We’ve always known that Ronald Reagan was a racist. That’s why white people voted for him.

Have you ever been in the home of someone who has a photo of Ronald Reagan hanging above the mantel, as if he were Jesus Christ or Abraham Lincoln? Heard him described by a Republican as “our greatest president”? Or as “Saint Ronald?”

The veneration of Reagan is a favorite pastime of Republicans, especially those who like to pretend that the current president is an aberration, not a predictable outcome, of Republican politics. Reagan, they argue, was principled and refined, the kind of person who looked and acted like a leader.

Recently released recordings of Reagan saying overtly racist things about African diplomats–I won’t repeat them here word-for-word, but he compares them to animals and calls them uncivilized–are evidence, in his own voice, that he was racist.

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Turns out that people who make racist policies are also often racist in their personal lives.

But that’s not new information.

Here are just a few of the racist things that Reagan did that were no secret then. In fact, they were tactics he used to rally white voters:

  1. He announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair with a call to support states’ rights. States’ rights, if you recall, is what racist liars say the Civil War was about when they really mean it was about white supremacy and black oppression. Reagan saw this message as foundational to his run for president, and he went to where he thought it would play best–just miles away from one of the Civil Rights Era’s most notorious murders. (Now, granted, it’s hard to give a public talk in Mississippi and NOT be within a stone’s throw of racial terrorism. But he could certainly have not included an appeal to states’ rights if he didn’t want to be accused of riling up the racists.)
  2. He repeated the disproven racialized stereotype of the “welfare queen.” The US’s welfare system is fairly hard to manipulate; food stamp, for example, have a very low rate of misuse, fraud, or and waste. Far, far less than, say, the Pentagon.
  3.  He supported Bob Jones University’s argument that its segregationist policies should not make it ineligible for federal educational funding–a case the school lost in court.
  4. He argued in favor of the right of white property owners to maintain segregated neighborhoods.
  5. He opposed the Voting Rights Act and described it as “humiliating” to the South–by which he meant to white, racist Southerners. Like his decision to invoke “states’ rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, such language signaled to voters that Reagan did not consider African Americans to be citizens worth considering–he would be a president for white people only.
  6. In continuing Nixon’s War on Drugs, he continued policies that aimed to imprison men of color.
  7.  He opposed the creation of Martin Luther King Jr Day as a federal holiday.
  8.  He opposed economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime and supported labeling Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

In an effort to be polite, we often try to pretend that there is no link between personal racism and support for racist policies and structural racism. Reagan’s racism toward African diplomats–people he needed to have a good working relationship with for the sake of the world–is one more piece of evidence that the racism we see in policies is generally the same racism people have in their hearts.


Epic Fail?

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

Creating a peace, justice, and faith campus ministry from scratch hasn’t been easy.

One of the most crucial experiences when starting something new is learning from mistakes. One of the most significant learning experiences for 3rd Way Collective was our attempt to create an intentional living community. 

For quite some time there have been people at University Mennonite Church dreaming about an intentional living community as an alternative to campus housing or to the fraternity-style housing in our community. The idea has been present since the closing of United Campus Ministry’s house (UCM was an ecumenical campus ministry supported by University Mennonite Church) as a way to be providing students with a living experience unique to this area. We hoped that our unique faith-based peace and justice focus would appeal to a small group of students who would like to live together, learning and creating community as they shared that space. 

See the source image

A view of the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.

One of the main hurdles was finding a space to begin this project. We had two couples at UMC who were interested in possibly buying a property as an investment that could be used by 3rd Way Collective as it continued to take shape. Unfortunately because of zoning and corporate control, it was almost impossible to find a reasonably priced property that could house more than two or three students. Instead we decided to rent from a larger company with the hope that we could continue to search for a permanent home in the future. 

Once we found a property, the next step was to find the students. Our publicity resulted in five students who did not know each other, but were willing to live together. This turned out to be a massive challenge that we weren’t quite prepared for. It was hard to find students who knew about 3rd Way Collective, and who had similar ideas for what the house could/should be. 

