Civil Rights

Truth v. Myth: Trump executive order on diversity training “merits” criticism

Posted on November 12, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. You can find the official White House version of this executive order here. Here we

The Order picks up from where it left off–claiming that acknowledging the existence of racism is racist (see part 2)–by describing this acknowledgement as coercion:

Executive departments and agencies (agencies), our Uniformed Services, Federal contractors, and Federal grant recipients should, of course, continue to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in race, sex, and other federally protected characteristics. Training employees to create an inclusive workplace is appropriate and beneficial. The Federal Government is, and must always be, committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals before the law.

But training like that discussed above perpetuates racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint. Such ideas may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars. Research also suggests that blame-focused diversity training reinforces biases and decreases opportunities for minorities.

–We can train people to create an inclusive workplace basic on fair and equal treatment of all individual before the law, but we cannot define any group as failing to be inclusive, fair and equal. We must leave that blank. It is racist to openly acknowledge that in the United States, the racism that is sanctioned by generations of institutional discrimination, including laws and mores that approve white racism against black people, Asian people, Latinx people, Native American people, or any other race group.

This would be akin to offering training to prevent homophobic discrimination that refused to say that heterosexual people are the ones allowed, even encouraged, to practice this discrimination, and therefore the source of the problem. We should, apparently, leave the door open to the idea that gay people discriminating against gay people is the longstanding problem.

And isn’t diversity training all about ensuring conformity of action, if not viewpoint? You may not reach everyone who is prejudiced, but you have to ensure that they walk out of the room knowing that prejudice will be punished. And you do hope that you will change minds. Isn’t the goal of the U.S. Constitution to use subtle and not-so-subtle coercive pressure to get millions of people to commit to being one nation, indivisible? Coercive pressure can be exerted for good or for evil. We use coercive pressure to teach children not to touch the hot stove.

Another dog-whistle for conservatives: linking actual diversity training that names names to colleges and universities (“the academy”). Conservatives believe that higher ed is exclusively neo-liberal, so attaching real diversity training to them is effective for that audience.

Finally, there is research that finds that diversity training can be unfortunately counter-productive in that people who complete it feel that they are now racism-proof because of their new knowledge, and therefore anything they do can never be racist, and they never have to think about it again. This does not mean that we cancel diversity training, but that we improve it to address this conundrum.

Our Federal civil service system is based on merit principles. These principles, codified at 5 U.S.C. 2301, call for all employees to “receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to” race or sex “and with proper regard for their . . . constitutional rights.” Instructing Federal employees that treating individuals on the basis of individual merit is racist or sexist directly undermines our Merit System Principles and impairs the efficiency of the Federal service. Similarly, our Uniformed Services should not teach our heroic men and women in uniform the lie that the country for which they are willing to die is fundamentally racist. Such teachings could directly threaten the cohesion and effectiveness of our Uniformed Services.

–We must begin by asking, what about this Administration’s determined and open effort over the past four years to directly threaten every expression of and mechanism to maintain this nation’s democracy?

But aside from that, here we find once more the argument that the merit system is actually a level playing field. It is not. As we said in Part 2, “That’s why pushing “color blindness” and “meritocracy” are indeed tools of racism: they ask people to assume a level playing field that does not exist. Meritocracy means ‘we all start with the same opportunities, and those who take advantage of them and work hard will succeed.’ But we don’t all start with the same opportunities, the same equality of opportunity, as the Founders put it, and therefore meritocracy is not truly possible.”

And that’s why we must tell people that, unless we are working hard and deliberately and honestly to address racism and sexism, treating individuals on the basis of individual merit really is racist or sexist, because we take a system that ensures the success of whites and men and then say “Well, I guess blacks and women don’t succeed because they just aren’t as talented as white men. They had a fair chance, and they failed.”

Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors. The Federal Government has long prohibited Federal contractors from engaging in race or sex discrimination and required contractors to take affirmative action to ensure that such discrimination does not occur. The participation of contractors’ employees in training that promotes race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating similarly undermines efficiency in Federal contracting. Such requirements promote divisiveness in the workplace and distract from the pursuit of excellence and collaborative achievements in public administration.

–Yes, there are rules on the books to prevent federal contracts from being granted to contractors that don’t have a fair and equitable workforce or policies. But many studies over many years show that those rules are regularly flouted. Even if they weren’t, and every federal contractor was fully anti-racist and anti-sexist, wouldn’t that be the likely result of decades of diversity training, which is now illegal? How can federal contractors continue that imagined stellar record if they can no longer conduct honest diversity training?

We assume that most people reading this blog–like most people in the world–work in a company or organization. All of these companies experience divisiveness in the workplace. Is the main or only source of this divisiveness diversity training? Probably not. We’d even say definitely not. If we had to make a hypothesis about which causes more divisiveness in the workplace–prejudice or diversity training–we’d say it’s the former.

Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.

–Here the perverse equation is made baldly clear: honest diversity training that identifies white racism and male sexism is “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating”. Therefore, there is no more federal funding for any diversity training that identifies white racism or male sexism. Again, while we could see a bad-intentioned person arguing that white people are not the only racists (thus ignoring the specific U.S. context of institutional racism that promotes white people over others), it’s hard to see how they would argue that women are as guilty of sexism as men. Or not; we suppose any group as dedicated to ignoring history and reality as this administration could do it.

