Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #156. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 2, 2020; in print July 5


George Floyd and so many more, unforgettably portrayed on the June 22 New Yorker cover called “Say their names,” where dozens of Black faces comprise Floyd’s body.

A direct line to today from 1619, when slaves were first brought to these shores – as direct as the line from a year later, 1620, when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Recognition that what happened in Tulsa in 1921, the destruction of a whole section of the city and the murder of several hundred Blacks, is accurately called a massacre, not, as it was for so many decades, a “riot.”

And there’s a reckoning for me. Growing up in Texas in the 1940s and 50s, I saw separate water fountains and restrooms and seats at sporting events for “colored” and “white,” and knew that buses were segregated. It all seemed “natural.” I’d like to think I thought it was wrong, but try as hard as I can, I can’t bring up such a memory. I’d like to think I challenged jokes and slurs, but it’s likely I sometimes joined in.

One of my reckonings is acknowledging that I benefited from – was privileged by – those systems, and “historical context” or “cultural norms at the time” is no excuse for my silence. I should have known better. I shouldn’t be let off the hook. I’ve seen Facebook posts that would exonerate me because “I haven’t owned slaves.” Technically, of course, that’s true. Morally, not. And, by extension, not even historically – I have a document from an ancestor that records sale of a slave.

My parents, exemplars of ecumenical and interfaith openness, said to me when I left for college, “Don’t bring a Negro girl home.” That was bad enough. My response was worse: “Of course I won’t.”

It’s in the context of this knowledge and these memories that I recently watched “13th,” a documentary on Netflix, about the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In an hour and 40 minutes, “13th” traces the story from those words to 2016 (the date of the film’s release) and the staggering, unconscionable statistics of mass incarceration in this country. We have 5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prisoners. I had not realized that the amendment says, in effect, slavery and involuntary servitude can exist within the United States in the form of punishment for crime.

The news clips and interviews are wide ranging. We see and hear Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb. We also see and hear Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Nancy Reagan. Presidents (including one, at the time yet-to-be) weigh in.

I did a double-take when what to my wondering eyes should appear but Steve Gottwalt, who represented our area in the Minnesota House of Representatives 2007-13.

It’s in a section of the film about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that provides texts of bills to state legislators (almost exclusively Republicans), bills that further the corporate interests of ALEC’s funders.

In the episode we view, April 25, 2012, Rep. Joe Atkins asks about a bill that Gottwalt has brought forward: “Does the legislation have some connection to ALEC?” Gottwalt responds: “This bill is my bill, it’s not ALEC’s bill.” Atkins pursues it: “Earlier you passed out a handout that says ‘Gottwalt’ at the top. … I went to the ALEC website, and there’s exactly the same font, the same size, and the same logo. I mean literally, it’s verbatim.”

The legislation in question, about health care, was not itself directly related to the documentary’s theme (though health care policy is part of the racism story), but it parallels the malign influence of ALEC on government systems and actions taken to fashion treatment of African Americans. The private prison industry – a money-making juggernaut and a major ALEC funder – worked hand-in-glove with “law and order” politicians to turn the “war on drugs” into mass incarceration, a pandemic in its own right.

The reckoning is here. It is blindingly clear that what I and many others thought was the reckoning in the 1960s – Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act – was thwarted by the backlash that started with Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and was furthered by Reagan’s “morning in America.” Trump has tried to drown the reckoning in tweets, fantasizing that the mourning in America isn’t real.

I relished Gottwalt’s comeuppance. But then I got the point of “13th”: I, who didn’t speak up in the 1940s and 50s, and who was benefited and privileged – and still am – by those cultural norms and systems, have my own reckoning and my own work to do.