August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
Last week, a Facebook friend posted this article, ostensibly about travelling while black. Ijeoma Oluo is an African American woman, and she speaks eloquently about the fears African Americans can have travelling in the US, due to racism. I thought immediately of John Lewis’ graphic novel, March. In Book 1, he talks about a trip he took with his uncle in the 1950s from Alabama to Buffalo, NY. In his recollection, his uncle carefully planned out their route and where they could stop, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. We have this belief that because segregation is long over, that the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, that Barack Obama was elected president, race is no longer a factor in American life.
It’s easy for white people to think this, we are not confronted by the reality of race in America on a daily, continual basis. We do not face constant micro-aggressions, let alone macro-aggressions, based on our skin colour. Most white people probably don’t even think about race in any real sense, as in it’s also not something we think about when we see someone of a different skin colour. (Race, of course, is a social construct, it is not science). But. Racism persists. Racism is all around us. And Oluo reminds us of this.
And so back to Oluo. She was nervous about going into a Crackle Barrel in a small town in a Red state. As she notes, Crackle Barrel was once fined by the Justice Department for racist practices. She posted on Twitter:
And, boy oh boy, did the responses come in. In fact, you can go to Oluo’s Twitter page for a sampling of the racism. Or read the article I linked to above.
But, back to the Facebook post of my friend. The first comment lambasted Oluo for being ‘racist.’ I pointed out that she isn’t racist. She may have, as she notes in the article I linked, used some bad humour to deal with her trepidation of heading into Cracker Barrel. But this isn’t racist. Nor, as I noted to him, would it be racist if he made a similar comment about heading into a black business. It’d just be stupid.
See, the thing is, for the most part, African Americans, Latinx, and Asians are rarely in a position to be racist in America (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.). Racism is predicated on a discriminatory or prejudicial belief in the superiority of one’s own ‘race’ over another. And this is coupled with power. This discriminatory or prejudicial belief becomes racist because white people, usually (not always), have power.
For example, one of my students in Alabama told me that she, her husband and young child were unable to rent an apartment in the small city we lived in because they were black. Landlords used all kinds of excuses, from claiming they didn’t allow children (one said this while a group of kids played in the parking lot behind him), to saying their credit rating wasn’t good enough, to being concerned about their economic stability (she goes to school at night, they’re both orderlies at the local hospital). The same thing, interestingly, happened to a bunch of Los Angeles Chargers players upon the relocation of the franchise from San Diego to Los Angeles.
That is racism. The reason African American, Latinx, and Asian people in the US (or Canada, or the UK, or France, or Ireland, etc.) are not in a position to be racist is that they are not often in positions to be racist. Like all people, they can be biased, they can be prejudiced. They can also be stupid and tone deaf.
But racism is rare. Thus, Oluo is not racist for this tweet. She is expressing her fears, based on a lifetime of experiences.
But the responses to her? Well, they kind of prove her point. The violent, misogynist racism spewed back to her on Twitter and Facebook is beyond the pale. That is what racism looks like. And racism is a fact of life for African Americans (and Latinx and Asians).
August 5, 2016 § 22 Comments
I have to admit, I like Clint Eastwood, the artist. He’s the star of one of my favourite films of all-time, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly. And he’s made some mighty fine films of his own. He’s also a complex man. He claims to be libertarian, but he’s supported both Democrat and Republican politicians. He’s called for gun control since the early 1970s. He was also a progressive mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, at least on environmental issues. And he’s long been an advocate of environmental controls. And, clearly, since he’s been mayor of his little resort town, he clearly isn’t opposed to government at all costs, nor is he opposed to using government power for the common good.
But, in recent years, he’s become a bit of a loose cannon. His speech at the 2012 Republican Conference, the so-called “Empty Chair” routine, was unforgettable. But this week, he was in the news again, complaining about the “pussy generation.” See, Ol’ Clint is tired of political correctness:
[Trump]’s onto something because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.
We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.
My response? So what? First, Clint Eastwood loves to come off as a tough guy when he’s going off on a tangent like this. Clint Eastwood ain’t no tough guy, he plays them in movies. That’s a big difference. Second, Clint Eastwood is 86 years old. When he was growing up, Jim Crow and segregation existed in the US. Is that what he wants to return to? I presume not.
As for “political correctness,” you know what? I’m sick of this one too. Creating an environment in the world where people feel comfortable, where we are all respected and treated fairly is not a bad thing. It’s easy for a multi-millionaire 86-year old white man to complain about the things that weren’t called racist 80 years ago. What discrimination has Clint Eastwood faced in his life?
