To Defeat Trump, We Need a Vision, a Message and Tactics to Match

Source: Portside/ the Guardian

Author: Stephen Crowley

Emphasis Mine

The US is now more politically divided than at anytime since the civil war. And yet, as of next month, America will be much like a one-party state. With a new US supreme court justice, the party will effectively control all three branches of government. Say goodbye to the famous checks and balances of the US political system. Now the balance, and those checks, will have to come from the streets.

The American political system is broken. Trump lost the popular vote by close to 3m ballots. Yet he has shown a readiness to bully political dissenters, and an inability or unwillingness to disentangle his personal financial interests from the business of running the country.

He has nominated Wall Street tycoons, generals and political extremists to top positions. True, his nominees may get tough questioning, even from some Republicans. But make no mistake: personal flamboyance aside, the Trump agenda is essentially the Republican agenda.

Trump will enter office as perhaps the most unpopular newly elected president in history. And yet the famous institutions established by the US constitution, meant to prevent the usurpation of power by any one individual or faction, no long appear up to the task. That civic responsibility – of organizing to prevent tyranny – must now fall to everyday Americans. But that social movement will need to have a strategic vision, one that connects with the justifiable anger that drove many voters to Trump.

Such powerful social movements are not unprecedented in US history: the organized resistance to British colonial rule; the underground railroad and the abolition movement; the strikes and labor organizing of the 1930s spurring the New Deal; the civil rights movement and the various movements it inspired. Our country, and our world, would look entirely different today without the hard work and struggle of these activists, organizers and resisters.

Yet any protest movement against the extremes of the Trump administration must be strategic and not merely reactive. That means that the tactics must align with the movement’s strategic vision. Simply taking to the streets, blocking traffic or marching on Washington will not be enough. Nor will it suffice to simply revive the Clinton coalition.

The bigotry, sexism and racism of Trump and the extremists he has dredged up must be stopped at all costs. But a successful movement must drive a sharp wedge between Trump and many of the disaffected Americans he drew to his campaign. Single-issue protests must be tied to broader concerns, or they will succumb to Trump’s uncanny ability to divide and conquer.

The soft underbelly of the emerging Trump government is the outrageous claim that he and his fellow billionaire appointees have the interests of America’s working class at heart. The campaign of Bernie Sanders demonstrated the potential for a politics that, while celebrating diversity, calls for a solidarity of the many against the powerful few who continue to benefit from capitalism run amok. And under Trump run amok it certainly will. While Sanders did not “win” in the formal political sense, he inspired millions, including many young people who have historically been the foot soldiers of social movements.

Social movements don’t need a majority to be effective. Research shows [1] that governments around the world have been shaken to their foundations, and often toppled, when a mere 3.5% of their populations [2] are organized in opposition. This is because any government, no matter how much it controls the formal levers of power, must also in the end retain legitimacy.

Questioning the legitimacy of those in power is central because it can lead people to question the nature of power itself: does it lie with the formal power-holders, or with the people themselves? Ultimately, whether a major corporation or a global superpower, any hierarchical organization – much like a human pyramid – relies entirely on the many at the bottom to carry out the orders of those on top.

A couple of recent examples, while seemingly small in themselves, point to the potential for a broader movement of social power. The Fight for 15 campaign has been enormously successful in fighting for a livable minimum wage. And now that Trump has nominated a fast-food mogul for his labor secretary, such campaigns can shine a spotlight on the hypocrisy of the president-elect’s promise to provide “good jobs” for Americans.

The decision to halt the Dakota Access pipeline was a huge victory for Native Americans and environmentalists. But a decisive factor in the Department of Army’s decision might have been the thousands of veterans [3] who mobilized to block the pipeline. If an anti-Trump movement could draw in veterans, police officers, rank-and-file union members, in whatever number, it could prove unstoppable.

Such a movement also needs a strategic vision, with a message of solidarity and tactics to match. It has been done before. The future of our country, and indeed our planet, is at stake. We must do it again.

An appeal from The Guardian: “The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too. If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps to pay for it our future would be much more secure. Become a supporter. [4] Make a contribution. [5]

Stephen Crowley is Professor of Politics at Oberlin College, and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. For many years he has taught a course on nonviolent protest movements and revolutions. 


Danger on the right

Donald Trump is a distraction from the fact that the mainstream media has pretended the GOP is a normal party with values just to the right.

