Whose Accent Counts? All Speak English with an Accent in the US?

San Luis, Arizona is a small border community (2009 population was 25,682) located on the southwest corner of the state. As is true in most Arizona border towns, its population is predominantly Latino (94%) and Spanish is the common language.

In an interview with the New York Times Archibaldo Gurrola, a local UPS deliveryman and former San Luis councilman, stated that

It’s strange to speak English here. Spanish is what you hear everywhere, maybe with some English thrown in.

Language and political hegemony go hand in hand, and thus it is not surprising that a 1910 act granting Arizona statehood includes a provision requiring that officeholders must perform their duties in English without the aid of a translator.

Alejandrina Cabrera was a candidate for a seat on the City Council and her English proficiency is limited. She is a U.S. citizen and a graduate from an Arizona high school. Apparently motivated by political rivalries, Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla filed a legal challenge to Mrs. Cabrera’s inclusion on the ballot on the grounds that her “lack” of full English proficiency disqualifies her from serving on the Council.

The case was brought up to the County Supreme Court. Judge John Nelson ordered a linguist to assess Mrs. Cabrera’s English proficiency. The linguist, William G. Eggington, who originates from Australia, determined that Mrs. Cabrera

does not yet have sufficient English language proficiency to function adequately as an elected City Council member.

Mrs. Cabrera noted that she was thrown off by Professor Eggington’s accent at least once. He asked her about summer, which he pronounced “summa.” That is the sobriquet for the nearby community of Somerton, causing Mrs. Cabrera to be utterly confused.

On January 25 Judge Nelson agreed with Professor Eggington’s recommendation and ruled that Mrs. Cabrera be struck from the ballot. Her lawyers said that they might appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Open Thread: Getting White People to Confront History

Earlier today, I got into an interesting exchange about white people confronting (or not) a history that may make them “feel bad.”  The discussion was prompted by a post over at The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he writes the following:

It is often said that Americans aren’t interested in history, but I think it’s more accurate to say that people–in general–aren’t interested in history that makes them feel bad. We surely are interested in those points of history from which we are able to extract an easy national glory–our achievement of independence from the British, the battle of Gettysburg, our fight against Hitler, and even the campaign of nonviolence waged by Martin Luther King. For different reasons, each of these episodes can be fitted for digestibility. More importantly that can be easily deployed in service our various national uses. Thus it is not so much that we are against history, as we are in favor of a selective history. The fact is that Martin Luther King is useful to us, in a way that Bayard Rustin is not (yet.)

The ongoing dilemma for me, and from the looks of my Twitter timeline – lots of other folks, is how to get white people to confront a history of race and racism that “makes them feel bad” ?

This is something I’ve written about before.  The fact is that whites as a population are implicated in the racist past and present of the U.S. Yet, whites in general, but perhaps especially white liberals and white anti-racists, want to place themselves at the heroic center of any narrative (i.e., The Help) about racism or equate their experiences with those of people of color.  How can we get past this barrier of “feeling bad” about history with white allies in order to move toward racial justice?

Drop a suggestion in the comments thread. Look forward to your ideas.

Comments are now closed on this post.

Hull House Dies After 122 Years

Sadly, the most famous anti-poverty institution created in the United States had to close–the very influential Hull House in Chicago (now a National Historic Landmark). This settlement house was founded in the late 1880s by Jane Addams, an American mostly known as a social worker but who was also a famous sociologist (much published in sociology journals) and leading social justice activist and author. (See the excellent books of sociologist Mary Jo. Deegan.)

Addams is one of only two sociologists to win a Nobel Prize (for peace activities in the World War I era). Numerous other women, white and black, helped set up Hull House and run it effectively in early decades. Eventually serving thousands weekly, it has continued to have an important impact locally and nationally to its closing this week.

Addams and the pathbreaking white and black women professionals at Hull House played an important role in supporting the research and career of the young Harvard Ph.D., W. E. B. Du Bois, the great sociologist, historian, and activist whose influence continues to impact critical theorists and analysts of U.S. racism. They helped him in his research for the first sociological book that detailed urban racial issues, The Philadelphia Negro, and invited him to Hull House for lectures and consultation. These women were very important in the development of the first important graduate department of sociology at the University of Chicago, where some taught for a time.

