Archive for September, 2010
Dinesh D’Souza is so enamored with his fantastical analysis of Barack Obama as a haunted puppet of his Kenyan father that the story enjoys two printings in Forbes magazine. The first on Sept. 9 entitled “How Obama Thinks”and a second story essentially the same, though a bit shorter on Sept. 18 entitled “Obama’s Problem with Business”. D’Souza’s major attack on Obama is that his ideas are based in “tribal anti-colonialism.”
D’Souza spends a great deal of copy discussing the concepts of anti-colonialism. By the way, his credentials as an expert on the subject are that he was born in Mumbai, India. He accurately defines anti-colonialism as “the doctrine that rich countries of the West got rich by invading, occupying and looting poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America.” For virtually any high school history student this stands as more of a fact than a doctrine. The actual heart of anti- colonialist doctrine is that this was an immoral and shameful endeavor. This stands in contrast to the doctrines of manifest destiny, free markets, doctrines of the superiority of western culture, and various exceptionalist doctrines in America, Britain, France and other western nations. It is virtually impossible to deny that the West got rich by looting other countries, so the denial is generally couched in grand theories such as Manifest Destiny wherein Western profiteers are portrayed as helping the poor savages of these primitive countries by providing industry, religion and culture.
In National Review Online , Newt Gingrich says D’Souza has made a “stunning insight” into Obama’s behavior — the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama.” Gingrich, hawking his new movie and his revived political power goes even farther. ““I think Obama gets up every morning with a worldview that is fundamentally wrong about reality,” Gingrich says. “If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane.” I spent most of the 80s shaking my head in disbelief at Newt Gingrich and his ability as Speaker to categorically deny reality. But this reaches new head shaking heights. Newt ascribes profound meaning to a purely fantastical theory based on nothing more than Barack Obama sharing genetic material with his Kenyan father. Then, only a few sentences later, he accuses others of denying reality.
Let me be the someone who stands up and says this is just factually insane. But first let me point out that Gingrich and D’Souza have used the term “tribal” as a code word for inferior, primitive, undesirable. That is a grand tradition in America. White people, driven by glorious Manifest Destiny, committed colonial atrocities of genocide and theft of resources on a continental scale against “tribal anti-colonialists.” It is the great legacy of America. We then spread this successful business model around the world. The second interesting point to note here is that America, theoretically and rhetorically, stands against colonialism. America was the original anti-colonial hot-bed, fighting Britain for independence. We spent decades valiantly fighting the Soviet Union’s colonial transgressions in Eastern Europe. We are always on vigilant and well financed guard against the imperialist colonial motives and actions of Islamic nations. Aren’t we just a democratic nation only interested in spreading democracy and the good life to all nations against the encroachments of imperial powers? Well, truthfully, not. At least not unless it furthers the cause of our gathering riches and resources.
As a member of a tribe who still suffers from American colonialism, I can certainly set the minds of D’Souza and Gingrich at rest. Barack Obama does not exhibit tribal tendencies. If he did, we would definitely have a public option in our health care legislation. The standard prayer/wish in a tribal society is health, help and happiness for all. Health is the first listed. If Obama were a tribal thinker, we would not have off shore drilling, strip mining, clear cutting of forests, mining of uranium, nuclear production of energy, and a host of other policies and activities that destroy the earth and our fellow inhabitants of the earth. Because tribal thinking rests upon the basic premise that everything is related. The Earth is alive and must be respected and cared for carefully. Indigenous tribes represent around 6% of the world’s population and have not only a zero environmental footprint, they actually have a positive footprint.
White imperialistic thinkers like Newt Gingrich have no concept whatever of tribal thinking and have no desire to. His accusation against Barack Obama is part of a centuries old smear campaign to relegate anyone who disagrees with imperialist American policies to an undesirable category. A category synonymous with bestiality, violence, ignorance, and history. Most important is to relegate them to history. D’Souza spends a great deal of time discussing how outdated these tribal anti-colonialist ideas are, and Gingrich is clear that Obama is living in a long dead past out of touch with current affairs. Merely being tribal relegates one to history, with no voice in the modern world. The 300 million indigenous peoples from 5,000 tribal groups inhabiting 72 countries are familiar with these attempts to discredit their voices and relegate them to history. It is a centuries old tactic. Finally, like the Tea Party, he has hitched his current political star to, Newt has truly followed in the spirit of the founding fathers using racism and invented privilege to justify the unjust imperial actions of the wealthy and privileged at the expense of the whole. It’s not even a new “contract with America”; it is the same racist drivel that arrived with first white people to this land of tribal ant colonialists.
