Finding historical context for 2016–or manufacturing it?

Posted on December 16, 2016. Filed under: American history, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.

You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!

This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.

Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.

So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility.  Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.

We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.

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Lynching in the 21st-century: or, black lives matter

Posted on December 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the cornerstones of a history education is civics. If we don’t understand how our government is supposed to work, and why it is structured the way it is, we cannot participate properly in our own government, and we can’t hold the people in positions of political authority accountable for their actions. We can’t define what justice is. We have no recourse when confronted with a crime against our proper form of government but to run into the streets as mobs, in brief and ultimately futile demonstrations that accomplish no long-term reform. So here’s our civics lesson for 2014 and beyond.

In the United States, the police are bound by the same laws they enforce. They are not above the law. They don’t have a separate code of law from non-police officers. They are government employees (at the federal, state, or local level) bound to obey the law just like other government employees. A police officer has no special waiver to break the law in dangerous circumstances; the police can use their judgment to decide whether force is needed to prevent a criminal from killing someone, but they are bound to use only so much force as is necessary to defuse the danger and take the suspect into custody alive.

Clearly, we haven’t been seeing this in the U.S. over the past few years. At the same time, it’s not a new problem. The police generally uphold the values of the majority in any country. In the U.S., the police have traditionally been white men (and this still holds true today), and they have generally upheld racial and sexual discrimination. They’re not the only ones, of course; the same can be said of Congress and most state and local governments. When we look back at U.S. history, we see that government officials and the police have often worked together to thwart the principles of our nation’s founding, and to pervert our democratic government. But one would have thought that since 1970, say, and a full century of civil rights progress and seemingly increasing enlightenment about race, sex, and sexuality, this would not be happening so openly and baldly today, in 2014. A leader of the New York police department on the radio this morning promised in-depth training and education for officers, basically to help them not respond to every encounter with a black man with deadly force. This made us wonder why, at this late date, and after so many decades upon decades of civil rights activism and education in this country, this “training” begins only now.

You have to take the long view on any current problem. When we do that here, we see that the police assaults on black men are just part of a larger problem that is not fully encompassed even by race. The real problem being expressed in these incidents is the militarization of our police and our culture. Somehow, in the last 30 years, guns have been made the hallmark of American freedom. Everyone must have one everywhere, despite their criminal record or mental stability. One of the outcomes of this is the regular school shootings we endure each year. Another is attacks on the police. For years now, we’ve heard about police being called to a domestic dispute and being shot instantly, either as part of a general shootout or as the end result of a deliberate trap. Police have been shot by people they pull over for speeding. In many states, people can carry guns around everywhere, at all times; this makes any interaction with them by the police potentially fatal for the officer.

The logical reaction to this by the police has been to up the ante: when you expect to be shot, the only way to defend yourself is to make sure you shoot first. It’s not surprising that police officers have begun to expect that every encounter they have could be fatal. And it doesn’t seem likely that any “training and education” will prevent further deaths when Americans continue to carry guns at all times—the police will still believe that the only outcome of every encounter is gunfire, from both sides. Add race to this, in the form of a black suspect, and death is almost a given. Even when it is clear the black suspect does not have a gun, extreme force is used to subdue him before he somehow injures the officer. Eric Garner was not shot like Michael Brown, but he was immediately put into a choke hold—an extreme action.

Darren Wilson’s perception of Brown as looking like “a demon” was not only an admission of his fear of being killed by a suspect, it was a shocking admission of racism that was so very like descriptions of black men during and after slavery in this country that we were left aghast. Describing black men as big, hulking, animal-like, amoral, dumb, demonic, and savage was boilerplate for two centuries in this country. Black men had to be “demonized” to justify slavery and then post-slavery oppression and… lynching.

