Anti-Racism Set to Music

I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about racist lyrics set to a holiday song with a counter example, this one of an anti-racist song.  “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday, stands out as one of the most notable anti-racist songs ever written.

In 1930, two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Copies of a photograph of their limp bodies hanging grotesquely, surrounded by whites, smiling with satisfaction and pride, were sold as postcards in thousands of drugstores across the nation.  News of this lynching moved Abel Meeropol, a New York school teacher, to write a poem, which he published in the New York Teacher, a union magazine.  He later set the poem to music.  The song began to become famous once Billie Holiday started singing it in Harlem’s Cafe Society, the first racially integrated night club in the US.  Holiday’s own father had been lynched, so the song held a powerful, and personal, message for her.

Yet, the song faced opposition from the white power structure in the U.S. According to this account from Barry Healy at Green Left:

Holiday’s record company, Columbia, refused to record the song, fearing a racist backlash. Eventually she managed to record it with Commodore and it became her biggest selling record.

Meeropol, no stranger to struggle having served in the anti-fascist forces in Spain, was targeted because the song was seen as “anti-patriotic”. In 1940, a government investigative committee barred him from teaching because of his political beliefs.

The courage of both Holiday and Meerpol to speak out against the terror of white mobs, the cowardice of record company executives, and the backlash of government reprisals speaks to a special kind of courage required of those who choose to do anti-racism.

Holiday Message of Hate & Racism from Right Wing Conservatives

The National Council of La Raza is taking a strong stand against a vicious message of hate and racism set to the tune of “Feliz Navidad.”  The song, called “Illegal Aliens in My Yard,” includes lyrics, which you can read here, which take aim at Latinos and trade on the same old, tired stereotypes about Latinos as scut work doing, taco-cooking, drunk-stolen-car driving, tequila-shooting, kidney-freeloading, anchor baby-having, and spreaders of disease (here, bubonic plague and tuberculosis).

The “parody” is being promoted by the website, which bills itself as “the headquarters of the conversative underground.”

The singer who wrote the original “Feliz Navidad” and made it famous is, of course, José Feliciano.  He has released a statement denouncing the song:

“I am filled with disgust that the website and Talk Radio Network producers Matt Fox and AJ Rice (‘The Fox and Rice Experience’) have utilized the joyful spirit of Feliz Navidad without authorization to spread a message of racism and fear during the Christmas season.  While I am reluctant to draw any further attention to this highly offensive recording, I feel it necessary to speak-out and distance my song from such a bigoted political agenda. When I wrote and composed Feliz Navidad, I chose to sing in both English and Spanish in order to create a bridge between two wonderful cultures during the time of year in which we hope for goodwill toward all. Instead, the appalling hate speech presented in “Illegals in my Yard” is revolting to all of us that treasure the true meaning of Christmas. They should be truly ashamed” – José Feliciano

Ashamed, indeed, although I suspect that’s highly unlikely.    This is more of the right wing’s racism as “humor.” This is in the same vein as the earlier attempt at racist humor as the “Barack the Magic Negro” song that Joe discussed back in January.   While each song targets a different racial group (Latinos, African Americans) both are created by whites in relatively powerful social, cultural positions. And, both are framed as “humor” so that to object is to be, well, humor-less, isn’t it?

It’s no coincidence that both songs also couch their racist attacks to the tune of an already-popular song, so that the catchy tune gets easily transmogrified into a racist message and sticks in the mind.   I wonder how many people will now, when they hear the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” will have a momentary flash on the racist version?   Or, in this holiday season, when the perennial popular “Feliz Navidad” will have a split second of thinking about the racist lyrics?   These are rhetorical questions without a clear, social scientific answer (I’m not even sure how you’d design a study to measure the effect of these songs).     Yet, both speak to the pernicious and difficult-to-address nature of racism today.

William Kunstler and the Active Voice to Discuss Racism

I saw a new documentary called “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” about the civil rights lawyer.  the film was made by his two daughters from his second marriage, Sarah and Emily Kunstler.  it was interesting and much of the film was about racism, although none of the promotional materials hint at this.  In this way, it’s much like the documentary “The Weather Underground,” which also focuses a good deal on racism.

