Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale

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The Soft Bigotry of Progressive Intentions

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” ―Frederick Douglass

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“I wish being a good person was as easy as wanting to help the children.”

 

In the heated summer of the 2000 presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush went to the NAACP Convention in Baltimore and championed education reform, economic opportunity, and racial equality. In reflecting on demographic achievement gaps, the future president famously declared, to applause, “I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

This was a callback to a September 1999 speech Bush gave to the Latin Business Association in which he addressed academic underachievement among black and Latino students: “Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

It is a tragic irony of Shakespearean cruelty that, in 2016, the NAACP opposes education reforms that are already helping black children and families. In its hostility to charter school and school choice, the NAACP (along with Black Lives Matter) is fighting against black communities and undermining black progress. Given the chthonic horrors of public education (if the intergenerational afflictions of that socioeconomic Tartarus can be so called) in too many lower-income neighborhoods, it surprises nobody paying attention that black voters in several states overwhelmingly support school choice, including charter schools.

Unfortunately, the NAACP has opted to subordinate the needs of the black community to the political interests of another core donor constituency of progressive politics—teachers unions—even though the facts indicate that those progressive donors would rather leave black kids incarcerated in poverty and ignorance than let them be free of union control. In this way, the NAACP has—much like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who forsook her once strident support for school choice to kneel before the teachers unions—melded smoothly into a social justice establishment that exalts the interests of its donor class over those of the people it purports to serve and represent.

Jason Riley sums up the breadth of the maddening reality quite well over in the Wall Street Journal:

Numerous studies employing gold-standard random-assignment methodologies have shown that underprivileged black children with access to charter schools are much better off than their peers in traditional public schools. They not only learn more but are also more likely to finish high school, attend college and avoid drug abuse and teen pregnancy. Inner-city black students with access to the best charter schools regularly outperformed their white peers from the richest suburbs on standardized tests.

Charter-school students with disabilities outperform traditional public-school students without disabilities. The Black Lives Matter activists who fret about racial disparities in incarceration rates and support the NAACP’s anti-school-choice posturing might consider the fact that our jails and prisons are not full of high-school and college graduates.

Blacks are 16% of the public-school population in the U.S. but 27% of charter students. The NAACP is faulting charter-school proponents for targeting the very communities where the demand for school choice is most acute. According to the civil-rights activists, whether black students are learning anything matters less than whether they are sitting next to white students. Never mind the empirical data showing that black children need good teachers and safe learning environments far more than they need white classmates.

This theme of exalting demographics over results hearkens back to an education reform struggle, half a decade ago, in Wake County, North Carolina. In that case, a well-intentioned integration policy aimed at closing racial gaps in academic achievement had the actual effect of masking the ongoing problem while geographically separating underperforming kids from the support structures of their families and communities. When Republicans gained control of school policy in 2010, they understandably moved to allow parents to keep their kids in their own communities while improving those local schools.

This effort had the side-effect of ostensibly “resegregating” some schools—because different areas had higher concentrations of white and nonwhite families—and the allusions to Jim Crow and Brown v. Board came like clockwork. This slander could only work insofar as the self-proclaimed champions of “equality” and “racial justice” ignored or prestidigitated away the most essential fact: the progressive policy ended because it failed to do anything but hide its own failures. In truth, the Wake County reformers gave the lie to progressive assumptions about the realities of the substantive progress due to underprivileged Americans. So of course the warriors of social justice—and those who profit from its failings—cried, “Bigots!” and let slip the whistles of slander.

As I wrote at the time:

Accepting that diversity is valuable and progress is not painless, the benefits of the program were dubious at best—schools were increasingly overcrowded, most black and Latino students were not proficient in reading or math, and only 54% of poor kids were graduating. As a biracial mother of two Wake County students put it, “right now, it’s as if the best we can do is dilute these kids out so they don’t cause problems. It sickens me.”

Even the Republicans-abolish-integration article inadvertently makes a case for what Paul Fitts, a Republican candidate for Wake County Commissioner, would describe as achievement-oriented schools grounded in communal involvement. Namely, qualified poor and/or minority students were underenrolled in advanced math classes under the previous “integration” policy. The kicker: school officials say they’ve known about this problem for years, but many parents were left in the dark. In other words, sending kids to faraway schools stifles parental involvement and allows ongoing systemic problems to fester under the negligent eyes of self-interested bureaucrats.

