Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Should this book be banned?

 My Twitter account got a workout last weekend after I retweeted the meme below. The meme cuts to the core of the debate about fighting Critical Race Theory, although not to CRT itself. (Please give the original poster of the meme some love since my retweet went a bit farther than her original post.)

For those who don’t know, the little girl in the picture is Ruby Bridges. She is not being arrested in the picture as you might expect from stories about school resource officers these days. Rather she is being escorted to and from school by US Marshals.

You see, back in 1960, Ruby was one of six children to be admitted to the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby and five other black students had to be protected from an angry white mob that strongly opposed integration of the school.

What does this have to do with CRT, you might ask? Well, a picture book about Ruby Bridges is one of several books that have been targeted with bans by angry parents around the country. The book in question, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” is an autobiographical account of Ruby’s experience at William Frantz Elementary.

I’ve never read “Ruby Bridges Goes to School.” Maybe the book does contain dark elements of CRT that are being used to brainwash America’s second graders. You never know.

So as a responsible blogger, I did my research. You can buy the book for only a few dollars at retailers such as Amazon and ChristianBook.com, but you can actually have a little girl read it to you for free on the Chicago Children’s Museum’s YouTube channel. Check it out for yourself. It only takes five minutes and it’s almost unbearably cute.

As you can see, the book is simple and straightforward. It matter-of-factly tells Ruby’s story. It does not delve into the politics of oppression and race. It simply says, “Some people thought black people and white people should not be friends.” That is a simple, direct, truthful statement that cuts to the core of America’s racial divide. It is not CRT, however. It’s a dark, sad part of American history.

And that’s where we are running into problems with the war on CRT. As I’ve pointed out in the past, it’s difficult if not impossible to point to a K-12 public school anywhere in the US where CRT is being taught, yet parents are getting riled up by the premise that their children are being instilled with racist and anti-American ideas by Miss Frizzle and the other teachers down at the local elementary school. If it isn’t in the curriculum, some say, it’s in their attitudes and beliefs and it filters through.

The problem here is that the anti-CRT laws like the one Texas passed earlier this year are focused on curriculums and classroom behavior, not on attitudes and beliefs. To a man with a hammer, however, everything looks like a nail, and to parents and politicians with a law banning anti-CRT curriculum, suddenly everything starts to look like CRT.

As Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston–Downtown, told NBC News, "Any anti-racist effort is being labeled as critical race theory.”

In addition to the story of Ruby Bridges, other books by black authors have also run afoul of the CRT witch hunt. “New Kid” by Jerry Craft was pulled from schools in the Katy Independent School District near Houston after parents complained about harmful content about CRT. The Houston Chronicle reports that the district returned the book to the shelves after a review found nothing inappropriate in the book, which seems to be similar to the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.

Admittedly, not all books are appropriate for school libraries. One such book that needs closer scrutiny is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” The book deals with slavery, but much of the criticism of “Beloved” is not racial, but rather deals with the book’s depictions of sex. Even proponents, such as Farrah Jasmine Griffin writing in the Washington Post, concede that sex in the book is “some of it consensual, much of it brutal and abusive.”

If such content is appropriate for students at all, it should be limited to the upper grades, but then again, is it any worse than what they see sitting in front of the television at home? “Beloved” may have more redeeming qualities than most television shows or internet videos.

While I have sympathy for protecting kids from sexually explicit material if not unpleasant truths about racism in our history, I seriously wonder how many parents pay as much attention to what their kids watch on tv or their phones as they do to what books are in the school library. These days, it is far more likely that kids are being corrupted by materials on the internet than from the school library.

But it is the library books that are drawing fire. Two Republican school board members in Virginia even went so far as to say, “We should throw those books in a fire.”

While the story in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star indicates that the books that the board members wanted to burn were sexually explicit rather than race-based, let me just say here that book burning is a bad look in 2021. That is especially true for a party that many have come to see as authoritarian. Thankfully, few other Republicans seem ready to stoke the bonfires with printed pages.

The Ruby Bridges book ban underscores the difficulty of crafting a law to ban CRT and applying it when most people don’t know what CRT is. Since, to use my high school civics teacher’s phrase, Joe Schmuckatelli, Average American, does not understand that CRT is a “loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color,” the assumption by many parents is that anything relating to race must be CRT.