Source: AlterNet

Author:Neal Gabler/Moyers and Co

Emphasis Mine

As incendiary and dangerous as he is—and he is very dangerous—and as much of a main event as he has been in this election season, Donald Trump is largely a distraction from what really ails our political discourse. Long after he is gone from the scene, the Republican Party that engendered him, facilitated him, and now supports him—despite a severe case of buyer’s remorse—will no doubt still thrive, booting up for a future candidacy of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan. And the media will still act as if Trump were an aberration, a departure from so-called “sensible” conservatism. If so, it will be yet another act of media dereliction.

In fact, worse than dereliction, because the Republican Party, with its history of dog-whistle racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, and gun addiction, salted now by incipient fascism, has been legitimized by the mainstream media (MSM) for years. One could say that the GOP and MSM have operated in collusion to the great detriment of this country. One could say that and not even be a liberal, just a commonsensical American.

The MSM continue to treat the Republican Party as if it were just another constellation of ideology and policy—another way of governing the country, even though this campaign season, if not the last 30 years, should have disabused journalists of that notion. Today’s GOP is closer to a religious cult than a political institution. It operates on dogma, sees compromise as a moral failing, views enemies as pagans who must be vanquished, and considers every policy skirmish another Götterdämmerung.

That isn’t politics; it’s a modern version of the medieval Crusades, and as the ancient Crusades did to Europe, it has inflicted untold damage on our country. Because it is deep in the bones of the Republicans, it won’t end with Trump, who is a non-believer himself when it comes to conservative orthodoxy. It can only end with the extinction of the party itself as presently constituted—Cruz, Ryan, Rubio, McConnell, et al.—and the rise of a new conservative party, not a cult.

You won’t hear that in the MSM, in large part because, partisan organs like Fox News and MSNBC aside, it tries to maintain that deadly and deadening balance so often discussed and decried by media critics like me. This is a practice that requires a tit for every tat, so that blame can never be leveled against one party unless the media immediately level it against the other as well. Political equipoise, as it were.

Part of this is laziness. Part is fear. The press knows that if it were to come right out and criticize the GOP for its denial of climate change, its campaign to deny the LGBT community its civil rights, its efforts to strip food stamps from children and health insurance from the poor, its systematic attempts to suppress minority voters, its recent howl to protect the Second-Amendment rights of suspected terrorists while at the same time calling for greater surveillance of us all, there would be hell to pay from the right wing, which would invoke the mythical and dreaded “liberal media.” The historian and columnist Eric Alterman calls this “working the refs,” and the MSM fall for it every time.

But there is another reason why the MSM haven’t called out the Republican Party, despite its egregious behavior, and this one is especially relevant in this election: The media simply won’t discuss the Republican Party’s values, as values are the third rail of political journalism. You just don’t talk about values, because when you do so, you can’t fake balance. We all know that there is a big difference between Republicans and Democrats, and it isn’t just a matter of philosophy-cum-policy. It is a matter of what values underlie the parties’ philosophies. And, if I may be blunt, Republican values just aren’t very consistent with what most of us think when we think of good values.

So the GOP’s blatant contradictions, its hate disguised as individual rights and its disdain for the weakest among us, largely go unexamined. Indeed, our media state of affairs is so sad that it largely has fallen to comedians to be our primary truth tellers about what one of our two major parties really stands for—among them, Jon Stewart in his day, Stephen ColbertJohn Oliver, and Samantha Bee, whose recent broadcasts on Orlando and guns and on Republican racism have torn the so-called “principled ideological” veil off the GOP and exposed it for what it is: a cult of cranks.

By rousing the hatefulness within the GOP rank and file, Donald Trump has emboldened a few intrepid MSM journalists to rip off the veil, too—even journalists who treat Paul Ryan as if he were a first-rate intellect. Andrew Rosenthal, the departing editorial page editor atThe New York Times, wrote a blistering takedown of the GOP’s refusal to denounce Trump, and Times columnist and Iraq War apologist Thomas Friedman, the very definition of a cautious Big-Foot pundit who slavishly creates and follows the conventional wisdom, called for a reconstituted Republican Party on the basis of “moral bankruptcy.” It is a terrific column. Read it.

Of course, two larks don’t an exaltation make, and in any case, both Rosenthal and Friedman are primarily print journalists. Television news still has the longest national reach, and it will never call out the Republican Party no matter what it does, much less examine its values. Instead, we get endless horse-race coverage that turns the election into a long sporting event in which nothing seems to matter except who’s winning. We all know that now, and despite the yowls of protest, we also know that it is not likely to change. Political journalists are like sports writers, tracking a team’s game plans and checking the score—or, as we call it in politics, the polls.