Our group of five students included one who backed out weeks before the semester began, one who basically spent the school year closed off in their room, one who was a local organizer and rarely home, and two who ended up with such a significant interpersonal conflict that they had moved out before the fall was finished. We had made the assumption that putting five students together would instantly and organically create community that we could program around. Our fall schedule that year included home cooked meals at this new 3rd Way House. I showed up for the first of these scheduled meals to a darkened home with no students present. Rather than a sense of community, this house felt cold and lacking community. 

We had also assumed that a hands-off approach would allow the residents to create their own community guidelines and parameters. Unfortunately this loose structure meant that when conflict arose their were not systems in place to handle the conflict. The tension that arise in the home was difficult to navigate because we didn’t have a process to move through this kind of conflict.

Before the end of our first year we had decided to end this experiment and close the house at the end of its first year. 

This experience is easily one of the things I’m least proud of during the first five years of 3rd Way Collective, but that does not mean we didn’t learn some valuable things along the way. Here are a few of the things that we learned:

  1. Intentional community is not easy. 
  2. Intentional community must be intentionally cared for and nurtured.
  3. Intentional living communities rarely happen organically. They need some kind of structure in order to function well and flourish. 
  4. Intentional community cannot be forced. Full buy-in needs to happen from all participants. 
  5. It is very difficult for a random group of people to cohabitate without conflict, and systems need to be in place to navigate that when it happens. 
  6. College students tend to avoid conflict, and use communication techniques that are not face-to-face. Assuming that 20-somethings will sit down and talk with people they don’t know well about their needs, wants, and struggles is probably not going to happen.
  7. Property management is risky and expensive. Our supporters took on a lot of the lost rent when students moved out prematurely. 
  8. Having a house parent, or house mediator with regular connection to the house and a relationship with the students would have been an important thing to have from the beginning.

In the end I wish we had waited a few years before taking on this challenge, or perhaps putting more resources into making sure it started off on the right foot. I wish we had waited for students to come forward telling us that they wanted an intentional community, rather than assuming this was something the community needs (I still believe our community needs more alternatives to campus and fraternity housing, I just think the vision and expectations needs to be led by the students rather than people like me). Perhaps it would have been beneficial for my campus pastor role to be more intentionally present in the early moments of the house, helping the students to find ways to live well with each other.


Back-to-School To-Do List

Your children need food for their lunchboxes.

Do you take them to the store with you so you can die together or leave them at home so they can be orphans?

Your children need shoes for their feet.

Do you tell them to scatter at the sound of gunfire or to work to save each other? Do you assign them buddies to carry away from danger, or do you let them choose their own?

Your children need your love and confidence as they board the school bus.

Do you kiss them on their first day of school like it is their last?


The trivialization of guns

I was at a Love’s truck stop in Ardmore, Oklahoma today when the 249th mass shooting of the year happened.

The display at checkout was filled with pocket knives, flashlights, and keychains–many of them shaped like guns and bullets.

What does it mean to live in a culture where we turn our ink pens into shotguns and weapons of war into keychains?

I hear gun owners talk about how responsible they are, but I see trivialization of guns all around me.


Actually, the Babyon Bee *is* satire

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Here’s a Twitter thread arguing that The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian satire site — think The Onion, but evangelical — isn’t really satire because some folks treat its jokes as real. Apparently, it led to a rupture in the relationship between the poster, Josh Raby, and his dad, who defended posting a BB piece as, well, real enough to accept as real.


“This is why The Babylon Bee fails at “knowing their audience”. Because they know *who* they are, but they ignore every cultural force that makes them *them*. They lob jokes and close their eyes as to how they’ll land.

Their audience can not handle satire, because satire requires an understanding of the reality, and these people actively reject reality on a daily basis. Just like the president. Just like my dad.

Now: BB isn’t my cup of tea. (Having grown up among evangelicals, though, it does make me laugh sometimes.) And I don’t doubt the thread played out precisely as Raby describes it.

