What History is For

Oklahoma and Kansas ban diversity education

Posted on June 7, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

…if it seems like the HP only rears its head when another state legislature or university initiates a crackdown on democracy, in the form of banning instructors from teaching American students that racism was, and is still, a real thing that we are all a part of, some of us benefiting from it even without trying to, others of us suffering from it, then… you’re right!

That is what we’re devoted to this year, ever since we began a series on examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

We’ve always been about civics here, and the ever-lengthening roll call of states in the list below is an abject object lesson in how sometimes democracy is chipped away at bit by bit, and sometimes it falls in an avalanche. If you’ve ever seen a glacier bridge calving in-person or on YouTube–an unfortunately common sight as climate change rages on mostly unchecked–you’ll see that small bits fall off, then much larger pieces, then enormous shards, and then the whole structure falls.

We’ve been seeing small bits and larger pieces falling in our democracy for years, as dedicated efforts to shore up and protect white power began in this country in the 1970s, when the impact of legislation from the most recent Civil Rights Era (1950s and 60s) began to be felt. It only took a few small instances of non-white Americans benefiting from equal rights to send those white Americans who are racist into a rage, and the effort to undo all of that Civil Rights legislation began under Nixon, and his touting of the “silent majority” of Americans who were not on board with revolution, rioting, drugs, and all the other fearsome things he associated with Americans living up to our founding principle of liberty and justice for all. There was a break in the action under Ford and Carter, and then neo-conservative forces regrouped under Reagan, and the fight to keep the “real” America–white people–safe from welfare queens and drug dealers and everything else non-white began in earnest.

Now enormous shards are falling. The attempted racist coup on January 6 hit the water hard. But multiple shards are falling in individual states, where it should be so much easier for people to fight back, because it’s their local legislatures hacking away at democracy. This very learned helplessness is itself one of the tools that right-wing conservatives use constantly, telling Americans that their government is corrupt and dangerous at every level, and they should just a) elect a strong-man to go in and “drain the swamp” for them, then b) stay far away from their governmental institutions and let the strong men go to work unchecked and unquestioned.

Perhaps this seems like editorializing rather than history. People often make the mistake of conflating objectivity with neutrality. When we study the atrocities of human history, the failures, the wars, the greed and destructiveness that characterizes all eras, we have to do all we can to gather all the data available to us, so we know what really happened, and we’ve gotten enough information from all sides to understand how the actors in those events defined what they were doing and their reasons for taking action. We then draw conclusions from the evidence about whether those actions helped improve human life, or whether they contributed to making it more miserable, narrow, and hopeless. We are, after all, studying human beings, not electrons or tectonic plates. We’re studying human actions born of human intention. No one takes action without hoping that the action will have a lasting impact on their own life, lives immediately near to them, and, sometimes, on their society or even the world as a whole.

History describes, then assesses those intentions and impacts. The objectivity part is in the work of reading critically and gathering all available data, not just from a few actors, and not just the parts that confirm your theory, or the parts you agree with, or want to hear. The assessment is necessarily subjective, because “impacts” are felt and borne by human beings, objectively (people can’t vote) and subjectively (people feel inferior). Historical actors want to achieve both objective and subjective impact in order to make the change wrought by their actions more impactful, and long-lasting.

So when people attempting to pass, and succeeding in passing, legislation that forbids Americans to learn that racism against black citizens was and still is carried out by white citizens make very clear, plain, unashamed statements about their desire to protect white people from ever feeling implicated in racism at all costs, including the cost of censorship, silencing of black people, and continued racism, we gather that data. It’s in all of these sources:

  • On May 14, we posted about New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal.

And then we analyze those statements and draw our conclusions from facts. And the conclusions are, necessarily, objective descriptions of attempts to subjugate black Americans, which can only provoke a subjective response, whether that’s positive, because you want black Americans to be subjugated, or negative, because you don’t.

We don’t. So we will add to our list this week, and feel the alarm of adding not one but two states to that shameful roll call:

  • Oklahoma: Governor Keven Stitt signed legislation to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools. “The bill prohibits public schools and universities from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” Proponents say it also bans the teaching of critical race theory, which examines systemic racism and how race influences American politics, legal systems and society. The Oklahoma GOP called on Stitt, a Republican, to sign the bill to “ensure that children are not indoctrinated by dangerous leftist ideologies.” The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have announced their student diversity trainings can no longer remain mandatory under the new law, and the first course has been “paused” – a euphemism for “shut down forever.”
  • Kansas: On June 2d department chairs at Pittsburg State received an urgent email: “Good evening. I have received an email this evening from Dr. Pomatto inquiring for the Provosts office if Critical Race Theory is being taught in any PSU classes. The specific information would be 1. yes or no and 2. if yes which course(s). The response needs a short timeline as I need to have this information to the Dean’s office by the end of the day. Please reach out to the faculty within your programs and have them, or you, get back to me ASAP by the end of the day tomorrow.” Why this information was needed so urgently is unclear, but given our growing list, it seems that someone at Pittsburg State is anticipating inquiries from the Kansas state legislature.

