and big eyes and a beautiful smile.” Selby saw, or chose to see, not a vile skinhead, but more of a “precious little elf.” And this perspective gave her young charge room to breathe. Martinez did dishes and helped take care of Selby’s younger sons and realized she didn’t want them to be exposed to her “scumbag friends.” For the first time in a long time, she began reflecting on the impact of her actions on other people. Within months, the White supremacist ideology, which Martinez had already begun to question, fell away.

But even as she was leaving, the movement was transforming. Quite intentionally, the neo-Nazis were becoming less obviously threatening in order to become more dangerous. As Christian Picciolini, another former who was in the movement at the same time as Martinez, once told NPR, “our edginess, our look, even our language was turning away the average American White racist, people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.”

Shannon Martinez participated in a tattoo project last year called The World Piece, in which 61 people from all over the world got tattoos that visually connected them to each other. “A living manifestation of the bonds that unite us across cultures and borders,” according to the project’s organizers. Photo by Sara Wise.

Michael Jensen has spent the last five years studying individuals who have radicalized in the United States and committed illegal acts motivated by their extremist belief systems. A senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, his dataset stretches back to 1948 and has information on over 2,000 radicalized individuals. While it is not limited to any single ideology, one group stands out.

“Far-right perpetrators have committed more attacks in the United States than any other ideological group,” Jensen says.

When it comes to the most recent trends, he says, “what we’re seeing really is a movement towards more of an emphasis on this kind of mass casualty terrorism that’s being motivated by far-right extremist ideologies.”

Jensen’s assessment is echoed by several other institutions. A recent report by New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security Preparedness showed that more than half the suspects involved in 32 domestic terrorism incidents in 2018 were White supremacists. And a separate report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) concluded that right-wing extremists were responsible for all but one of the 50 domestic extremist-related killings in 2018.

The ADL report also noted that last year was the fourth deadliest in terms of domestic extremist-related deaths since 1970. In first place is 1995, due in large part to the Oklahoma City bombing, which Jensen identifies as a “big watershed event.” That attack caused an outpouring of research and law enforcement activity to be “focused on the extremist far right in the United States.” Accordingly, “we saw a number of law enforcement operations to disrupt the far right,” he says.

“All of that changed on Sept. 11.”

After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government focused its massive resources almost exclusively on preventing Islamist terror attacks. “All while that’s happening, the extremist far right is still very active in the United States,” Jensen says, adding “they’re not getting the attention that jihadists get.” Until recently, Jensen adds, the media was following suit, making it harder for him and his team to even identify far-right crimes in the first place.

In 2009, a security analyst at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security named Daryl Johnson wrote a report that stated right-wing extremism was “likely to grow in strength,” potentially driven by such factors as gun restrictions, economic uncertainty, immigration, a perceived rising influence of other countries that undermines American sovereignty, and the election of the first Black president. Republican lawmakers condemned the report and forced the department to retract it, ushering in an era of virtual silence on far-right violence, and of treating instances of far-right terrorism as hate crimes, which are classified as a lower priority and afforded fewer resources.

Even when the Obama administration reframed its counterterrorism work as “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, few resources went to combatting right-wing extremism. In 2017, the administration issued a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a formers-led organization cofounded by Picciolini with which Martinez was volunteering at the time. (Neither is still involved with the group.) But the Trump administration changed the name of the administering office to the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, revoked the grant, and slashed the budget and staff.

In October 2018, as domestic terrorism incidents continued to mount, they only received a cursory mention in the administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism. It wasn’t until the end of the summer of 2019 and the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that Kevin McAleenan, then the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, issued a Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence that explicitly named White supremacist violence as a crucial threat to the nation. (McAleenan resigned Oct. 11, 2019.)

One of the formers with whom Martinez works is Caleb Cain, who was radicalized online from his home in West Virginia and recently left the far right. He explains his trajectory by drawing a five-tiered pyramid which he said he had climbed: from libertarian to conservative (watching Fox News, listening to Ben Shapiro) to civic nationalist (watching Alex Jones, reading Breitbart, following Lauren Southern and the Proud Boys). Cain said he was just about to advance to the next level, White nationalist fascist, which he defines as those who explicitly embrace fascism or neo-Nazism, or advocate for a White ethno-state, when he finally started to climb back down the pyramid. The only step left would have been accelerationist: those actively seeking to commit violence.