Lynching has to come to mind here. We seem to have entered a new age of lynching in this country. Lynching is characterized not just by a violent death (by hanging, mutilation, torture, burning, etc.), but by one or two men making a lightning-fast decision about someone’s guilt and immediately acting on that decision to kill them. Originally, lynching in the West was done by whites to whites. No one described lynching more decisively and unflinchingly than Ida B. Wells, so let’s let her describe it here (from Lynch Law in America, published in 1900):

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. The “unwritten law” first found excuse with the rough, rugged, and determined men who left the civilized centers of eastern States to seek for quick returns in the gold-fields of the far West. Following in uncertain pursuit of continually eluding fortune, they dared the savagery of the Indians, the hardships of mountain travel, and the constant terror of border State outlaws. Naturally, they felt slight toleration for traitors in their own ranks. It was enough to fight the enemies from without; woe to the foe within! Far removed from and entirely without protection of the courts of civilized life, these fortune-seekers made laws to meet their varying emergencies. The thief who stole a horse, the bully who “jumped” a claim, was a common enemy. If caught he was promptly tried, and if found guilty was hanged to the tree under which the court convened.

The key here is the speed of the judgment. If someone was caught committing a crime, large or small, or even suspected of it, he was immediately found guilty and killed. It could be done in 10 minutes. There’s no trial (later there would be nauseating show trials with a pre-determined guilty verdict), no testimony beyond “He stole that from me”, no chance for the accused to protest or prove himself innocent. Lynching is about pre-determined guilt, but it’s also about leaping over the lengthy process of criminal justice and fair trials to the instant gratification of death to the criminal.

That’s what is shocking about every instance of police brutality or deadly force. Instead of doing all he can to bring a suspect into custody where he can be tried, the officer makes a split-second decision about how much danger he himself is in from the suspect, and acts on it immediately. Afterward, this decision is validated by a claim that the suspect was resisting arrest. This is a claim so old and so reeking of our nation’s long history of injustice to minorities of all kinds that it’s difficult to hear it spoken today. Police officers are trained to overcome suspects resisting arrest in many ways; deadly force is supposed to be a last resort. But in our militarized and violent culture, it is the first and only resort for too many police officers.

We had already thought about this as a new kind of lynching when we realized that the head of the NYC police union is named Patrick Lynch. Here is his commentary on the Garner death as reported by NBC News:

“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”

—Don’t most suspects “make a choice” to resist arrest? Does anyone go quietly? We would wager that most suspects resist arrest, but only the large, black ones are put in choke holds. Does any police officer expect that no one he confronts will ever resist arrest? Aren’t the police trained in how to deal with someone resisting arrest without killing them?

He praised the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as a good man, a mature policeman and an Eagle Scout who “went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that there’s tragedy that comes.”

—But there is a script: it’s called police procedure. It’s police training. Is Lynch really saying that police officers have no idea what to do when someone resists arrest other than to use deadly force? The Eagle Scout reference we will pass by in disbelief.

“It’s also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death,” Lynch said.

—It doesn’t seem like it should be a tragedy if, as Lynch maintains, no real harm was done. Someone resisting arrest got what they deserved. The warped idea that it is really the police officer, not Garner’s family, who suffers most is all too common in these statements.

He also praised New York police for their handling of protests on Wednesday night, when thousands who objected to the decision took to the streets. Lynch lashed out at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Wednesday that the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges was “one that many in our city did not want.”

He suggested that the mayor was teaching children to fear police officers, and he said the lesson instead should be to comply with police officers, even if they feel an arrest is unjust.

—It is only possible to comply with police officers if their treatment of you as a suspect is constitutional and legal. If not, you are under no such obligation.

“You cannot resist arrest,” Lynch said. “Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”

—Americans have the right to resist arrest. The police are obligated to take people who resist arrest into custody without killing them. Resisting arrest does lead to confrontation—but the idea that confrontation must lead to tragedy is so outrageous. Are we really to accept that if we resist arrest we will be killed? Shot, choked, tased, however it happens? Any act of defiance will be met with death? This sounds more like the totalitarian states the U.S. is constantly battling around the world than our own country.