One of the things that struck me most profoundly about the Kunstler film was the way that the language about institutional racism in the late 1960s early 1970s is so strikingly different from the way we talk about race and racism today.    What I mean about the language around institutional racism is that Kunstler would say things like, “the white power structure” or “the racist court system” and “all whites are racist” and “we (whites) are responsible for letting this racist power structure continue.”

This language and way of talking about racism is all in the category of “stuff you just don’t hear anymore.”

The power of calling out the white power structure and the way that individual whites participate in this racism was clearest for me in the film when they were exploring the issue of the uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York.  Kunstler got called in as a negotiator for the prisoners.  This attempt failed and dozens of people – both inmates and guards – were killed by the state who went in and shot them.   after the uprising was put down, there’s this amazing archival footage of one of the white soldiers (national guard?) who went in to the prison,  and he’s got his fist in the air, pumping it victoriously and he says, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about…. white power!”   it’s just a chilling moment that also perfectly illustrates what Kunstler’s been saying throughout the film.

Following soon after that, Kunstler went to the seige at Wounded Knee to serve as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties.   Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court.
Kunstler’s daughters (the filmmakers) were thoughtful about racism and their father’s struggle against it.   I especially liked when they went back and tried to find out how their dad began to be conscious about racism.  They included a brief section in the film that addressed this issue, noting that Kunstler’s race consciousness certainly didn’t come from his parents, who had black servants that used separate toilets and ate apart from the family in the kitchen.   This is illustrated by home-movie footage of one of the nameless-black-servants in the family serving the grandmother and one of the filmmakers when she was a child.

The filmmakers were less thoughtful, in my view, in exploring their own racism around their objection to their father’s defending Yusef Salaam, one of the alleged “Central Park jogger rapists.”   Years later, of course, Salaam’s conviction was overturned, and thus Kunstler’s defense of him was vindicated, but I wish the filmmakers had done more with this.

Returning to my point about the language around racism, the way the film is advertised and promoted and discussed (i heard a long interview with the filmmakers in which they never mentioned racism even once) is more typical of the way racism gets addressed today, which is in this oblique, passive-voice kind of way.

Today, to the extent that experts and non-experts even acknowledge racism, they may refer to “structural racism” or (in the world of public health where I work) “racial disparites.”   But these all happen in the passive voice.  Racial disparities just “happen.”   There are no actors in today’s language of racial inequality.     In Kunstler’s heydey (the civil rights era), there were clearly people who were responsible for the oppression of people of color, and it was white people acting in the interest of a white power structure.   Losing that language, we’ve lost some clarity about what is at the root of racial inequality.  Today, it seems, no one’s responsible as we live in this ‘racism without racists’ post-civil rights era.

“Muslims” versus “Americans”?

I just ran across a book put out by the Gallup press last year, titled Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by researchers John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. Gallup did tens of thousands of interviews with people in 35 predominantly or significantly Muslim countries, asking them an array of questions about their views of the West and Islam. Here is a bit of the Gallup summary of their findings:

Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

All their points in the Gallup summary are presented as “counterintuitive discoveries.” And rather uncritically too. The Western bias even in this “liberal” analysis is obvious. It does not take much familiarity with the non-Western media online to know this in advance. Mainly for Westerners would this “duh” conclusion be “counterintuitive.”

In addition, the U.S./Western bias leaps out at the reader in the major part of the summary that accents Western “concerns” about Islam:

When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job. . . . Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. . . . Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population. . . .

Again, this is not really counterintuitive for people living in these countries, or indeed I suspect in most of the non-Western world. Featuring this Western obsession over “jihad” in a major survey tells us much more about Western stereotyping of non-Western Muslims than it does about the latter (billion) citizens of planet Earth.

The summary adds this:

What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.. . . . What Muslims around the world say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values — the same responses given by Americans when posed the same question.

The strong and ethnocentric dichotomy throughout the summary is very revealing. There is the odd phrasing the Gallup folks use a couple of times: “Muslims and Americans.” And they carry out this dichotomy in describing (unmodified) “Muslims” and “Americans” as having similar values and views, but again without making it clear that millions of Muslims are indeed Americans. Apparently it does not occur to them that one can be both Muslim and American, all across the U.S.

The ethnocentrism and ignorance about Muslims, including U.S. Muslims, in the U.S. is indeed staggering. Maybe the naïve survey does move in the direction of seeing Muslims everywhere as human beings? As the summary notes:

Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam.