But what we may fail to notice is that, with all its blather about what states are in play or whose field operation is better or which internecine battles presently engage the candidates’ staffs, this kind of coverage is not only a way to juice the political narrative; it’s also a way to avoid touching that third rail. So long as we are talking about strategy or who is winning, we don’t have to talk about policy (borrrrrrrring!!!) or about values.

Avoiding talking about values is one of the reasons we find ourselves in our current political situation. Doing so might have stopped the threat of Donald Trump. Thirty years ago, it might even have stopped the march of the current Republican Party; its values could have been exposed as indefensible, which could have shamed them (and us) into changing. There is a reason the Republicans contrived the slogan “compassionate conservatism.” It was because even they knew their compassion was dubious. It would have been nice to have the MSM examine that, though, of course, it would have required both the courage to buck the right-wing, who would howl, and the seriousness to discuss just how important values are in our politics. In some measure, because we never got that discussion, for three decades the GOP has gotten off scot-free.

Now the MSM routinely rebuke Trump, but that easy critique allows them not to have to rebuke the Republican Party itself, whose values, if not his often-changing policy pronouncements, are virtually identical with Trump’s, minus his oft-changing policy pronouncements. It is the politesse of a Paul Ryan that Trump lacks in expressing his hostility, and it is that politesse that has conned a gullible, frightened media.

When Trump’s candidacy first began taking hold, we were told in the media that Republicans had a Trump problem. As he rose to the top of the GOP presidential heap and rank-and-file Republicans supported him—because of his hateful rhetoric, and not in spite of it—we realized the Republicans had a Republican problem, though, again, the media dare not say it. Now that Trump is the party’s presumptive nominee and Republicans are falling into line just as conservatives did in Germany in 1933, we have come to a much graver realization: America has a Republican problem.

This isn’t about whom we elect as president. It goes much deeper. This is about who we want to be as a people. For three decades, the MSM have been collaborators with the GOP, pretending the cult is a normal party with values just to the right of center. The result is the proto-fascist Donald Trump and an institution that continues to legitimize what is worst in us.

Neal Gabler is the author of five books and the recipient of two LA TImes Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, and USA Today’s biography of the year. He is a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society.


The Conservative Crackup: How Progressives Can Exploit the GOP’s Implosion and Attain an ‘Earthquake Election’

Could Trump be a godsend for the Democrats?

Source: AlterNet

Author: Heather Digby parton/Salon

Emphasis Mine

It’s fair to say that most Democrats and a good many Republicans are still in a state of shock over the fact that a narcissistic, know-nothing, billionaire demagogue is actually going to be on the ballot this November as the GOP nominee for president. Democrats are nervous that this outrageous character is going to be normalized over the next few months and there are signs that the media is on board with that project. Many Republicans worry that he spells the end of their party altogether. And everyone aside from his fanatical following is desperately worried about what could happen if he actually manages to win the most powerful office on earth.

Take, for example, the comments by GOP strategist Mike Murphy on MSNBC earlier this week:

I think he is a stunning ignoramus on foreign policy issues and national security, which are the issues I care most about. And he’s said one stupid, reckless thing after another, and he’s shown absolutely no temperament to try to learn the things that he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know just about everything. …The guy has a chimpanzee-level understanding of national security policy.

When he’s right he’s right. And it’s not just foreign policy where Trump shows a pan troglodyte level of understanding. Just Thursday night Trump appeared at a Chris Christie fundraiser and said to the audience of big donors, “Look, a lot of you don’t know the world of economics and you shouldn’t even bother. Just do me a favor, leave it to me.” He talked up his proposal for a 35 percent tariff on imports if an American company moves its manufacturing out of the country without clearing it with him first:

“At least the United States is going to make a hell of a lot of money. And these dummies say, ‘Oh well that’s a trade war.’”

“Trade war? We’re losing $500 billion in trade with China. Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?”

Apparently the Donald is unaware that trade wars have been known to lead to shooting wars. Or, at the very least, they tend to result in some very unpleasant economic fallout.  But then, knowing his history, these would be features, not bugs. Is it any wonder there’s a growing sense of panic among sane members of both parties?

Right now polls are showing that Republicans are consolidating around him and it looks like a cage match in the works with Trump and the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a close fought cage match. However, Trump is probably getting a post clinch bump while the two Democrats are still involved in an intense contest with their partisans still in their corners so these numbers aren’t actually all that meaningful.