The common and recurring attacks on President Obama on and off the internet, including by many Tea Party folks, are often extreme and intensive, more so than for any president anyone can probably remember. Some attacks are openly racist, yet are not summed up as indications of no-post-racial-America and persisting systemic racism by mainstream media commentators and, indeed, many academic analysts.
One reason is what I call the Big Racial Con. A majority of whites today have learned how to be socially correct on racial matters much of the time in public, but still engage in or support blatantly racist activity in backstage settings with friends and relatives. These whites will often say their harsh attacks on President Obama have nothing to do with white-racist framing of him, that they have “policy differences with Obama.” My colleagues and I provided the empirical evidence on the scale of backstage racism numerous times on this blog, and in many research books.
Recently, I ran across an article by Carlos Dews, English professor at John Cabot University in Rome, written for Aspenia, an Italian journal, and republished a few months back by the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Don’t Let the Virulent Hatred of Obama’s Presidency – Veiled in “Policy Differences” Fool You.” Having grown up in the deep South, his reflections start with this pointed statement:
“The nigger show.” I first heard this expression used to describe the Obama administration during a visit to my hometown in East Texas during the early summer of 2009. I understood what the epithet meant: Our minds are made up, the president lacks legitimacy, and there is nothing he can do that we will support. . . . The outward signs of racism of my home state have now disappeared, but racial hatred remains. My father and his friends still use the word “nigger” to refer to all black people, and the people of my hometown don’t hesitate to spout their racist rhetoric to my face, assuming I agree with them.
He then adds:
Until the election of Barack Obama, my discussions of racism in the United States seemed historical. I felt that with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, the country had turned a corner. . . . [But] the veiled racism I sense in the United States today is couched, in public discourse at least, in terms that allow for plausible deniability of racist intent. And those who resist any policy initiative from the Obama administration engage in a scorched-earth policy that reminds me of the self-centered white flight, the abandonment of public schools, and the proliferation of private schools, that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. . . . The very people, like my own rural, working-class family back in East Texas, who stand to gain from the efforts of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress are, because of their racism, willing to oppose policies that would benefit them the most.
He notes the kind of backstage/frontstage distinction we have made in our research:
In public, they must veil their racial hatred behind policy differences. But I know what members of my family mean when they say – as so many said during the town hall meetings in August – that they “want their country back.” They want it back, safely, in the hands of someone like them, a white person. They feel that a black man has no right to be the president of their country. . . my father lamented that he and my mother might have to stop visiting the casinos in Shreveport, La.: Given Obama’s election, “the niggers are already walking around like they own the place. They won’t even give up their seats for white women anymore.”
In his view the South is not becoming less intensely racist, but the “country as a whole has become more like the South,” a sort of white-southernization of the country.
I also grew up in East Texas with many such white folks, and know them well. They live very racialized lives, sometimes blatantly, sometimes more covertly. Right now, for example, in East Texas not far from my university, there are numerous back roads where most black Americans fear to go (and black package delivery drivers will not go) because of such things as aggressively displayed confederate battle flags on numerous whites’ houses, trailers, and trucks. In these areas many whites often publicly talk about President Obama in the language Drews accents. Some viscerally hate him, and mainly because he is “black” in their conventional white racial framing. Often, they were not fond of previous Democratic presidents, but they rarely escalated their racial hatred and language to the current level. It is significant that the mainstream media almost totally ignore the scale and importance of this everyday reality, and most certainly not just in the South.
Today, many whites across the country have become more socially correct in regard to racial matters and have decided to play along with and perpetuate the Big Racial Con in the frontstage, in public settings. But they are still seduced by the old white racial (and class) framing that they learn coming early in life. They use it in their backstage settings, regularly. In that frame, Black Americans have long been the favorite scapegoats for what is wrong about many local and national problems.
It is hard to overestimate the level of venality and conformity in regard to the old white racial frame today, as well as the great ignorance and lack of critical thinking about racial matters in this country. One of our blog commentators, a field researcher and professor, has called the young college students he interviewed on racial matters, “cheerful robots.” These are many of the white leaders of tomorrow and seem likely to follow in their ancestors footsteps–if this time often engaging in the Big Racial Con, in the grand racial masquerade.