Indeed. And do a little research and reading.

We are allowing Poor Children to be Unjustly over Medicated? Duh!

On the front page of the New York Times last Saturday (December 14, 2009), Duff Wilson reported on a federally funded team of researchers from the Universities of Rutgers and Columbia who revealed that children covered under Medicaid are prescribed antipsychotic medications at a rate four times that of children who are covered under their parent’s insurance. In fact the article reported that

Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.

The article goes further to ask whether these tactics of medicating children are simply a cost-effective technique to control the problems of poor children rather than using techniques and strategies created for children within a higher socioeconomic bracket. This is very important, for it validates what my research and book, released June 2009 and titled: White Prescriptions?: Black Males and the Dangerous Social Potential of Ritalin and Other Psychotropic Drugs critically discusses.

Within my book I looked at the Medicaid system in Illinois and Florida. More specifically I investigated a specific list of psychotropic medications as it related to Black males juxtaposed against the number of all other groups covered under the state systems. The data revealed that Black males were disproportionately medicated than all other groups prescribed these strong medications. A system of social control is in operation as it relates to children, specifically males of color within the U.S. The U.S. and the government have a history of diagnosing and medically treating marginalized children.

For example, on December 30, 1969, John D. Ehrichman, Domestic Affairs Advisor of then President Richard M. Nixon sent a request to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. The president wanted the Secretary’s opinion as to the advisability of setting up pilot projects embodying some of [the] approaches presented by Arnold A. Hutschnecker, M.D., in his 1,600 page memo which advised the government to conduct nation-wide testing on all children six to eight years old. Such children would be put in special camps, and attend counseling sessions and day care centers that specialized in correcting their violent, delinquent tendencies. his national testing approach would attempt to detect and treat children who possessed homicidal and other violent tendencies.

Hutschnecker, who was at the time engaged in psychotherapy, hoped his proposal for nation-wide testing would allow those children identified as having problems to be subjected to corrective treatment. This line of thought and focus on these children continues today with the federal government, in combination with pharmaceutical companies, is continuously trying to prove the safety of and advocating the use of antipsychotic and other behavioral stimulant drugs in the behavior treatment plans for school age children. For example, in the 1990s, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) attempted to explain the occurrences of violence within the inner cities. Their basis was founded on the possible biological and genetic defects in Black Americans. They proposed to do numerous studies that would have involved intrusive measures such as spinal taps, brain studies, and blood tests. Strong opponents halted the initiative, which resulted in the later resignation of Fred Goodwin, former head of the NIMH. It has been reported [at] that the total electoral contributions donated by pharmaceutical companies to state and federal electives in 1990 were $3,273,367. In 2006, the donations had blown through the roof to $19,598,807. In 2006, out of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 388 received a total of $9,481,486. Out of the 100 Senators, 92 received a total of $4,592,729 in pharmaceutical contributions. In 2006, Senator Clinton was number fourteen on the top twenty list of senators who received contributions ($124,855). Within this period, the top six contributors were Pfizer, Inc. ($1,743,839), Amgen Inc. ($1,150,925), GlaxoSmithKline ($1,108,101), Johnson & Johnson ($747,215), Abbott Laboratories ($675,896), and Eli Lilly & Co. ($540,921). During the 2008 presidential primaries the top six were Amgen Inc. ($686,500), Pfizer, Inc. ($648,971), GlaxoSmithKline ($520,716), Johnson & Johnson ($480,921), Roche Group ($370,227), and Abbott Laboratories ($366,800). These are the makers of the behavioral stimulants like Paxil, Zyban, Wellbutrin XL, Cleocine Phosphate, Zoloft and etc. These contributions have had an undoubted effect on elected officials.

For example, in 2005, President George W. Bush launched an initiative for a nationwide mental health screening of all children K-12th grade. Due to the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (NFC), which was an Executive Order issued on April 29, 2002, his primary goal to create an integrated system of care that established identification, screening, and finally responding to metal health problems early within child welfare, public schools, criminal, and juvenile justice systems was enabled. Simply put, every child in the U.S. would be screened for mental health issues and forced prescribed care treatments. As of 2005, these measures have already been implemented in the states of Alaska; Arizona; Arkansas; California; Colorado; Connecticut; Delaware; Florida; Georgia; Hawaii; Idaho; Illinois; Indiana; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Maryland; Massachusetts; Michigan; Montana; Nebraska; New Hampshire; New Jersey; New Mexico; New York; North Carolina; North Dakota; Ohio; Oklahoma; South Carolina; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; Washington; West Virginia; Wisconsin; and Wyoming.