In fact, , looked beyond that superficial snapshot to the underlying structure of the electorate in the wake of Trump. In a memo he titles “The GOP Crash and the Historic Moment for Progressives” Greenberg writes:

We are witnessing the crash of the Republican Party as we know it, and progressives should dramatically change their strategy to maximize conservative losses and move the stalled progressive reform agenda in the election’s aftermath.

Rightfully shaken by off-year losses, low base turnout and Trump’s appeal to some union members, progressive strategy has been cramped by worst-case assumptions and by the goal of stopping the GOP from expanding their Electoral College map. That caution risks missing the opportunity to magnify GOP losses, expand the Democratic map and targets, shift control of states and legislatures, break the gridlock and create momentum for reform.

Greenberg narrows the Conservative Crackup down to what he calls a three-front civil war. The first front is between Trump and his Tea party followers against the Republican establishment. He characterizes their agenda as a “nationalist economic appeal” that attacks immigrants, trade deals and “disloyal” American corporations. Trump’s basically appealing to a large faction that is upset with diversity and “political correctness”. (I would just add that Trump’s status as the King of the birthers made him a true hero to this crowd.)

The second front in the civil war is between the religious conservatives who are angry that the establishment failed to stop social progress under the Obama administration.  Their sense of betrayal over the failure to stop marriage equality is profound. This group is the reason why Ted Cruz came in second.

Both of those fronts in the GOP civil war are well-known by now. Plenty of pundits and analysts have looked at these splits to determine if they are fatal to the GOP’s hope for any kind of national electoral success going forward. They do portend some major problems for the party but it’s hard to see how it benefits the Democrats unless these folks just stay home or run third party candidates. It’s the third front where Greenberg sees that opportunity and it’s one to which nobody is paying much attention:

Third and just as important, moderate Republicans are deeply alienated from a GOP establishment that views them as illegitimate. This third front in the civil war has not been covered by the media, in part because no GOP candidate has been willing to seek their votes on the issues that matter to them.

None of the pundits have speculated that the silence on their agenda has anything to do with the primary or what will happen in the election ahead. The moderates are a stunning 31 percent of the party base, and they are heavily college-educated and socially liberal. They are conservatives on immigration, regulation, taxes and national security, but as a college educated majority, they accept the science and urgency of addressing climate change. And most importantly, they are the one bloc that accepts the sexual revolution. That changes everything.

I find that number of 31% very surprising. From what we see and hear in the media, the moderate Republican is as extinct as the dodo. I know a few who live in California, people I think of as “Disco-Republicans”, who are essentially ideologically center-left but can’t stand being associated with liberals for social/tribal reasons.  They refused to vote for Jeb and Rubio because they felt they were pandering too much to the conservatives! Greenberg thinks these people are getable for the Democrats; his polling shows that 10% are willing to vote for Clinton over Trump.

The question is what it will take to get them to vote for Democrats in this election, and perhaps, more importantly, to demonstrate to the Republicans that it’s in their best interest to cooperate after the election on certain issues. They are already socially liberal so there no need to try to appease anyone on those important issues. Where Greenberg sees an opening is in national investment, bank regulation and corporate governance which dovetails nicely with the populist agenda coming from the left wing of the party as well.

But Greenberg believes that to maximize progressive gains, the party also needs to intensely focus on turning out certain voters “who now know the stakes.” That would be the “Rising American Electorate” we’ve all heard so much about:

Our new poll on behalf of WVWVAF shows a 10-point surge in the highest measure of voter interest among Democrats, key parts of the Rising American Electorate (specifically, the unmarried women and minorities), and college-educated women, a key part of the Democratic coalition. Our focus groups for the Roosevelt Institute and WVWVAF showed us that millennials and unmarried women are closely following the GOP primary battles, the GOP’s hatred of Obama and Donald Trump’s xenophobia and sexism. They now understand the stakes like no time before.

He says that African Americans and Hispanics see their communities as being under attack and despite their suspicion of Clinton, millennials understand their values are at stake as well.

Finally, there’s the working class vote. Their polling shows that working class voters respond well to demands to “level the playing field.”  Obviously, much of the working class are people of color and are already among the most loyal members of the Democratic Party. But Greenberg’s polling shows that the right messaging can attract certain members of the white working class as well, particularly millennials and financially pressed unmarried women, both groups of which have already been successfully courted by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Greenberg concludes:

Trump’s chauvinism and hostility to America’s diversity has cost him electorally and led to the early consolidation of the Rising American Electorate. But the primaries also show we have a new opportunity to achieve an earthquake election and win strongly among both the RAE, and the working class (where Democrats have lagged) if they strategize to win the big economic argument.