The point where are now is one where a great many angry parents are trying to erase the history of slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement because these things are associated with race and therefore must be CRT. The irony is that there is a lot of overlap between this group and the group that opposes removing Confederate statues on the grounds that doing so would be “whitewashing” history.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that neither part of our history should be erased or whitewashed. Students need to be taught both the good and the bad of American history at an age-appropriate level. However, we should take care not to laud those who engaged in a war of secession to preserve slavery as we teach that history. Some Confederates were good people, but that does not change the fact that they served an evil cause.

We’ve come a long way since six-year-old Ruby Bridges went to first grade in an all-white school. We’ve come an even longer way since slavery and abolition. That is a good thing and a great accomplishment.

But we don’t need to assume that because slavery and segregation no longer exist that race relations are not in need of further fine-tuning. It’s easy to forget that the older generations that are still alive today, people like Ruby Bridges, experienced the vile hatred and racism from other Americans who are also still alive today. Both have passed their experiences down to their children and grandchildren.

One Twitter user suggested that some of the reaction to these books is rooted in shame about how so many white people acted all those decades ago. I think that is at least partially true. What’s more, if it is true, it is appropriate, unless, as the user alleges, some are “still nostalgic for it.” That’s probably true to some extent as well.

We’ve come a long way, but we need to educate children about the past, both in order to avoid repeating those past mistakes and to help understand the concerns that many minorities still have. It’s true that no black Americans alive today experienced the horrors of slavery, but there are plenty who have seen racism and segregation first-hand. That has undoubtedly left deep scars, both on the individuals and on black culture.

It takes time to heal 200 years of oppression. That is not CRT, it’s just reality.

From the Racket

Monday, November 29, 2021

The language of God

 I mentioned a while back that I was reading “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. Collins was director of the human genome project at the time but is better known these days as the director of the National Institutes of Health.

I can’t deny that one of the initial things that appealed to me about the book was Collins’s position as head of the NIH, one of the authorities that that was instrumental in fighting COVID-19 and helping to develop the COVID vaccines. A lot of people would not believe that anyone in his position could be a Bible-believing Christian, let alone write a book defending the faith.

Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

The book is not a typical Christian book as it deals at length with the relationship between religion and science from the position that the two can be harmonized. Believers will be encouraged to hear about how many scientists are Christians, but many will also be challenged by the scientific evidence that Collins presents for evolution.

Quite a few Christians don’t believe that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Collins and many others believe otherwise. Several parts of the book are devoted to his attempt to harmonize science and faith, as well as examining alternative explanations for the genomic evidence of the common DNA found in so many of God’s creatures.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about creation and a great many other things. The Bible does not give us all of the answers, but it does tell us what we need to know.

I’m going to draw some fire for saying this, but the Bible is not meant to be taken literally. At least not in toto. Parts of the Bible are literal and other parts of it are not. For example, Hebrews 4:12 says that the “word of God is alive” and “sharper than any double-edged sword.” That’s not literally true (although we can’t forget that “literally” may not literally mean “literally” these days,” as noted below). Neither is Revelation 2:16 where Jesus tells John the Revelator, that he “will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Jesus does not literally have a sword tongue.

The key is determining which passages are literal and which are figurative. Sometimes this is not easy.

As a biologist, Collins is well-versed on the evidence for evolution and I won’t go into detail, but he does present a compelling case. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is that he does not present this evidence as a case against God as a creator. Instead, he views the elegance of DNA and genes as evidence that a higher power is responsible for life.

In recent years, I’ve become aware that a lot of what we are taught as Christians is an interpretation of what the Bible says, rather than what the Bible actually says. Like the ancient Jews that we study in Sunday School, modern Christians often find that our opinions about scripture can become doctrine and dogma.

For example, I’ve been taught for much of my life that the days mentioned in Genesis 1 were literal, 24-hour days. But the Bible wasn’t written in English, for one thing, and the Hebrew word, “yom” that is used in Genesis has multiple meanings, for another. The etymology of the word paired with the scientific evidence for evolution suggests that the creation account in Genesis is not an eyewitness account of a literal week.