Inside Higher Education reports on a new book that shows there is still very widespread affirmative action that is mostly for white Americans—the huge number of programs at colleges and universities that offer the mostly white children of alumni/ae special preferences in admissions. Since in previous decades many had blatant discrimination in their admissions, their alumni/ae are mostly white at historically white institutions. These affirmative action programs get very few attacks from “principled conservatives.” White preferences are still fine in this society.
The account reviews a new book from the Century Foundation, titled Affirmative Action for the Rich, actually overwhelmingly the white affluent and rich:
What if the alumni preferences are significant? What if significant numbers of these alumni children wouldn’t have gotten in anyway? And what if — contrary to conventional wisdom — alumni preferences have no impact on alumni giving? Those what-ifs are all true, according to a book being published and released today by the Century Foundation (and distributed by the Brookings Institution Press). The book is a collection of research articles by scholars, journalists and lawyers arguing that much of what colleges have said over the years about alumni admissions preferences isn’t true — and that they amount to the book’s title: Affirmative Action for the Rich.
And then adds this:
Further, the elimination of affirmative action [for students of color] in several states (a shift Kahlenberg expects to spread), he says, makes it “hard to justify alumni preferences when you have gotten rid of help for minorities.” Finally, he noted, “we are going through a populist moment in this country, where there is anger at illegitimate preferences or unfair advantages for wealthy people, and it seems to me that this issue is one that’s plainly unfair and Americans get that.”
Actually the white majority is not populist in this regard, and does not see this as unfair. This country is founded in and maintained under the reality of such white power and privilege—and this almost never is questioned in the mainstream media. “Liberty and justice” for all?
Cyber racism, and panic about these threats, spread across a high school in Louisiana last week. Facebook messages threatening violence against black students at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, Louisiana led to increased campus security, hundreds of parents taking children out of school early and concerns that the situation could strain race relations among the school’s students. The threats, which contained racial slurs, references to lynchings and some names of potential targets, were posted on a Facebook page belonging to “Colins John” according to reports from students. Word quickly spread among students, parents, school administrators and authorities late Tuesday night about posts made by, whose profile picture featured a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. The threats also caused about half of the 1,200 students to leave before the end of the school day Wednesday. Another 200 did not go to school at all.
But the racist threats were not posted by any member of the KKK, nor by any member of a white supremacist organization. The next day, a 17-year-old student at the high school, who is also black, confessed to creating the threatening Facebook page. The student is now charged with terrorizing, cyber stalking, hate crime and theft of utility service. He is being held in jail without bond.
Individual Acts of Cyber Racism. This is not the first time that an individual young person, not affiliated with any kind of a hate group, has engaged in an individual act of cyber racism. In my book, I talk about the case of Richard Machado, then a student at UC-Irvine, who used the student directory’s pull-down menu of names to select emails of students he designated as having “Asian-sounding” names. He then sent an email to a list of students saying that he was going to kill all of them. Machado’s crime was newsworthy because he used the Internet to send threatening hate messages and there were unique technological features of this crime. And, there are lessons from the Machado case for the Louisiana case.
The fact that the student accused in the Louisiana case is African American and that Machado (a recently naturalized American citizen from El Salvador) suggests some important elements about how race and racial identity figure into cyber racism. Machado was not, according to published accounts, involved in an organized white supremacist group, nor was he known to have visited white supremacist sites online. Similarly, the young student in Louisiana was not a member of any organized hate group and is African American. Yet, the language of Machado’s email and the high school student’s Facebook page clearly contained quite literally worded hate speech.
White Racial Frame. One explanation for this type of action is that both these young men, no less than most other people in the U.S., have adopted the dominant white racial frame. Part of what’s useful about this theoretical framework is that it situates individual racist actions, like these, within a larger system of racial oppression rather than in either individual identity (not only whites adopt the white racial frame) or individual pathology of racial prejudice tied to a personality disorder. Neither of these young men needed to have been white to engage in individual acts of white supremacy online. Nor, did either need to be mentally ill to engage in such acts, and there is no indication from the published accounts that either is mentally unstable. Instead, they merely needed to grow up in the U.S. and adapt to the dominant culture’s white racial frame.