It’s hard to see a bizarre election such as this one as an opportunity to do anything but survive it. Trump is a wild card and the Republicans are like cornered animals right now, unpredictable and dangerous. But these situations do present opportunities as well and if Greenberg is right and the Democrats pay attention and all the stars align, we could come out of this with a big progressive win, setting the stage for a fertile time of renewal and progress. Maybe Trump’s crazy campaign will end up having been a positive influence on America after all.


Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.


Trump Embraces Blunt Sexism: His Supporters Love the Absurd Idea That Even the Smartest Woman Isn’t as Good as a Man

His constant slams on women works with his ardent backers—but it will destroy him in November.

Source: AlterNet

Author: Amanda Marcotte/Salon

Emphasis Mine

Donald Trump never met a preposterous statement he wasn’t willing to stand by, and so it is with his apparent belief that women are unfairly advantaged over men in our societyOn Fox News on Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Trump why he would say that Hillary Clinton is a talentless hack who is coasting on the “woman card,” i.e. the unearned privilege he believes women enjoy over men, and Trump defended himself by pulling his P.C.-police-suppress-the-truth card.

“Well, I’m my own strategist and I like that—what I said and it’s true,” Trump said. “I only tell the truth and that’s why people voted for me.”

The audacity of it is stunning, of course. If he hadn’t been born a white man in a wealthy family, Trump would be a used car salesman in Des Moines who spends his weekends on desultory Match. com dates with divorcees who never call him again. Meanwhile, a huge amount of Clinton’s appeal is that she’s a smart and talented woman who has overcome a huge amount of sexist abuse in order to get as far as she has.

But Trump’s bleating about the “woman card” epitomizes the appeal he has to his supporters, even as he manages to alienate everyone else in the country. There’s a certain logic to his argument if you believe, as most conservatives do, that sexism is a thing of the past and that feminists are just making up stories to “play the victim” and earn the sweet, sweet cash they supposedly get from saying sexism still exists.

The problem with the “sexism is over” argument is that women in this country are still not equal. There’s a persistent pay gap. Women are underrepresented in congress and no woman has ever been the president. While women graduate from college at greater rates than menthey are less likely to get plum jobs and promotions.

Looking over the statistics, there’s really only two ways to explain the inequities: Either women are being treated unfairly or women are simply inferior to men. Feminists stand by the first argument, pointing out multiple studies that show that sexist beliefs about women and systematic discrimination holds women back.

Conservatives, however, reject the notion that sexism is still a thingforcing them to argue that women fall behind because they’re simply not as good as men. There are a lot of euphemisms for this argument—they usually say it’s because of women’s “choices” instead of bluntly claiming that women are inferior—but the gist is there: It’s not sexism, it’s that women aren’t good/smart/ambitious enough.

Once you buy into the argument that women’s inequality is due to women’s inferiority, it’s not much of a leap to start assuming that any woman who does go far must be getting some unfair advantage. For Trump and the sexist men who support him, it’s easier to believe that Clinton’s success is due to a feminist conspiracy to promote women over more deserving men than to admit that there are women out there that are smarter and more capable than they are. It’s the same mentality that led Trump and the folks who support him to embrace “birther” theories about Barack Obama. It was easier to believe he was installed by a shadowy cabal than accept the possibility that an African-American man could be a legitimately elected official.

Trump’s simplistic sexism has become déclassé in mainstream conservative circles. Instead, the trend has been to accept some women into leadership positions, as long as they remain firmly in the minority and don’t ever rise to the tippy-top positions reserved for men. This simultaneously props up the argument that conservatives aren’t sexist while maintaining a belief in female inferiority. The gist of things is that while a small handful of exceptional women are good enough to compete with men, most are not. And even those who are smart enough will never be quite as good as the men at the top.

Ted Cruz’s selection of Carly Fiorina as his running mate is a perfect illustration of the delicate dance that conservatives are performing with gender politics. On one hand, he’s trying to show off how non-sexist he supposedly is by picking a woman. On the other hand, he went out of his way to pick someone who isn’t as smart as he is, as evidenced by her long history of professional and political failures. The pick allows him to appear to respect women while reinforcing conservative beliefs that women aren’t quite as capable as men. If anything, by picking someone who isn’t very good, Cruz is subtly reaffirming the belief that women in leadership are incompetents who get a leg up not because of talent but because of “political correctness.”