That’s especially true since there was no person there to witness the creation. Even Adam, the first man, wasn’t created until the sixth day and the Book of Genesis is traditionally considered to have been authored by Moses, who came much too late to witness creation. Chapter two has a parallel creation story for the creation of Adam and Eve, which is further evidence that the first chapters of Genesis may be allegorical rather than literal.

In at least one other common usage of the word, the meaning is not a 24-hour period. In multiple verses, such as Joel 2:31 and Zechariah 14:1, the word “yom” is used in the phrase, “day of the Lord.” This is not typically understood as a single 24-hour period but as a period of divine judgment.

I’ll add here that Collins addresses the theory that evolutionary evidence could have been fabricated by God to confound science. I considered this possibility myself, but Collins asks what the point to such a deception would be. Further, he rightly points out that if the God of truth planted a false trail of scientific evidence to send humanity off in the wrong direction, then he isn’t the God that the Bible says he is.

The thing is that evolution does not undermine the Bible. And that’s not just Francis Collins making that point, a host of historic Christian leaders from Billy Graham to C.S. Lewis didn’t find evolution and the Bible to be incompatible.

What can do damage to the church is making extra-biblical beliefs into litmus tests for Christianity. That’s especially true of beliefs that contradict scientific evidence that is available for all to see. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, or something else. Collins’s book includes a relevant passage from Augustine on this topic, which I took the liberty of tweeting.

The last section of the book is about bioethics. This was very thought-provoking as well. Topics ranged from abortion to stem cells to cloning and Collins’s scientific background paired with his theistic views on natural law enables him to delve deeper into these and other topics and point out some errors and inconsistencies in the arguments of both sides.

Whether you believe in evolution or not and however you stand on biomedical issues, the important thing is that these details do not affect whether we are real Christians or not. Romans 10:9 tells us that the prescription for being saved is to “declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” The rest is details.

We don’t have to get every issue right. We don’t have to know exactly how creation happened or understand the intricacies of every ethical issue. We just have to repent of our own sins (associated with making Jesus Lord of our lives) and trust in God and the Holy Spirit.

I thoroughly enjoyed and was blessed by the “Language of God” and I encourage believers in the Bible, science, or both fields to give it a read. I think you’ll be glad you did.

The good news and bad news about Omicron

 As we enter a second pandemic Christmas season, it appears that COVID-19 is the gift that keeps on giving. In case you’ve been unplugged over Thanksgiving, there is a new variant of concern that has emerged in South Africa. The new variant, dubbed Omicron after health authorities skipped the Greek letters “nu” and “xi” (to avoid confusion with the English word “new” in one case and the Chinese president in the other, as Steve Berman points out), sparked an online panic over the Black Friday weekend.

Numerous countries around the world are closing borders to travelers from Southern Africa and news organizations have seized upon the new variant as a major new story. But is it time to panic? What do we know about Omicron?

At this point, the answer is that we don’t know much.

There is both good news and bad news about Omicron. The panic relates to the fact that Omicron appears to be much more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants. So far, the new version of the virus has been found in at least 13 countries since it was first identified on November 18. No cases have been identified in the US, but it is very possible that Omicron is here without having been detected. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that, unlike the Delta variant, which was both more transmissible and more severe, Omicron seems to cause mild symptoms in most patients.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told CNBC, “What we are seeing clinically in South Africa — and remember I’m at the epicenter of this where I’m practicing — is extremely mild, for us [these are] mild cases. We haven’t admitted anyone, I’ve spoken to other colleagues of mine and they give the same picture.”

There are still a lot of unknowns at this point. One of the big ones is whether current vaccines will be effective against Omicron. The new variant (although not the “nu” variant) reportedly has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are in the spike proteins which are targeted by COVID vaccine antibodies. There is speculation that the differences may be significant enough to stymie current vaccines.

An apparently genuine statement from Botswana’s COVID-19 Task Force notes a “preliminary” report that four cases of Omicron identified in that country were among “fully vaccinated” individuals. This is a data point that Omicron can breach vaccine defenses, but beyond that, it doesn’t really tell us much. After all, rare breakthrough cases were possible already.