Emails, and Facebook Pages, that Wound. Placing the victims’ story at the center of an analysis of hate speech via email or Facebook, as critical race theorists suggest, is difficult because of the way this story and others like it are reported in the mainstream news accounts. Press accounts mainly leave out the perspective of those who are the targets of hate speech. In the Louisiana case, we get some limited reports that students (and their parents) were frightened and left school (or didn’t attend), but there aren’t interviews with any of these students. In the Machado case, the the UC-Irvine students included on his list of recipients for the hate-filled email messages appear nowhere in the public record of reporting about the story. So, mainstream press accounts are also written from within the white racial frame and thus leave out the systemic pattern of virulent racism that might offer more context and understanding about the impact of such online speech. In California, Asian students on UC campuses have been targets of virulent anti-Asian telephone calls, graffiti and e-mail at the time of Machado’s attacks. In Louisiana, anti-black racism has a long history, much of it interwoven with Klan history, and that might be enough for some parents to keep their children home from school upon hearing about KKK-themed threats on Facebook.
The Myth of Online Anonymity. Many people believe that when you’re online, you’re completely anonymous. There’s a rather famous (in computer-geeky-circles) New Yorker cartoon from the early Internet era that shows a dog, sitting at a computer keyboard, the caption reads, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In many ways, that notion of anonymity on the Internet – that “nobody knows you’re a dog” – is a myth. And, it’s a myth that fuels these sorts of individual acts of cyber racism because people think that they can’t be identified when they’re online. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The casual Internet user is completely track-able online. Covering your digital footprints takes pretty high level skills that most of us don’t possess.
The high school student in Louisiana confessed to creating the hate-filled Facebook page, but not before law enforcement found him. They did this through a coordinated effort. The local sheriff’s office in this case worked with the state Attorney General’s Office and the Louisiana State Police during the investigation. They requested information from Facebook’s corporate offices, as well as from Yahoo and Charter Communications (an Internet Service Provider) to determine the identity of the Facebook poster and make an arrest. So, just as this form of hate speech can be facilitated through the Internet, it can also be countered through the same technologies.
The way that Machado was ultimately caught also reflects some of the possibilities of the Internet for addressing cyber racism. Upon receiving the racist hate email, several students responded with email of their own to the Office of Academic Computing (OAC). The staff at the OAC was able to identify Machado as the sender by tracing the emails he sent using SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). Then, they identified the lab and located the individual computer from which they were being sent. When staffers went to this machine, they found Machado still sitting at that particular computer in the lab, and asked him to leave. Surveillance cameras in the computer lab later confirmed that Machado was in fact the person responsible for the threatening email messages. Part of what this technological hate-crime-busting story suggests is that there are ways to address such individual acts of cyber racism, if there is a will and an effort to do so. Mostly, in the U.S., there isn’t a will to do anything about such acts.
The Usual Suspects. Machado was the first person convicted of a federal hate crime via the Internet in the United States. The fact that Machado was convicted of a hate crime involving the Internet reveals some features of the law and the Internet in the U.S. Within the U.S., the only time speech online loses its First Amendment (“speech”) protection is when it is joined with conduct that threatens, harasses, or incites illegality. Yet, this case suggests that the law does not appear to be consistently applied to all people in the U.S. The fact that prosecutors vigorously pursued the Machado case, and seem to be pursuing the Louisiana high school student, is consistent with the rest of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in which minority men are viewed as inherently suspect and differentially arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. So, even when it comes to cyber racism, it’s black and brown men who are regarded as the usual suspects.
Visual images are crucial to the struggle for justice. This was the central theme in the exhibit For All the World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights at the International Center of Photography, which I saw the weekend it closed here in New York City. The exhibit, guest curated by Maurice Berger, included still photographs, magazine covers, advertisements, newsreels, films, and artifacts with images (such as church fans with Dr. King’s picture).
(Image by Ernest Withers from ICP)
Much of the civil rights struggle for public opinion was fought through the creation of images that captured the struggle in graphic terms. Montgomery, Alabama-based photographer, Charles Moore, famously said, “I fight with my camera.” His photos of Dr. and Mrs. King being arrested in Montgomery, and the release of the photos over the AP wire helped galvanize support for the nascent civil rights movement. His photo of dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, many of them children, ran on the front pages of many newspapers worldwide. For his part, Dr. King was not simply a passive photographic subject, but was acutely aware of how images of him and the movement were used in the cause of civil rights. To read more about this, I strongly recommend Sasha Torres’ Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton UP, 2003)
I was especially delighted to see some early versions of sociologist W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine, Crisis, the publication of the NAACP, which averaged monthly circulation of 30,000 in 1915. DuBois was also committed to the use of visual culture as a way to promote civil rights for African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century. For example, at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, DuBois organized “The American Negro Exhibit” in which he displayed photographs of middle-class blacks dressed in their finest clothes, which was an explicit attempt on his part to represent African American achievement for an international audience. DuBois was also the target of criticism for the particular way he deployed visual culture on the cover of the Crisis, often using light-skinned black women to draw readers (not unlike the recent controversy over the Elle cover that Joe mentioned). For an excellent analysis of DuBois’ approach to visual culture, see Shawn Michelle Smith’s Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. DuBois, Race and Visual Culture (Duke UP, 2004).