And this is the thing, the people who complain about “political correctness” tend to be white and middle class, and quite often male. In other words, they tend to be people who don’t know what it feels like to be the target of discrimination or hate speech, or, worse. It’s easy for them to claim there is no discrimination, no racism in society. They’re not targeted by it. It’s easy for Eastwood to complain about the “pussy generation.”
In short, you cannot complain about “political correctness,” or claim there is no such things as racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia if you are of the dominant group in society.
More to the point, a long time ago, a great man once noted that the mark of a democracy was how it treated its minorities. And that is most certainly true. That great man, by the way, was former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of current PM, Justin “Hotty Pants” Trudeau).
August 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
My department is co-sponsoring an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library. The exhibit itself opened Monday, 17 August, and will end on 17 September. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the events that led to Till’s murder at the hands of Roy Bryant and JM Milam. In conjunction with the exhibit, our department is sponsoring a speaker’s series. The first was last night, by my colleague, Ansley Quiros. She talked about Till’s murder in the context of the long struggle for African-American freedom.
By coincidence, I was talking about slavery in my US history class today. In particular, we were looking at the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850 and the fallout of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, an 1842 Supreme Court decision. The case arose several years earlier when Prigg, a bounty hunter from Maryland, crossed into Pennsylvania to capture an alleged slave, Margaret Morgan. Morgan had lived as a free-woman in Maryland (a slave state) before moving with her family (which included her husband, John, and at least three children) to Pennsylvania (a free state). Prigg attempted to remove Margaret and her children to Maryland and into slavery. When a Pennsylvania magistrate refused to grant Prigg a Certificate of Removal, due to her free status (John Morgan had been born free in Pennsylvania, as had at least one of their children), he and his partners kidnapped Margaret and her children. They were indicted for kidnapping. After a stand-off between Maryland and Pennsylvania, Prigg and his men were convicted. Their conviction was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in DC, however, overturned their conviction. (All of this was too late for Margaret Morgan and her children, who were sold into slavery and never heard from again).
The Supreme Court found that the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which had been passed by Congress, was problematic in that it guaranteed due process for the alleged fugitive slave, which was part of the problem for Prigg in the Morgan case. Due process had worked in favour of Margaret Morgan and her kids. The Supreme Court, though, found that any state laws that impeded the right of slave owners were de facto unconstitutional. And more than that, alleged escape slaves were not entitled to due process by dint of the fact that they were not citizens of the United States.
In practical terms, Prigg nationalized the racial basis of slavery. Any African American in a slave state could be presumed to be a slave. With Prigg, however, this was nationalized: any African American in a non-slave state could now be presumed to be a fugitive slave . And this is exactly what happened to Solomon Northrup, the man whose story was dramatized in the 2013 film, Twelve Years a Slave. In short, the 175,000 free African Americans in the non-slave states were in danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery due to Prigg.
Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old boy was killed a century after Solomon’s ordeal, for the crime of making a comment of an undetermined nature to Carolyn Bryant. She testified at Till’s murderers’ trial (one of the accused was her husband) that Till had made lewd comments to her. It is pretty obvious she perjured herself. Till’s case sparked a national furore and helped to spark the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
But in the past several years, mass indignation has emerged again, as a series of unarmed black men have been murdered at the hands of the police and private citizens, with next to no impunity, as was the case with Till’s murderers (Bryant and Milam confessed to the crime in Look magazine in 1956, as they could not be re-tried for the crime they were acquitted for the year earlier). When Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a trigger-happy neighbourhood watch captain (who has since been in trouble with the law for a series of violent incidents), indignation erupted, made all the more intense when Zimmerman was acquitted.
President Obama was particularly struck by Martin’s murder, noting that if he had had a son, he might have looked like Martin. But this was just the first case of unarmed black men being murdered, the catalyst, so to speak of the #blacklivesmatter campaign.
After Ansley’s talk tonight, there were very few actual questions. Instead, some older African Americans in the audience talked about their experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. It was powerful. One man talked of growing up in DC, but whenever he went to Virginia, his mother reminded him to behave himself and to defer to white people. One woman talked movingly of her own experiences, including her mother being poisoned in a Mississippi restaurant after she attempted to take advantage of her civil rights in the 1960s. This woman expressed fear for her grandchildren, about their security.