In each of these cases, there is pushback, but it’s very weak. The Oklahoma City Board of Education has protested the new law, but that will not do much to overturn it. And some faculty at Pittsburg State are angrily commenting on Twitter, which is equally impotent. Unless Americans can shake off the political paralysis they are rewarded for, existing laws will not be overturned, and more will come.

Perhaps you will say these new laws must represent the wishes of the majority, and so must be honored as truly American, and consonant with what America is all about and meant to be all about. In reply, we steer you firmly to the original of our “tyranny of the majority” posts: Court decisions are not democracy? It focuses on the judiciary, not the legislature, so after you read that, go to one of our many “tyranny of the majority” series posts that covers state legislation banning gay marriage being overturned by state judiciaries–try Gay marriage in Alaska v. Tyranny of the majority.

We’ll be back with more; that seems clear.

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Jen Psaki on the proposals to penalize teaching the history of racism

Posted on May 24, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

You know the drill: another week, another installment in our unhappy, once short, now long series on examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

On March 18 we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.

Then on March 23 we posted about the Idaho state legislature attempting to do the same. Then, just over a month later came the terrible update: they did. On April 29 the Idaho House approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.

On May 14, we posted about New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal.

The surprise? We don’t have a new state to report on this week. And we’re not going to bend your ear forever about this attack on democracy.

Instead, a very short video of Jen Psaki, press secretary for the Biden Administration, dealing with it more concisely and definitively than we ever could. If the link doesn’t work, go to YouTube and type in “Psaki on Proposal to Penalize Teaching History of Racism.”

Enjoy hearing from someone else this week who is as devoted to Truth v. Myth as we are!

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New Hampshire bill would ban diversity training

Posted on May 14, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

These grim updates have become part of the routine here at the HP–yet another state is pushing a bill through its legislature to stop the monstrous threat to democracy that is… democracy.

If you’re wondering why we will once again give you links to all the previous posts on this topic in this post, it’s to show the growing number of dominos falling over a very short time.

So here we go: this thread began with our short series examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.

On March 18 we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.

Then on March 23 we posted about the Idaho state legislature attempting to do the same. Then, just over a month later came the terrible update: they did. On April 29 the Idaho House approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.

And now? New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal. As the Chronicle of Higher Education describes it, HB544

…would ban teaching or training students to “adopt or believe” a list of “divisive concepts,” including that the state or the nation is fundamentally racist or sexist. One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican, told fellow lawmakers in February that it is meant to take on “critical race theory.” He likened diversity and inclusion trainers to “snake-oil salesmen.” They propose a cure to disease, he said, but the cure is “making it worse.”

Ammon’s reasoning is emblematic. Republican lawmakers across the country have declared war on an academic concept, and — according to scholars of the theory — reduced a dynamic school of thought to a poorly drawn caricature. They’ve introduced similar bills in at least a dozen states meant to curb what they see as the pernicious influence of critical race theory in public institutions.

Republican lawmakers have long been frustrated with higher ed’s liberal tilt and its supposed quashing of conservative viewpoints.

Now, they’re taking a new tack: Instead of resolutions and bills to protect the speech of visitors on the campus quad, the recent wave of legislation often steps into the classroom to restrict what can be taught. It’s part of a larger battle playing out in state houses, schools, and the media between dueling versions of American history. Over the past few months, lawmakers like Ammon have wielded references to the decades-old theory as they argue with their colleagues about whether racism persists and if it exists at all outside of the hearts and minds of individuals.

We’ve said so much about this in the posts linked above. Teaching people that racism exists, now, today, not just safely in the past where it’s no one’s fault today (sort of–white people still benefit from that past racism), is not, in itself, racism. It’s not a lie. Only a party that has removed its own members from seats of power for refusing to support the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent–that Biden’s win was a lie–would dare to say that teaching Americans about racism should be made illegal because it’s just not (or is no longer) true.

This isn’t about belief. This is now about law. Teachers in the states that pass these laws will be criminally liable if they teach about racism in an accurate way. They could potentially face jail time. It would be illegal to teach our history.

This is just another version of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which we describe here:

We learn about the FSA when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union.

This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced by the law to help slave-catchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had previously been publicly neutral about slavery.