John McCain did the same thing in 2008 with his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Now there is a hack who only got as far as she did because powerful men wanted to be seen as the kind of people who promote women. She was a bad pick for his campaign, but a good pick for pushing the belief that women aren’t as smart as men and can only really get far because of their supposed female privilege.

Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why so many voters prefer Trump. He doesn’t play these complicated games of pretending to respect women while rejecting the possibility that women really can be equal to men. His belief systems are far more straightforward: He doesn’t think women are smart and any woman’s success that challenges him will be waved away as a gimme handed to her because of “political correctness.” For those who are sick of pretending to believe things they don’t want to believe, such as in the possibility that women can be smart, the Trump method is far more appealing than the elaborate systems of B.S. that other conservatives have built.

That, plus it’s always thrilling to misogynists to hear that, simply by virtue of being male, they are better than a woman who was her class valedictorian, an accomplished lawyer, a senator and the secretary of state. But odds are low Trump will get far with the general electorate by suggesting that even the smartest woman somehow pales in comparison to a mediocre man.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 


When Slavery Won’t Die: The Oppressive Biblical Mentality America Can’t Shake

An interview with black theologian Kelly Brown Douglas on America’s greatest sins.

Source: AlterNet

Author: Valerie Tarico

Emphasis Mine

“You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” So said white supremacist Dylann Roof to black members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as he systematically executed nine, leaving one woman and a five-year-old child to bear witness to the slaughter.

The horror of the mass murder defies rational analysis. And yet, if we have any hope of a better future, we must analyze it—not just the circumstances or persons or events that led to this particular slaughter on this particular day, but the root attitudes and assumptions—the ancient strands of brutality and inequality that are woven into the fabric of our society.

In her article, “The Lethal Gentleman: The ‘Benevolent Sexism’ Behind Dylann Roof’s Racism,” sociologist Lisa Wade outlines how racism and sexism intersect in Roof’s comments. The phrase “benevolent sexism” sounds jarring, but it is the term social scientists use when people attribute “positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men:” Women are beautiful and fragile; women are good with children; women are emotionally weak; God made woman as the perfect ‘helpmeet’ for man. Roof’s implication that white women need protecting from rape falls into this category.

One striking aspect of sexism and racism in Roof’s statement is the sense of ownership it conveys: “Our women” in “our country” need to be protected from black men who either don’t know their place or won’t stay in it. White men can and should kill black men because they are having sex in our home territory with women who belong to us. We own America and we own the women who live here, and black men don’t because if all was right in the world we would own them too.

The idea that women and minorities (along with children and members of other species) at some level belong to men of the dominant tribe can be traced all the way back to the culture and laws of the Iron Age and the concept of chattel. The term chattel is related to the term cattle, and human chattel, like cows, exist to serve their owners and must stay where they belong. In this view, dominant men have a right or even responsibility to enforce social hierarchy. If women or slaves or children or ethnic and religious minorities or livestock step out of line, they must be punished to keep society in its proper order.

I have written in the past about how Iron Age chattel culture underlies Religious Right priorities that might otherwise seem at odds: Why do the same people who oppose abortion also oppose protections and rights for children once they are born? What do opposition to marriage equality and opposition to contraception have in common? Why is the line between marriage and slavery so blurry in the Bible? How was American slavery influenced by the Iron Age worldview? Why does biblical literalism so often incline people to embrace sexual and racial inequality?

From within Christianity, Episcopal theologian and author Kelly Brown Douglas has written extensively about some of these same questions, with a particular focus on sexuality and the Black body. After the Trayvon Martin killing, she channeled her grief into a book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of GodIn the interview that follows, Brown Douglas talks about the ancient concept of chattel, how it leads to the assumption that black bodies are “guilty, hypersexual, and dangerous,” and how it underlies the slaughter, from Florida to New York to Charleston, that has left America reeling.

Tarico: You are the mother of a black son, so the horrendous epidemic of shootings we all have witnessed in recent years strikes very close to your heart.

Brown Douglas: I just couldn’t shake the Trayvon Martin killing. At the time my son was 21 and I knew—as a 6’ tall young man with locks that people would perceive him as a threat. My husband and I have tried to help our son understand how others perceive him as a black male. As his mother, I find myself continually reminding him that, while I will defend him to his death I don’t want to defend him in his death. I have said, If you are ever stopped by the police, even if they tell you to get on your knees, do it. A moment of humiliation could save your life. When he’s out there’s not a moment that I don’t fear for him, not because of anything he would do—he is a very responsible person—but because of how people might perceive him. So I am passionate about what is going on now, what is going on with our children. Somehow we have to change this world to make it safe for our children.