Only about 29 percent of Botswana is fully vaccinated and the country has approved four different vaccines. In addition to Pfizer and Moderna that we are familiar with in the US, Botswana also uses Oxford/AstraZeneca and Covishield from the Serum Institute of India. It isn’t clear whether the four cases were really fully vaccinated and if they were, which vaccine or vaccines were used. Some vaccines might be more effective than others against Omicron.

It also isn’t clear whether Omicron’s milder symptoms could be attributed to the vaccines. It is well-documented that vaccines have reduced hospitalizations and deaths from COVID, even when there are breakthrough infections. The Deccan Herald reported that South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that vaccines still appeared to be effective at preventive severe cases of the new strain.

It is possible that if the new strain is being primarily seen in vaccinated individuals so far, then the severity reported could be artificially lower than it would be without a vaccine. It stands to reason that people who are vaccinated would have better access to health care and might be overrepresented among Omicron cases.

If Omicron can evade vaccines, it could also evade antibodies produced by COVID survivors. The WHO has warned about this possibility, saying that there may be a higher risk of reinfection from Omicron.

So far, we don’t have much data on the share of infections in vaccinated versus unvaccinated patients. Even if we did, there are too few known cases of Omicron to make a good statistical analysis. However, with Botswana and South Africa’s vaccination rates both at a low 29 percent, it is extremely likely that Omicron is spreading like wildfire. We will likely have a lot more data about transmissibility and severity very soon.

Vaccine manufacturers are already working to update their products against the new variant, and Moderna announced yesterday that an updated version of its vaccine could be ready in early 2022. One benefit of the mRNA vaccine technology is that it is very adaptable and allows for quick updates to address new variants. Updated vaccines can be designed in as little as six weeks and shipped in 100 days.

You might wonder why, if Omicron presents only mild symptoms, we should be concerned with vaccinations. There are at least two reasons to still take the variant seriously. The first is that other variants of COVID-19 can do long-term health damage even if symptoms are mild. We don’t yet know about the long-term hidden implications of an Omicron infection.

Second, Omicron is a mutation that seems, fortunately, to have become less virulent. But as Omicron spreads around the world, it will mutate further. If we don’t start to take treatments and vaccines seriously now, we have an unpleasant surprise in a few months if it mutates into a more dangerous strain.

So, what does all this mean for the economy? Well, we might get a break from high oil and gas prices. On Friday, oil prices fell 10 percent as traders speculated that the new variant would reduce demand. Prices are rebounding this morning, however, but we may see a slight dip in gas prices, especially since the Energy Information Administration was already predicting a decline in December. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Omicron is unlikely to help alleviate the supply chain problems that have driven much of the inflationary pressure. A few days ago, CNBC reported that there was “significant progress” in reducing the backlog of ships off the California coast with the number of ships waiting to offload reduced to 61 from a record of 111 two weeks ago. However, if we start to see new closures of factories and ports due to Omicron, then those gains might be for nothing as new bottlenecks pop up.

In short, Omicron is here, but it is premature to panic about it. My best guess at this point is that current vaccines will provide at least some protection against Omicron, just as they did against Delta, which was also different from the Alpha variant on which the vaccines were based. Hopefully, there will be residual protection from previous vaccinations and infections that will prevent severe cases of Omicron.

And so far, if you do contract Omicron, it appears that symptoms are very mild. Again, I’m hoping that continues to be the case and that long-term health complications are also less of a factor with Omicron than with previous variants.

Omicron should not be taken lightly, but it also should not be a reason for panic. A more transmissible but less virulent strain of COVID-19 is not necessarily a bad thing. The mutation may well speed COVID-19 along its way to becoming endemic without adding to the already huge death toll. That seems to be how the 1918 flu pandemic ended, with the virus mutating to a less dangerous strain.

At least, the mutation isn’t a bad thing until the more frequent replications of the virus mutate into another strain that might be both more transmissible and more virulent. That has also occurred with the H1N1 flu virus that was responsible for the 1918 pandemic. The virus surfaced again and again causing pandemics in 1957, 1968, and 2009. But those pandemics were blunted by more advanced medical technology, including the flu vaccine.