We cannot allow our police force to become perverted. We cannot become a police state, where police officers have the right to kill if, in their own, split-second judgment, they are personally endangered. The first duty of a police officer cannot be to protect himself. We can’t have local city police suddenly driving around in armored vehicles, basically tanks, because they fear for their lives. We can’t accept this as the new normal. It takes bravery and a strong commitment to justice to be a good police officer. We need more people with those qualities to take on that job.

We also need to reform our society and put an end to our obsession with “protecting ourselves” with guns. For as long as a police officer has good reason to suspect that the people he encounters are armed, we will have nothing but escalating police violence.

And finally, we cannot opt out of our government system. We can’t eviscerate our government as unjust and wash our hands of it, deciding to riot or protest and then do nothing. We can’t change anything unless the people who are outraged by injustice do the long, hard work of changing the system. We can’t have people making the split-second decision that the police are corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we are thus free to hate and defy the police. That will not change anything. Everyone has to participate in our democracy to keep it working. Anger and outrage should fuel hard work, not self-righteous inactivity. It’s hard work to be free.

We’ve said many times here at the HP that every generation has to accept and commit to our nation’s founding principles of justice. Learn what those principles are, commit to them, and uphold them in your daily life to the greatest extent that you can, and never back down from them. It’s the only way to prevent lynching.

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“You never forget what poverty and hatred can do”: Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech

Posted on April 23, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, a clarion call for voting equality in the U.S. We wrap up the speech itself here, which embraces the general and the very personally specific in its range:

[UNDER THE HEADING “RIGHTS MUST BE RESPONSIBILITIES”]

“The bill that I am presenting to you will be known as a civil rights bill. But, in a larger sense, most of the program I am recommending is a civil rights program. Its object is to open the city of hope to all people of all races.

Because all Americans just must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.”

—The return to simple language here after the impressive rhetoric of the midpoint of the speech is in itself powerful, because it is the gateway to President Johnson speaking about his personal experience with race. It also makes a simple point simply: All Americans just must have the right to vote. It’s hard to argue with an idea so simple and so just.

“All Americans must have the privileges of citizenship regardless of race. And they are going to have those privileges of citizenship regardless of race. But I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home, and the chance to find a job, and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course, people cannot contribute to the Nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing a welfare check.

So we want to open the gates to opportunity. But we are also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.”

—Johnson had just won a landslide election in November 1964, and in January 1965 (two months before the We Shall Overcome speech), Johnson gave his State of the Union address outlining his Great Society program, which would comprehensively reform civil rights in this nation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the first plank in the Great Society, the “program I am recommending”, and so we see Johnson not only pushing hard on voting rights, but saying it is only the first part of a huge, long-term, thoroughgoing, exhaustive process of national change. It’s unusual to end a major speech with a major add-on to the topic you have been speaking on, but Johnson wanted the nation to be prepared for the other changes he would be introducing in 1965.

[UNDER THE HEADING “THE PURPOSE OF THIS GOVERNMENT”]

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.”

—Johnson would always claim that in his crusade for the Great Society, he was only fulfilling the late President Kennedy’s dream of civil rights legislation. He did this because Kennedy was popular in life and untouchable, at that point, in death. But it is hard to picture John Kennedy ever telling the story Johnson tells here. It’s not only because it’s hard to imagine Kennedy being pierced by an encounter with racism. Had any president to that time ever told a story of witnessing racism at work in his home town? Of feeling like a helpless bystander or witness to the poison of racism as administered to children? Of watching children accept their place as despised minorities in their society? One gets the real feeling that Johnson was pierced by this experience, and that he did not ever forget it, and he could not rest easy with this facet of American society. Just as Abraham Lincoln witnessed racism in his youth but did nothing to intervene—did not believe intervention would ever be possible–but then underwent a powerful change that led him to commit himself to a political solution to slavery, so Johnson has now changed and is committing himself, in this speech, to a political solution to racism.

“I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.”

—Those who knew him knew that when Johnson meant to do something, he did it. So the president was going ahead with civil rights reform, whether the rest of the nation is on board or not, but he believes we will take our chance to end racism and inequality, as he does.

“This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.”