In Cain’s eyes, “civic nationalist” is also the level President Trump occupies. Indeed, just a few days after McAleenan’s report, Trump went before the United Nations and delivered an explicitly nationalist speech. In doing so, he was continuing the pattern he set when he launched his campaign by referring to immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists, called for a Muslim ban, responded to Heather Heyer’s 2017 murder at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally by arguing there “were very fine people on both sides,” and uttered countless other far-right viewpoints.

Meanwhile, CVE work remains underfunded and poorly understood. Organizations like Life After Hate and Free Radicals (Picciolini and Martinez’s new group) are unregulated. There are no industry standards and few empirical studies to guide deradicalization work. Their lack of measurable outcomes, in turn, makes securing funding even harder.

Nonetheless, Picciolini says he’s helped hundreds of formers get out of violent extremism. Martinez says she’s worked with about 75, and that about a third of those have been intensive, ongoing relationships. She lands the occasional paid contract, as in the case of the research study, and sometimes—but not always—receives speaking fees. But most of her work is entirely unpaid.

When she feels overwhelmed, Martinez often drives to nearby Moore’s Ford Bridge. There, in 1946, a White mob shot and killed two Black couples. The murders are considered the last documented mass lynching in America. A state highway marker placed in 1999 was the first official recognition of a lynching in the state of Georgia. Photo by Sara Wise.

“After five years of that way of life,” Martinez types to Adrian, “I began to see how it really kept me looking at the world through victimhood, and that blaming/targeting Jews, blacks, and other races/ethnicities didn’t make me actually feel any safer or more empowered. It just kept my world really small and kept me focused on hurt and pain.”

“So, your current position,” Adrian responds, “is a sort of centrist self-improvement drive?”

A pattern was starting to emerge. Martinez would seek to explore the emotional needs that had drawn her—and him—to violence-based extremism. Adrian would try to pin down her new ideology: what simple answer of hers had replaced the simple answer to which he was still clinging?

But she had no simple answer. Her unidimensional worldview was instead replaced with complexity. She tells him she doesn’t have a label for herself, nor does she know all the answers. “What are your biggest issues?” she asks him, trying to pivot their conversation. But it doesn’t really matter if he answers, especially not during this first round. He is engaging with her, and that is enough for now.

One of the few things most experts agree on about extremists is that ideology is often secondary to the process of radicalization. In every case she’s ever encountered, Martinez said, she’s been able to identify some type of unhealed trauma. Sometimes it’s extreme, as in the case of a young woman interviewed for this story who was repeatedly raped as a child by her grandfather—and then, once in the movement, raped again by a White nationalist boyfriend. Daisy (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) got out of the movement, then found out her father and grandmother had known about her grandfather’s abuse, and it was at that moment, Daisy said, that she almost killed her family members and shot up a church. She calls Martinez “Mom” and reaches out to her regularly for advice, encouragement, and in one case, financial support.

Sometimes the trauma is less extreme, but there are always fundamental and unmet needs, Martinez says: the need to love and be loved, to speak and be heard, and to be a part of something greater than yourself. Deradicalization involves identifying the trauma, and finding new resources, behaviors and networks outside extremist groups to meet those needs.

It’s grueling work, and Martinez isn’t exempt from what she refers to as “fash fatigue”: the exhaustion that comes from fighting fascism. When she feels really overwhelmed and wants to quit, she drives over to Moore’s Ford Bridge, less than half an hour from her house. It’s a nondescript span over the Apalachee River. There, in 1946, a White mob shot and killed two Black couples, among them a woman who was seven months pregnant. It’s widely considered to be the last documented mass lynching in America, and no one has ever been found guilty or held accountable.