This is the mettle of structural oppression: A constellation of social justice do-gooders fretting over race relations and “the children” while consigning underprivileged (mostly black and Latino) children and their families to mediocrity and malign neglect. This is how intergenerational poverty and underachievement are reinforced through the doublespeak of talking a good game about equality.

The war on black children extends all the way to the White House. The Obama administration fought tooth and nail to undercut school choice, from Louisiana to Washington, D.C. The government ignored the objections of black parents, who overwhelmingly benefit from and attest to the profound benefits of having options already available to the wealthy.

In the exceptionally odious Louisiana episode, Eric Holder’s Justice Department argued explicitly in a court of law that empowering black students to escape dangerous, failing schools—and the dependent cycle of poverty and ruin—would “impede the desegregation progress” from the Civil Rights Movement. This is how the administration chose to misrepresent the fact that the state’s vouchers, available only to low-income kids assigned to low-performing schools, overwhelmingly go to poor blacks who manage to beat the growing wait-list for limited spots.

It takes a special kind of legalistic depravity to invoke the hard-fought, blood-soaked triumphs of civil lights leaders to secure the best educations for black children as a vehicle to drive today’s black children back into a stultifying ocean of despair. (It’s worth noting that Bobby Jindal, the then-Governor of Louisiana who vigorously championed the academic emancipation of black youth against a hostile federal government, was the first nonwhite person ever elected to that office. Likewise, the Mayor of Washington is black, as is a large chunk of the city council.) This depravity is no less damning for carrying the imprimatur of America’s first black attorney general in service of the first black President of the United States.

By contrast, Gov. Jindal won reelection amid his campaign for education reform with a historic two-thirds of the vote, sweeping every parish in the Pelican State. It’s not clear if any data exist on the demographic breakdown of the 2011 electorate, but Jindal won a majority of the vote in several majority-black parishes, including MadisonSt. JamesSt. John the Baptist, and Tensas, even as 80 percent of black voters are registered Democrats.

Down the Gulf, Florida Gov. Rick Scott championed school choice, merit pay, and other academic reforms, and he campaigned heavily on them in his reelection bid to win over black voters. Subsequently, he managed to grow his support from among the black vote to 12 percent. That may seem paltry, but it amounts to double his showing among black voters compared to 2010, while black turnout increased by three points. That’s a difference of 61,000 black votes in an election Scott only won by 66,000 votes.

But that actually undersells it. Had Scott’s 2014 black vote total languished at the six-percent share he won in 2010, with the Democrat’s share holding anywhere near 2010’s 92 percent, the final tally would have been 95,000 votes more Democratic. That means Rick Scott’s margin of victory was entirely contained within his improved share of the black vote. I repeat: the Republican Governor of Florida is only in office today because a growing black electorate decided to grant him reelection after he gave them good reason to do so.

Since then, Scott’s continued fight for education opportunity for the underprivileged has kept him at odds with the state teachers union and NAACP chapter. But the governor retains a solid core of support within the black community. In January, Martin Luther King III came to Tallahassee after the holiday for his father to stand with black families and Gov. Scott against the regressive machinations of the progressive establishment.

This dynamic of Republicans pushing for education reform and winning support from black voters but hostility from progressive activists is by no means restricted to the South. In the Northeast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie expanded school choice his very first year in office. Democrats who buck the progressive establishment on education even credited him with “launching the school-reform movement throughout the Northeast,” as he fought for vouchers in an election year. Thereafter, Christie won reelection with double his previous share of the black vote (from 10 to 2o percent) and nearly half of Latino voters.

These stories abound, and they provide a robust array of evidence that black voters value expansive education reform more than progressive donors can pay to stifle it. But that is a precarious equilibrium that can fail at any time. Fortunately, in Florida as in Louisiana and Washington, school choice for underprivileged children is winning, for now, and progressive opposition to progress seems to be collapsing.