An associated press report noted that Hull House had a very high demand these days from poor Chicagoans, some 60,000 a year being served, but had to close and suddenly lay off hundreds because it could not get enough funding in this economic depression. Not surprisingly, they were devastated, as are many of their many clients:

“It’s been my life,” said Dianne Turner, who spent 25 years teaching families in Chicago housing projects how to break the cycle of poverty. “It wasn’t about the pay. It was about seeing a family go from feeling hopeless to being hopeful and feeling like they can do things. …[She] said the organization helped teach her the value of education, how to save money and how to be a leader.
. . . . Regina Boyd, who has been a housing case manager at Hull House … said. “But I love the legacy of Jane Addams, and I’m hoping that someone or something comes along,” to continue that legacy. I feel her spirit. Her legacy is not over in my heart and spirit. It’s not.”

This seems another major sign of our declining times in terms of social justice efforts, unfortunately. Many in this society, and especially much of the white elite that runs key sectors, seem to have lost their moral sense of what a healthy and just society should be. Serving the poor and troubled Americans with meaningful programs aimed at support, survival, and/or socioeconomic mobility are essential, in my view, to the future of any society committed to social justice. And the end of Hull House also marks the end of a key intellectual institution that fostered much early social science research on Chicago, helped to create modern sociology as a discipline, and stimulated much local and national thinking about social justice, including in regard to racism and sexism.

Ghost of Christmas Past: Racism & Divisiveness in the Republican Party

Have you ever been somewhere or doing something and thought to yourself, “This is strangely familiar. I have been here before, right?” The American comic Steven Wright once said, “Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time.” At this moment in time, this quote holds true for the current process of nominating the Republican Great White Hope nominee. Even though I was not around during the 1940s and 1950s (thank God, I do not know if I would have been tough enough), I am feeling as if our country has been here before, politically and socially.

For me, I have seen this before with the political career of provocative Strom Thurmond. In the beginning, he was known as a progressive legislator with the Democratic Party. Although a racist Dixiecrat, he was once responsible for arresting members of a lynch mob that killed a Black man named Willie Earle in South Carolina. For his pursuit in this matter, he was congratulated by the NAACP.

Later as a presidential candidate in 1948, he began to change his proverbial tune. In order to win, he realized that the nation was negatively reacting to the actions of President Harry Truman and the general Civil Rights movement that was occurring in the U.S. He loudly played to the fear and hatred being felt by Whites. As the presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond won an astounding 39 electoral votes. The formula worked and he continued on this road to later be elected in 1954 to the U.S. Senate. Later in 1964, he even switched parties.

Today, the spirit of Strom Thurmond is present within the current Republican Party nomination process. The likes of Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul have all had their turn publicly battering people of color and the poor to the jeers of misguided conservatives who have felt that their country has been stripped from their White hands by a Black man.

Instead of explicitly spouting racist comments, their approach has been quite clever. Throughout the debates we have seen the emergence of exploiting the same “state rights” (10th Amendment) argument that was used to argue against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Simply, the candidates are utilizing the amendment that reserves rights to the state and its people and not to the federal government in order to rid the federal muscle protecting issues such as health care, abortion, immigration, new ID laws which make it difficult for marginalized populations to vote, and civil rights. This is a coded but clearly understood message that makes a call for times of yesterday.
A more explicit example of social ignorance that has been front and center during this election period can be found with Ron Paul and the evidence that has recently been discovered by the press. Ron Paul’s previous political newsletters have been shown to contain numerous statements marked by bigotry and racism. Even though Ron Paul and his supporters have claimed that many of the articles were written by others using his name, I still find him guilty of supporting the weight of what was said. He was a part of newsletters that called Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a “Radical black Anglican.” In addition, Ron Paul’s newsletter has been connected with:

• Arguing that whites should arm themselves due to the oncoming race war
• Agreeing with the racist findings and comments of eugenics advocate Jared Taylor
• Asserting young Black males, unlike their counterparts, should be tried in adult courts due to the fact that they are “big, strong, tough, scary, and culpable as any adult, and should be treated as such [http://www.tnr.com/sites/default/files/Sep92PolRepRacist_0.PDF]
• Defending the previous owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, when she referred to her players as “million dollar niggers.”

This is not to mention the fact that the newsletter agreed as well to her statements that held Hitler in high regard.

Moreover, during the greatly expected Republican debate in South Carolina, which happened to fall on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, racism and social ignorance were on full display. The Black moderator, and socially conservative Juan Williams, asked Newt Gingrich if he felt that his previously public comments relating to the need of Black Americans to demand jobs and not food stamps was insulting to the poor and Blacks. As Newt undauntedly said, “No, I don’t see that,” the crowd of mostly White participants erupted into cheers. As Juan attempted to push the matter further, the crowd booed and actually gave Newt a standing ovation.

