Education · Politics

I Know. I Thought Racism “Worked Both Ways” Too. It Doesn’t.

I graduated with my teaching credential in December, 1994 -two years after the L.A. riots and just weeks before the start of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Race was front and center in this country when I started my career. But having grown up in a predominantly white community, I had little first-hand experience with it until after college. I believed that racism was largely a thing of the past, with the exception of a deviant few.  I was sure that Rodney King must have been impossible to control, that the officers wouldn’t have beaten him unnecessarily, that the acquittal proved that out, and that any connection to race was manufactured, divisive, and unproductive. I trusted those in authority (without noticing how many of them were white), and I trusted the system.

In my student teaching and first year in the classroom, a few patterns jumped out at me. One was the stark racial divide between high-track and low-track classes. Another was the impressive ability of my students of color to explain race-related dynamics in contrast to my white students’ inability to do so. It was apparent to me early on that my students were experiencing school differently, but I never thoroughly made sense of that or tried to engage with issues of race as part of my work. I came to think about equity more broadly, and more vaguely.

At the school where I spent most of my career, we took what amounted to a colorblind approach. We knew there were racial disparities in achievement, enrollment in advanced coursework, and discipline, but we sought to address those disparities by treating all of our students equally. We focused on building an inclusive school community, and we opened access to advanced curricular pathways in hopes of increasing numbers of underrepresented students in these courses. We treated culture superficially, celebrating “diversity” generally but never really seeking to understand the diverse values and day-to-day practices that characterized our students’ lives. We took our academic and behavioral standards for granted; we strove to ensure that every student mastered them but never called the standards themselves into question as racially and culturally biased.

As an assistant principal, I once had an African American student in my office who had interfered with an arrest in our parking lot after school. As I wrote up her suspension papers, she stood across from my desk and screamed at me that the school was racist. I rolled my eyes and assured her that a white student who had engaged in the same behavior would be facing the same consequence. But of course that statement was ridiculous. No white student would have felt the outrage that she felt on seeing her black friend pushed to the ground by a white police officer on her school campus. Comparing her to a white student in the same situation was absurd because white students and students of color don’t find themselves in the same situations on school campuses or in their communities. Despite what we wanted to believe, there was no “treating students equally” because they were experiencing school, and the world, very differently.

Many readings, presentations, and conversations have helped me to shift my perspective, but the one that still stands out to me is Gloria Ladson-Billings’ From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools. Ladson-Billings argues that the disparity in academic achievement between white students and students of color is not just a gap but the result of a long-accumulated debt. For generations, our society has denied access to education to minority populations, first by barring them from attending school at all, later by relegating them to separate schools, and into the present by failing to ensure that schools that serve large minority populations have the same resources as schools that serve primarily white students. What we see now when we look at achievement data can only be understood by looking at our country’s history of racism and injustice.

The first time I read Ladson-Billings’ piece, I thought about my father’s lectures about credit card payments -specifically the evils of the “minimum payment.” I learned at 18 that consistently paying the minimum payment would keep me decidedly in debt, even if I curtailed my spending. It would satisfy the bank for the month, but it would do little to put my relationship with the bank back in balance. To do that, I would need to look past the minimum payment line to the “total balance” line. I would need to put forth extra effort to make a dent in that number.

I found this an incredibly helpful metaphor for thinking about race and equity. Deciding to see everyone as equal is like making a minimum payment. It’s better than what we used to do, but it won’t address the very large debt we’ve accumulated over hundreds of years. To make a dent in that debt will require more intensive intervention. We are out of balance right now. White people in this country hold more power than people of color. White people occupy the bulk of high-level leadership positions and hold most of the wealth. White, middle class culture and values are so dominant that they’re invisible until they’re challenged. We can’t claim to be addressing racism until we begin actively working to establish balance.

But this won’t be entirely painless for white people. Repaying a debt requires giving up assets. And balancing power requires the people with too much to relinquish some of it. When we hear people cry, “Black lives matter” and we respond, “All lives matter,” we’re maintaining imbalance. Black lives have historically mattered less. We might need to attend to them specifically in order to establish balance. Affirmative action corrects an imbalance. Education has historically been less accessible to people of color. We might need to prioritize their access to college to establish balance. It’s not “reverse racism.” It’s countering of racism. It’s repaying of a debt.