Next time: “divisive concepts”…

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Truth v Myth: Trump Executive Order defines fighting racism as racist

Posted on November 6, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. You can find the official White House version of this executive order here. Today, we move on to the Order’s misrepresentation of anti-racism as a “destructive ideology.”

This destructive ideology is grounded in misrepresentations of our country’s history and its role in the world. Although presented as new and revolutionary, they resurrect the discredited notions of the nineteenth century’s apologists for slavery who, like President Lincoln’s rival Stephen A. Douglas, maintained that our government “was made on the white basis” “by white men, for the benefit of white men.” Our Founding documents rejected these racialized views of America, which were soundly defeated on the blood-stained battlefields of the Civil War. Yet they are now being repackaged and sold as cutting-edge insights. They are designed to divide us and to prevent us from uniting as one people in pursuit of one common destiny for our great country.

–The duplicity here makes one want to cry out. Here is the pretzel: acknowledging racism at work in America today is actually racist. To bring up race is, somehow, to have a “racialized view” of America, and, beyond that, to bring up racism is to be an apologist for slavery.

Where to begin? Well, perhaps with the common knowledge that fighting racism and working for civil rights is hardly represented as new, revolutionary, or cutting-edge. We’ve been doing this work in this country since 1787, at least, and the association of “civil rights” with “fighting racism against black Americans” has been very much a part of our life as a nation since 1865. Perhaps the author(s) of this order remember the NAACP, SNCC, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, the NACW, and, greatest of them all, Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Maybe they can recall the desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. The March on Washington. Brown v. Board of Education. The Great Society. All of these movements, organizations, events, and people of the past 160 years that we all read about at every grade level in our textbooks.

Fighting racism and working for civil rights is also not racist. To claim that fighting racism forces people to think about race, and only race, and therefore is racist, can only be the product of a deep stupidity or a deep evil. It’s very hard to say which would be worse.

Unfortunately, this malign ideology is now migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country. Instructors and materials teaching that men and members of certain races, as well as our most venerable institutions, are inherently sexist and racist are appearing in workplace diversity trainings across the country, even in components of the Federal Government and among Federal contractors. For example, the Department of the Treasury recently held a seminar that promoted arguments that “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism,” and that instructed small group leaders to encourage employees to avoid “narratives” that Americans should “be more color-blind” or “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

–This is more of the same idea that acknowledging race and racism is racist. We should all be allowed to be “color-blind”. This phrase, as used in this Order, represents a false assumption, which is that America, or at least most Americans, are not racist and do not ever made judgments about people based on their race. Therefore, being told to think about race is ruining this paradise by introducing race-based thinking, and therefore, racism.

It’s hard to imagine that many Americans would claim that they are “color-blind.” They might say they themselves are not racist, or that they try not to be. But they wouldn’t claim that they never think about race unless forced to do so by a workplace diversity training. In reality, all people–whatever their race–have racist thoughts and feelings. Most of them know that, and work to fight that human tendency. Some of them know that and don’t care, and some of them know that and deny it. While one might find fault with a diversity training program that singles out white people as racist, when we know that it’s a part of human nature the world over, we are talking about the U.S., where centuries of institutional racism have worked to promote the interests and well-being of white Americans at the expense of black, Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans. So in a U.S. diversity training, the focus will indeed be on how white people can renounce the privileges racism offers them. If white Americans don’t do that, they cannot “let people’s skills and personalities be what differentiates them.”

Training materials from Argonne National Laboratories, a Federal entity, stated that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” and described statements like “color blindness” and the “meritocracy” as “actions of bias.”

–Again, the first statement is very familiar to Americans. We spent the last 70 years learning again and again how racism distorts housing, employment, incarceration, health care, and education. You either oppose or support this, but you can’t prove a case for denying it. That’s why pushing “color blindness” and “meritocracy” are indeed tools of racism: they ask people to assume a level playing field that does not exist. Meritocracy means “we all start with the same opportunities, and those who take advantage of them and work hard will succeed.” But we don’t all start with the same opportunities, the same equality of opportunity, as the Founders put it, and therefore meritocracy is not truly possible.

Materials from Sandia National Laboratories, also a Federal entity, for non-minority males stated that an emphasis on “rationality over emotionality” was a characteristic of “white male[s],” and asked those present to “acknowledge” their “privilege” to each other.

–Here the author(s) play into people’s willingness to roll their eyes at “political correctness”. They pull very small quotes from some larger document to prove that Sandia is denigrating white men, representing them in a negative way and, therefore, engaging in what white racists traditionally call “reverse discrimination.” See? they say; Sandia is encouraging racism against white men! Shouldn’t every individual be judged on their actions, not their race? This is pretty unforgivably deceitful. If one group have worked to institutionalize racism, then yes, they participate in racism and benefit from it, even if they’re not fully aware of the full extent of that participation and benefit. It become so normalized that it’s just the fabric of life. Sexism works the same way. Making people aware of the benefit, or privilege, they experience is a first step in teaching the basic lesson that discrimination must be actively opposed, and that can’t happen until it is personally acknowledged. The work doesn’t stop there. Acknowledging one’s own participation in discrimination is just the first step to fighting it, and being part of the solution.