Here’s hoping that the Coronavirus does not mutate into a more dangerous variant anytime soon and that our technology and vaccines are capable of protecting us if and when it does.

And here’s hoping that the hysteria dies down by then and that people are willing to avail themselves of the available protections. Vaccines and treatments are worthless if people are afraid to take them.

From the Racket

Friday, November 26, 2021

Thankful for racial progress in Arbery verdict

 The day before Thanksgiving, America got something to be thankful for with the jury verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case. Arbery, of course, was the black jogger who was shot and killed by three white men in coastal Georgia back in February 2020. To put that in perspective, Arbery died before COVID-19 became pandemic in the United States. It seems like another lifetime.

Now, after Wednesday, we can officially say that Arbery was murdered. The jury found all three of the men who chased down Arbery in vehicles guilty of murder. The trio has not yet been sentenced but each of the defendants faces the possibility of life in prison for the killing.

Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

Some will focus on the fact that the killers would have gotten away with literal murder if they had not insisted on releasing an incriminating video that they believed exonerated them. It is true that local police and prosecutors seem to have failed in their investigative role in the wake of Arbery’s death.

I don’t know for a fact that local law enforcement was aware of the video, but I think they must have been. The incriminating video was released by a defense attorney at the behest of Greg McMichael, one of the defendants and the father of the man who pulled the trigger. If the defense team had the video and thought that it cleared the three men, I have to assume that they had already shown it to police and prosecutors, who apparently did not consider the full context of the incident.

Yes, the beginning of the case represented both a tragic miscarriage of justice and a failure of local government, but then things changed. After the video was made public, Tom Durden, the district attorney for the region that includes Glynn County, where the murder took place, announced that he would seek an indictment of the three men. Gov. Brian Kemp sent in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate the shooting. Interestingly, the Atlanta Journal reported in May 2020 that the Glynn County police had requested that the GBI investigate the release of the video but not the shooting itself.

Even up until the verdict was handed down, there was concern that an all-white jury in Georgia would find reason to acquit the three men. This concern was not totally unfounded.

I used to drive back to forth to Athens, Georgia, first for classes at the University of Georgia [obligatory “Go Dawgs”] and then for work. Every day as I drove State Route 172 and crossed the bridge over Broad River, I would pass a historical marker that memorialized the murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn.

Lemuel Penn was a US Army officer who happened to be a black man. He was a decorated combat veteran of the Pacific campaigns of World War II, and in 1964, he was a reservist who had been training at Fort Benning (which happens to be close to where I now live). On July 11, nine days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Penn and two comrades were driving back home to Washington, DC when they passed through Athens and were spotted by three members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

I wrote about the case in my blog back in 2012 and there is an excellent book called, “Murder at Broad River Bridge,” which details how the three Klansmen chased down the soldiers and fired a shotgun into their car as they crossed Broad River. Lt. Col. Penn was killed instantly.

The Klansmen were quickly identified and arrested. They were tried by an all-white jury in Madison County, Georgia. Despite the evidence against them, they were acquitted. Even though this travesty occurred 57 years ago, the stain that it left on the reputation of the State of Georgia lingers to this day. I wish I could say that this was the only case in which racially-biased juries rubberstamped the murders of black men and women, but we all know it isn’t.

That was not the end of Lemuel Penn’s story, however. Federal prosecutors charged the Klansmen with violating Penn’s civil rights by killing him under the brand new Civil Rights Act. This was one of the first cases in which federal civil rights charges were brought against defendants acquitted by local juries. Two of the men received 10-year sentences and ended up serving about six years in prison.

Fast-forward to 2021 and the Ahmaud Arbery case. This time, the jury convicted all three defendants after deliberating about 10 hours. Even though local police and prosecutors dropped the ball early on, the State of Georgia has changed a lot in the last half-century. It is no longer acceptable to shoot a black man for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There will be inevitable comparisons between the Arbery case and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. I noted the parallels myself a few weeks ago. Both cases involved claims of self-defense by armed white men who took the law into their own hands. But the details of the cases were very different, as were the state laws in question. While Rittenhouse arguably provoked the attack that made him fear for his life, Arbery did nothing wrong. He was literally minding his own business.