“For me, it’s grounding,” Martinez says. The bridge is a reminder, when she gets too steeped in books and studies and Twitter conversations, that this isn’t just about ideas. “The reason that this [work] matters is that there are actual human beings who are harmed and communities that are devastated.”

Too often, she says, White supremacy is seen as an extremist ideology belonging only to a small group of terrorists. “And so, we have something outside of us, as White people: that ‘bad White supremacy out there,’ which then recuses us from having to do the internal work of identifying our own ways that we participate in and gain advantage from White supremacy.”

There’s a temptation, she says, to blame it all on YouTube algorithms, or sinister terrorist recruiters, or other outside forces. But in fact, we are all implicated. “We have to look at our children as potential White supremacist terrorists. And maybe that requires us to do something.”

In 2018, Martinez took a few of her children to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the lives of those who were killed at Moore’s Ford Bridge and thousands of others who were murdered in racial terror lynchings since the end of the Civil War. She watched as her son’s “12-year-old consciousness came to terms with the reality.” Afterwards, she said, they headed to the memorial’s sister site, the Legacy Museum. There, a security guard, noticing her devastated son, suggested she take the boy to get some ice cream and cheer him up. She couldn’t, she told the guard. “Ice creaming it away is not going to help him as he grows up as a White man in America. It’s not going to help any of us.” 

DJ CASHMERE is a print and audio journalist in New York who covers education, urban policy, and culture. 

The Building Bridges Issue: In Depth

  • The Collective Healing That Is Owed
  • SHARE 


The Collective Healing That Is Owed

Reparations is no longer only about a one-time payout to Black descendants of slavery.


 8 MIN READNOV 12, 2019

On a spring day, I stood at the corner of Madison and Pennsylvania avenues in the nation’s capital, transfixed on the building in front of me.

Passersby zigzagged around me.

In my trance, I imagined a “magnificent brownstone front, its towering height,” with “spacious windows.” A “splendid” sight indeed. Through those windows I imagined “its marble counters and black walnut finishings,” and “a row of its gentlemanly and elegantly dressed” Black men and women “clerks, with their pens behind their ears and button-hole bouquets in their coat-fronts.”

It was “beautiful,” just as Frederick Douglass had described, nearly 140 years ago.

Someone brushing past me snapped me back to the present. I climbed
the stairs of the building—across from the White House—to read the two plaques affixed to the Treasury Annex. The first read: “On this site stood the principal office of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company founded on March 3, 1865 to receive deposits from former slaves. Frederick Douglass served as its last president. The bank was closed on June 29, 1874. The building was sold in 1882, and razed a few years later.” The other, simply: “FREEDMAN’S BANK BUILDING.”

Sitting on the stairs, I started to consider the historical significance of that moment. Black people had—in nine years—amassed tens of millions of dollars, following 246 years of the most brutal and unimaginable treatment of any human being—kidnapping, trafficking, rape, castration, torture, uncompensated backbreaking labor.

 I tried to imagine a world where 70,000 Black men and women who’d deposited nearly $60 million into the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company had not been swindled out of that money by White bank managers.

What if they had been able to invest their own dollars, and grow their own capital? What if Reconstruction hadn’t been disrupted and those newly freed men and women were allowed to keep and develop their 40 acres? What if reparations had been paid to them rather than to their enslavers? What might they and their descendants have collectively achieved?

The modern-day movement to repair the harm done to the descendants of enslaved Africans is rooted in a history that reaches back more than 400 years to before our arrival on U.S. shores. To truly understand the debt this country owes to Black people is to be liberated from the bondage of miseducation that we’ve remained shackled to in the so-called land of the free.

The case for reparations didn’t begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 bombshell article in The Atlantic that based our claim to reparations not only on the enslavement of African people on this land, but also for the post-emancipation exclusionary policies that followed: Jim Crow, Black Codes, redlining, mass incarceration. Coates’ article created an awakening, granting new life to a movement that dates back more than a century and a half.

The hard work of hundreds of organizations and individuals means the mainstream can no longer ignore the demand by questioning if reparations are warranted.