Unfortunately, there was little of this in the exhibit. While DuBois was an ardent supporter of women’s rights (he said “every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women’s suffrage”), there was little mention of the struggle for gender equality in the exhibit. Even in the curation for the photo above, there was little discussion of the gendered quality of this protest. In many ways, I found this exhibit much less compelling than the one I saw last summer at PS1 featuring the work of Hank Willis Thomas about the commodification of black bodies.
The other unavoidable shortcoming of the exhibit was that it didn’t deal with the controversy surrounding Ernest Withers, the creator of the image featured above. Withers was an important photographer in the struggle for civil rights (he took the photo of lynching victim Emmett Till in his open casket.) And, it’s just been revealed, Withers also worked as an FBI informant. So while his photographs worked to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice, he simultaneously helped the FBI gain a front-row seat to the civil rights and anti-war movements in Memphis. Withers deeply mixed legacy troubles our understanding the civil rights photographer who “fights with his camera.”
Overall, I’m glad I caught this exhibit, perhaps most especially for the short news clip of Malcolm X being interviewed. I’m mostly glad because it reminded me of some of the excellent scholarship, such as Torres’ and Smith’s work, on race, civil rights and visual culture.
Over at huffingtonpost, there is a good summary of former Republican Senator Al D’Amato’s (R-NY) strongly worded reaction to racist comments being made by a GOP strategist, Jack Burkman, on Fox’s heavily biased Business Network:
The blowup came during a discussion on Thursday’s edition of “Money Rocks” about whether or not to privatize the US Postal Service. …. Burkman launched the discussion by saying, “most of these guys working in the Post Office should be driving cabs, and I think we should stop importing labor from Nigeria and Ethiopia. That’s the skill level.”
D’Amato first just chided him for name calling, and another guest attorney Tamara Holder commented that
Making all these somewhat racist statements about Nigeria is a spinning of sorts…this has to do with government waste.
After Burkman defended his illiterate and racist commentary, again attacking Post Office workers, D’Amato, got angry:
You are a nasty racist …..that’s a bunch of bullshit and you should be ashamed of yourself and have your mouth washed out…Wait a minute…shut up. I listened to your racist bullshit.
One does not hear Fox’s often racist commentaries called out on Fox “news” network itself. Note too here the way in which some prominent white analysts also have a racist framing of immigrants from Africa. Not only is this framing defamatory and racist in singling out and stereotyping African immigrants over many other immigrants, but it also demonstrates ignorance about the recent African immigrant population. African immigrants today generally come in with relatively high levels of education and skills, often near or above the median levels of the native-born U.S. population. This image of unskilled Africans is yet again part of the white racist framing in this society – framing that is seldom systematically challenged in mainstream media.
Last year I did a post on hate speech and free speech issues, in relation to a New York Times post. Given the current anti-Muslim hostile commentaries and a decade of violent attacks on Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans, some of the issues raised in this earlier post are still highly relevant today. I fear that this generating of much anti-Muslim sentiment, especially in our right wing media is going to lead to yet more hate crimes. So I revisit here some of that earlier discusssion.
Last year the New York Times blog site had an editorial on the white supremacist and “free speech” issues arising out of recent killings. After their opening they have comments from a variety of criminological and legal experts (Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld, criminal justice professor; Chip Berlet, Political Research Associates; Eric Hickey, criminology professor; Edward J. Eberle, comparative law professor; Eugene O’Donnell, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center.)
Here is what the Times editors open with under the general theme of “room for debate”:
The killing of George Tiller, the abortion doctor in Wichita, Kan., and the attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington yesterday have raised questions yet again about the role that extremist propaganda sites play in inciting violence among some militant believers. In both cases, the suspect arrested was well-known among fringe “communities” on the Web. Most legal scholars and many experts on extremist violence in the U.S. oppose reining in of such sites, or restrictions on extremist speech generally. Should the United States consider tighter restrictions on hate speech?