Individual people can harbor prejudice, but systemic racism requires power. Right now, in our society, white people hold power. We are not victims of racism; we are responsible for it. If we start to feel our power threatened, it doesn’t mean we’re oppressed; it might mean we’re moving in the right direction.




Language · Politics

Hicks and Yankees and the Fuzzy Standard of “English Proficiency”

Last week, CNN’s  Jim Acosta and White House advisor Stephen Miller engaged in a heated exchange over a newly proposed immigration policy that would institute a merit-based system for granting entry into the U.S., using English proficiency as one of several measures. Acosta suggested that the policy would advantage people from English-speaking countries like Britain and Australia. Miller called his comment “ignorant,” asserting that these countries are not the only places in the world where English is spoken. Conservative media sites claimed that Miller “wrecked” Acosta in the exchange. Liberal sites attacked Miller’s response as flawed and missing the point.

Whoever gets credit for “winning,” Acosta’s inquiry and Miller’s response raise important questions about the fairness of English proficiency as an expectation for people immigrating into the U.S.

I grew up in California but spent a couple of weeks most summers in North Carolina, visiting my mother’s family. My favorite memory from these visits is sitting on my great grandmother’s screened-in porch where the family gathered on Sunday evenings. I ate cake and listened to stories and tried, awkwardly and flounderingly, to fit in as one of them. During one such gathering, my mother’s aunt turned to me and said, “You talk like a Yankee.” I didn’t know what a Yankee was, and evidently neither did she, but I knew what she meant: you don’t talk like us. It was true. And how I talked was the clearest marker that I wasn’t a full-fledged member of that family community. They loved my sister and me because we were my mother’s children, but we were obviously outsiders. Anyone who has ever experienced being the one who talks differently understands the role that language plays in signaling to others that we either belong or don’t belong.

My aunt’s comment didn’t feel insulting to me because I actually took a great deal of pride in my use of language. I’m not sure how my mother became the master of school-based English that she is, but she passed it on to me, early and with great fervor. There was no “transitional spelling” in our house. If I spelled a word wrong, she corrected it and I fixed it. I learned about the past perfect tense from a Winnie the Pooh Golden Book when I pointed out “had had,” thinking the duplication was a misprint, and in turn received a grammar lesson on the function of the auxiliary “had” in positioning an event as prior to another past event. I knew the difference between “lie” and “lay,” and even in casual conversation with other children, I always put “I” in the subject position and “me” in the object position. I was never a stand-out in school, except in grammar lessons. During those 20 minutes of the school day, thanks to my mother, I was unmatched. In the spring of my senior year in high school, I asked one of my English teachers for feedback on my college application essay. As he worked up to telling me the essay was dull and essentially devoid of substance, he said, “I’m struck by how…correct…it is.”

“Correctness” became critically important to me, and I carried that through my teaching career without ever reflecting on my tendency to use my students’ English conventions as a measure of their academic ability. I couldn’t see (or didn’t look) past deviations from standard sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling to engage with students’ ideas. Conversely, a paper that grammatically and mechanically matched my expectations conjured in my mind an intelligent and thoughtful student. From my first glance at the paper, the ideas had credibility for me, and I responded differently, more respectfully, more helpfully. The students who came to my class with a strong command of school-based English received different -and higher quality- instruction in my classroom. Because those students were most often white and had parents who were highly educated professionals, my disparate treatment of students based on their language use was both racist and classist. I privileged my already-privileged students and dismissed those who most needed to have their ideas recognized and valued -and at the same time very likely missed many opportunities to help develop brilliant and original ideas. Even though at that time my students all used English easily and could communicate whatever they wanted or needed to communicate in the language, I treated them differently if their English didn’t match the standard I had adopted.