The discovery of wreckage from the slave ship Clotilda near Mobile, Alabama, earlier this year presents an ideal test case for reparations. Descendants of the ship’s owner are among the city’s wealthiest citizens—with land worth millions—while descendants of the 110 Africans brought over on the Cotilda “scrape by” on working-class wages.

Making atonement to the descendants of enslaved people was the subject of a Congressional Hearing on Reparations in June and the question of reparations is a live topic in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

The conversation now isn’t should it be done, but how. After all, paying reparations in this country is not a novel idea or deed. The United States government has compensated Sioux Indians for stolen land, Japanese Americans for internment, and supported Holocaust survivors in their reparation demands from Germany and Austria.

Nevertheless, many Whites are still threatened by the idea of reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans, and some Blacks are antagonistic toward it. But the attempts to recover the debt owed to Black people can no longer be ignored.

Recovering that debt will require the continued work of a critical mass, of not only Black people, but also White folks, whom presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said “are still passing the baton of horror and guilt and toxicity and emotional turbulence from generation to generation.”

This sometimes contentious conver-sation has fomented a more holistic conception of reparations: No longer about a one-time payout to Black folks, reparations today are about collective healing that’s going to take more than a check, a one-time fix—or any single remedy. Says Mashariki Jywanza, national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA): “They should have just paid us then.”

Reparations Timeline

The first efforts to atone for the damages of slavery and seek reparations for formerly enslaved Africans came in 1865 during a meeting between 20 Black pastors and General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The meeting led to Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which sought to redistribute 400,000 acres along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts confiscated from Confederates following their defeat in the Civil War.

The newly freed families were each given 40 acres of land, and some received surplus mules from the army, but Sherman’s order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson just months later. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has since come to represent the broken promise to pay compensation for centuries of slavery.

In the years to follow there would be innumerable efforts to collect reparations for Black people.

In 1890, William Connell, a Nebraska Republican, introduced the first “ex-slave pension bill” in Congress. He did so at the request of Walter Vaughan, an Omaha Democrat, who had received a letter from Frederick Douglass marveling that the U.S. government had failed to compensate Black people for 250 years of unpaid labor, including building the Capitol and White House.

This diagram was produced in 1788 to illustrate how captives destined for the Americas were crammed into the hold of the slave ship Brookes. It shows 454 people, the maximum allowed by British law at the time.

The idea of pensions for the formerly enslaved, one of several such proposals at the time, was modeled after the Civil War-era program for military service pensions.

Then in 1898, a formerly enslaved woman, a widow and mother of five named Callie House, who worked as a laundress, and an educator and minister named Isaiah H. Dickerson, created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, which grew out of the advocacy created by Vaughn’s campaign for reparations.

As secretary, then leader of the organization, House traveled extensively in former slave states preaching the gospel of reparations. By the early 1900s, her association had grown to about 300,000 members. But her work was thwarted by White people—government officials and constituents alike—threatened by any attempt to elevate Black people.

Meanwhile, influential Black leaders of the time, like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, largely ignored the reparations movement, focusing instead on their own ideas to advance the race—higher learning and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, respectively.

In 1915, politician and lawyer Cornelius J. Jones filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury for $68 million in compensatory reparations. Jones argued that, “through a federal tax placed on raw cotton, the federal government had benefited financially from the sale of cotton that slave labor had produced,” according to Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. The case was dismissed because the federal appeals court ruled that the United States could not be sued without its consent, a legal principle known as sovereign immunity.

For 60 years, beginning in the early 1900s, Queen Mother Audley Moore pushed for reparations, co-founding among other organizations the Reparations Committee of Descendants of United States Slaves, which demanded land and recompense for Black people.

Her activism and petition to the United Nations in 1962 led the intergovernmental organization to declare the trans-Atlantic slave trade a crime against humanity at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Moore died in 1997, just months before her 99th birthday.

Then there was James Forman, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who in 1969 delivered his “Black Manifesto” challenging White churches and synagogues, which he believed were complicit in slavery, to pay $500 million in reparations. The money was to go for projects that would benefit Black communities, including a southern land bank, a Black university, and media networks.