Tarico: In Stand Your Ground, you explore cultural values and beliefs that contribute to America’s plague of racial violence including the sense of exceptionalism and manifest destiny—the idea that Anglo-Saxon European culture is fundamentally good, a light unto the world, something to be exported. When any of us has that kind of self-perception, it’s hard to see ourselves as the bad guy, hard to see when we’re doing harm.

Brown Douglas: To stop the harm, one of the first things that we have to understand is the complexity of violence. We have to understand that this Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism is inherently violent because it is unjust particularly as it suggests that certain people deserve the benefits of being treated with decency and dignity while others do not. Systems of injustice—racism, sexism, heterosexism—the ways that these systems manifest themselves systemically and structurally is violent. Anything that does harm to another is violent.

We seldom name the violence that is imbedded in the structures and systems of our society. We don’t ask, where is the violence behind the violence? Yes, there are too many guns, and we should change that. But I’m speaking about the violence of injustice. Inasmuch as we don’t begin to dismantle unjust discriminatory systems then we will consistently have violent eruptions that people respond to with more violence. Systemic and structural violence perpetuates a cycle of violence on all levels of society.

Tarico: Our handed-down cultural and religious traditions contain the concept of chattel, the idea that some people (and other species) exist for the benefit of others. Slavery is an extreme example of this. But even beyond overt slavery, you and I both write about how the residual of this concept continues to ripple down in our society.

Brown Douglas: When we talk about American slavery we have to talk about chattel slavery. Chattel doesn’t mean simply that one person serves another, it means that one belongs to another. Black people were property. They were never meant to own their own labor or their own bodies. While I truly appreciate the way that female and black bodies intersect, the black body came to this country as property. When we talk about chattel in U.S. history, the only people who were considered nonhuman were those of African descent.

Tarico: Yes! Mercifully, by the time this country was founded, outright ownership of women was no longer the overt norm. In the Old Testament, women were literally governed by property law rather than personhood rights. A man, a father, essentially sold his daughter to another man to be a wife or slave. She was a valuable reproductive technology that produced economically valuable offspring that also belonged to the patriarch, who could beat or sell them or send them into war or even sacrifice them.

The notion of women as fully autonomous persons rather than property has taken centuries to emerge. During the American colonial era, single women could own real estate and other assets, but thanks to a legal concept called coverture, married women couldn’t. “All men are created equal” really meant men, well, men who were white. A woman couldn’t get a credit card on her own in the U.S. until 1974! When I was young, a woman couldn’t obtain birth control without her husband’s permission because her reproductive capacity belonged to him. Women in the South, including black women, have been of the last to get rights to control their own property and bodies. But that is a long way from literally being bought and sold in chains, as in the slave trade!

So this idea of people owning people is changing. But, damn, the process is slow. From your point of view, where do you see the residual of chattel culture in America today?

Brown Douglas: What we see is that some people have certain privileges because of who they are while other people are penalized because of who they are. Clearly the white male heterosexual body is the most privileged body and in as much as you lose one of those attributes you lose certain privileges. In your person you have less freedom, less right to the wages of freedom in your body. That is what we are struggling through in this country.

Tarico: The rape culture that we are struggling with on college campuses is rooted in the idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. Economic exploitation is rooted in the idea that might makes right, that powerful people have a right to exploit and consume the time, energy, productive capacity and reproductive capacity of the less powerful. The same could be said about environmental exploitation, that those who are most powerful have the right to exploit, consume, and take what they can; that other beings and their desires are secondary, if they matter at all.

As a theologian, you say that one way chattel culture gets justified is via “natural law” theology. What is that?

Brown Douglas: Natural law theology is a way of sanctifying this hierarchy of exploitation. It suggests that this wasn’t just a human creation, but divine law. This was the way God designed things to be. For example, the whole idea was that God created black people as slaves not as full human beings. Slavery was legitimated specifically through Christianity.

Tarico: What are some echoes of natural law theology in the way that conservatives think today? How does it get translated into the modern language of the Religious Right?

Brown Douglas: We know that the discourse around women has been that God created women to serve men and to reproduce. Women have had to fight that battle for years, and continue to fight the battle that they were indeed not created to be subservient to men or to be reproductive machines. That is about natural law. The other way you see it is that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman—that’s God’s law according to various religious communities. Those are ways that we see “natural law” functioning in our culture today.