A Smithsonian Institution museum graphic recently claimed that concepts like “[o]bjective, rational linear thinking,” “[h]ard work” being “the key to success,” the “nuclear family,” and belief in a single god are not values that unite Americans of all races but are instead “aspects and assumptions of whiteness.” The museum also stated that “[f]acing your whiteness is hard and can result in feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, defensiveness, or fear.”

–One of the concepts we learn as we move into adulthood is that words can have many meanings. We learn about codes, and code-switching. We find through personal experience that potentially explosive messages cannot be bluntly stated, but have to be filtered. It’s what we call a “dog whistle” – most people hear nothing, but those who are in the know hear the message.

Well-known examples include “the right kind of people” and “our kind of people”. In the U.S., the words and phrases “patriot,” “real Americans,” “honest, hardworking Americans,” and “middle-class” have been turned into dog-whistles for racism since the 1970s, when the conservative backlash against the civil rights movement and gains of the 1950s and 60s began, and were fully gelled by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. All of these have become code expressions for “white”, and it was a horribly effective mis-use of meritocracy: start with the false assumption that everyone had the same starting point and resources, and then when racism ensures that people who aren’t white don’t succeed, the only way to explain it is by blaming the non-white people for being lazy, dishonest, and treacherous. If only white Americans succeed, it must be because only whites are hard-working, honest, and patriotic.

And so when the Order complains that the Smithsonian claimed that the phrases “[h]ard work” being “the key to success,” the “nuclear family,” and belief in a single god are not values that unite Americans of all races but are instead “aspects and assumptions of whiteness,” it is pretending that these have not become thoroughly encoded dog-whistles.

We would criticize the Smithsonian–if it is being quoted correctly–for saying that only white people value the nuclear family. Black American families in particular have been targeted for destruction by policies that keep black Americans poor, physically unhealthy, exposed to drug use, and more likely to be sent to prison, all of which prevent nuclear families from forming and/or persisting.

All of this is contrary to the fundamental premises underpinning our Republic: that all individuals are created equal and should be allowed an equal opportunity under the law to pursue happiness and prosper based on individual merit.

–The horrible irony of this statement is clear: acknowledging and fighting the racism that prevents equal opportunity under the law is racist. All anti-racism is anti-American and is itself what is preventing equality for all Americans. And, before we close, let’s all remember that the Declaration of Independence that the Order purports to quote here by using the phrase “pursue happiness” says NOTHING about individual merit:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

How does America achieve happiness for all? Is it through assuming a meritocracy? No: Americans achieve this by forming a government that supports happiness for all (“these ends”). And if that government “becomes destructive of these ends,” we the People must alter or abolish it to create a new government built on “such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.

That’s how we create and maintain and safeguard happiness in this country. Through the hard work of creating a system of government that does not allow systemic, institutionalized discrimination, and through the hard work of monitoring that government and correcting it if it goes wrong. The Founders knew how hard it would be to keep the government fair and to keep it dedicated to preserving our natural rights. They did not recommend or describe a fantasy about everyone having all the resources and opportunities they needed, like magic, and just taking advantage of them, easy as pie. It’s about rights, not magic.

Next time: define merit

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The Great American Experiment, 2020

Posted on November 3, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve seen a number of people looking at this post lately, so we’re rerunning it. It seems appropriate to do on Election Day; we originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it in 2016 when Trump was elected, and then said “perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.” So here we are back again.

Vote today, if you haven’t already.


America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, it seems to boil down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small rural town with lots of guns built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they themselves don’t entirely fit the description they cling to.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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Truth v. Myth: Trump’s Executive Order on Diversity Education

Posted on October 20, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to the beginning of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. You can find the official White House version of this executive order here. We’ll be quoting from it extensively as we work our way through this insidious piece of doublespeak.

The title itself is an unapologetic, almost taunting lie: the order purports to combat race and sex stereotyping, but as we’ll see as we work our way through it, the order does just the opposite. The joy that its author(s) feel in twisting the truth is something we’ve come to expect not just from this administration, but from the Internet world it reflects. Let’s move in:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America… and in order to promote economy and efficiency in Federal contracting, to promote unity in the Federal workforce, and to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1. Purpose. From the battlefield of Gettysburg to the bus boycott in Montgomery and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, heroic Americans have valiantly risked their lives to ensure that their children would grow up in a Nation living out its creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It was this belief in the inherent equality of every individual that inspired the Founding generation to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish a new Nation, unique among the countries of the world. President Abraham Lincoln understood that this belief is “the electric cord” that “links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving” people, no matter their race or country of origin. It is the belief that inspired the heroic black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment to defend that same Union at great cost in the Civil War. And it is what inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dream that his children would one day “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our forebears, America has made significant progress toward realization of our national creed, particularly in the 57 years since Dr. King shared his dream with the country.

Today, however, many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.