I couldn’t help thinking about what I was talking about in class today. One of my students was incredulous about the Prigg decision and the consequences of it: she noted that African Americans were forced to live in fear. There wasn’t much I could say in response to that. She also drew on our previous class, noting that slavery was a system based on mutual terror. The slaves were terrorized into compliance and the slave owners were terrified of a slave revolt. Another student then noted that African Americans have never had much cause to feel much freedom. Listening to these elders speak tonight after Ansley’s talk brought it home very powerfully for me.
June 23, 2015 § 7 Comments
Sometime last week, someone in my Facebook world posted a Morrissey video. I haven’t thought about Morrissey in a long time, other than when he says something profoundly stupid and embarrassing in public. And then I think, “Oh yeah, there was a time when Mozzer was my favourite pop star.” And then I feel slightly embarrassed. But. This video was “The Last of the International Playboys,” from Mozza’s 1990 classic, Bona Drag.
In our lifetime,
Those who kill,
The newsworld hands them stardom
have really caught my attention in the past few days.
Last week, something horrible and heinous happened in Charleston, South Carolina. If you live under a rock and don’t know what happened, follow this link. This act of domestic terrorism appalled, sickened, and depressed me. This was just one more example of why #blacklivesmatter. I felt hopeless, powerless, and lost. It doesn’t matter if you’re American or not (I’m not, I just live here). And the tut-tutting from Canadians, Brits, and others about American violence is equally pointless. On the other hand, President Obama is right: this doesn’t happen in other advanced nations.
And now, I am completely inundated with images of the racist jackass who committed this terrorist act in Charleston. I can’t escape it. I can’t escape him (I will not name him, I refuse. Why? Read this about the Montréal Massacre of 1989). My Facebook feed, Twitter, the basic internet: All I see is this terrorist’s stupid, smirking face. I don’t want to. I don’t want to see him, I don’t want to hear from him, I don’t care. Others can care, they can worry why he committed an act of terror in African Methodist Episcopal Church (a Church! A place of sanctuary!) in Charleston.
This terrorist is being given a form of stardom for his heinous acts. What should matter is the victims. They are:
- Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, 54. She was a manager of the Charleston County Public Library system; her brother is Malcolm Graham, a member of the South Carolina Senate.
- Susie Jackson, 87. A member of the church choir and a veteran of the civil rights movement.
- Ethel Lee Lance, 70. She was the church sexton.
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 59. A school administrator and admissions co-ordinate at Southern Wesleyan University.
- Clementa Pinckney, 41. She was the church pastor and a South Carolina State Senator.
- Tywanza Sanders, 26. He was Susie Jackson’s nephew.
- Daniel Simmons, 74. He was a pastor at the Greater Zion African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Awendaw, South Carolina.
- Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45. Also a pastor, she was a speech therapist and track and field coach at Goose Creek High School.
- Myra Thompston, 59. She was a Bible studies teacher.
That’s nine people. Think of the constellations of their relationships, partners, aunts, uncles, parents, kids, nieces, nephews, co-workers, students, friends, etc. Think of all the people who are grieving. That is more important than the terrorist who killed them.
February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments
Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper. Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter). But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.
In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion. He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian. I agree with Jacoby thus far. I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.
Walker, of course, couldn’t resist. He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian. This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one. Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:
[Walker] has plenty of company.
During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.
That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.
Indeed. But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:
Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.
This is NOT honest confusion. Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians. What this is is racism. This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement. I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion. I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs. As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:
public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.
This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original). Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.” Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.
Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance. Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture. Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist. These are both fallacies. Clearly. Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths. These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age. Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact). These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth. Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.” And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim? Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.
Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column. Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology. But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.
February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments
It is Black History Month. Specialized history months exist for a reason. They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history. Take, for example, a typical US History survey course. Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today. In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress. Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture. Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.
But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men. Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter. Then they share centre-stage with the colonists. Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion. Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters. Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery. But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery. Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves. Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. And that’s it. Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history. Hence, Black History Month.
The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism. The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively. We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day. Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history. As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it. Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy. For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.
I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February). The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents. Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black. He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.
Racism is very real. And it is historic. It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence. It comes in more peaceable ways, too. It is subtle, it is silent. But it’s still very real. Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States. But this was inherited from the British. The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit. British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade. In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee. And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.
Why? Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution. I would suggest it was a failed revolution. Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed. And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners. Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person. The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War. And today, we live in an era of backlash against the Civl Rights Era.
All of this, though, is due to the weight of history. On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later. The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society. And this is not a uniquely American problem. Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.
For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us. And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month. And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.