This is an issue that should not be ignored but further investigated due to the lack of scholarship on the issue of medicating children. This also an issue that calls for scholars who are not afraid to look further than SES (socioeconomic status), but both race and gender.

Anti-Latino Hate Crimes: Finally the New DOJ Acts

New American Media has a El Diario/La Prensa, Editorial, today about charges by the U.S. Department of Justice that white law enforcement officials worked with and protected the white teenagers who attacked and beat to death Luis Ramirez, apparently as part of a hate crime.

According to these charges,

Pennsylvania police officers, including the police chief of Shenandoah, Pa., abandoned their duty to uphold the law and instead aided and abetted the teenagers who brutally attacked Luis Ramirez. . . . The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says they deliberately undermined an investigation and fair process.

That does sound like the white law enforcement agencies approach in most of the Jim Crow South until recent decades.

The editorial reminds us of the brutal details:

In 2008, Ramirez was beaten in Shenandoah by a gang of white teenagers who left him foaming at the mouth. The medical examiner ruled that his death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head. A witness said she heard the attackers spewing ethnic slurs, like “f-ing spic.”

Only two of the attackers have been tried so far, and they were acquitted by an all-white jury of the serious charges against them. According to the editorial the collusion is reported to be substantial:

The DOJ lays out the relationships between Shenandoah police officers and the defendants’ families. The police chief was friends with Piekarsky’s [one of the white defendants] mother. A patrolman … was dating her. . . . the chief … ignored advice for the department to recuse itself from the investigation. A lieutenant . .. is charged with lying to the FBI and with advising the parents of one of the attackers to get rid of the sneakers he wore during the assault on Ramirez. … The dizzying list of charges includes that the police failed to record certain statements by [the various defendants] are all charged with conspiring to falsify official police reports, with the intent of impeding and obstructing investigations into Ramirez’s murder. Ramirez’s attackers gave a false account of the beating, according to the DOJ.

Anti-Latino hate crimes are on the increase. The most recent FBI report counted some 830 Latinos in the last year as being victims of racialized crimes, a significant underestimate given that most law enforcement agencies do not make a serious effort to report such crimes to the FBI. This is up from a few years back. (For more, see chapter 8 here)

One relatively good sign of the times, it seems, is that the U.S. DOJ seems now, under President Obama, to be taking hate crimes much more seriously.

President Obama and Tiger Woods: Racially Linked in the White Mind?

Huffingtonpost (HT, theroot) has an odd article by writer Lisa Solod Warren, in which she compares Tiger Woods and President Obama. She begins thus:

In the past few weeks, the two most famous and arguably most successful black men in America have taken a huge fall. It has become clear that both pro golfer Tiger Woods, just named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, and the American president, Barack Obama, the first black person to lead the country, suffer from a surfeit of hubris which has finally caught up with them. If both men somehow thought they were untouchable, they have been put to right.

It is hard to know where to begin with this strange argument. First, why even link the two, an athlete and a president? The reason seems mainly racial: They are both black men, apparently like two peas in a pod. Would anyone ever have written that first sentence with “white men” in it? The last president is generally considered one of the leading failures as a U.S. president, but I do not remember a racialized article accenting his whiteness in comparison to other white male failures. And what is this stuff about they thought “they were untouchable” and a “surfeit of hubris.” The number of black men for whom that is true is certainly quite low in this highly racist society where black men are under constant threat of attacks of all kinds.

She continues in this vein:

And now while the news is full of Tiger Woods’ penchant for tawdry moments with women who can’t hold a candle to the physical beauty of his wife, the information we get on Obama, while far less salacious, is even more disillusioning. The expectations of real change that had people in tears a little over a year have been so thoroughly dashed that too many of his supporters feel betrayed by their naiveté.