–The first paragraph of Section 1 quotes from our Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. King, and it’s wonderful to read their inspiring language. The abrupt, jolting switch to the determinedly hate-filled, divisive language of the administration author(s) in the third paragraph is, then, particularly painful and annoying. It reads like a draft essay by a high schooler: “today”, “many” people are “pushing” a different version of America. Whether it’s an inability or unwillingness to match the concentrated, formal yet powerful language of the earlier Americans they quote is unclear and, in the end, unimportant, as both inability and unwillingness do the same damage in the end: reducing the level of the conversation to “good” and “bad” people.

This continues in the paragraph, as the idea of acknowledging social hierarchies, and institutional racism and sexism, is “bad”. It’s “bad” because, apparently, the only way this is done is by slandering America as “irredeemable”, and slandering innocent white male Americans as “oppressors”, “simply” on account of their race or sex.

Ah, the scourge of “reverse racism,” as it’s called, against white people So much worse, its proponents would have you believe, than racism against non-white people. Turning the language of civil rights on its head to support “reverse racism” is deliberately harmful. It attempts to erase a long history of people–like Lincoln and King–calling for all Americans to plainly acknowledge, in writing, in spoken words, in public, the institutional discrimination derailing our nation by thwarting our commitment to liberty and justice for all. This call is not new, it’s not something only happening today, and yes, it is supposed to create a “different version of America” –a better version that lives up to our founding principles.

This commonly known history, however, is under attack throughout the Order. As we will see in our next post, the Order makes no effort at nuance: its message is that white Americans, particularly white American males, are being crucified on the cross of “political correctness” and the “pernicious” pushing of a campaign of reverse racism that threatens our very foundations as a nation.

Next time: the “malign ideology” of civil rights

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The American problem and its solution

Posted on October 13, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We feel inspired to re-run an installment of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the American nation on March 15, 1965, as Johnson spoke directly to the people to tell them why black Americans should have the right to vote and why that right should actually be enforced by federal, state, and local governments, and by all those who call themselves Americans.

We were particularly struck, in re-reading that post, by Johnson’s firm statement that “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

Words from 1965 have never been more applicable to 2020, and beyond. Let’s face our own time armed with Johnson’s wisdom.

_______

Welcome to part 2 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered on live TV to the nation on March 15, 1965. In this post, we will begin our close reading of this pivotal declaration that America was founded on the promise of civil rights for all—if not immediately, then inexorably, as time passed, and we grew wiser and more powerful in our commitment to natural rights, human freedom, and an American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Let’s get right into it, as Johnson did that evening:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

—Somehow the phrase “Members of the Congress” leaps out at us as more than a description of the House and Senate. We are all, as Americans, members of a congress that was and to a large extent still is unique in the world. We are a congress of nations and peoples joined together in a perpetual union as Americans. This is reiterated by Johnson’s description of us as being from “all religions and all colors, from every section”. To this Congress of Americans, Johnson speaks “for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”; the two are inseparable, one can’t live without the other. This is a message that some Americans have always and are still trying to shut down, but Johnson is putting it in the spotlight.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

—The U.S. federal government has heard the cries of its people, and is about to come to their aid. Again, the idea of an American Congress made up not of a few hundred elected officials but of all American citizens, a “convocation of this great Government” is powerfully presented. Our great Government can be summoned into action by any of its people—not just whites. And that is because its mission is to take action to ensure justice, for all. When Johnson says that the mission of the U.S. federal government is the mission of the nation itself, the founding principle and demand placed on that government and on all Americans, he, like Martin Luther King, Jr., is making a powerful argument: it is not an attack on the U.S. to criticize it for failures to provide justice for all. It is a course correction. Equal rights for all races is not some foreign idea that a few people are trying to force into American government and society, it is the original basis for that government and society. The Founders intended that rights be extended to all, over time if not immediately. The history of America is one of extending rights: the right of black men to vote, then of women to vote, then of all people over 18 regardless of race, sex, or origin; the right of interracial couples to marry, then of gay couples to marry; the right of black children to attend schools with white children, and then of mentally challenged children to attend mainstream schools, and eventually of all children to attend public schools without being hampered—the list goes on. In the U.S., we extend rights, through trial and error and argument and sometimes ferocious antagonism, to more and more people. Because that is what this nation was founded to do. That is its mission.

So to demand equal civil rights for black Americans is not some disruptive, un-American demand that the nation abandon its identity and heritage and tradition. It is the usual, necessary texture of America itself. It is what Americans do, and only those who fight to restrict rights are un-American.

In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

—It is Johnson speaking the words, Johnson who believed in them; Johnson who would dedicate himself to the civil rights movement, and Johnson who was willing to “betray” his southern identity by standing up for black Americans. But we must take a moment to express our thanks and gratitude to the man who wrote these magnificent words that gave Johnson a platform to stand on: presidential speech writer Richard Goodwin (husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; she also worked for President Johnson). Here, through Goodwin’s words, Johnson is saying that Cold War America may think its biggest problem or threat is Communism, especially in the growing war in Vietnam, but in reality, that threat is external. It does not “lay bare the secret heart of America itself”. Fighting Communism is just a way to stand up for stated American values of freedom. Fighting for civil rights, however, runs the risk of exposing our internal conflicts, our failures to live up to our ideals, our values of freedom, our inability to fully guarantee freedom at home even as we try to export it to the rest of the world. Fighting for civil rights takes the case off the watch so everyone can see the mechanisms inside that can become stuck or loose or rusty.