If the Fugitive Slave Act was all about enslaved blacks, asked Northerners, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus just as much on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining their liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.

Americans who want to teach our actual history are now coerced and threatened with jail time into teaching a fake history that is about validating white Americans, locating all racism in those whites who enslaved black Americans and created institutional racism after slavery was ended (i.e., white Americans in the past) and thus relegating racism to the past. In this way, they are forced to support racism.

The problem with this that we haven’t yet addressed in our many posts is that American history is already usually taught so badly, leaving out so much of the reality of slavery and racism in our nation, that laws like this are almost unnecessary. Here’s an article that lays this out quite well, from the New Hampshire Business Review. But these laws ensure that our history teaching and textbooks will get worse and worse, thus allowing racism today and in the future to flourish in a medium of complete denial of the fact that racism has been a primary cause of a great deal of legislation, settlement and housing patterns, industrial growth, wealth creation, and other “race-neutral” economic and socio-political actions that are taught in American history courses.

Teaching all of these without mentioning racism will create a history of America that is so cartoonish it will effectively kill American history. Which is, we believe, the goal.

We do believe as well that not all Americans will accept this, and that the possibility of fighting it is real. But to have a bloody war created for us over race, once again, once again… it’s infuriating and the harm it causes from the level of the individual soul to the fate of the planet is breathtaking.

If you live in a state considering such legislation, take action. If your state has not yet introduced such legislation, investigate to make sure no one is planning to. If you’re a teacher, support your colleagues who stand against this legislation. As the NHBR article says, to be better than this we have to be brave.

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Go watch Rutherford Falls

Posted on April 28, 2021. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We have a simple message to all HP readers! Watch the new series Rutherford Falls.

Created by Michael Schur (who brought us The Good Place, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn 99) and Sierra Teller Ornelas (who brought us Superstore), and actor Ed Helms, RF has all the amazing characteristics of these shows: deeply engaging with very difficult and complex intellectual and spiritual topics with humor and ease.

We particularly think of The Good Place, which engaged fundamental moral questions, including what it means to be “good”, what will and intention have to do with morality, the purpose of an afterlife, how to make valid moral judgments, and moral relativism, while definitively solving (at least for one member of the HP) The Trolley Problem. All while being very funny, very humble, not preachy, and very brave. Few prime-time sitcoms would dare to question the validity of the Christian afterlife; fewer still (none?) would dare to conclude that it is so deeply flawed as to be immoral in itself.

Rutherford Falls takes on the big, big topic of American history. Just to write that is pretty mind-blowing. Nathan Rutherford, played by Ed Helms, is the 12th-generation descendant of Lawrence Rutherford, a puritan colonial settler who founded the town through a “fair and honest” deal with the Minishonka people who lived on and tended the land. The location is deliberately blurred, but seems to be western Connecticut. We won’t give away the plot, which unfolds very quickly, but Nathan is depicted as a great guy who is passionate about his family’s history and proud of “his” town. Nathan’s best friend from childhood is Reagan Wells, a Minishonka woman who, as Nathan says, “gets it.” His nemeses are Terry Thomas, a Minishonka man and CEO of the Minishonka casino, and mayor Deirdre Chisenhall, the first black and first female mayor of “Nathan’s” town.

The unbelievably good writing moves immediately into extremely complex issues: whose history is told and preserved; whose history is buried or left untold or deliberately destroyed; what native people are “supposed to be like”/what is “authentically” native; and, importantly, how seemingly good, nice people can hold beliefs that are extremely harmful and hateful.

When does unknowing ignorance–the unquestioning acceptance of white-washed histories–cross over into deliberate ignorance–refusal to listen to those who tell the truth? How are those who suffer at the hands of that ignorance made to feel like it’s “not nice” to challenge it? Why do we let myths about the past dictate our actions? The show artfully illustrates how short a walk it is from “good person who doesn’t know the whole truth–what’s the harm in letting him believe what he believes?” to “person who, confronted with unpleasant truths they really have no excuse for not knowing about, fights to preserve the myth.”

Making public history–acts that impacted hundreds, and eventually thousands and millions of people living in what became America–the untouchable private property of individuals/descendants who get to control the narrative that perpetuates inequality is an action that goes on everywhere in America. Nathan’s passionate desire to honor “his family” makes any attack on their bad actions an attack on him–a nice guy. This is the trap set for those who seek to reclaim history from the victors.

We won’t spoil the plot–go watch it! The majority-native cast is a relief, it’s funny, and it’s the most powerful education in the history of this continent that you could ever get.

(And then start reading Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, by Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks.)

