July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating. The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.
In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump. In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires. Her argument is compelling and well argued.
But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground. She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him. She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that. So far, so good. She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country. Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.
She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing. I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists). But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality. The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality. And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s. In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence. As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).
Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today. Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live). But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time. I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected. My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too. The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too. And so on.
Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor. But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either. In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines. The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier. There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened. The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival. In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder. And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally. But they also intermarried and socialized together. But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.
But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels. In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it. That’s not how it works. And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness. Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.
In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new. Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too. And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course). But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.
So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here. Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.
January 30, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Cleveland baseball team took a positive step this week. It announced on Monday that it was going to remove the deeply offensive Chief Wahoo from its caps and jerseys for the 2019 season. This is an important start. Chief Wahoo is an offensive caricature of an indigenous chief, drawn in a cartoonish, stereotypical manner. Note that not only is he grinning, he is actually red. Like, you know, ‘redskin’. (The Washington football team is a whole other problem, for another day).
Chief Wahoo has a long genesis. The Cleveland baseball team was originally founded in Grand Rapids, MI, in 1894, and known as the Rustlers. It moved to Cleveland in 1900, calling itself the Lake Shores. Seems pretty obvious how that name didn’t stick. Up to that point, the Grand Rapids/Cleveland team was a minor league team, in the Western League. In 1900, the Western League evolved into a major league, rebranded as the American League (the National League dates back to 1876, hence, it is sometimes called ‘the senior circuit’). The Cleveland baseball team is a charter member of the AL, and for the launch of the new league in 1901, it also rebranded itself as the Bluebirds. In 1902, they were the Barons (this name was revived by the sad sack NHL team based in Cleveland from 1976-78; they didn’t last long, in 1978, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars, which is now the Dallas Stars franchise). From 1903 to 1914, they were named after their star player, Nap Lajoie. But, in 1914, Lajoie left Cleveland to go play for the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. So, the Naps needed a new name.
And so, we ended up with the Indians. This was meant to be a nod to Cleveland baseball history. The original major league team in town was the Cleveland Spiders of the National League; they folded in 1899, precipitating the Rustlers’ move to the big city. The Spiders had had an indigenous player, Louis Sockalexis, who played his whole career with the team Thus, the Indians. So, in a way, the name came about as a tribute both to the defunct baseball team and to one of its star players. But, of course, this is one of those historical obscurities that got lost, it has become anachronistic over time.
In 1932, the Cleveland Plain Dealer used a cartoon precursor of Chief Wahoo as a logo to stand in for actually using the full name of the team. This version became known as ‘the little Indian,’ and the Plain Dealer used the logo in its coverage for the next several years. In 1947, the team’s owner, Bill Veeck hired a graphic design firm to create a new logo for his team. And thus, we got the original Chief Wahoo. He wasn’t called that at the outset, in fact, he had no name. Also, while a cartoon stereotype, he wasn’t red-skinned. A red-skinned version appeared in 1948, but was not the official logo of the team until 1951.
The name Chief Wahoo eventually came from Cleveland sports writers. The guy who created the original, in 1947, Walter Goldbach, was only 17 years old at the time. Goldbach has noted several times since that he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and that he actually had a hard time to render an indigenous man as a cartoon. He also has argued that Chief Wahoo isn’t actually a chief, he’s a brave. He only has one feather. (That of course, brings us to the Atlanta baseball team, another issue for another day).
Chief Wahoo remained the primary logo of the Cleveland baseball team until 2013, when it decided that perhaps it was time to start rethinking Chief Wahoo. At that time, the team unveiled a new logo, a stylized C, for Cleveland. It’s actually the superior logo. I much prefer it.
The Clevelands have not, of course, won a World Series since 1954, the longest running drought in professional sports (now that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series). Cleveland sports writers have wondered if Chief Wahoo is actually a curse.
So the announcement this week that Chief Wahoo is being retired next year is welcome. Except that’s not entirely the case. You can believe there will be a run on this offensive cartoon logo as this season and year progresses. And, in order to maintain the trademark, the team will continue to sell Chief Wahoo-branded gear in the Cleveland region after banishing the logo from the uniform.
So this isn’t a total victory. But it’s an important start. The next thing is to get the Cleveland baseball team to change its name, perhaps to the Spiders. And then there’s the Washington football team, and the Atlanta baseball team. But, baby steps?
October 10, 2017 § 7 Comments
In 2015, then-new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified appointing women to half of his cabinet posts with ‘It’s 2015.’ And we all applauded. He was elected largely because he wasn’t the incumbent Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. But he also won based on election promises of gender equality, LGBTQ equality, as well as a ‘new deal’ for the indigenous population.
But here we are two years on, and the plight of the indigenous population of Canada remains the same as it ever was. Trudeau has not exactly lived up to his campaign pledges to re-set the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian state. This is not all Trudeau’s fault in the sense that he reflects a deeply racist Canadian society. I have written about this numerous times (here, here, here, and here, for example).
Last week in my Twitter feed, I was gobsmacked to come across this:
This couldn’t be real, could it? It had to be another bit of Twitter and untruths. But, no, it’s real:
Even Global News picked it the story today. So, let’s think about the history presented in this Grade 3 workbook. According to it, the indigenous population of Canada agreed to simply pick up stakes and move to allow nice European colonists to settle the land. Nevermind the centuries of occupation, and all of those things. Nope, the very nice Indians agreed to move.
I wish I could say I was shocked by this. I’m not. This is pretty much part and parcel of how Euro-Canadian culture thinks about the indigenous population, if it thinks about the indigenous population at all. Or, when Euro-Canadians think about the indigenous population, it’s in entirely negative ways; I don’t think I need to get into the stereotypes here.
I tried to do some research on this workbook and the company that published it, Popular Book Company. My web sleuthing turned up next to nothing. If I Google the book itself, all I get are links to Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Indigo.ca (Indigo is Canada’s largest bookseller). Finally, I discovered that this series is popular amongst homeschoolers in Canada, and, as of 2015, over 2 million copies were in circulation. My attempts to find anything out about Popular Book Company came to nothing; all I could find out is that it’s a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, PopularWorld.
I suppose the actual damage done by this outright stupidity is limited. Nonetheless, it exists. But how this stupidity occurred is another thing. From what I learned on the interwebs, this edition of the Grade 3 curriculum was published in 2015, the previous edition in 2007. I can’t tell if this stupidity was in the 2007 version, but it is certainly in the 2015 edition.
I have experience working in textbook publication. I have written copy for textbooks, I have edited textbook copy. And I have reviewed textbooks before publication. And this is for textbooks at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. To get to publication, textbooks go through rounds of edits and expert review. My guess is this didn’t happen here. I have also worked with provincial boards in Canada to revise curriculum, including textbooks. Deep thought and careful consideration goes into this process. And I have friends who work with homeschoolers, at least in Québec, to ensure that the textbooks and curriculum homeschoolers use and follow is appropriate. And they take their job seriously.
So how did this happen? Who wrote this stupidity? Who allowed it to go to publication? And why did it take two years for anything to happen? Initially, Popular said it would revise future editions of the workbook. Eventually, however, it agreed to recall already extant versions and make sure that this is edited when the book is re-printed.
Great. But how did this happen in the first place?
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.