Notice the language here and in later parts of the analysts’ commentaries. They talk about “militant believers” from “fringe communities,” and sometimes call them “extremist.” One has to ask why they do not call these terrorists by the term “white terrorists”? Indeed, “white” rarely appears at all in the editorial or commentaries. If these white men had been “Middle Eastern extremists,” they likely would be called by that term. Do white men get a pass when it comes go this group-linked terrorism? And not one of the scholars even raises this question and the related one about the very long U.S. history of white terrorism (e.g., thousands killed by Klan-type groups) against people of color, as well as others like Jewish Americans.
The main debate in the Times blog here is over “free speech,” and how we cannot restrict white supremacist and other hate speech because of first amendment protections. One of the Times blog commentators, Edward J. Eberle, law professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law provides what I see as very interesting comments:
The United States is perhaps the only country in the world that allows for protection of hate speech. Much of this has to do with the idea that a free exchange of ideas is important and that allowing speech — even hate-filled speech — can be a safety valve that helps prevent outbreaks of violence. Under this view, speech needs to be regulated only when it will present a clear and present danger, as when it is a direct incitement to violence.
OK, why is this point not central in our media and political discussions: We are the only country that protects aggressive white supremacist and other aggressive hate speech. Why is that? Is it only because of our first amendment and conventional ideas of “free speech” in the United States? Is it because we really do cherish freedom more than other countries? Is our past and present history one of much greater freedom and liberty than other countries? Or is it because we (especially elite whites who run the country) do not see aggressive racist or other extremist hate speech as threatening to them and the values they care about?
Yet, the United States does NOT have unlimited “freedom of speech.” This notion is in fact a myth. As Eberle points out, things like obscene speech are not protected speech, “even when there is no concrete demonstration of harm.” Indeed, numerous types of speech are not protected, including obscene words, “fighting words,” some deceptive commercial ads, etc, as this comment from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (epic.org) indicates:
Obscenity. Speech defined as obscenity is outside the boundaries of First Amendment protection. As defined by Miller v. California, obscenity is speech that (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, to appeal to the prurient interest; (2) depicts or describes in a patently offensive manner specifically defined sexual conduct; and (3) lacks as a whole serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. The definition of obscenity, developed in 1973, focuses on a local “community standard,” and has proven to be the crux of litigation surrounding internet censorship cases, which by their nature cannot depend upon local community standards.
So, let me get this straight, we do legally ban obscene words, sexual words, obscene speech in many contexts even when these words have not been, or cannot be, proven to create significant harm. We still ban them in numerous settings regardless of the first amendment. But it is OK to spout much racist hate speech all over the place, including on the Internet, when one can show it causes some or much harm–including inciting people like white terrorists to commit violence against people of color and others? (Some “communities’ standards” and views of what is harmful clearly count more than others.)
Eberle notes how isolated the “free” United States is from other free countries, including those we consider our closet allies and kindred countries. Most do not protect serious hate speech, but prosecute it:
This is the case in all the European countries, like Germany, France, Britain, etc., and also Canada.
Notice that these are countries with high levels of free speech, in many ways countries where speech is more diverse and/or free than in the United States (as many newsstands in these countries reveal). Their legal systems recognize a conflict in human freedoms. The right of freedom of speech is not so absolute and does not always trump the right freedom from extremist hate speech and related hate crimes. Eberle notes what he calls the U.S.
individualist model of a right to self-determination and expression. For the Europeans and others, there is also a right to speak your mind, but there are some bounds based on respect of others.
So, how did we get to this backward place of protecting extreme racist speech over the right to be free from such vicious, often violence-generating hate speech attacks? Not one of these criminologists and law professors speaks to how we as a country might reasonably regulate the most extreme forms of racist hate speech, the kind designed to incite people to discriminate and commit hate crimes. These analysts do not consider what other “advanced” democratic countries do in this regard as legal or political strategies we might just consider in dealing with aggressive and virulent hate speech. Why are we so ethnocentric and provincial in not even knowing about or considering other, often more democratic, legal and political systems–and what they do to free their citizens from such virulent racist attacks?
UPDATE: One reader asked about the numbers. The Southern Poverty Law Center has this useful summary of the most recent DOJ reports on hate crimes:
The FBI has reported national hate crime totals of between about 6,000 and about 10,000 since it began publishing the numbers in 1992, depending on the year (the new report counts 7,264 incidents in 2007). But a definitive 2005 study by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on detailed and highly accurate National Crime Victimization Surveys, found that the real annual level of hate crime in America averaged some 191,000 incidents — in other words, about 20 to 30 times higher than the numbers annually reported by the FBI.