Raymond Jenkins, a Detroit real estate entrepreneur, spent 40 years raising the topic of reparations everywhere he went. Known as “Reparations Ray,” he was the inspiration for House Resolution 40, the reparations bill former U.S. Rep. John Conyers first introduced in 1989.

Jenkins was moved by his own trauma from witnessing racial violence including, when he was a child, seeing a White playmate shoot and kill a Black playmate for not calling him “Mister.” Also, he was encouraged by two successful actions in the 1980s. The first was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 order requiring the federal government to pay $122 million to the eight Sioux Indian Tribes in compensation for the illegal seizure of their lands 100 years earlier. The second was in 1988, when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to 60,000 survivors.

Contrary to what opponents of reparations have argued, the concept is not one of a handout—it is an effort at indemnification.

Education, Litigation and Legislation

Having studied the movement work of those before her, Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann focused on researching and educating others about the need for reparations. She drew lessons from cases like Jones’ in 1915 and then Cato v. United States in 1995, which too was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, as well as the statute of limitations because it came so long after slavery ended.

Called the Rosa Parks of the reparations litigation movement, Farmer-Paellmann brought a suit in 2003, In Re: African American Descendants’ Slave Litigation, against corporations who earned their wealth through slavery. There were 18 companies in total, including Aetna, Fleetboston, CSX, JPMorgan Chase, New York Life Insurance Co., R.J. Reynolds, and Lehman Brothers.

In a phone interview, Farmer-Paellmann wanted to clarify that she did not lose her case. While parts of it were dismissed, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that she and other plaintiffs whose cases were combined with hers had standing in their consumer fraud and consumer protection law claim. The court maintained that “The injury is the loss incurred by buying something that one wouldn’t have bought had one known the truth about the product.”

“We were successful,” Farmer-Paellmann says adamantly, referring to a Harvard Review article that describes the case with “great precision.” “We just never finished the litigation.”

Farmer-Paellmann says the plaintiffs ran out of money, so they couldn’t pursue the consumer fraud claim, which “still has a great chance of winning.”

She believes the judicial approach against corporations is the most likely to succeed in any case for reparations. And, she says, there’s another claim that has never been argued before a court of law: genocide. She believes it has a greater chance of success than even HR 40.

“What I would love to see is they create a private right of action within the Proxmire Act,” she said, referring to the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987. This, she says, cannot be dismissed by claims of sovereign immunity. “It allows for the kinds of conditions that we suffer from the vestiges of slavery,” referencing, for example, the destruction of an ethnic and national identity.

Meanwhile, reparations proponents like Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century have been working on a reparations action plan, with the hope that HR 40 will be made law.

While the bill has never been debated, in 2017, he points out, HR 40 went from being a “study bill,” charged with creating a commission to study the need for reparations, to a “remedy bill,” calling for the creation of a commission to develop proposals for and implement reparations.

A decades-long advocate for reparations and Black self-determination, Daniels points to the work of the National African American Reparations Commission, of which he’s a member. The Commission created a 10-Point Reparations Program for people of African descent in the United States, similar to that of the Caribbean Reparations Commission’s Ten Point Action Plan.

The U.S. program includes a formal apology and establishment of an African Holocaust Institute; the right of repatriation; the right to land for social and economic development; resources for health, wellness, and healing of Black families and communities; education for community development and empowerment; affordable housing for healthy Black communities and wealth generation; and repairing the damages of the “criminal injustice system.”

The foundation has been laid and the work is being done globally, Daniels says, adding that what is still missing are sufficient resources to support the effort.

There have been actions on multiple levels—individual, municipal, and institutional, with banks like Wachovia, and colleges and universities like Brown and Georgetown and Virginia Theological Seminary acknowledging their role in slavery and the perpetuation of it.

In September, California lawmakers introduced a resolution to investigate what statewide reparations would look like and how best to use them to fix inequities, acknowledging that California had a role in reinforcing slavery in the United States.


Not since the late 19th and early 20th centuries has there been this much momentum around reparations, says David Ragland, director of the nonprofit FOR Truth & Reparations, and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

In addition to political attention and increased support for two reparations measures in Congress, the Movement for Black Lives has released a Reparations Now Toolkit to help answer questions about reparations.