That’s not to say all charter or private school options are fantastic or even better than all traditional public schools. Some programs are struggling and bad schools have been or will be shuttered, as the system rightly demands. Other reforms are propelling kids to the once-inconceivable heights of college and upward mobility. Ultimately, a system that gives families workable options encourages the kind of policies that can provide life-changing benefits to disadvantaged kids. But in any case, school choice options ought to be measured by the results, not by how staunchly the progressive donor class finds them contrary to its political and financial interests.

I mightily doubt President Obama, his black attorneys general, or well-meaning BLM activists mean any harm to lower-income families who just want a fair chance at success. (If you insist on the utmost charity, we can add teachers unions to that list.) But at some point, the progressive establishment must be made to understand that good intentions do not substitute for good result and cannot balance out actual harm. The pernicious effects of structural bigotry are not any less asphyxiating because those who sustain them practice the correct platitudes about social justice.

As things stand, today’s leaders must choose between the actual welfare of the downtrodden and the union-funded oppression of the  Elizabeth WarrenBernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

May they choose right and true.

Capitalism: The motivating fear that something, somewhere, could be more convenient


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The Tyranny of Social Justice

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ―C.S. Lewis

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Capitalism: The motivating fear that something, somewhere, could be more convenient

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law a broad salvo for powerful special interests against the less privileged New Yorkers he purports to champion. I’m referring, of course, to the latest instance of grotesque regulatory capture that is the Empire State’s new anti-Airbnb legislation. Put mildly, it has the insidious effect of protecting politically connected businesses—i.e., the hotel industry—from the healthy, consumer-friendly pressures of free-market competition.

To be clear, the chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City, Vijay Dandapani, admits this openly:

“This smart and innovative legislation will allow law enforcement agencies to better target, track, and penalize lawbreakers, while also protecting one of New York’s most vital economic contributors—the hotel and hospitality industry.”

Famed New York hotelier Donald Trump would be pleased.

The usual term for such manipulation of government power to serve special interests is cronyism. New York has a well-documented hostility to the kind of policies that encourage innovation by forcing companies to sink or swim on the strength of the comparative value they provide consumers, rather than the elasticity of their government connections. So, as my college friend Jay Schweikert once said of the 2016 cycle, this development is hardly surprising but freshly disappointing.

But, as C.S. Lewis notes of the worst tyrannies, Cuomo and the New York cronyists social justice warriors don’t just satisfy themselves with the mere fact of regulating away opportunities for the politically disadvantaged. As they seem always compelled to do, these elites invoked the eternal progressive shibboleth of looking out for ordinary people while actually screwing them over.

Democratic Assemblywoman and bill sponsor Linda B. Rosenthal of Manhattan described it to The New York Times as follows:

“New York is taking a bold step that will hopefully set a standard for the rest of the country and other countries in the world that are struggling with the impact of Airbnb on affordable housing.”

 The same article included this telling contextualization of a statement from Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi:

Regulators and affordable housing advocates around the world worry that Airbnb is making it easier to illegally rent out apartment units for short stints to travelers, taking units off the market for full-time residents and driving housing costs higher. Mr. Azzopardi said that illegal rentals “compromise efforts to maintain and promote affordable housing by allowing those units to be used as unregulated hotels.”

If you simply took the Times reporting and New York officials’ statements at face value, you might be inclined to think state leaders had scored a victory of some merit against rapacious corporate powers. But this willful legerdemain disguises two severely inconvenient but highly relevant truths. First, the new law imposes steep fines, not on Airbnb, but instead on ordinary people, like you and me, who advertise openings through the service. (A federal lawsuit argues this is illegal and unconstitutional.) So if you want to fill some empty beds in your place to help pay your rent, you could get slapped with a $7,500 bill from a government that ostentatiously pretends to fret that your cost of living is too expensive. Second and relatedly, Airbnb, unlike the hotel industry, provides flexible income and economic opportunity to people who can’t afford lobbyists:

The politicians are responding to hoteliers and unions that claim that mini-Donald Trumps are buying up properties and renting them as “illegal hotels.” This doesn’t check out: More than 95% of New York Airbnb hosts sharing their entire home post only one property, and the company last year yanked roughly 3,000 illegal listings out of some 44,000 in New York. The hotel industry also riled up some affordable housing groups to say that Airbnb is driving up the cost of rent. One irony is that more than three-quarters of hosts say that sharing their space helps them pay rent.