I learned as an adult -after my pronoun usage was firmly cemented in place -that my mother was self-conscious of her North Carolina dialect when she moved to California in the 1960s. She worried that she sounded, as she put it, “like a hick.” So she fixed it. Over time, she modified her language use so that, for as long as I can remember, traces of “Southern” dialect only emerge when she talks to her family or tells stories about them. My mother adopted the language practices of her new community, and perhaps that is to be expected, but I wonder how it might have been different if she hadn’t felt that her own language held lower status than the language of her new coworkers and neighbors and in-laws. She was certainly “proficient” in English. It was her first and only language. But compared to the person sitting next to her in church, or the bank teller at the next window, might she have been regarded as less proficient, because her language didn’t match the standard in that community? Might her ideas have been dismissed more easily in a business meeting if she had used the language of her home community -even if her ideas held equal merit?

This is why Jim Acosta’s question was not nearly as absurd as Miller made it sound. Of course English is spoken in many countries other than England and Australia. But there are many, many varieties of English being spoken both in this country and around the world. Do we view them all as equal? Or do some varieties hold higher status, so that people who speak those higher-status varieties will be deemed more highly “proficient” than those who speak other varieties? Won’t those people probably be white? Won’t they probably be more like “us”?

Setting aside the deeply flawed assumptions that underlie the belief that everyone in this country should speak English in the first place, we need to explore honestly what counts as proficiency in English, and how race and class play into those assessments. Language is a powerful symbol of belonging, and whether or not people’s language passes the test depends on who is doing the evaluating. It is not an objective measure, and if we’re not very careful, it will be a dangerous one.




Christianity · Singleness

Christian, Conservative, and…Single??

I took my first “spiritual gift test” (yes, that’s a thing) the summer before my senior year in high school. It was sort of fun. Like a personality test. I remember very little about the results. What I do remember is that one member of our group was more than a little alarmed when the “gift of celibacy” emerged near the top of her list. I listened as others reminded her that she was only 15 and assured her that it was unlikely a multiple-choice test could destine her for a nunnery.  But the gift of celibacy came out high on my list too, and I knew exactly why. The test included true-false statements like, “The idea of being single is traumatic for me.” I wasn’t yet 17, but I answered the question confidently as “false.” Evidently, most people had not.

Four years later, I was sitting around a table with a church leader and several other high school and college students. We took turns responding to the question, “Where do you think you’ll be in ten years?” My answer included school, career, and geographical location, but it left out an essential element. Someone quickly followed up:

“Do you think you’ll be married?”

“No…I really don’t.”

The church leader chimed in, “The problem with Heather is that she has no self-esteem. She’d be a great catch. She just doesn’t believe it.” It was true that I lacked self-esteem. But I thought it was an interesting assumption that if I expected not to marry, I must deem myself unworthy.

I’ve been asked many times by well-meaning friends and acquaintances how it happened that I never got married. I’m sure any psychologist would relish the opportunity to explore all the weird and complicated personal history that contributed to this circumstance, but the truth is that it was never part of my vision for my life. I never imagined myself as a wife and mother. I never dreamed of my wedding like so many young women do.

But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been bothered by it. I often am. I hate seeing “and guest” after my name on a wedding invitation. I dread bridal showers and baby showers because it’s hard to celebrate rites of passage that I sometimes feel like I missed. I’m uncomfortable in groups when conversation turns to marriage and relationships. I have asked family members and close friends if they think something is wrong with me. I have ventured into dating several times and every time have reached the same conclusion: I hate this. It doesn’t fit. It isn’t me.  When I am asked (and I have been), “Do you wish you were married?”,  the honest answer is no. I do not wish I were married. I just wish I weren’t abnormal.

In college and throughout my 20’s, I asked my mother several times if it worried her that I might not get married. And -God bless her traditional, conservative, Bible-believing heart -she always said no, and I believed her. My maternal grandmother, also a conservative Christian who will forever be one of my favorite people and greatest heroes, adored her husband and grieved his loss but wished marriage on no woman and made no bones about that. That the two most important women in my life, traditional as they were, never urged me to find a husband was a gift I didn’t recognize until years later.

In my early 30’s, I began to realize that nowhere was being single as uncomfortable as it was at church. Once we pass the college/career group stage, we define groups by gender and marital status. We have couples’ groups, moms’ groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, senior groups, and, yes, singles’ groups. I have attended exactly two singles’ group meetings in my life. One quite obviously offered treatment for singleness; the other was a struggling start-up in a church clearly geared to families. I tried to attend women’s events but got tired of hat themes (“We ladies wear so many hats! Wives, mothers, career women…) and Bible studies about busyness. I cringed every time a pastor said from the pulpit, “Ladies, turn to your husbands…” and avoided every sermon series on dating and marriage.