Last year, I did see a lot of people defending the McMichael father-and-son duo and “Roddie” Byran, the three men who killed Arbery. There were doctored videos purporting to show that Arbery was carrying a hammer and jogging while wearing work boots. There were post hoc rationales that Arbery had it coming because he had a criminal record and had entered a house under construction just before his killers had intercepted him.

Over the past few weeks, as the trial progressed, I didn’t hear any of that. In fact, Candace Owens seems to be the only one still defending the actions of the three men. We’ve come a long way in just over a year.

For the record, Arbery was on probation at the time he was murdered, but this was not admissible in court. There is no way that the men could have known that Arbery had a criminal record as they chased him. There is no evidence that he wore boots or carried a hammer. There is also no evidence that he stole anything from the house under construction that he entered, which incidentally is not illegal in Georgia.

It is illegal to detain a stranger for questioning, however. Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, now repealed, required first-hand knowledge of a crime. The McMichaels and Bryan did not have such knowledge and were not have even been aware of Arbery’s visit to the house under construction or history with law enforcement. In any case, a prior criminal record is not a justification for killing someone. The sole reason that Arbery seems to have drawn their attention was that he was a strange black man who was running through their neighborhood.

The fallout from the case is not over yet. Jackie Johnson, the former Glynn County DA who handled the case originally, was indicted for favoritism and obstruction by a grand jury back in September. Johnson also lost a reelection bid since the killing. A second DA from Waycross, 50 miles away, who also recommended against filing charges, has not been charged.

Ahmaud Arbery’s death was a tragic mistake. I don’t believe the trio of white men set out to kill a young black jogger, just as I don’t believe that Kyle Rittenhouse set out to shoot protesters in Kenosha.

However, I do believe that latent (or possibly active) racism contributed to Arbery’s death. The suspicion of a black man for merely running through a neighborhood and the dismissal of the victim as a “f-ing n-gg-r” as he lay dying betray attitudes that were more at home in 1964 than 2021.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that racial attitudes have changed over the 50 years that I’ve walked this earth. I was born into a world that was still segregated and I’ve seen a lot of change in my five decades. As a certain cigarette ad used to say, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

However, when we white folks complain about how “they” often press for special treatment even though none of “them” suffered through slavery, we should remember that a great many minority Americans lived through events like the murder of Lemuel Penn and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers. Many vividly remember segregation and the bitter battles for desegregation. Long after desegregation, many have had their own experiences with racism and bigotry. Just ask black Republicans like Tim Scott.

When we think about how “they” have equal rights now, we need to consider how Ahmaud Arbery would have gone down in history as a burglar and an aggressor without “Roddie” Bryan’s cell phone video. We need to consider how police and prosecutors in Glynn County took the McMichaels’ account at face value. We need to consider how many Americans thought Arbery had it coming because he was a criminal.

While it’s true that many of the killings that have sparked the BLM protests were at least partly due to bad behavior on the part of the victims, I have to wonder how many other cases were like that of Ahmaud Arbery. How many other killings were justified on grounds of self-defense or stopping a crime when the victim was doing absolutely nothing wrong? How many people got away with murder because there was no video or survivor to contradict their story?

I don’t think that we really want to know the answer. I don’t think we could handle it.

I’m thankful that Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers are getting justice. I’m thankful for Brian Kemp and other state officials who looked at the actions of the three men and local government in Glynn County and said, “This is wrong.”

A fair trial and just verdict are big steps forward from 57 years ago, but they are cold comfort to his friends and family. Getting justice is a good thing, but not killing people inappropriately would be even better. On that score, we sadly have a way to go.

From the Racket

Sunday, November 21, 2021

How Texas could go blue

 It seems like a perennial prediction. Almost every election cycle, Democrats get their hopes up that maybe this time their candidate can pull off an upset in the Lone Star State. So far, for more than two decades, they’ve been disappointed.

I’m a Georgian, both by birth and current residence, but I did spend a lot of time in Texas. After having lived in both, I can see a lot of similarities and links between the two states.