But. The Bee is satire. The fact that some people don’t understand that doesn’t make site somehow uniquely pernicious. It just means that some people are gullible, and some people are motivated to be gullible.

Google “Onion article mistaken for real news” and you get 2.7 million result. The first is this article documenting times when real news outlets like the New York Times and ESPN failed to spot a joke posting and passed along the fake news as real. Raby, somehow, isn’t arguing for the perniciousness of the Onion.

There’s always a tension with satire and an audience that can’t always read satire properly. That doesn’t mean satire isn’t satire. We should judge the Bee by the same standards we judge the Onion. And we should judge people who refuse to acknowledge reality on that basis, not satire-maker. Let’s judge others as generously as we judge ourselves.

Lessons from Stan Eitzen

Did you know Stan Eitzen? Stan passed away two years this summer, and I only knew him for a short time before that, but he’s one of those people you continue to have imaginary conversations with long after he’s gone.

I met Stan accidentally and under embarrassing circumstances: I had just taken my first post-PhD job, as a visiting assistant professor of sociology and history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. I was assigned a section of Introduction to Sociology, a course I’d never taught before. The book order had already been submitted for the class: In Conflict and Order, 13th edition by Stan, Maxine Baca Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen Smith. I loved the book; it was lively, and rather than pretending to be neutral, it staked a claim: our social world is characterized by a struggle for power (the conflict perspective) rather than cooperation, with everyone harmoniously accepting their function in the social order (the order perspective). Bethel, like all Mennonite colleges, has students who come from communities where structure, duty, and cooperation are highly valued (and bring with them their negative counterparts of coercion and shame). It also has students whose radical tendencies are more disruptive, students who are most concerned about racism, sexism, and other kinds of violence. So it was a good fit, and we were rolling along quite happily until…

We got to a unit on social control. A passage of the book described abortion in positive terms because, combined with prenatal testing, it has allowed for the termination of pregnancies that would result in the birth of babies with severe disabilities.

I couldn’t teach my students that. While it is true that the vast majority of women who find that the fetus they are carrying has a significant disability terminate those pregnancies, I couldn’t teach that as a positive for society as a whole, even if it was a decision that many women felt was the right one for them. Too many women I know who have made that choice wouldn’t say it was a “positive”—just what they felt was the least bad of several choices that were all sad. And, more to the issue of my classroom, I teach students who have significant disabilities, including the exact conditions that often justify abortion: spina bifida, trisomy conditions, and others. I haven’t yet taught a student with Down Syndrome, but people with Down Syndrome do go to college—as do their siblings. And while In Conflict and Order didn’t list all the conditions that could be eliminated in the population via abortion, once you start that list, you tell people that they are unwelcome. If our textbook said that our society was better off without the birth of children with Edwards Syndrome, would my student born with cleft palate or club foot feel that our book was saying that our society would have been better off without them?

I write a careful email to Stan Eitzen, the lead author, whose email address was associated with the University of Colorado, where he’d spent his career teaching. I was careful but firm: No matter what a person’s political views on abortion, it creates a hostile classroom experience for students with disabilities if we say that one of the benefits of abortion is that people like them are not born.

Stan wrote back, right away and kindly. He wanted to hear more. Perhaps over coffee?

No, of course I did not want to meet over coffee! I did not want to chat with Stan Eitzen, a senior scholar in my field (This was the 13th edition of one of his half dozen or so textbooks, after all!) when I didn’t even have a semester of being a professor under my belt.

But it was too late. I hadn’t done my research properly. Stan was not, as I thought when I found his email address, safely in Colorado. He’d retired and moved back to Newton, where, years before, he’d earned his undergraduate degree at Bethel. In fact, he’d been teaching the Intro to Soc course at Bethel for the previous year—using his textbook. He lived within walking distance of the college.

Though his email had been friendly enough, I was dreading our meeting. It was one thing to challenge a senior colleague via email, another thing to do it at Mojos, the on-campus coffee shop.