And on the weekend marking the fifth anniversary of Mike Brown’s death, Aug. 9, I attended the national grassroots reparations convening in Ferguson, Missouri, hosted by FOR Truth & Reparations and the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

About 20 organizations participated in the discussion on healing as a means of reparations. Ragland and other panelists explained that reparations aren’t just about monetary compensation. Black folks need to heal from the generations of trauma we’ve endured from slavery and the vestiges thereof.

This healing must be done internally, says Hakim Williams, associate professor and interim chair of Africana Studies and director of Peace and Justice Studies at Gettysburg College.

Williams, one of the panelists, said that for him the main part of reparations discourse needs to center on how we stop injuring ourselves and others and start to rebuild our communities through our own lens. “Now, that’s not to say it’s mutually exclusive from holding former colonizers accountable for the harm that they have rendered,” he said. “But while we are arguing for that, and while we’re waiting for that, we need to do our own healing.”

If that healing doesn’t happen, Williams says, “no amount of money that comes will be helpful.”

In fact, he adds, “I think the class chasms might widen if [we don’t] have a vision of what to do with that money. We don’t want to be just another capitalist cog in the global capitalist economy … we want to re-envision our society.”

Christine Schmidt, a New York-based psychotherapist and clinical consultant, asked the question: “What specifically do Black people want or need for White people to do?”

Afterward, I spoke with Schmidt, who is White. “I think that’s something that must be determined by the people who are harmed. What do people who have been harmed need to heal?” she said. “The material compensation is not something that White people can decide.”

That, she said, would be charity—not reparations.

“I think that we have to be there and prepared and willing to offer and say that this is our responsibility,” she continued. “[And] I think that the responsibility is both material, and psychological and emotional. But it’s also really, really important that we are not going to be in the lead, that we need to be actively engaged responders.”

Her question was reminiscent of the one Sherman asked the 20 pastors 154 years ago: What did they need to take care of themselves?

Their response then was twofold.

Separation: land of their own, separate from the control of Whites; and Assimilation: the freedom to exist among Whites without the threat of harm.

In so many ways, those desires have not changed. Resources and the space to heal are necessary for both.


The consensus of the many people I’ve talked to about reparations is that there is no dollar amount that can make up for the harm of slavery and the exploitation and oppression of Black people that followed. However, the trillions owed are a start, and can be disbursed in a number of ways.

Proponents of reparations have adopted a multifaceted understanding of them as defined by the United Nations. It includes restitution, or return of what was stolen; rehabilitation, mental and physical health support; compensation, both monetary and resource-based, which includes a meaningful transfer of wealth; satisfaction, acknowledgement of guilt, apology, and memorial; and guarantees of non-repeat. Or, as Ragland explains: “Don’t do that shit again.”

Jywanza, who also attended the convening in Ferguson, said she sees value in collaborating with institutions already doing this work. “There’s no need for us to be divided and conquered,” she says. “Let’s call everyone (economists, social scientists, psychologists, activists) together and see what full repair can look like in our communities. Whether we ever get a dime. We should take on that responsibility.”   

ZENOBIA JEFFRIES WARFIELD is the executive editor at YES!

The Building Bridges Issue: In Depth

  • The Way Climate Change Unites Us
  • SHARE 
A summer 2019 demonstration for the Practical Farmers of Iowa was held at Paul and Karen Mugge’s organic row-crop farm. They showed how to install a beneficial prairie insect habitat. Photo by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

A summer 2019 demonstration for the Practical Farmers of Iowa was held at Paul and Karen Mugge’s organic row-crop farm. They showed how to install a beneficial prairie insect habitat. Photo by Practical Farmers of Iowa.PRACTICAL FARMERS OF IOWA

The Way Climate Change Unites Us

The Practical Farmers of Iowa waste no time on partisan politics as they face the challenges of extreme weather and depleted soils.


 8 MIN READNOV 12, 2019

Welcoming everybody to his farm on a searing August afternoon, Ron Rosmann lets the pleasantries go for 12 minutes before getting to the heart of things. Around him, about 70 growers sit like school kids on bales of hay, braced to hear him.