Civil rights is not about external threats, from Communism or an economic downturn, but about our internal health as a nation: are we who we are supposed to be? Because in the long-term, that internal health dictates our success and our national future. The greatest threat to our national security during the Cold War does not come from outside but from within. If we do not fight for civil rights, then we have no democracy to oppose Communism with. Fail to provide civil rights, and “we will have failed as a people and as a nation”, no matter what happens in Vietnam. We could, in fact, “gain the whole world” for democracy, winning the Cold War and stamping out Communism, and be in more danger than we were before, because we lost our own American soul by denying our own people their freedom. For a Cold War American president to say that fighting Communism was not the  most important thing Americans could do was astounding.

And then the magnificent, unequivocal statement: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” For centuries, black Americans had been treated as aliens by people and by our laws; they were not full citizens, not “real” Americans, and in demanding equal rights, black Americans were traitors who wanted to destroy the good society white Americans had built, one which gave black people a “place” in service to the superior race. Here Johnson, through the words of Goodwin, demolishes this lie. Blacks were not wrong to ask for equality, the problem is not some regional issue the rest of us don’t have to worry or care about, Northerners who journey South to join the fight are not traitorous instigators of a new civil war. There was murder in Selma a week earlier because Americans had yet to fully live up to their national mandate of freedom. Americans had failed, and Americans would find a solution—now.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal”—“government by consent of the governed”—“give me liberty or give me death.” Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

—Just as the white police of Selma are comparable to British regulars during the Revolution, so the black Americans they attacked and killed are comparable with every white American who ever fought and died in the name of his country. Black Americans are guardians of American liberty—this is an astoundingly bold and honest statement of fact that no previous president had made since Lincoln. Even Truman and Eisenhower, the only presidents we could say made a real effort to end segregation, and men who were personally repulsed by racism, did not go this far. Black Americans had been treated as people we should pity and do favors for, out of the kindness of our hearts. Now they were the Minutemen who rode out to risk all to protect the rest of us who stayed home. They were the men in the statues erected in memory of heroes who gave their lives for liberty. Black Americans held the torch that white Americans had tried to blow out, and, failing that, had tried to hide away.

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being. To apply any other test—to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth—is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.

—Again, we are getting a radical revision of America, in which black Americans are the heroes whose memories we dare not dishonor, and the un-American way is to discriminate, the true Americans are black, and they are leading the way for the rest of us to follow.

Lyndon Johnson was not an attractive man. He was, in 1965, still seen by many Americans as a pale substitute for the man he replaced in office. His voice was a little grating, and he did not modulate his rather hectoring tone or his Texas accent. (And this at a time when wealthy Americans still faked a semi-English accent as a sign of their sophistication–watch any movie from the 1940s or 50s.) He couldn’t stand in front of the nation and assume its good will. He couldn’t assume they would be won over by his charm or his popularity. He could, on the other hand, assume that his Southern allies in Congress and in state governments would be infuriated by this speech and feel personally betrayed and attacked by an erstwhile comrade. Whatever popularity Johnson did have was in the South, and that was potentially evaporating by the sentence as he spoke on March 15.

Yet Johnson forged ahead, and we will too, continuing our close reading in the next post

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Votes for women, sexual consent, and the revolution we need to continue

Posted on October 5, 2020. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

There’s a very interesting article in the Smithsonian Magazine about “What Raising the Age of Sexual Consent Taught Women About the Vote”. It’s hard for us to believe today, but the age of consent for females was set by each state, and in 1895, 38 of those states set the age of consent at 21 or younger–in Delaware, the age of consent for a female was 7 years of age.

Most states set it at 12 or 13, considering this the age most girls began to menstruate, which meant, according to male lawmakers, that sexually she was an adult and would of course always consent to sex. And as the article points out, the consent age gave men complete freedom to rape girls and say the girl had consented; that’s all that was required if (and only if) the man was questioned. “She consented,” he could say, and that would be that.

Women who wanted to change this found allies in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU and “the temperance movement” were and still are reviled and mocked as frigid, frustrated, idiotic old maids who didn’t want people to have fun. What the WCTU really did was attempt to change state laws and business practices that sanctioned and even promoted drunkenness–for men only–that led to disastrous consequences for women, especially their wives. Many taverns made deals with factories to have the factory send male employees’ pay envelopes directly to the tavern, in hopes that the men would not be able to resist the temptation and end up drinking their entire salary away. Men staggered home drunk and broke, meaning their families went hungry, and, worse, that women asking where the pay was were often beaten and sometimes killed. Worse, in most states a man who killed his wife while drunk could be let off because he was drunk–a sort of “not guilty by reason of intoxication”–and no man could be held accountable for something he did while he was drunk. (See “Part 1: Roots of Prohibition” of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition for details on the climate of drunkenness in 19th century America and why it happened.)

