Truth v. Myth: Biden Order on equity needs our help

Posted on March 2, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Economics, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

It’s part the last of 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. We left off in part 2 looking at the end of Section 4 and its directions for identifying methods to assess equity.

Sec. 5 Conducting an Equity Assessment in Federal Agencies tasks the head of each agency, or someone they deputize, to consult with OMB to carry out a review of their agency that identifies:

(a)  Potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face to enrollment in and access to benefits and services in Federal programs; 

(b) Potential barriers that underserved communities and individuals may face in taking advantage of agency procurement and contracting opportunities;

(c) Whether new policies, regulations, or guidance documents may be necessary to advance equity in agency actions and programs; and

(d) The operational status and level of institutional resources available to offices or divisions within the agency that are responsible for advancing civil rights or whose mandates specifically include serving underrepresented or disadvantaged communities.

–What we like about these four categories of inquiry is that they incorporate correction to the very Order they’re part of. A and B address the potential–and likely–problem that benefits may exist but the people who need them will be presented with constant obstacles when they try to access them. C accepts that the existing policies and guidance may prove to be incomplete in advancing equity, and new ones will be needed. D accepts that agencies may likely need more resources–money and people–to carry out the Order. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation in which passing an Order solves all problems. It’s not a magic wand, and it needs to be the beginning of a large collaborative effort. That means there will be changes and it will be expensive and there will have to be real enforcement. All of this should inspire people to do this good work, rather than turn them off, because it’s a healthy and helpful acknowledgement of the real world in which change takes place.

Section 9 – Establishing an Equitable Data Working Group – is a call to gather more data on our population, as “Many Federal datasets are not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables.  This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity.  A first step to promoting equity in Government action is to gather the data necessary to inform that effort.” The Working Group is established, and will go about the difficult business of gathering data from people who have every right to feel threatened by federal requests for their personal information and scared to provide it lest they be fired, deported, or harassed. This small section is very important, and calls for the most thoughtful work.

Thankfully, Section 10 – Revocation – revokes the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year.

This is a good start, and we welcome it. But we fear for it, too, as America continues to go through ever more violent pendulum swings right to left with every presidential election. The specter of the EO on equity that the next Republican president might sign is menacing. The next four years must be spent moving the nation back to its established central base, where it is assumed the the United States is meant to provide liberty and justice to all. That founding principle was openly and explicitly rejected by the Trump administration, and too many Americans resonated with that trashing. Let’s let this Order be a step toward getting back where we belong. Do your part by asking what’s being done at your workplace to provide the data we need to broadcast the fact that “hardworking American” is not code for “white”, and to pull back at that pendulum before it swings away from us.

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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’s Executive Order on Diversity Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: the “malign ideology” of civil rights

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The politics of justice are never off-limits

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

Could it be more famous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Free speech in dangerous times

Posted on December 13, 2019. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We were reading an article about a student at Georgia Southern University who recently gave a presentation in class in which he endorsed racism and white supremacy. You can read the article here. The abstract of the article was this:

Georgia Southern freshman promotes white supremacist ideology in a class presentation. The university says the presentation falls within his free speech rights. Now students of color say they feel unsafe because of his protected speech.

We were struck by this summary. The idea that non-white students feel unsafe because of protected hate speech is meant, we think, to represent a failure of the American system. But that is exactly the situation our Constitution and our legal precedent support and protect–even promote. Hate speech should be protected and it should make people who are targets of the hate, and people who are not targets but support liberty and justice for all, feel unsafe.

Why? Because real democracy is not a “set it and forget it” mechanism. People don’t establish a just system and then sit back while it runs. In our real democracy, people are allowed freedom of speech, even some (not all) forms of hate speech, because we didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of someone saying that anything they disagree with is hate speech. That’s what dictators do: they say that their opponents are attacking them. The student who supports white supremacy would probably say that non-white people who protest him are using hate speech against him.

Instead, our government and laws say that most hate speech is protected for two solid reasons: first, we all have the right to freedom of speech; and next because we have laws in place that protect people against physical violence and legal discrimination based on race, sex, and religion.

And, crucially, the main reason we protect even hate speech is that outlawing it simply does not work. There will always be people who feel they can profit by hate. You cannot eradicate this human characteristic. Attempts to outlaw it only give it more power: if all hate speech is illegal, just spouting it makes the speaker a hero to the haters because the speaker seems brave–they’re risking their freedom to speak out. If it’s legal, that power is stripped away from it. So rather than outlaw it, we allow it within a system that contains it to speech alone. Speech is one thing; actual harm to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in business, relationships, society, etc., are another. The former is protected while the latter is not.