Again, an odd juxtaposition. Are Tiger Woods’ “tawdry moments” even remotely comparable to the difficulties a president faces? There seems to be more than a hint in this whole piece too, with its heavy accents on Woods as “black” and on his “salacious” and “tawdry” sexual actions, of the over-sexed black men of stereotyped white imaginations, long central to the white racial frame. (Significantly, she does not ruminate on the actions of the numerous women involved with Woods and why they chose as “white women” to engage in such “tawdry moments.”)

A little later she makes the racialized theme more central, if less clear:

Both men are of mixed race. Yet the majority of the country, including black Americans, sees them as black. That’s not a bad thing. Except when such men of intelligence and talent, men who have such influence and power, can’t help but succumb to the age old twins of greed and power. Although each has risen from ordinary beginnings to be at the top of their field but now things don’t look so good for either of them.

OK, I have read this several times, and I am still not sure I understand it entirely. Clearly, the argument is that they are both black men, as seen by the “majority of the country.” The last phrase is rather vague, especially when one considers that long ago self-defined “whites” invented this racial meaning of “black” (for mixed-race people and others) as part of a racial framing to rationalize oppression and imposed it on enslaved Africans and African Americans. Both men are dealing thus with a racial identity long ago imposed on their group by white Americans. Notice that nowhere in her piece (including what I left out) are “whites” named as such and highlighted as relevant to the racialized commentary.

This last commentary also seems to say that both men are failures because they “can’t help but succumb” to “greed and power.” Somehow, their racial characteristics are factored in to help explain their similar (?) “fall from grace,” yet just how this works remains rather unclear.

A bit later she adds:

What the people who worked and voted for Barack Obama wanted to see was a man who would stand up for principle and the ideals he spoke so stunningly of while campaigning. What those who were shocked at Woods’ dalliances wanted to believe was that the first black man to be famous for a sport other than basketball or football was really who he appeared he was.

Well, in this last comment I guess she forgot about Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens and more recently Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, etc..

And her comments on Obama’s failure seem a bit premature. How long has Obama been president now? Not yet eleven months. And she is reading him off the stage, in spite of a Nobel Prize and numerous rather significant achievements, many of them trying to undo the great damage done to the United States by the previous president who presided over some full eight years.

And what is the standard used to measure Obama (or Woods) here? The standard of recent white presidents or other leading politicians?

And on tawdriness, numerous white Senators and Representatives, at national and state levels, have been caught with their pants down, but I do not remember seeing an article that jointly, comparatively, and aggressively calls several of them out as “white men,” or racializes their sexual escapes in a comparative framework.

I wonder how common this line of thinking is these days.

Ignoring Systemic Racism: The House and Senate “Health Care” Bills

Law Professor, Vernellia Randall, author of Dying While Black, has sent out a commentary (see link here) on the major weaknesses in the Senate bill 3590 and House Bill 3960 (health care reform bills) that have not gotten any significant media attention. She points out how they do not deal with structural and individual discrimination in medical care:

Racial discrimination in medical treatment is a significant problem. For instance, Blacks of similar income, education and severity of illness as Whites get different health care treatment. . . . For example, studies have shown that as compared to Blacks:

• Whites are 22% more likely to be hospitalized for ischemic heart disease;
• Whites are 57% more likely to undergo coronary-artery bypass surgery;
• Whites are 49% more likely to undergo coronary angioplasty;
• Whites are 25% more likely to have a mammography;
• Whites are 57% more likely to undergo hip-fracture repair.

. . . . The ultimate health care reform bill must provide for an adequate legal structure that has the potential to eliminate racial discrimination in medical treatment. . . . To be effective the Senate bill must:

– Must specifically prohibit both intentional and disparate impact discrimination. In Alexander v. Sandoval, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its longstanding position that Title VI addresses only intentional discrimination. This is disastrous since most discrimination in health care is not intentional. Most physicians, hospitals and other providers, don’t set out to purposefully discriminate. Rather, they adopt policies and practices or they rely on stereotypes and bias to make decision and the net effect (the disparate impact) is to discriminate based on race.
– Must authorize individuals to sue on both the law and the implementing regulations. This effect discrimination (also called disparate impact) is prohibited by law through implementing regulation. Unfortunately, in Alexander v. Sandoval, the Supreme court held that an individual cannot sue (that is does not have a private right of action) on effect discrimination that only an agency can enforce the regulation. Thus, a person who knows that he or she has been discriminated against based on effect, can only file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services and hope they follow through. The result has been that litigation based on racial discrimination in medical treatment is non-existent even though it is clear that it exists. The private right of action on implementing regulations must be clearly articulated in the law.