So the WCTU fought alcohol manufacturers and distributors (i.e., bar and tavern owners), not alcohol itself, for what they did to women. They were a natural ally for women seeking to raise the age of sexual consent in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

It was tough going. Women petitioning their state governments were ridiculed and sometimes removed. In the south, rape was openly acknowledged as a way to maintain white male power over black women, and the idea that a black woman might be able to successfully accuse a white man of rape and he might go to jail was out of the question. As the Smithsonian article points out, white male legislators perverted the age of consent drive to write abominable laws against black men accused of rape, guaranteeing they were tortured, mutilated, and/or killed.

With great tenacity and bravery, American women pressed on. They realized that for as long as legislators were always and only men, there would never be justice for women. They organized themselves to gain the vote, which is remarkable. Women pressing for a right they had been denied were already targets for harassment and violence. Women talking openly about sex and rape and child rape and rape as a tool of racism were a hundred times more vulnerable to attack. Brick by brick they scaled the wall of sexism and won the vote in 1920. Once women began to vote, female legislators began to exist, and like “magic”, somehow, the age of consent rose in all existing states to between 16 and 18.

We owe these women a tremendous debt that can only be repaid by exercising the right they had to fight for at the cost of their lives: women voting. American women have been steadily told that sexism is at once not that big a deal and all over, a thing of the past. It’s like telling non-white Americans that we’re living in a “post-racism” society. American women are being urged not to be strident, angry, hysterical… like women have been told for centuries.

So much more work needs to be done to end sexism, and so much of it is being done in the court of public opinion–a man who preyed on women is forced to resign from his job. And it ends there. But American women at the turn of the 20th century didn’t win the vote so men who prey on women could remain safely outside the legal system. Freedom is maintained by law. We need to vote for legislators who will fight for enforcement of existing laws against rape and sexual discrimination. We need to vote for legislators who don’t let cases of rape and sexual discrimination be tried in the court of public opinion. We all–men and women–need to fight like Temperance women and Suffragettes for real justice.

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The politics of justice are never off-limits

Posted on September 6, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Could it be more famous?

Mexico City, the 1968 Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos are standing atop the medal stand with their gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200-meter race, and, as Australian Peter Norman stands by, they raise their fists in the black power salute.

Or did they? As some of us at the HP recall, there was confusion sown in the 70s and 80s about whether Smith and Carlos were giving the black power salute or just raising their fists in some gesture of support for humanity in general. The idea that American Olympians would sully the Olympics with politics–let alone black American Olympians sullying the Olympics with racial politics–was considered out of the question.

In 1968, however, there was no nonsense about it. Smith and Carlos never denied that the gesture was made in solidarity with black Americans. The Smithsonian Magazine has a full story about the moment, its genesis, and its fallout, in which Smith says

“I felt alone and free,” says Smith, now 72. “There was nothing there to protect me but God, nothing to distract my feeling of equality. … I was just alone in a position that millions were watching and I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be. It was a cry for freedom. …My life was on the line for the belief in equality during the human rights era of Dr. King and what he stood for.”

Smith had help planning the moment of protest and solidarity in the name of black pride and power from founders of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), made up of non-professional black athletes who wanted to use the international platform to advance human rights. Smith included some military-step movements that were the catalyst for boos from the crowd, which had kept silent, perhaps while evaluating just what they were seeing. Smith responded by raising his fist again as he left the field.

The outcry from the U.S. was overwhelming. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team, ignored by the press when they returned home, despite their medals, and of course received death threats. The main charges against them were that 1) they had misrepresented the United States as a land where black people suffered oppression; and 2) they had brought ugly politics into the beautiful Oz land that was the peaceful Olympics. When the next Olympics, in Munich in 1972, were torn limb from limb by the abduction and murder of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists, there were those who blamed Smith and Carlos for opening the door to politics and murder at the Olympic games.

The first charge was, or course, untrue: it was no misrepresentation of the U.S. to say that it protected discrimination in word and deed, systemic and personal. The second charge is worth some thought. We do appreciate the Olympics for their focus on sports alone, and the fact that they usually bring nations in conflict together in one place. Of course, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany were an exception, and the U.S., China, and Soviet Union and the European nations it occupied have all boycotted the Olympics for political reasons since 1980. And fewer nations are opting to run the financial and security risks of hosting the games in an age of near-constant terrorism. At the close of each Games, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief if the only problem was lack of snow at a Winter Games due to climate change.

But it’s becoming more obvious as the 21st century progresses that we can’t ask athletes to step away from politics and still require them to positively promote the owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that hire them. If we ask athletes to represent, we have to provide them with owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that are worthy of representation.

Representing your country in the Olympics is very meaningful, but only if your country supports and protects you. If your country oppresses you, then demands that you publicly honor it at sporting events and competitions, then come back home to be further oppressed, that’s so dishonest that it’s bound to impact the athlete’s sense of integrity and even their performance. The athlete must begin to compete either in their own name, or in the name of those who do support and protect them.