—Johnson would be haunted by claims like this as Vietnam grew and grew, and the American drive to fight Communism began to seem like just another imperial compulsion. But no matter how his foreign policy soured, Johnson would always believe in his domestic policy, the Great Society, that he outlines here. It was one of his deepest frustrations that the Great Society seemed to fade into oblivion as opposition to the war grew, and took center stage in the American mind.

“And so at the request of your beloved Speaker and the Senator from Montana; the majority leader, the Senator from Illinois; the minority leader, Mr. McCulloch, and other Members of both parties, I came here tonight—not as President Roosevelt came down one time in person to veto a bonus bill, not as President Truman came down one time to urge the passage of a railroad bill—but I came down here to ask you to share this task with me and to share it with the people that we both work for. I want this to be the Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, which did all these things for all these people.”

—This is not just another example of pork, of a president pushing or killing a particular piece of legislation for short-term gain. This is about the heart and soul of the nation. Johnson ropes in many other political leaders to stand with him, to emphasize his intention to get everyone on board with the program.

“Beyond this great chamber, out yonder in 50 States, are the people that we serve. Who can tell what deep and unspoken hopes are in their hearts tonight as they sit there and listen. We all can guess, from our own lives, how difficult they often find their own pursuit of happiness, how many problems each little family has. They look most of all to themselves for their futures. But I think that they also look to each of us.”

—Johnson reminds the Congressional leaders he has just named that they are supposed to be helping people. They sit there in the Capitol building not for their own power and reputation, but to accomplish things for the people, to help people lead better lives. And one can see that Johnson may be referring to black Americans watching out yonder in the 50 States, with deep and unspoken hopes in their hearts that maybe, at last, finally, something is really going to change.

“Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says—in Latin—“God has favored our undertaking.” God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”

With an invocation of both God and John Kennedy, Johnson may have wrangled enough of a blessing to win over the American people. If the American people do not or will not understand the need for civil rights reform, Johnson hopefully states that God does, and God approves. At any rate, regardless of who approves and who doesn’t, the work begins now: the undertaking begins tonight, it’s already in motion, it’s on. With these words, Johnson closed his speech.

Next time, we’ll look at the reaction it provoked.

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Should God–and the rest of us–damn America?

Posted on April 29, 2008. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , , , |

I heard once again today the section of pastor Jeremiah Wright’s recent sermon in which he claims that God should damn America for its racism. This has caused uproarious debate.

This is not really an argument about racism or race. It’s about Truth v. Myth. And I’m afraid Wright is pushing Myth.

The attitude that says America should be damned–no matter how metaphorically–for its racism is the same attitude that says America is, has always been, and shall always be, a lie. It has never been a land of freedom, or truth, and is a shameful sham that weighs us down. America, from its Declaration of Independence to it 2008 presidential campaign, is a worthless heap of lies.

This is what really makes those who do feel angry about Wright’s comments feel that anger. They see that he is dismissing America as a lie that ought to burn on the scrap heap. And those listeners, as Americans, as part of America, take offense.

Contrast Wright’s approach to that of Martin Luther King. King didn’t strike a blow against America, he struck a blow for America and what it stands for. He recalled for all Americans, black and white, that their country is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. He reminded us that segregation and racism are un-American. He would not be fooled into believing what racists said, which is that racism is consistent with American values, its founding principles. He would not cynically accept that there was no point working with whites to recover those principles because those principles were bankrupt.

King reminded us of who we are, of who we are supposed to be, and he forced us to live up to those values. He didn’t let anyone off the hook for America’s failure to live up to its principles, and for that we owe him so much. He was fired up for America, and led millions of others to feel the same way.

The genius of this (besides the fact that it was true) was that anyone who opposed him came off looking anti-American. They were revealed as racist drags on the democratic system. They looked like the moral dinosaurs that they were. They were forced to attack women and children to make their point, and Americans revolted at that.

So we should not damn America. We should rescue it. We can do that by recalling our history and our founding principles and doing our utmost to yank the country back into line with those principles whenever we can. That way, anyone who opposes us looks like the anti-American obstacle that they are.

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