– Must assure that all health care providers are responsible for non-discrimination. Title VI does not cover physician and other health care providers who do not take any federal financial assistance. They have been exempted by regulations which have provided that a payments to beneficiary for “contract of insurance”, such as Medicare B, are not federal financial assistance. Since some physicians do not take any other federal financial assistance, such as Medicaid, essentially these physicians and other providers are exempt from anti-discrimination law. This must be corrected – no provider should be allowed to discriminate without impunity. It is unfortunate that the Senate in its efforts to reform health care and make it more accessible and improve quality has failed to effectively address racial discrimination in medical treatment. This is unacceptable – you can’t improve the quality of health for all Americans and ignore racial discrimination in medical treatment.

You can see her full comments and sign a petition here. Also contact your senators and representatives about these serious omissions.

A Belated Pardon for John Brown, Heroic Abolitionist

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece a few days back noting that this month marks the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to those who died in trying to overthrow slavery?

Celebrating Human Rights Day — Accenting Non-Discrimination

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights website celebrates today, Human Rights Day, with this statement on some sixty years of efforts to end many kinds of UN Reflection
Creative Commons License photo credit: FantasticBabblings
discrimination across the globe.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. These first few famous words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established 60 years ago the basic premise of international human rights law. Yet today, the fight against discrimination remains a daily struggle for millions around the globe.

“Our main objective is to help promote discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment for all,” says the High Commissioner [Navi Pillay] who this year will mark Human Rights Day in South Africa. She encourages people everywhere – including the UN family, governments, civil society, national human rights institutions, the media, educators, and individuals – to seize the opportunity of Human Rights Day 2009 to join hands to embrace diversity and end discrimination.

The realisation of all human rights – social, economic and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights – is hampered by discrimination. All too often, when faced with prejudice and discrimination, political leaders, governments and ordinary citizens are silent or complacent. Yet everyone of us can make a difference. You are encouraged to celebrate Human Rights Day by advocating non-discrimination, organizing activities, raising awareness and reaching out to your local communities on 10 December and throughout 2010.

Human Rights Day [examples]:
South Africa: * Students from around the world will take part in the first World Human Rights Moot Competition organized by the University of Pretoria with the support of the OHCHR. They will argue a fictional human rights case on the principle of non-discrimination before the High Commissioner presiding over a panel of high level judges. New York: * UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will open, “Race, Poverty and Power: A Panel Discussion on Discrimination in Development” (PDF). This event will provide a forum for a critical examination of the relationship between ‘race’ and development.

… All human rights work can be viewed through the non-discrimination lens. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status.

I have recently summarized some relevant history here:

The struggle to deal with the Nazi Holocaust, together with ongoing struggles for human rights by people in many countries led to the pathbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in late 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly with no negative votes and eight abstentions. This important international agreement stipulates in Article 1 that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and in Article 7 that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Article 8 further asserts, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy…for acts violating the fundamental rights,” and Article 25 states that these rights extend to everyday life: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing.” Since 1948 numerous international covenants on economic, social, and political rights have been signed by most United Nations members, and agencies like the UN Commission on Human Rights have been established to monitor human rights globally. The UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), put in force in 1969, specifically requires governments to make illegal the dissemination of ideas of racial superiority and the operation of organizations set up to promote discrimination. This convention, first ratified by some nations in the 1960s, was ratified by the United States only in 1994. Today CERD commits the U.S. and other governments to “adopt all necessary measures for speedily eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and manifestations.”

In the mid-1970s two additional agreements–the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—were approved by many countries and added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to create an what is often termed an International Bill of Human Rights. However, while the ICESCR was signed by the U.S. government in 1979, it has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Senate did ratify the ICCPR in 1992, but with fourteen reservations, declarations, and understandings, so many that much of that Covenant was thereby invalidated for the United States. Nonetheless, these United Nations covenants represent major international responses to, as Judith Blau and Alberto Moncada suggest, “genocide, oppressive labor practices, the antiapartheid movement, national independence movements, liberation movements of colonized people, and atrocities committed against civilians” and to the “civil rights movement in America, the feminist movement, and the newly empowered voices of indigenous groups and landless peasants.”