We first saw the latter happen in the NFL, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism. He was quickly drummed out of the league, and is still staunchly forgotten by the NFL even as it sends out messages of support for Black Lives Matter. Since the much-needed rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial protest in the WNBA, followed by the NBA, MLS, MLB, and the NHL has become common. For the first time in its history, players in the NBA refused to play in a game in August 2020 to protest the murder of yet another black American by the police.

In the U.S., we are bound by a pledge to offer and uphold liberty and justice for all. When we do not honor that pledge, our athletes need to call that out, in public, in front of the world. As we say in our post Kneeling during the national anthem is patriotic,

The national anthem is sung at sports events while enormous flags are unfurled across the stadium or from the roof of the court. The flag is the symbol of the indivisible nation we are committing ourselves to support. This is a moment of good faith: the flag stands in for our country, and we honor it by promising to uphold its founding principles.

So the anthem is an entirely appropriate time and place to protest any violation of those founding principles of liberty and justice for all. In fact, it is the height of patriotism to say, “I’m not going to pay lip service to the flag by saying I give my allegiance to the principle of liberty and justice for all but then ignoring flagrant violations of that principle. I’m not going to pretend that what the flag stands for is not being systematically violated. I will not support a good faith gesture being made in bad faith.”

We disrespect the flag when we thoughtlessly salute it, when we salute it while ignoring the violations of our national principles, when we act like saluting the flag is patriotism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag are not in themselves patriotic acts. They can be, if they are performed with the serious intention of working to uphold the principles the flag and anthem stand for. But if we’re just mouthing words and waiting for the game to start, they are not patriotic. If we sing the words and put our hands over our hearts while doing nothing to fight for our country, that is not patriotic.

If they didn’t love the United States, these athletes wouldn’t bother to protest. If they didn’t want to feel proud of their country for living by its pledge to uphold justice, they wouldn’t care. In other words, as Smith states above, American athletes are “I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be.”

Political protest shouldn’t have to be a part of sports. But for as long as patriotism is, and we sing our national anthem and honor our American flag at sporting events, from little league to the Olympics, we have a duty to protest any attempt to thwart the pledge we make to liberty and justice for all. Tommie Smith and John Carlos knew that back in 1968. Maybe by 2068 we will all acknowledge it.

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Separation of church and state in colonial New England

Posted on August 26, 2020. Filed under: 17th century America, Civil Rights, Politics, religion | Tags: , , , , , , |

Re-running our longstanding post on Roger Williams’ experiment in Rhode Island in 1663, to help us keep our bearings as the eternal minority of Americans demand more of a role for religion in our government.

 

The first-ever separation of church and state!

…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.

This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.

In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island:

…some of those our subjects not being able to bear, in these remote parties, their different apprehensions in religious concernments, and inn pursuance of the aforesaid ends, did once again leave their desirable stations and habitations, and with excessive labour and travel, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the midst of the Indian natives…

Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of a remnant of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who left their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazards of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.

With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself:

[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.

This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time we can think of in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life.” [Weir 53]

In granting the charter, the crown recognized that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also saw that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs would be the most loyal citizens, as they would be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.

The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.

What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted in the Americas at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.

So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in the Americas that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.

But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.

Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but not codified in law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.

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Sean Purdy et. al v. Vauhxx Booker

Posted on July 20, 2020. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Purdy and his companions attempted to lynch Booker. That’s all there is to it. They attacked Booker, a black man on the Fourth of July at Lake Monroe in Indiana and after beating him, explicitly said they would kill him.

Here is a still from a video someone took of the incident that speaks volumes:

Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 9.00.55 AM

The man in the red tank top seems to be telling the person with the camera to stop filming while a woman attempts to calm him down. The man behind him is also pointing at the camera person in a threatening way, while the woman in the foreground (whom we assume is Caroline McCord) has an expression that’s hard to read. Almost hidden is Booker, being pinned to a tree by the red tank top man whom we assume is Purdy.

What happened once this story broke? What always happens. Booker, the black victim, was accused of provoking the attack, and the white attackers were presented as victims. The IndyStar reports it this way:

In a press conference held in Indianapolis Monday, an attorney for two people involved in a racially charged incident near Bloomington said his clients are victims of a smear campaign perpetuated by Vauhxx Booker.

…David Hennessy, a criminal defense attorney, represents Sean Purdy and Caroline McCord, two of the white people captured on videos that show parts of the incident.

Hennessy said Booker has been “putting forth a false narrative” about the events and that his clients “want the truth to come out.”

“Mr. Booker was the instigator and the agitator,” Hennessy said. He alleged that Booker punched Purdy three times and had to be restrained.

According to Hennessy, the incident began when Booker and his friends trespassed on private property. He said Purdy gave Booker a ride to the property line and Booker gave Purdy a beer before leaving.

Hours later, Booker returned and claimed to be a county commissioner, Hennessy said. It was during this second encounter that Booker punched Purdy three times, he claims.

“Mr. Booker threw the punches. He was then restrained — not beaten, restrained,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy also accused Booker of “race baiting” and encouraging one of the men involved to use racist language. A man is seen in the video calling Booker a “nappy headed (expletive).” Booker is heard asking the man what he “really (want) to call” him. The man repeats the insult.