The real complaint is that Airbnb is unwelcome competition, and here’s how you know: The company already offered Empire State regulators everything they claimed to want. Airbnb said it would ban New York hosts from renting more than one property; require online registration for hosts; ban users who break policies three times; and collect state taxes so that hosts couldn’t cheat. That’s right: Airbnb wanted to help New York dig up more revenue.[…]

This is a classic restraint of trade, and all the more odious that it will hurt the people Democrats claim to champion. Airbnb points out that hosts in zip codes with the highest percentage of black New Yorkers earned $43 million from rentals in 2015, and that more than 21,000 millennials host an Airbnb property.

The astute observer will note that progressives imposed exorbitant housing and hotel prices on Airbnb users, many of them lower-income minorities, from New York to San Francisco, long before modern technology made Airbnb possible. The progenitors and supporters of these regulatory labyrinths almost certainly had the best intentions in maintaining policies that keep rents high and undercutting innovation, like Airbnb, that helps people pay those rents. But as famed paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant reminds us, some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.

A similar dynamic played out with the curious story of ridesharing services in the notoriously progressive metropolis of Austin, Texas earlier this year. The taxi industry in the Lone Star capital pushed through a package of onerous regulations, including fingerprinting requirements for drivers (who are already subject to background checks), in the guise of promoting “consumer safety,” a “level playing field,” and other anodyne lies. In reality, the rules undercut Uber and Lyft’s ability to operate efficiently and compete with taxi companies in the city. Incidentally, the new security requirements were about as conducive to safety as the TSA, with comparable downsides for minorities. Brishen Rogers sums up the point well in a white paper for the UChicago Law Review:

[Background] checks are no panacea. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has emphasized, background checks have limited predictive value and can have a disparate impact on minority drivers. More generally, however, there is no indication that criminal law will not deter assaults just as well in Uber cars as it does in taxis. In fact, criminal law may work far better, since any passenger who suffers an assault by an Uber driver will actually be able to identify their driver. Not so in a street-hailed cab.

Rogers goes on to note, among other things, that ridesharing companies’ transparent ability to track data on driver and passenger interactions afford Uber and its peers the ability to combat the rampant racial discrimination for which taxis are notorious. But notwithstanding all that, the taxi industry succeeded in chasing Uber and Lyft from Austin, and 10,000 drivers  who benefited from flexible schedules and supplemental income, as even famed Obama loyalists acknowledge, were effectively pink-slipped.

For those keeping score: progressives who claim to value consumer safety, non-racism, accountability, economic security, and equal opportunity directly favored an allegedly racist industry with weaker mechanisms for accountability by reducing economic security for thousands of people through diminished opportunity without making anybody safer. The taxi industry’s expulsion of ridesharing from the second-largest state capital in the country is primarily a blow against the members of and aspirants to the city’s middle class who benefited from a boon in transportation choices.

That cronyism for progressive donors (in this case, Big Taxi) made for effective manipulation of progressive voters’ obsession with good, social justice intentions (to drive out competition for those donors) to achieve harmful results (see above) is how the game works.

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“I shop at Whole Foods, and I’m here to help!”

The treacherous campaigns against the sharing economy are reminiscent of Obamacare springing from its Trojan fact checks and administrative lies to torch Medicare recipients and the besieged middle class with catastrophic deductibles and coercive spikes in costs. Obamacare, the exclusive product of “economic justice” warriors and the progressive donor class, saved its worst for the little guys who can’t afford progressive elite’s sanguine abstractions about a poor product and growing suffering. But, as with everything else, we are to believe this cratering fiasco is good for the people it mobs. Apropos, Matthew Yglesias at Vox (because, of course) argues the solution to Obamacare’s rising premiums is stiffer penalties on cash-strapped folks who lost their former plans and can’t afford the mandated new ones.

As technology improves and ambitious entrepreneurs develop more disruptively valuable products and services, the friction between legacy industries and innovative market paradigms will only increase. Desperate but well-connected benefactors of obsolescing fiefdoms will ever more rapaciously seek to restrain the economic progress that would subdue them. They will always claim to champion the interests of the very constituents they ravage for their misbegotten sustenance, as taxis and hotels cannibalizing the income of their once-emancipated subjects. But either progress will devour the dependents of cronyism, or the restraints will nibble away at the powers that impose them.