The relationship between Georgia and Texas goes way back. A great many of the Texas settlers were from Georgia and at least five of the Alamo defenders were from Georgia. Col. James Fannin, commander of the Texican garrison that was massacred at Goliad, was a Georgia native and a graduate of the University of Georgia [Go Dawgs!]. Another Georgian, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, succeeded Sam Houston as the second president of the Republic of Texas. Texas returned the favor in the Civil War when the Texas general, John Bell Hood, played a major role in the defense of Georgia from General Sherman’s Union army.

Photo by Enrique Macias on Unsplash

Today, the two states share many similarities as well. Both saw their political landscape shift from Democratic to Republican during the 1990s and both are seeing a large influx of new residents owing to their friendly business climates and growing urban areas, not to mention actual climates that feature very mild winters. We won’t talk about the summers in both states.

For a long time, both states were tantalizingly close, yet just out of the grasp of Democrats. Then came 2020 and the infamous Georgia runoff in which Democrats ran the table and pulled off two upset Senate victories. Prior to this year, Georgia had not had a Democratic senator since Zell Miller left office in 2005. We have to look back two years earlier, before the retirement of Max Cleland in 2003, to see the last time that Democrats held both of Georgia’s Senate seats.

As a kid in Georgia, I can remember when Democrats dominated the state government. At one time, Republicans couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in most of the state. In recent years, the opposite has been true.

Texas looks very similar. The last time Texans voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was Jimmy Carter in 1976, but we only have to look back four governors, to Anne Richards in 1995, to see the last Democrat in the governor’s mansion. Bob Krueger, the last Democratic senator from Texas, lost his reelection bid in 1993. Both states have seemed very red in recent years, but both have also gone blue within not-too-distant memory.

To see how Democrats might prevail in Texas, it is helpful to look at the Georgia upsets. In the Senate runoffs, there was no single reason that Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost. Instead, there were several factors that created a perfect storm for the incumbents.

One of the most obvious factors was that Republican turnout dipped. The Atlanta Journal reported that 725,000 Republicans who voted in the general election did not show up for the runoff. There are several possible reasons for this including the fact that Donald Trump was not on the ballot and that many Trump partisans were saying that voting was pointless in the runoff because Democrats would just steal the election anyway. It may also be true that a lot of these people didn’t vote because they were on their way to Washington to take part in the Stop the Steal rally and insurrection the next day.

An analysis by FiveThirtyEight points out that Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock outpaced Joe Biden with black voters. In the high turnout election, lack of motivation for Republican voters and high engagement among Democrats, minorities, and moderates who opposed Republican attempts to throw out the Electoral College results led to a net gain of about 2.5 percent of the vote for the Democratic Senate candidates over their general election performances.

The high Democratic turnout can be traced in large part to Stacey Abrams. Abrams lost the gubernatorial race in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp. Following that loss, she started a voter registration organization called Fair Fight. Abrams’s group registered more than 800,000 new voters in the Peach State before the general election and another 76,000 before the runoff.

In Georgia, as with most states, Democratic strongholds are in the cities. If you look at a map of the runoff results, there is a lot of red, and the urban areas of Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah are easily identifiable blue islands.

The key to understanding the election results is that that there are a lot more voters in those small blue areas than in the vast expanses of red. Out of a state population of 10.6 million, the Atlanta metro counties alone account for 5.9 million people, more than half the population of the state. The votes of the blue cities offset a lot of rural counties.

There is a similar situation in Texas. The Lone Star State has a number of growing urban areas with vast expanses of sparsely populated prairies in between. Looking at the election map from 2020, there are splotches of blue around Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and along the Mexican border (which defies a lot of claims about border violence fueling Republican votes), but the state’s rural counties are a sea of red.

The question is what it would take for the balance to shift between the urban areas and the rural counties. I have a few ideas on that.

First, it would take further expansion of the cities. That is already happening. Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Frisco, a Dallas suburb, are among the fastest-growing cities in the country. Not all of the new residents will be Democrats, but a lot of them will be. And as the state government slides further to the fringe right, the temptation will be stronger for new residents to vote blue.