There are a huge number of such incidents across the country. (This SPLC summary does not distinguish anti-Muslim attacks. However, in nine weeks after September 11, there were at least 520 violent attacks on people thought to be of Middle Eastern ancestry. Recently, CAIR reports 116 hate crime incidents targeting Middle Eastern Americans in 2008, the most recent year I’ve seen data on– and more than 1000 since 2001. Nationwide, the number of civil rights complaints processed in 2008 by CAIR and affiliates was 2728. These numbers appear to be at least that high since then. I have not seen similar reports for countries overseas. Maybe our European readers can fill that gap in? I did find one international [PDF] report that accents violent hate crimes and reviews the very variable and often missing or inadequate data for European and other countries. Better quality reporting seems necessary for the US and numerous other countries.)
SECOND UPDATE: Jessie has previously shown how US racism can shape overseas hate crime now that we all live in global internet “country.”
Next Friday, September 17th Americans will be celebrating Constitution Day, a holiday established by the late Senator Byrd in 2004 which requires all educational institutions that receive federal money to honor the day in which the Constitution was signed. For some people this day is a time to celebrate, have parades, and to generally feel proud of our system of constitutional government and America itself. While there is a lot to be proud of, for example the Framers of the constitution created a document that set up our governing legal principles, which have remained (with a few important changes) political stable since the Civil War. However, having yearly discussions about the Constitution centered on the day of its signing requires more of us than flag waving or listening to patriotic speeches. As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stated in his remarks in 1987, which marked the bicentennial of the constitution:
Patriotic feelings will surely swell, prompting proud proclamations of the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice shared by the Framers and reflected in a written document now yellowed with age. This is unfortunate–not the patriotism itself, but the tendency for the celebration to oversimplify, and overlook the many other events that have been instrumental to our achievements as a nation. The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy. I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
Marshall then goes on to list important evolutionary changes to what “We the people” meant in 1787 and at later dates in American history. This includes the fact that blacks, women, and the poor could not participate in the conception of “we the people” not even in civic rights as basic as voting in 1787. For those who argue that the Constitution was simply a construction of its times, Marshall has this to say:
…the effects of the Framers’ compromise have remained for generations….It took a bloody civil war before the l3th Amendment could be adopted to abolish slavery, though not the consequences slavery would have for future Americans.
As Marshall points out, after the Civil War, the Constitution was profoundly changed especially with the important addition of the 14th amendment. He adds:
In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality, the 14th Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. And yet almost another century would pass before any significant recognition was obtained of the rights of black Americans to share equally even in such basic opportunities as education, housing, and employment, and to have their votes counted, and counted equally. In the meantime, blacks joined America’s military to fight its wars and invested untold hours working in its factories and on its farms, contributing to the development of this country’s magnificent wealth and waiting to share in its prosperity.
According to Marshall, the importance of examining the Constitution from a critical perspective is the role that it has had in determining the status of blacks in America. He states,
What is striking is the role legal principles have played throughout America’s history in determining the condition of Negroes. They were enslaved by law, emancipated by law, disenfranchised and segregated by law; and, finally, they have begun to win equality by law. Along the way, new constitutional principles have emerged to meet the challenges of a changing society. The progress has been dramatic, and it will continue.
Rather than looking at our bicentennial as a day to celebrate the Framers, Marshall argues that the credit for the important changes that made the Constitution better do not belong with the Framers. Rather he states, “It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of “liberty,” “justice,” and “equality,” and who strived to better them.” In his concluding remarks on the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution he argues:
And so we must be careful, when focusing on the events which took place in Philadelphia two centuries ago, that we not overlook the momentous events which followed, and thereby lose our proper sense of perspective….If we seek, instead, a sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history, the celebration of the “Miracle at Philadelphia” will, in my view, be a far more meaningful and humbling experience. We will see that the true miracle was not the birth of the Constitution, but its life, a life nurtured through two turbulent centuries of our own making….I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.