Someday, perhaps, New York, Austin, Washington, and other locales will have leaders who understand this—and make the right call.

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Like Honey for Flies: A Lesson from Derek Black

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal… When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” ―1 Corinthians 13: 1, 11-13

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There was something intimately familiar to me in the story, as conveyed by reporter Eli Saslow in The Washington Post, of reconstructed white nationalist Derek Black. To start with the low-hanging fruit: we share a name, were both born in the same year to Southern parents, have familial ties to the same region of the same state, and we’ve both spent a significant chunk of our childhoods there. As luck would have it, I even briefly considered applying to the New College of Florida, and had I done so, I might have actually met him or his friends. We have also, though at very different times in our lives and for very different reasons, admired and opposed Barack Obama.

You might be wondering why I’m going through the exercise of comparing bits of my backstory to that of a young former star of white nationalism—the cancerous parasitism in the Republican polity that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, I can’t relate to the vicious racism of Black’s past and find the white nationalist community he renounced to be nigh unspeakably repugnant. But in that other Floridian expat’s story of redemption, I do find something that hits close to him—and it might well be the root of the answers to the late affliction that is this election cycle.

When the students of New College discovered Black’s identity as a David Duke acolyte, many understandably wanted nothing to do with him. But where others saw the toxic instantiation of a wicked concept to shun, some inspired souls saw an opportunity to win a convert from racism to reconciliation.

“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.

“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”

“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”[…]

Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.[…]

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking.

Thus began an unlikely friendship between a young white nationalist and a young Orthodox Jew and his multi-ethnic, interfaith Gentile friends over a weekly Jewish dinner. In the course of ongoing conversations that spanned months of dinners, emails, and meetups at local bars, Black’s white nationalism gradually softened and then succumbed completely to the patience, empathy, and charity of this diverse set of friends. Less than two years after Stevenson launched his defeat-racism-over-Shabbat campaign, Black wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group he once considered an “enemy,” to renounce and apologize for the entire worldview he was born and bred into and had championed publicly for half his life.

Score one for the angels.

As a black man (and black conservative), I’ve encountered my share of racists and racism. As a gay man (and gay conservative), my share of homophobia and anti-LGBT bigotry. As a middle-class kid in the Ivy League, my share of classism. As a Southerner in the Northeast, my share of toxic parochialism. Sometimes, I handled these situations rather poorly (as in the umpteenth time a white progressive resorted to violent hysterics over a substantive disagreement about racism), not that most would begrudge me that intemperance. Often, though, I try for something like the Matthew Stevenson approach.

One December, some years back, I was home from Yale for winter break and went to a backyard house party on a mild Virginia night. A good chunk of the crowd were rednecks or had a similar middle-American vibe, as was normal in my youth but had become remarkable, in an anthropological way, after years of Ivy League immersion. The handful of attendees who were friends from my high school knew (and didn’t care) that I was gay, but my code-switching “mannerisms” are such that for the majority of partygoers the thought that I was queerer than a $3 bill seemed never to occur to them.

As often happens (to me) in such situations, more than a few spoke easily and naturally to and around me in a way most probably would not in “mixed company.” In the beginning, this meant an endless flow of casual homophobia.

“They were hanging with some queer.”

“He drinks like a fag.”

“That’s so gay, nigga.”

“If some faggot were to touch me, I’d…”

It took me aback. Not because it was unfamiliar—I had grown up with such people and such language—but because I had somehow, without realizing, forgotten how pervasive this kind of thinking was and how much I must have once been naturally part of it.

As I don’t have the luxury of coming from a world where there’s much to be gained by overt indignation over bigotry, I rarely start direct confrontations over these incidents. Such an approach, in my experience, has the tendency to produce more heat than light, to the detriment of progress or a good time. And life is too short to be an empty, eristic symbol of perpetual grievance.

So instead of conveying offense at the partygoers’ offensiveness, I bracketed it and guided the conversations elsewhere. I got to know these ostensible bigots and let them get to know me. It is one of the great blessings of a military upbringing that one learns well how to make friends often and quickly. It wasn’t long before the fact of my sexuality meandered through these easygoing chats, but by then my new friends took it in stride. Most were surprised, some guys were curious, several girls were excited, but nobody was any longer hostile. What had been threateningly queer and ignominious had become thoroughly friendly and unremarkable.