I knew these topics applied to most people and never expected the church to cater to my interests. But I have always felt that church didn’t quite know what to do with me. It was organized around the traditional family structure, and I didn’t fit. I so wanted to eliminate the categories and just be one among many adults. I wanted not to be excluded from a house-building trip because this one was a “men’s” trip or a “family” trip. I wanted not to have my gender, age, and marital status constantly highlighted.

Importantly, it only recently occurred to me that my own discomfort would barely even register compared to that of someone who was gay or gender noncomforming. I can walk into a women’s ministry event without turning heads. I might not feel like I fit, but at least I look like I fit. My cultural practices match, for the most part, the types of activities that take place at church. The styles of music are familiar to me; I can easily make a batch of vanilla cupcakes for the Easter party; when I’m called on to read a passage of Scripture, I can do that smoothly and without embarrassment. If I often feel like a misfit, how might church feel to people whose cultures, lifestyles, and family structures fall far outside the boundaries that church draws? If we want those people to feel welcome, do we ask them to adapt to our structures? Or do we ask ourselves how we might move toward genuine inclusiveness? Are we willing to rethink men’s and women’s ministries to accommodate those who identify as non-binary? Are we willing to make Sunday School look less like traditional school to help embrace children for whom school is alienating?

It’s a long road ahead, and there are no simple solutions. Historically, church has been slow to adjust to social change. Churches remained racially segregated long after federal law mandated integration of schools. But it bothers me that I have often felt more easily accepted and included in secular circles than I have at church, when it should be just the opposite. Of course, church should sometimes make me uncomfortable, but it should make me uncomfortable because I feel convicted to love more fully, to show greater compassion, to live in deeper communion with God. Not because I can’t find a social group to join.

Christianity · Politics

On Santa Claus, Jesus, and Trump

Shortly before Christmas, when I was four, I challenged my mother on Santa Claus. I asked (as I imagine many children do), “If he’s fat, how can he fit down the chimney?” My mother answered, “I guess he’s magic.” The answer was acceptable enough. He rode a flying sleigh around the world in one night and evidently had a cadre of elves who could secure thousands of Barbie vans and Baby-Come-Back dolls without ever making themselves visible at the mall. I guessed he probably was magic. And if my mother said it, it was true. This was the woman who once spent ten minutes at a grocery store bakery counter insisting that she be allowed to pay for a doughnut the cashier had forgotten to charge her for the previous day.

Two years later, when a friend told me at a sleepover, “Santa Claus is really your parents,” I was disproportionately (although not uncharacteristically) worked up. Several years later, I took up the issue again with my mother:

“But I ASKED you about it. I gave you a chance to tell me, and you just said, ‘I guess he’s magic.'”

“Well, you knew we didn’t believe in magic.”

“WHAT?? Mom. We believed Noah put ALL THE ANIMALS on the ark, that three men were thrown into a furnace and didn’t burn, and that a pack of lions’ mouths were sealed so they wouldn’t eat a guy who spent the night in their den.”

“That wasn’t magic. That was God.”

Okay, yes. I had been taught the distinction. I knew God wasn’t magic. Still, for a four-year-old raised to believe in the supernatural, accepting Santa’s ability to navigate chimneys as magic is not a giant leap.

Believing in the supernatural became increasingly hard for me as I got older, as deeply ingrained as it was. In high school, I was terrified of looking stupid, and I felt, increasingly, that talking about the Bible as literal truth made me look that way. In college, as a literature student, I began to see the broader picture -the horrific damage that had been done to people and cultures in the name of missions work, the warring among religious groups over the power to control the narrative, and the many world views that felt as real and true to the people who held them as Christianity felt to me. It became harder, and less desirable, for me to believe that ours was the only truth. I would have preferred to be selective and piece together my own theology, but I was deeply afraid to do that, or even to raise hard questions. Christianity was the core of my identity, and I feared that if I pulled one thread, it would all unravel for me.