Rosmann has been farming organically for 36 years on western Iowa’s fertile hills, and his voice is as gravelly as the road that runs alongside his land. You might think farming without pesticides would get easier over time, but you’d be wrong. An impossibly rainy planting season and runaway giant ragweed have made this year his toughest yet.

“What are we experiencing?” he asks the group. “Warmer temperatures, more rainfall, warmer nights, 10 years in a row of cold, wet springs. I’m getting more and more nervous.”

The growers, all members of Practical Farmers of Iowa, or PFI, are here to learn how Rosmann copes. A rare alliance of organic and conventional farmers, their views on climate change run the gamut of opinion. They meet on different farms around the state to share practices and today have come out for a “field day” to observe how Rosmann and his family produce beef, pork, chickens, eggs, popcorn, and grains on 700 acres—without chemicals.

While long-term climate change is prompting growing activism, farmers like these often register its near-term effects first. It contributes to soil erosion and severe weather events. It has increased annual precipitation in Iowa at least 8% over the past century, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. And the effects keep multiplying. 

The field day includes a hayrack tour of the Rosmanns’ pesticide-free fields. On one section, turnips are planted as a cover crop, and volunteer oats and barley also pop up. Down the road, the group visits naturally ventilated “hoop house” pig shelters: metal arcs covered with greenhouse plastic, in which deep cornstalk bedding decreases manure runoff risk. They stand in front of long compost mounds, where butterflies land as Rosmann describes how to balance straw and manure. The farmers end their tour back in the barn, dining on the Rosmanns’ organic coleslaw and pulled-pork sandwiches. 

As Rosmann, a self-declared independent Democrat, pontificates about climate change, Mark Peterson, a conservative Republican, studies his phone. The two Iowa growers admit they don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue.

Peterson, who grows grain conventionally an hour away, believes changing weather patterns may be cyclical. “I respect his opinion,” Peterson says after Rosmann’s climate talk. “It’s scary, there’s no doubt about that. But the cause—I’m not sure that’s as important as figuring out what we’re gonna do about it.”

While they may not agree on what has gotten them here, growers like Rosmann and Peterson are thinking beyond politicized climate change arguments to figure out solutions. They’re trying to adapt to the differences they’re experiencing, and even trying to mitigate them.

Along with fellow PFI members, they’re approaching agriculture more regeneratively: focusing on soil health, planting cover crops, reducing chemicals, and minimizing the runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s fishless “dead zone.” In the age of climate change, their sharing of experience is increasingly vital.

“PFI, in my view, is the best example in this country right now of the blending of science and local wisdom,” Laura Lengnick says. She’s a North Carolina-based resilient-agriculture researcher who travels the country talking to groups like these.

Organizations like PFI remain rare, Lengnick says. The group has “been a constant star in my career, literally from when I was an undergraduate student, because they’re so unique.”

Daniel Rosmann belongs to the Practical Farmers of Iowa. Photo by Lynn Freehill-Maye/YES! Magazine.

Most people don’t keep diaries of the weather. Only novelties, like big storms or long stretches of unseasonable temperatures, register as unusual. It’s up to scientists—meteorologists and climatologists, mainly—to tell us about how today’s weather fits into larger patterns.

Farmers are different. Weather doesn’t just affect their Saturday at the park; it dictates their livelihood, and they keep exhaustive mental and written records of it day by day, year by year. 

That’s why in 2019, you don’t need to tell many farmers that climate patterns have been shifting. When Lengnick started working on her resilience book in 2012, things were touchier in agriculture. Many farmers didn’t want to go on the record about climate change. “I see a sea change since then,” she says. “Everybody’s talking about it.” 

In August 2019, Alan Sano, a central California farmer, argued in The New York Times that drought, heat, and wildfires have put growers at the climate-change frontlines. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just warned that soil is being lost up to 100 times faster than it is forming. “We don’t need to read the science—we’re living it,” Sano declared.