What was equally upsetting was the fact that the other nominees said nothing. They stolidly stood silent as the social assault on the poor and people of color went down. They were all complicit in their silence to rhetoric that echoed white supremacy. Due to the lack of a critical examination by Matt Lauer or his other blockheaded news associates, I find them complicit as well. In my mind, they were all guilty of the message that was portrayed to the world. David Axelrod was correct when he said, “campaigns are like MRIs for the soul…” We as a country are truly diseased.

The GOP, the New York Times and the ‘Bog’ of Racism

As the Republican presidential context heats up, so does the racist rhetoric. And, in some quarters, white voters are giving that kind of rhetoric a standing ovation. Yet, The New York Times, the nation’s leading news organization, seems unwilling to clearly and unequivocally call out the obvious racism of the GOP.

(Image from CNN)

In an excellent piece at FAIR, Peter Hart writes that:

“When a Republican presidential candidate goes around talking about Barack Obama as the ‘food stamp president,’ eventually reporters are going to have to write about racism.”

That is, unless they’re writing for the NYTimes.  Last Thursday, (1/18/12), Jim Rutenberg had this to say about Newt Gingrich’s food stamp rhetoric:

Mr. Gingrich was clearly making the case that he is the candidate most able to take the fight to Mr. Obama in the fall, but he was also laying bare risks for his party when it comes to invoking arguments perceived to carry racial themes or other value-laden attack lines.

Hart’s take on the reporting here is, “this is the kind of language one expects to encounter when reporters have to figure out ways to talk about racism without calling it racism.” 

It’s also an excellent example of the kind of white racial framing that the NYTimes routinely offers readers. And, of course, this is no coincidence. The NYTimes is a HWO (historically white organization) serving a predominantly white readership. (If you have any doubts about how how white the NYTimes is, watch the documentary “Page One” for a glimpse of who’s running the shop there.) So, it makes sense that their reporting is from a white perspective for a white audience.

The NYTimes does not seem to have trouble acknowledging, at least on the opinion pages, the whiteness of the GOP candidates, most notably the unmitigated whiteness of Mitt Romney. (Yet, even in that article, the title is “What’s Race Got to Do With It?”  eliding a bit the thoroughly racial content of the article.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day (1/16/12), the NYTimes John Harwood reported on why several Republicans didn’t pursue the presidential nomination:

Political heavyweights who declined to enter the 2012 race all had uniquely personal reasons. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana faced family resistance; former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi feared being bogged down in the politics of race; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey doubted his readiness for the Oval Office.

Again, Harwood is side-stepping the obvious issue of racism here with the euphemism of “the politics of race.”  Those with a political memory longer than a minute will recall that just last year (2010), Barbour was extolling the supposed virtues of the white supremacist Citizens Council groups in Mississippi. In Barbour’s re-imagined civil rights history, these were anti-Klan activists, when of course, these were simply the suit-and-tie version of the KKK, founded to oppose school integration as critics pointed out at the time. Yet, the NYTimes obfuscates this with their description of the “bog” of racial politics.

Fortunately, there are excellent writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) who do not share the timidity of the NYTimes when it comes to the racism of the GOP. Coates writes:

“When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a ‘Food Stamp President,’ it isn’t a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggression. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest. They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind.”

Coates is right, of course. Those who stood and cheered Gingrich in South Carolina earlier this week were standing and cheering their own interests.  Gingrich’s performance in South Carolina is part of what prompted Chauncey DeVega to call this “air raid siren” racism (instead of “dog whistle” racism).

Rather than offer a scathing critique and analysis of this, the NYTimes gives the GOP and racism a pass.


Red Tails (the movie) and Racism

The famous moviemaker, George Lucas, has reported he could not get mainstream Hollywood studios to provide funding for his new movie, just out this weekend, called Red Tails. It deals with the famous African American fighter pilots in World War II, who went up against not only the Axis powers but also white racism throughout the U.S. military.

On The Daily Show, Lucas said the reason the movie could not get outside funding (he funded it himself) was contemporary white racism:

“This has been held up for release . . . since it was shot, I’ve been trying to get released ever since . . . . It’s because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all . . . .I showed it to all of them and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.”

A major New York Times story on the movie starts this way:

This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.” One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?”

Significantly, the rest of this article seems much more interested in Lucas, his older movies and lifestyle, and does not give us much more information on the funding racism, or indeed on the Tuskegee airmen themselves.