In my early adulthood, I made a firm decision to take the Bible, in its entirety, at face value. I said to my mom, “Maybe we’re wrong. But so what? If it turns out in the end that none of it was true, I won’t be sorry to have lived my life striving to be like Christ.” And there I remained, for many years. I clung to Jesus, his words, and his life as the core of my faith. I taught Sunday School. I served in church leadership. And as for all the issues that continued to make me uncomfortable, I hoped and trusted that if God was who I thought He was, He had it figured out and I would have to live with not knowing the answers.

And then it was 2016. And the Republicans put forward a candidate who was “different.” For awhile it was funny, like the idea of Arnold Schwartzenegger being governor of California. Then it became serious. He made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and blatantly sexist statements. He called people losers and mocked them like a seven-year-old, he lied openly, and he talked about wanting to punch protesters in the face and “joked” that he would pay legal fees for supporters who did. It made sense that a few isolated, angry white men yearning for pre-civil-rights days would relish the idea of Trump as president. But I genuinely expected that Christians would be at the front of the line speaking out against his behavior. It seemed obvious. He was everything we are called not to be. How do we claim to promote Christian values and even consider placing someone openly hateful in our highest position of power?

Then the audio recording came out -the one where he bragged that he forces himself on women because he can. Because he’s a star. And that should have sealed it. But it didn’t. Supporters came out in his defense. Christians compared him to King David, using his sexually violent language to validate him as God’s choice. He claimed he could walk out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and people would still support him. And by this point, he seemed to be right.

I stood by as people already skeptical of Christianity had their beliefs confirmed. Evangelical Christianity was aligning itself with hate and claiming “conservative values” as its justification. Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics -everyone but Christians -spoke out for the vulnerable, for the poor, for the oppressed. Christians defended, rationalized, ignored.

Even though I suspected he might win, when the numbers came out -81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump  -I was stunned and devastated. And in the next few months, I circled all the way back to the beginning: to the ark, the lions’ den, a childhood firmly anchored in a loving, merciful, gracious God who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only son. And I wondered what happened. I had chosen to embrace the whole, despite doubts and apparent contradictions, because it all felt worth it if it led me to a life of love, compassion, and kindness. If that was the core, I could live with some discomfort and tension. But the election and all that led up to it suggested that it was not the core. Reeling from what felt like the sudden ripping out of my life’s foundation, I pulled the thread. As I feared, it has left me unraveled and a little lost.

I have been told that I just don’t understand the big picture, that I’m too narrow-minded, that I’m just being influenced by people. I’ve been reminded that I’m studying education, not theology, which I suppose implies that I have no business suggesting that anything is wrong. And maybe it’s true. Maybe I thought I understood the major tenets of Christianity and I never actually did. Maybe a faithful Christian just accepts the assurances of Christian leaders that this is all worth it for a conservative Supreme Court, or that we shouldn’t judge each other for our political choices. But none of that helps me to know what to do now.

I miss my church and the people I came to know and love. I miss feeling grounded in a faith community. I miss being certain. But I don’t know how to be a part of it right now, or how not to. It helps to know I’m not alone -that there are others, some who actually do study theology, who are equally shaken and also struggling to find a place. And I trust that we eventually will. We will either unite around our core and find reconciliation, or we will crumble, and I can’t believe we will let ourselves crumble.

But even if we do, it doesn’t have to be over. Learning the truth about Santa was a necessary step in my coming to understand Christmas as a celebration of God’s gift to the world. Maybe we’re experiencing something similar right now, on a much larger scale. Maybe we will let it all unravel and slowly put it back together again. And maybe we’ll start with God’s love, mercy, and grace and work from there.


“Bittersweet and Strange, Finding You Can Change, Learning You Were Wrong”

I grew up a conservative Christian in a white, middle-class community. As a general rule, this context worked well for me. My parents trained me from birth to do all the things that would position me as a “good student” in school. I learned to read fluently and with expression, I took great pride in producing error-free writing, and I NEVER had my name on the board. I was a well-bred churchgoer as well. I won prizes for memorizing the most Bible verses in Sunday School, I sang hymns in the shower, and I cast scolding looks at my teenage peers for giggling during talks at youth group. My family was often compared to the Cleavers, and while our family life was not nearly so neat, we certainly had all the Cleaver trappings -two parents, a stay-at-home mother, nightly dinners together, a wood-paneled station wagon with a dog in the back.