When someone promotes racism, the answer is not to silence them. The answer does not lie with the perpetrator. It lies with all those who hear the perpetrator. It’s our reaction and our response that are the solution. When we hear hate speech, the answer is not just to hound that person off the stage. When we read that non-white students feel unsafe, we can’t shake our heads and say “I wish the university would expel that student. Then the problem would be solved.” We know the problem would not be solved, because that student is not the problem–he’s just one representative of it.

The real solution is to work harder, redouble our efforts, to ensure that our actual laws are not changed to protect actual harm (as defined above). Monitor your local and state government as well as the federal government. Support candidates who vow to protect legal equity. Efforts are going on in many state legislatures to overturn voting rights, access to health care and education, and other pillars of equity. A student giving a presentation is not the problem here. The problem is the ever-present minority attempt to undermine our system, to undo liberty and justice for all, which ebbs and flows, shrinks and expands, over time. We are in a period of expansion that we need to fight.

Monitoring our system of government is hard and incremental. People feel impatient with this, and convince themselves that an immediate, violent protest will do the trick. But as we say in our post The Boston Tea Party and the tradition of American violence, that’s not the strategy that built our nation. It’s a strategy of revolution that we left behind long ago:

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston.

…In August 1765, effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.

…Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”

…This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifiable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

…Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence.

Violence for violence is the classic “two wrongs make a right” argument. Hate speech on campus or anywhere must be met with substantive, long-term action, not a brief storm of vocal outrage. Individuals are symptoms, not causes. Anyone who promotes white supremacy or any other kind of hate speech can only be successfully countered by efforts to protect the legal system and system of government that contain them and limit their hate to speech alone. Letting hate speech incidents turn into shouting matches in the street and nothing else does not fix the problem. When people finish shouting, those lawmakers who feel they have more to gain by subverting our system than protecting it will quietly go about rewriting the laws in their state or our nation to keep “minorities” down, denying them fair access to housing and jobs and education and voting.

In the article, Daniela Rodriguez, an organizer for the Savannah [Georgia] Undocumented Youth Alliance made these statements:

“He feels safe to speak up, and now I can only imagine how many more are out there with this racist mentality of hate,” said Rodriguez, who is the lead organizer for the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance, or SUYA, which advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Georgia.

“Now they feel very comfortable, very brave to do something worse,” Rodriguez said. “The administration should do something before something else happens.”

…“That’s really a problem,” Rodriguez said. “Students of color don’t feel safe speaking up, but white supremacists feel safe.”

Rodriguez is out there doing the long, hard, invisible work of keeping our system just, and we applaud her. She was doing this work before the uproar at SGU, and will likely continue to do it long after we’ve all forgotten about it. We take slight issue with her overall message, though; yes, we can imagine there are more people out there who feel that being racist will help them in some way, and feel a little more bold about it after this student made his public stand. Maybe some white supremacists feel a little more safe now, at least at SGU or in Georgia.

But that’s the story of humankind. It seems there will never be a human society that is not plagued by members who want to profit by hate if that’s an option. The story of America, on the other hand, is people who know that we are committed by our founding principles to do better than this. People who pledge allegiance to a flag that symbolizes a republic dedicated to liberty and justice for all. People who know that the battle to live by those principles is never done. That every generation must re-commit to that battle personally. Some Americans feeling unsafe is not an indictment of our system, it’s a bat-signal to us to rise up to protect our system, to activate it to do its job, which is protecting those Americans. In America, not feeling safe is not the end of the story. It’s the catalyst to reclaim safety for all. It’s a challenge we must–and do–rise to, every time.

 

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Veterans’ Day 2018: In defence of liberty

Posted on November 12, 2018. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

This Veterans’ Day, we offer a photo from a high school in America that was embellished by students as a repudiation of a hate crime was committed at the school (in the form of swastikas, anti-Jewish and anti-gay slogans spray-painted on the walls one night).

The current students’ annotation of the WWI memorial on the front of their school was a just and fitting tribute to the students of 1916-1918 and what they fought for:

Defence of liberty close-up

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The Great American Experiment–a reminder

Posted on November 15, 2017. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems apropos to rerun this post as we look back on a year of the Trump administration. We originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it last year when Trump was elected. Perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.

 

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, I 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.

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 country town built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they don’t entirely fit that description given above.

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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Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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