Similarly to Marshall’s critical reflection of the bicentennial of the Constitution, I believe Constitution Day is a day to reflecting on current notions of liberty, justice, and equality as found in our most significant legal document that has established our governing principles and structure for 223 years now. I believe the purpose of Constitution Day is to spend some time reflecting on the important constitutional questions and issues of the day. So, today I’d like to ask the question: How do we make a better Constitution for all Americans? Stated differently, what do we have left to do to truly create a better democracy in America? If we would like to continue to live up to our dearest beliefs we must continually find ways to improve our society with expanded notions of “we the people” in America. So, during Constitution day I ask us to consider what we still have left to do to improve upon our ideals and principles as a nation? In thinking about how we make a better Constitution, I would like to focus on two points. First, how do we expand liberty and justice through contemporary public policy issues with constitutional implications? Second, how do we make the interpretation of our Constitution more representative of American society?
First, it is important to examine which parts of our society aren’t working very well right now and to consider the extent that the structure and content of our constitution contribute to the dysfunction. Looking at ways to expand our values of liberty and justice for us all by focusing on public policy priorities, it helps to begin with a definition of public policy. Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Russell F. Stark University Professor at the University of Washington, Luis Fraga states, “(p)ublic policy is the primary way in which Americans have always demonstrated their commitment to each other.” What should some of these commitments to each other entail?In 1944 Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered this and proposed a Second Bill of Rights which focused on increasing opportunity and security for all Americans. FDR stated:
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed.
For FDR this included: The right to a good job that allows one to earn enough to have the basic necessities to live a good life. It also included the right to a good education, where one’s children could go to school free to learn and not burdened by poverty, hunger, or fear of violence. It also included fair business practices for entrepreneurs large and small, and the right to adequate medical care, and a decent home for all families. These are just a few of the goals FDR proposed in his Second Bill of Rights just months before he died. While it is another conversation to see just how these ideas could be written into the Constitution if FDR had lived to push his policies through, and even harder to determine how these public policy commitments would be implemented and later interpreted, they are still ideals worth discussing. For example, what does it say about our current notions of justice and equality that we still largely have a Constitution based on the beliefs that opportunity and security are about some sort of “survival of the fittest” notion? For example what does our Constitution say about the right of education? Nothing. In other countries with the capacity to do so, there is a greater commitment to economic and social rights than in the US. For example, the European Social Charter, rewritten in 1996 includes the right to housing, health, education, employment, legal and social protection, and non-discrimination to name a few.
These important questions were being asked by our 32 president who believed we must keep improving our commitments and values to one another through our Constitution with a Second Bill of Rights.
Another way to consider how to make our Constitution better is to expand the interpretation of what it means. Stated differently, how can the meaning of the Constitution include perspectives from more than just the 98 percent elite white male input that has gone into it thus far? Marbury vs Madison established judicial review by the Supreme Court. Yet, who has made up the Supreme Court throughout our history? How many ordinary Americans, especially the white working class, women, and people of color have ever had real representation of their experiences and views on the Supreme Court? Shouldn’t we be a little concerned that we are so lacking in representation in our most powerful unelected political body? One way to make our Constitution better is to have the current interpretation of our most important constitutional questions be more representative, at a minimum if we are to be a real democracy. Surely we can find excellent legal minds among ordinary folks who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieved a university and then later a legal education. It shouldn’t take an exclusively ivy league path (which is as much a reflection of parents’ socioeconomic status as it is of talent and ability) to play a part in this important institution. Since our founding we have only had three people of color ever sit on our most powerful and unelected political body. Only one woman of color, no Asians, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, black women, etc….. This is the body that interprets and extends the Constitution for the modern era. Yet it is still 67 percent white men, and white men only make up 35 percent of the US population now. So, the supreme court is a very unrepresentative body, and this is the body interpreting the Constitution for the contemporary era.
In attempting to articulate the elements of how to make a better Constitution, I’m really talking about how to make a more just, equitable, and inclusive society. Looking to our original principles that have characterize our nations can provide the building blocks on which we can continue to improve America. My ideas for a better Constitution are based on the belief that we can continue to make society better through sound policy commitments such as detailed by FDR and through making the supreme court justices charged with determining not only how to interpret the Constitution but what issues to focus on be more representative of America.
We have come a long way from what was established by the Framers 223 years ago in our Constitution. “We the people” now includes more of us than ever before. Yet we still have a long way to go for full social and political incorporation—especially among the poor, immigrants, and among people of color. The principles of “establishing justice,” or “the blessings of liberty” that are found in the preamble of the Constitution are really good ones. However, we must have the wisdom and courage to continue to seek ways to improve our government, our legal structure, our commitments to one another by extending the promise of them to more people in our society. It is my hope that my students, my children, and new immigrants to our community will live in a country that continues to strive for improvement. As long as we do this critically and lovingly we have a good reason to be proud to call America our home.