I also had deep-seated insecurities. I read slowly and couldn’t keep up with my peers in advanced classes, and I went to lengths to hide it. I was clumsy and socially awkward, and I could never figure out how other kids knew what to wear or what music to listen to. I chose to avoid homework rather than face the possibility of not understanding it, so I spend middle and high school lying, copying, and living in fear of being caught. I felt at home at church but also always felt on the outside of my peer group. I knew all the rules but was never fully included.

When I look back now and reflect on how I became an arrogant, critical, judgmental adult, I come back not to my successes but to my insecurities. I grew up knowing I was a fraud and desperately trying to hide it, so I built my identity around my achievements. I may not have been a contributing member of a Christian community, but I knew the doctrine and followed the rules. I became an English teacher. I found that I was fairly successful at teaching students to read, think, and write the way I had learned to read, think, and write. For all that I had never figured out, I had developed a strong grasp of English -the structure, the convention, and the power of language. As incompetent as I grew up feeling, I had completed college and secured a place in middle-class life as an independent adult. I believed my students could too, assumed they should want to, and looked to my own knowledge and experience as resources to share with them.

I believed that language and literacy were the keys to educational success -because they had been mine. And I knew that I held those keys. That belief, and my own experience, left no room for valuing of multilingualism or varieties of English other than the “standard.” I knew that my mother’s reading to me as a child had given me an edge, so I believed every parent should do the same. The students whose experiences had been different were, in my conception of language and literacy achievement, behind. And rather than question why my own set of values was so rigid, or exploring how this diversity of experiences might deepen and enrich the discourse of my classroom, I set about the work of catching those students up.

My conservative Christian values played into the educator I became as well. I accepted that single parents, or even same-sex parents, could raise successful children, but I never accepted that any family configuration was equal to the “traditional” nuclear family. I viewed students from other family backgrounds as disadvantaged, which undoubtedly shaped my expectations of them. I attributed my own success as an adult -as I defined it- to the code my family and community had lived by. And again, rather than question the power dynamics that make Christianity so advantageous in our society, I took for granted the rightness of the code.

People close to me believe that leaving my job and coming back to school changed me. And of course it has, but my classes, professors, and classmates also gave me words to voice and explain the discomfort I was already feeling in my job. As steeped as I was in my own beliefs and practices as a teacher and administrator, I knew, as many educators know, that what I was doing wasn’t working. For all our talk of equity and access, the same groups of students continued to come out ahead, and the schools in the same communities continued to be featured in the newspaper. I thought much more about language than I thought about race and class, but of course they are closely linked, and my own beliefs and values and whatever limited “success” I attained had as much to do with the fact that I was white and middle class as the fact that I grew up a conservative Christian and spoke a valued variety of English. Those things aren’t unrelated.

I have always cared deeply about equity, as most public educators do. I just didn’t see, until I stepped outside and began interacting with people who had either studied the world through different lenses or just lived different experiences, how the standards we choose to set as a society both reflect the values of the people in power and necessarily open up access to some and limit it for others.

I’m in the very early stages of understanding all of this. For now, it has made me obnoxious on Facebook but not particularly powerful in my ability to effect change at any level. I have much more to learn, and I am fortunate to be following the footsteps (and breathing the dust) of many, many people who have understood all of this for many, many years. And because I am both proud and deeply insecure, facing all that I didn’t know was initially painful. Believing that I had spend a 20-year career working toward equity only to learn that I had made countless decisions as a teacher and an administrator that in fact furthered inequity was hard. But it was only briefly hard. Then it was freeing, because then I could talk about it, because then it wasn’t just about me anymore, and because then I was empowered to question and challenge -and to begin working to avoid falling into the beliefs, assumptions and patterns that reinforce the status quo.

“Learning you were wrong,” as Disney reminds us, isn’t all bad. It opens up some pretty exciting doors.


Perspectives on Healthcare

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could miss anyone else’s point in this age of thoughtful and informed civil discourse, but here we are. So for what it’s worth…

I’ve never had to pay attention to health care. I always just had it. I didn’t even have to understand my insurance, and I never bothered to try. I went to doctors when I needed to and someone took care of bills. That’s not true for me anymore because I no longer have guaranteed employment, and now I have a history of cancer that will likely affect my premiums, possibly dramatically and devastatingly. So I’m more personally aware of the fragility of access to health care than I’ve ever been in my life.