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The Great American Experiment goes on

Posted on January 20, 2021. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Way back in November 2008 we posted “The Great American Experiment”, an essay describing the election of Barack Obama as president as an instance of the triumph of our ongoing experiment in creating true democracy in the United States and the world.

We re-run it today, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office, with a few updates for 2021.

______

America is an experiment. From at least the time of its first white settlement, and likely for centuries before that, 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 could buy land, support yourself, marry and create a new life and a new family future in a stable, new land. 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?

Every time Americans experienced failure, or had the rug pulled out from under them, whether by natural disaster or human disaster (like stock market crashes, Depressions, war, and injustice), they had to stop and think: is it worth it? Do our high expectations just set us up for disappointment? Is it really possible to have a strong, wealthy, powerful, modern country that is also just, fair, free, and equal?

Our momentum from the Founding onward propelled us to believe that it is possible. We took pride in attempting the unlikely, in dedicating ourselves to making the seemingly impossible possible. We did it because we knew our history began when we committed ourselves to the biggest experiment humans can attempt: liberty and justice for all.

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 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, we think it boils 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. Democracy itself is weak and corrupt–we need a military and religious dictatorship to undo every advance in civil rights and the pursuit of happiness, because somehow freedom and happiness are destroying America.

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 veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. A people with 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.

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. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are such Americans, and their 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.

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A call to action, January 2021

Posted on January 11, 2021. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Our democracy is under open attack. Americans who have long considered our system of government to be the source of all our nation’s problems have at last acted to overthrow it by invading the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of a fair and legal presidential election.

These people have been taught to hate “the government” at least since the days of President Reagan, who claimed in his January 20, 1981 inaugural speech that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

This was the official start of an alternate American history, one that identifies all government, but particularly our federal government, as the enemy of American freedom and individuality. This imaginary history describes a “great” America that was controlled by white Christian men, where there were no homosexuals, non-Christians, or feminists, and all immigrants were “honest, hard-working” white Christians.

Those of us who study and love actual American history have always had to fight against this fantasy American history.

We’ve done our best to teach the people we talk with about the real history of race, sex, religion, immigration, and politics in America.

We do this tirelessly because the study of real American history is always the study of the struggle to fulfill the unique mandate of our founding documents, which commit Americans to promoting the general welfare by acknowledging the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We take pride and pleasure in helping people understand the importance of the pledge of allegiance they make to stand up for liberty and justice for all.

We are ever-ready to show other Americans how the language “all men are created equal”, with its assumed meaning of “white men”, was a starting point from which generation after generation of Americans expanded rights to include women, non-white Americans, and all citizens of this country.

We don’t pretend that American history is a rose garden of justice and triumph. But we help people understand that we have a unique national conscience that drives us, each generation of Americans, to live up to our founding principles, that won’t let us settle for less, that makes us despair over injustice and recommit, over and over, to creating a more perfect union.

Today, in 2021, we must do even more.

Today, we must rise up to take real action against the terrorists who would destroy our democratic government. Not just by issuing statements of dismay, but by actually mobilizing protests in the streets and online.

There is no line between “history” and “current events”, between “studying history” and “talking about politics.” Today’s political event is tomorrow’s history. We can’t divorce our study of American history from political activism in the name of justice.

This is a time for action as historians. What can we do?

We must first demand that emergency actions be taken to remove a treasonous president, and the treasonous members of Congress who voted to overturn a legal election.

We must fearlessly identify anti-democratic, racist, nativist activities and groups and explicitly call them out as enemies of our democracy. This is not the time to call for “trying to understand.” If we pretend not to understand tyranny and terrorism after studying it for years, we are part of the problem.

We must acknowledge the magnitude of the terrorist overrunning of our Capitol and Congress. We cannot tell the public this is just another in a long history of anti-democratic activism. If we minimize what happened on January 6, we help Americans to normalize it, and we are part of the problem.

We must teach Americans their real history, which does not include a once-great America in the undefined past that only a dictatorship can restore. We must teach Americans that our history is one of success and failure in the never-ending pursuit of liberty and justice for all, and that only when we do that work are Americans truly great.

We must speak out to interrupt lies and hate speech. If you are called on to give commentary in any public forum, speak bravely and clearly about the anti-democratic terrorism taking place in the United States, and make it clear that we are bound as Americans to call it by its name and fight against it.

We must refuse to find, provide, or tolerate excuses or justifications for hate speech and for physical acts of terrorism.

We must give talks and write articles and have discussions where we explicitly connect what we learn in American history to the politics of the present day, and the American mandate to create a just and democratic state.

There is open war in America today. If historians can’t or won’t take action in this moment, then we really are just useless “history nerds” and academics, escapists who hide our heads in the sand of the past.

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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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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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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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