Second, it will take a decline in Republican turnout. This could either be caused by Republican voters staying at home or shifting toward the Democrats. There are any number of factors that could cause such a shift. For example, Republicans could lose faith in the system as they did in Georgia or a bad Republican candidate could lead to a situation where Democrats are more motivated than Republicans.

If this sounds like a long shot, it isn’t. The Texas Republican vote has already been suppressed over the past three election cycles. Politico notes that Mitt Romney won the state by 16 points in 2012, but Donald Trump only won by nine points in 2016. By 2020, Trump’s margin of victory was down to less than six points. It remains to be seen whether the decline was associated with Trump, himself a weak candidate, or other factors.

Ted Cruz had an even closer call in his 2018 reelection campaign. A strong challenge by Beto O’Rourke to the unpopular incumbent gave Cruz a win by only about 2.5 points, showing the importance of candidates who can excite the party faithful and get them to the polls while not scaring off independents and moderates.

Greg Abbott won his election that year by double digits, but the Texas governor is now underwater in polling. Many Texans are unhappy with how Abbott handled the last winter’s severe winter storm and its associated power outages as well pandemic policies that have played to the anti-vax and anti-mask Republican base. There are also other controversial laws passed by the Abbott Administration such as the radical abortion bill that empowered anyone to sue abortion clinics and an anti-CRT bill that may have accidentally required that teachers give equal time to racists.

It’s possible that disillusionment and dissatisfaction with Abbott, the likely Republican candidate for governor next year, will push some fence-sitters towards the Democrat or make Republicans decide to stay home in an off-year election. While national tribal political identities count for a lot these days, elections can still hinge on local issues and bad candidates. See Virginia for more details.

Texas Democrats also need their own version of Stacey Abrams. There are likely a lot of untapped voters that Democrats could register to aid in their quest for an upset. Abrams has established a model for getting these voters to the polls that Texas Democrats would do well to follow.

Finally, Texas Democrats need a good candidate. They need a candidate that takes the local landscape into consideration. They need a candidate that won’t necessarily set progressive hearts aflame on Twitter, but who will inspire voters to pull the lever in Texas. That means a relative moderate who won’t inspire fears of gun confiscations and who is difficult to tar with the socialist label. We’ve seen the disconnect between the Twitterverse and real voters in many past elections. Real voters win every time.

Texas has disappointed Democrats in the past, but the size of the prize keeps them coming back. If Texas turns purple or blue, it would be a strategic coup that would make it almost impossible for Republicans to win nationally. Until that happens, however, the Lone Star State will represent, as Texan H. Ross Perot put it, “a giant sucking sound” towards which a lot of Democratic resources disappear.

I’m not going to make any predictions, but I will say that political leanings are not an immutable characteristic for either an individual or a state. Both Texas and Georgia shifted from reliably Democrat to reliably Republican in the not-too-distant past. They could shift back as political winds change.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish that shift is for state leaders to forget that they represent all of the voters of the state and not just the party base. Taking moderates for granted and going too far to the right could provoke a backlash that shifts the electorate toward a centrist Democrat. That’s especially true if veering to the right affects the wallets and wellbeing of Texas voters.

Texas Republicans should remember that pride goeth before the fall. Georgia Republicans learned that lesson last January. (Or did they?)


As I was about to publish this article, the news came across the interwebs that a Kenosha jury has acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges. To be clear, that includes the reckless endangerment charges as well as the murder charges.

This was not unexpected and even though I would have probably worked toward a different verdict, I wasn’t on the jury and their decision is final. The verdict may have turned on the technical wording of Wisconsin law, which was a bit odd, but in the end, our judicial system is set up to favor defendants.

I don’t think this is going to help the country as a whole. I’m concerned that the decision will inspire more activists on both sides to arm themselves and lead to more bloody confrontations. We don’t need that.

Rightly or wrongly, the decision is also likely to undermine the justice system in the eyes of many Americans. It will be hard for many to understand the legal technicalities that enabled a white teenager can walk away a free man after killing three people on video while a great many other Americans, and not just minorities, are killed by police for far less.

There are valid reasons for the verdict, but in our soundbite society, the devil is often in the details.