The movie features African American actors Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrence Howard, and is directed by African American director, Anthony Hemingway, something very rare for these blockbuster movies. Significantly, the movie is extremely rare in not having a central white figure who is key or saves the day, called the “white savior” phenomenon by scholars like Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon.

One news report at HuffingtonPost also noted that Lucas was afraid that if the movie did not do well, then it would affect other movies centered on black issues with numerous central black actors:

I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [ … $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions]. . . . I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are . . . . It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold.

Over at a new Tuskegee Airmen website, funded in part by a Lucas organization, we have this summary of who the “Tuskegee Airmen” were. They were

all who were involved in the so-called “Tuskegee Experience,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.

And the website is set up for

Honoring the accomplishments and perpetuating the history of African-Americans who participated in air crew, ground crew and operations support training in the Army Air Corps during WWII.

It is getting mostly poor mainstream reviews, as one can see from its 33 percent rating of the mostly white movie critics at rottentomatoes:

Despite a worthy fact-based story and obvious good intentions, Red Tails suffers from one-dimensional characters, corny dialogue, and heaps of clichés.

Apparently (I have not seen it yet) it also suffers from not digging enough into the structural racism that kept virtually all African Americans in the service then (and for many years after) in subordinated jobs in the military. Few got even the opportunities of the Red Tails. (For another take on this, see here.)

Yet also on the rottentomatoes website, the movie gets an 81 percent rating from the viewing public so far–One of the most dramatic critic-viewers differences ever seen at that reviewing website. If you go to see the movie, let us know your reaction to it, and especially how it deals with white racism in the military and World War II era.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: Why It Matters

Today, we mark the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The memorial is the first to honor an African American on the National Mall and its adjoining memorial parks and is the result of more than two decades of planning, fund-raising and construction. The efforts began early on by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity (King had been an active member). It was dedicated in October,2011, making today the first time that we’ve celebrated the holiday with a national monument in King’s honor.

Critics of the memorial, such as this one writing at The Economist, object to the memorial on both aesthetic and political grounds, calling it a ‘blockheaded’ design that is merely state-sponsored ‘propaganda,’ not in keeping with the values of equality that King championed. (One suspects that this critique is rooted as much in xenophobia about the Chinese sculptor and imported granite as it is in the objection to honoring King, but I digress.)

I couldn’t disagree more. I think the King memorial matters for our national conversation about race.


(Photo credit: Julie Netherland)

On a recent visit to the memorial, I was struck by conversations happening all around me about civil rights, about Dr. King’s legacy, about racial equality and justice. (There’s a great art / ethnographic project to be done here, setting up audio recorders to grab snippets of conversations heard around the memorial.)

Along with individual kids with their moms or dads, there were also small and large groups of students with teachers and guides, talking about the quotes by Dr. King etched in stone along the wall behind the large statue, using the monument as a way to teach about civil rights.

Given the monument’s significance as a place for enabling the ‘teachable moment,’ it’s also important to get it right.

One of the inscriptions on the monument reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.” The problem? King never said those words, at least, not exactly. The actual quote comes from this sermon about a eulogy someone might give at his funeral, and it goes like this:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

As Maya Angelou notes the shortened, paraphrased text misleads:  “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”

Secretary of the Interior Salazar has issued a statement saying that the quote will be corrected.

Perhaps most striking moment for me on my visit  was the scene inside the gift store near the monument. There are no t-shirts or mugs or bobble-head dolls inside, only books and DVDs about the civil rights movement and Dr. King, many of these children’s books. Because the memorial is part of the National Park Service, the bookstore is staffed by Park Rangers.

And, while I was there, you could hear the voice of a Park Ranger reading a children’s book about the civil rights movement to a group of school children sitting on the floor in a circle.

That’s why the monument is important. Attacking Dr. King and his legacy is a key strategy of opponents of civil rights.   It’s an object that officially recognizes King’s legacy and contribution to civil rights in the U.S., and it opens up a space for having a conversation about what the legacy means and how it’s relevant today.

And that, I think is priceless.

30 Americans: Celebrating African American Artists

There’s an excellent exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. called “30 Americans,” that celebrates several generations of African American artists. This short video (about a minute) offers a brief introduction from the curator:

30 Americans – Preview from Corcoran Gallery of Art on Vimeo.

When I visited the exhibition yesterday, I was moved by the work of artists Gary Simmons and Hank Willis Thomas. Both artists re-imagine the history of lynching in various ways that challenge the viewer to place themselves in this context. Simmons does this through his powerful “Duck, Duck, Noose” piece and Thomas through his “Strange Fruit.” Really powerful, highly recommended.