I have lived through more of this genre of scenes than I could ever hope to recall. Some involved homophobia, others racism or parochialism. Some take weeks, if not years, to reach harvestable fruition. In the most uplifting of them, things even come full circle and some erstwhile purveyor of casual ugliness will call out a friend for the kind of misbehavior that would make somebody like me feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Not every story has such a happy ending through all the pain, but a lot of them do, and the world is thus made a little better. And some of these people are still dear friends of mine.

I don’t think I’ve ever had substantive dealings with anybody quite as dramatically and publicly odious as Derek Black, but I would like to think that if I were friends with Matthew Stevenson in Sarasota between 2011 and 2013, I would have gone to those Shabbat dinners and contributed to the transformative power of empathy and charity. Whether a Christian, a Jew, or a secular humanist, this would seem a humanitarian duty to a brother in desperate need of healing. I’m glad Black was so helped, and I hope his friends were likewise ennobled by the painstaking project of redeeming him.

It’s something of a truism to say that much of bigotry is ignorance, but it tends to be true. The people backing anti-LGBT legislation, rambling about “white genocide,” fretting about black criminality, reading hatred into anything conservative, or trafficking in all manner of caricatures and stereotypes often would think differently, if only a little at first, if they had sufficient opportunity to do so. Many wouldn’t necessarily seek out such opportunities (or see the need to) but would—as my, Stevenson’s, and Black’s experiences show—be receptive to new ideas if they came with empathy and the charity it yields.

If we would want somebody to rescue us when we needed saving, it is a cruel hypocrisy to dismiss or condemn the curiosity and frustration of a lost soul who is willing to hear us out. This reality will apply even to Trump supporters, from the sociopolitical abyss of the white working class to the well-meaning despair of Republicans who yearned for better, when this election is over. If the American project is to survive this election, the antagonists of Clinton, Trump, and the protest-voters will have to find at least half the charity for their political opponents that Stevenson’s Shabbat group managed for an avowed white nationalist.

It all gets easier, of course, when we remember that the people around us, no matter how broken or misaligned, are still people we can recognize and relate to. I’ve written about my own sympathy for the rightly routed skeptics of LGBT equality, and, ironically, Derek Black’s early post-apostasy encounter with his father highlighted something that every LGBT person or straight ally ought to recognize on some visceral level:

Derek still had his dry sense of humor. He still made smart observations about politics and history. “Same old Derek,” Don concluded, after a few hours, and that fact surprised him. His grief had been so profound that he’d expected some physical manifestation of the loss. Instead, he found himself forgetting for several minutes at a time that Derek was now “living on the other side.”

The people we think we don’t understand—or couldn’t understand us—because of differences in sexuality, politics, race, class, heritage, “lifestyle choices,” or other distinctions, are almost always people we could know quite well if we remembered that we’ve known and loved them or people like them all along. That kind of authentic realization and sincere engagement with the humanity of difficult, troubled people is in many ways antithetical to the toxic cultural trends behind “safe spaces” or navel-gazing protests that trigger hostility and reinforce outrage rather than build foundations for constructive reckoning with the variety of flaws in how we all approach the world.

Matthew Stevenson showed his peers that Derek Black isn’t a strange, foreign animal; he’s the quiet kid in class, or the guy who smiles when you pass him in the hallway. He’s the boy next door, and just like our other neighbors, he can be influenced, for good and ill, by how people choose to engage or repel him. If the dutiful love of his friends can so thoroughly disabuse him of the foundational views he was reared to champion, imagine what all could be possible if more of us were willing to meet people where and as they are, as though we actually gave a damn.

About a decade or so ago, when I was a junior in high school, my IB English teacher assigned the class the English translation of Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chococlate. That magical realist tale of star-crossed lovers and tragic misunderstandings held a few gems, among them a metaphor the protagonist heard from her grandmother:

“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us, but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.”

There are, perhaps, amazing truths we could get others to see—or clarifying enlightenment we could learn from those around us—if we believed, in some genuine sense, that we are our brothers’ keepers, and our neighbors are more like us—and more valuable to us—than we sometimes care to admit.