In racial relations, if one scanned some of the white supremacy rhetoric you see that too. Historically it is part of the rhetoric of the Klan. Today most people don’t argue that in polite conversation, but we see it all the time when we place this religious canopy over discrimination. We sanctify discriminatory patternsIf God wanted men and women to be equal, God would have created women to be different –not to be the bearers of children. Or, God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Those are remnants of natural law. It functions in those places where people attempt to elevate social constructs and human laws so that they seem as if they are divine laws.

Tarico: I write mostly about women—about reproductive freedom and empowerment, and in our fight to create a new norm of chosen childbearing, this notion of women as chattel is hugely problematic. Specific verses from the Bible get cited to justify the GOP’s assault on women. “Women will be saved through childbearing,” for example. In the sphere of racial relations and justice, this notion of human chattel also gets tied in with sexuality—how black sexuality is seen, why blacks are seen as dangerous.

Brown Douglas: One thing that you’ll notice is that marginalized oppressed people often are sexualized by the dominant narrative. You see that with LGBT people—the rhetoric is that they are indiscriminately promiscuous—as with black people and women. A couple of traditional cultural narratives come together here. In the conservative religious mindset, the only good sex is procreative sex. If you suggest that people are engaging in sexual activity for non-procreative reasons that’s sinful and lustful—that’s the Apostle Paul.

On top of that is this oppression narrative in which identity and sexuality get bound together. The late French philosopher Michel Foucault asked, Why is it that sexuality has become so significant in Western society that it becomes the source not just of reproduction but of truth? Why has it become the way the way people think of themselves and others? Foucalt suggests that it is because sexuality is where the body and identity come together. If you can control the sexuality of a group of people, then you can control that

Women are said to be driven by their passions and women’s sexuality has to be controlled, and is only acceptable if it’s procreative, which means men are controlling it. Sexualizing black people allowed black women to be used as breeders. It became a rationale for a black man to be lynched—because he was preying on white women. This is one way we have an overlap in how all women and black men are perceived as well as other marginalized groups. I wrote a book, Sexuality and the Black Church, in which I discuss this in more depth.

Tarico: How does this all play into a presumption of guilt? At the opening to your chapter on the Black body, you echo L. Z. Granderson’s question, Why are black murder victims put on trial? Why are black murder victims put on trial?

Brown Douglas: Black people don’t have the presumption of innocence. The concept of black people as chattel, that black people are not meant to occupy a free space and are dangerous when doing so, has been transformed into a notion of black people as criminal. If a black person has been accused of something then people assume that he or she is probably guilty, and our media representations of black people continue to reinforce this in the collective unconscious. There have been various studies [for example, herehere] which reveal that people have visceral automatic reactions to black bodies in which they see them as threatening. In one study police officers who were shown pictures of white and black men with and without guns were more likely to perceive that a black male had a gun even when he didn’t and to miss a gun in the hands of a white male even when he had one. The stereotypes of the criminal black male and the angry black woman lead to the presumption of guilt.

Tarico: I write largely for an audience of non-theists and people who describe themselves as former Christians. Many of them look at the black community’s response to an incident like the mass murder in Charleston and say, I don’t get it. How can so many Black people be Christian when Christianity has been such a tool of racial oppression against blacks? How can oppressed racial minorities embrace a sacred text that talks about chosen people and privileged blood linesWhat do you say to that?

Brown Douglas: That is the very question that compelled another book of mine called, What’s Faith Got to Do with It? In the Black Christian tradition, the first time that Black people encountered God was not through their slaveholders. They knew God in freedom, as they encountered God through their African traditional religions. As black Christianity emerged during slavery, it emerged from an entirely different place than white Christianity. Black people understood that they were meant to be free, so God stood for freedom. Throughout history you see a black critique of White Christianity. The sum of the critique is this: If Christianity is used to oppress another that’s not Christianity. What I ask is, How can one embrace a culture of oppression and claim to be Christian?

Tarico: What do you say to your own son about all of this?

Brown Douglas: I always told my son every morning as he was growing up, There is no one greater than you but God and you are sacred. I’ve always tried to teach him that he is not greater than anyone, that we are equal. God created us all, and the very breath we breathe comes from God—that is what makes us all sacred. Even when someone treats you as less than human, you must still affirm their humanity. I am working overtime these last two years to help him understand that, yes, this nation is racist and people do racist things but not all people are like that. And so, I try to teach him to respect people as he would respect himself, to affirm his humanity and to finds ways to affirm that of others. Most of all, I try to teach him not to get trapped in the cycle of hate because in the end, hate is self-destructive.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at