But that’s not the point. At all. The outrage over the House’s repeal of the ACA isn’t about people’s individual situations or about the specifics of the new bill. It’s about the whole. We’re at odds over whether we as a society should take responsibility for each other. We’re arguing about school choice for the same reason. If I have good health insurance and can see the doctors I want, then the system is working well. If my kids’ schools are well resourced and I’m happy with their teachers, then public education is fine.

Jen Hatmaker suggested in her last book that we use this “benchmark” to evaluate our positions: “If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.” That resonated with me deeply. When we base our political stances on what we know, based on our own perspectives, we miss so much. It’s easy to assume that if we can get through college, secure a good job, move into a nice neighborhood, and sign our kids up for competitive soccer, ballet, swim team, or whatever -everyone else should be able to do the same. But we’re wrong. Everyone isn’t positioned the same way. And that is OUR problem because it reflects the system and the social values that we are all responsible for creating.

The images of the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and undeniably wealthy crowd celebrating at the White House yesterday served as a symbol of the power imbalance that we keep trying to deny exists. Those are the people the system is working for. But if it isn’t also true for the (fill in the blank -single mom, woman of color, transgender person, immigrant), it isn’t true. And we’re all responsible.


What’s Left?

When our legislature failed to reach compromise and Republican Senators forced a rule change to push Gorsuch through, we gave up any notion of an independent Supreme Court. Maybe we never thought we had it, or maybe it just seemed worth it to get Roe v. Wade overturned, but whatever the logic, it’s gone. The traditions and processes that were in place to protect the Supreme Court from political extremes are no more, if they ever were. So one of our major institutions designed to keep power in check and protect civil rights is permanently undermined.

When we allow people in political power to denounce any media outlet they disapprove of as “fake,” when we perpetuate that label and seek to discredit everything they report, we give up the notion of a free press. Maybe the press made the mistake of making their leanings too transparent, or maybe the proliferation of actual fake news during the election campaign chipped away at public trust. But again, whatever the reason, one of the pillars of our democracy, whose job it is to hold those in power accountable, is permanently undermined.

So what’s left? What are the democratic institutions and traditions that we trust and are willing to invest in for the sake of our nation’s future? Separation of Church and State? Yesterday Trump declared that in this country we worship God and that he was bringing “Merry Christmas” back, so it looks like we’re willing to give that up too. Law enforcement and intelligence? Nope. We’ve granted the President power to insult, bully, and dismiss any official whose actions feel threatening to him. The legislative branch? Apparently not. They were the swamp we wanted drained. The presidency itself? A society that deems inexperience and a penchant for name-calling positive qualities in its president wouldn’t seem to have a great deal of respect even for its highest office.

Tomorrow, many of us will eat hot dogs and set off fireworks to celebrate our freedom. But I’m not feeling particularly secure in my freedom right now. I’m feeling vulnerable to abuses of power. Is that just because I lost the election? I don’t think so. I’ve lost elections before, on both sides. But even when I didn’t like the decisions being made by those in power, I trusted that my rights were protected by forces that transcended political party. Those forces are what I’m worried about -not the party in power.

If you are feeling secure in your freedom right now, are you sure you aren’t mistaking satisfaction with the status quo for confidence in our democracy? Is it possible that it just feels good to have the erosion of protections working in your favor? What if someone with the same disregard for democratic process that Trump has shown, but at the other extreme, rises to power? What if the people in power don’t share your interests, privilege a religion other than yours, maybe even see your power and privilege as a threat to freedom and equality for all? If those people begin to cross the line and abuse their power in the interest of setting things straight, do you trust that our democratic institutions are strong enough to hold their power in check, protect your rights and freedoms, and keep our democracy grounded while we ride out the wave?

There are large numbers of people in this country who have never enjoyed the freedoms that many of us feel we have, and that obviously can’t be ignored. But it worries me to see us carelessly dismantling the structures that make freedom possible at all. If we agree on nothing else, we should be gladly joining hands to preserve and strengthen the traditions that keep this experiment running, even with all its imperfections.