…Hennessy said he and his clients wanted Booker and the people with him to tell the truth about the incident and to “apologize to the real victims of racial injustice and racism.”

Private property, trespassing, innocent whites protecting themselves against a violent intruder–it’s all too familiar a process to turn a black victim into a black predator. Let’s say, for a moment, that Booker really was intruding on private property, and knew it, and did it deliberately, to break the law and threaten or hurt white people. Let’s say Booker began assaulting the Purdy without provocation. Let’s say Booker is a criminal.

Does that mean he should be lynched? Is that how the United States legal system works? That black people who break the law can be murdered by private citizens?

There’s little doubt that murder was the goal, and a real possibility. The look on the face of the woman trying to calm the man we assume is Purdy is eloquent. She is scared that her friends are going to kill someone, on camera, and she’s attempting to prevent that, whether out of concern for Booker or, more likely, concern for her friends. Her face is all we need to know that this was an attempted killing–the kind of vigilante killing of black people by white people that we call lynching.

The idea that criminals can be killed by private citizens, or by the police, without due process is being deliberately sown and encouraged by un-American residents of this country in order to subvert rule of law. These people aren’t inventing something new: they have a well-worn playbook that was first and most powerfully called out by the great American hero Ida B. Wells, a black American woman born in 1862 who devoted her life to publicly documenting lynchings in the south. It was unbelievably dangerous work. She was forced out of Memphis, TN by attempts on her life and the physical destruction of her newspaper office, but continued her work from Chicago.

Wells began her life’s work as… a “criminal” who “broke the law” and “deserved punishment”. Here’s a short version of the story:

In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man and ordered her into the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already crowded with other passengers. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers. It is important to realize that her defiant act was before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the fallacious doctrine of “separate but equal,” which constitutionalized racial segregation. Wells wrote in her autobiography:

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.

We have put Wells’ crime in bold: she bit a train conductor so badly that he had to recruit help to enforce the “law” followed by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company. Even if the company was violating the 1873 Civil Rights Act, it’s still illegal for an adult to bite someone. When Wells was carried off the train the white passengers applauded. Of course they did–a scary black woman who bit a train conductor was given the treatment she deserved. Those white passengers were likely confirmed in their belief that all black people were animals who needed to be “kept down” by law enforcement, or any available white men.

And Wells was scary in that moment. She was a criminal. But she was breaking the law in the name of justice. While violent protest like biting someone is not the ideal, and non-violent protest remains the goal, and the most effective means of changing a society, we see that in that moment, Wells believed she had no other way of stopping the conductor from violating her rights and breaking the law passed by Congress. In that moment, she chose violence to defend herself by taking a very visceral public action.

And so Booker may also have chosen violence when surrounded by angry white men claiming he was trespassing, like Wells was trespassing on the private property of a white train car. Wells had to be restrained, just as Purdy’s and McCord’s lawyer says Booker had to be restrained. This is not how Booker reports it. But even if he did, this doesn’t mean that Booker should go to jail, let alone be murdered by his “victims”.

Vengeance has been getting a makeover from a petty act that only rises to the level of moral duty once in a thousand instances to the first and only response to any kind of attack, real or perceived, serious or minor. Revenge killing is the mark of a society without law. In the same vein, the United States cannot allow the police to murder people because those people seemed scary and the police were afraid. We must live by rule of law, and our laws must provide liberty and justice for all, or we cease to be the United States of America.

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Removing Confederate monuments erases history–or not

Posted on June 22, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We were reading a great interview with Harvard Law School history professor Annette Gordon-Reed on the recent attacks made on statues of slaveholders, conquistadors, and Confederate soldiers. You can read it all here; we’ve pulled out a few highlights.

GAZETTE: What do you say to those who argue that the removal of such statues in prominent public settings dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy?

GORDON-REED: I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.

–This is extremely well-put and we can add nothing of value to it. The BLM protests happening all over our country are based on the truth of the last sentence.

GAZETTE: Many believe that taking the statues down is an attempt to cover up or erase history. Do you agree?

GORDON-REED: No. I don’t. History will still be taught. We will know who Robert E. Lee was. Who Jefferson Davis was. Who Frederick Douglass was. Who Abraham Lincoln was. There are far more dangerous threats to history. Defunding the humanities, cutting history classes and departments. Those are the real threats to history.

–Here Gordon-Reed addresses the argument that always irritates us as historians. As if the main vehicle of learning about U.S. history were Confederate statues! Those statues are not preserved and defended in the name of the objective study of our national history. They are preserved and defended as evidence of the Lost Cause and meant to enforce a sense of alienation from the U.S. predicated on primary identification with “the South”.

GAZETTE: What about the slippery slope argument? Many of America’s founders — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — owned slaves. Does removing statues of Columbus or Confederate officials pave the way for action against monuments honoring those who helped create the United States?

GORDON-REED: I suppose, if people want to, everything can pave the way to some other point. I’ve said it before: There is an important difference between helping to create the United States and trying to destroy it. Both Washington and Jefferson were critical to the formation of the country and to the shaping of it in its early years. …No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation.

–Again, perfectly stated, and in need of no confirmation from us. But we celebrate this truth-telling, and recommend it to all Americans.

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