Sano and his farm manager, Jesse Sanchez, are part of the Conservation Agriculture Systems Center, a working group at University of California, Davis. The working group pulls a mix of California farmers together to share eco-friendly practices like reducing tillage. Like PFI, they often host field days to help farmers share techniques.

In New Mexico, the Quivira Coalition, which was formed in 1997 and believes ranching should support a healthy ecosystem, brings livestock producers together to build resilience. Today Quivira includes 750 members of all political stripes. “Out here, people are coming from extremely rural areas, and there’s a complexity of views that is hard to characterize,” executive director Sarah Wentzel-Fisher says. “But I think the underlying commonality we have is that people really care about the land they steward and animals they care for.” 

Practical Farmers of Iowa has a longer history. Fifty members formed the organization in 1985 as a way to learn from each other. These days it numbers more than 3,500 and prides itself on being big-tent—with wide-ranging views around politics and the environment.

Fred Abels, for instance, a staunch Republican, is passionate about improving water quality through environmentally sound practices like maintaining wetlands and buffer strips. Dan Wilson leans firmly conservative, but farms completely organically. 

Iowa made national headlines for this spring’s record flooding that has PFI members still reeling.

 “Disgustingly wet,” the otherwise affable Peterson growls.

At his Bent Gate Farm, Peterson’s two Labrador mixes, Emmy and Riley, jog out to greet a visitor. Dogs and cats are the farm’s only animals, but Peterson has a friend’s cattle graze on his cover crops.

It begins to rain, and from his Chevy Silverado, Peterson surveys the cover-crop mix of buckwheat, sunflower, radishes, and turnips he’s growing on 50 acres to help manage soil erosion. Each 1% increase in soil organic matter, scientists say, helps soil hold up to 20,000 gallons more water per acre.

The soil here is healthier now, Peterson says, and will yield more corn later. The field’s traditional wet spots haven’t been as big or lasting. The winter wheat will anchor the topsoil. As he talks, three geese alight. Lately Peterson has seen three coveys of quail, and up to seven pheasants in a one day. “I see that as a sign of overall farm health,” he says.

Peterson still uses the herbicide glyphosate, in the form of weed killer Roundup, although sparingly. On fellow PFI member Denise O’Brien’s Rolling Acres farm 45 minutes northeast, even that would be anathema.

O’Brien has farmed organically for 43 years. On this day, she and a mentee, Amber Mohr, are digging up potatoes out back.

 Rows of veggies stand at attention around them. O’Brien is just as proud of her sustainable high tunnels. Working like greenhouses, they require irrigation but extend the growing seasons. O’Brien installed the hoop shelters on tracks in 2013. “This is the way vegetable farmers are going to be mitigating climate change, with high tunnels,” she ways. “It’s going to protect the soil.”

She and Mohr grab the harvested vegetables and move into a barn as storm clouds loom. O’Brien works barefoot as she hoses stubborn dirt clumps that stick to some carrots, later grabbing a higher-pressure hose to finish the job. Outspokenly liberal, she confesses to occasional frustrations with PFI.

She recounts losing her temper in August, when one farmer on PFI’s general listserv asked how to deal with sprayed pesticide drifting over from her neighbors’ farm. Pesticide drift is a hot-button issue with the farmers. During the Rosmanns’ field day, a crop-duster buzzed overhead. “Incoming!” farmers pointed. “Hope it’s not gonna spray us,” one muttered. 

The pesticide-drift post was moved to PFI’s smaller policy listserv, which O’Brien protested. After nearly 40 years as a member, she threatened to quit. “I don’t like to end on a threat, but this … makes me sick not to discuss,” she wrote.

Such flare-ups aren’t uncommon, the natural byproduct of bringing people together across ideological lines.

Within a couple days, O’Brien had decided to stay, though she wishes the group would take a firmer stand on agriculture policy. Still, she’s glad a rare organization like it even exists, with its mix of growers and ideas. “It’s really neat that conventional farmers are a part of PFI, because they to me are the farmers of the future, figuring out how to use more sustainable practices,” she says. “The other thing is, I’m still learning a lot from other farmers.”