But Stan put me at ease right away. Though he was almost two generations older than me, we had shared an advisor at the University of Kansas. Stan had been one of Norm Yetman’s first students, and I’d been one of his last. We shared a bit about our mutual commitments to Mennonite higher ed—as well as our frustrations. No one understood the job I was doing that year (a tough year for Bethel all around) like Stan did, and he was able to help me think through it sociologically, with empathy for some of my more difficult students, and also affirm my experiences. And, as for the passage that I’d had a concern about, he told me why the authors of the book had taken that approach. In the end, though, he saw my point. The next edition of the book was already too far in the publishing process to make a change, he said, but he would revise it in the one after that.

I was genuinely surprised. Academia is a defensive place, and people don’t like to change their minds, especially not publicly. Practically, Stan had no reason to do so; In Conflict and Order was going to sell well no matter what it said about eugenics.

What struck me most about the conversation is that Stan and I didn’t have to agree about the politics of abortion. In fact, we didn’t even talk about them. We talked about students and their learning and how the classroom could affirm the dignity of those present in it. Those conversations could have been hard to have, but Stan made them easy.

A few years later, In Conflict and Order came under attack from rightwing campus organizations that were upset about the authors’ unapologetic conflict perspective. Sociology professors began getting calls and emails asking them to comment on the book. The larger goal of the attack was to argue that college campuses are hotbeds of leftist thinking. As most Intro to Soc professors will tell you: I wish. Groups like TurningPointUSA are full of little Joe McCarthys, on the lookout for evidence of socialism in the classroom, and they like to target individual professors for campaigns of harassment. Their goal isn’t fairness or critical thinking but bullying and censorship.

What I want to tell such groups is that they didn’t have anything to fear from Stan Eitzen’s work. Yes, his textbooks adopt a particular perspective, but the books also welcome readers to hone their thinking against it. Stan knew that many students—and, in some times and places, most of them—wouldn’t come to class inclined toward this perspective. But thinking about it, even if in order to argue against it, was a useful exercise. And, just as importantly, he was willing to listen to an opposing perspective. While rightwing groups attacked his textbooks, they performed the close-mindedness that they accused him of—and demonstrated a lack of faith in students’ abilities to think critically about a challenging idea. Stan, in contrast, has given innumerable college students a chance to think hard about difficult things that matter.

Stan and I continued to meet occasionally over the next two years, before I moved away from Newton. Then, we stayed in touch via email and would greet each other with a big hug at conferences. He sent me a manuscript he was working on—on gender in college mascots (Sports was a major area of work for him.); it sent me digging into my own experiences for more examples. What a treat it was to get to see a great mind still at work, despite retiring twice!

Anyway, Stan passed away, and that new edition of the textbook hadn’t been released by then. It’s in production now, and I’ve not yet checked to see if the revision Stan promised happened. I can’t be disappointed if it didn’t as I know it is hard work for his co-authors to continue. The new book includes a cover of original artwork by Stan, a lovely tribute to his multiple talents.

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I continue to teach In Conflict and Order (now, my 8th year of using some version of it!), and I tell students this story, about how I was probably too forward with my criticism and about how Stan listened to me anyway, with generosity I didn’t deserve, and took my ideas seriously. I want them to know that this is how civil dialogue works.


Survivors of Hate Speak Out

There is no silver lining to the situation of rising hate in America right now. There are no lessons we will learn that we couldn’t have learned in some other way–or that, really, we didn’t learn before. There are no tests that we will pass that we ever needed to take. Things that are being revealed to us are things that we always knew were true: white people will destroy democracy to preserve white supremacy.

Still, there are things we can celebrate, honor, and lift up. That includes the courage of people who have been victims of hate and who have shared their insights with the rest of us.


Civil rights activist and lawyer Arjun Singh Sethi has brought together some of these voices in American Hate: Survivors Speak Out. It’s not an easy read, but it is an encouraging one. If the present moment feels too much like Alabama in the 1950s, we can remember how victims of hate then preserved their dignity and used their voices to demand change, and we can find hope in the words of people doing the same now.