We Should Stop Celebrating Columbus

It’s that time of year again.  In midtown Manhattan, people are gearing up for the annual “Columbus Day Parade” which will disrupt traffic along 5th Avenue from 44th Street up to 72nd Street.  I won’t be joining in the celebration.

Like most school children in the U.S., I was taught the lie that Christopher Columbus was “an explorer” who “discovered America.”  It’s a lie that conveniently leaves out much of the truth about Columbus’ crimes against humanity.  And, this lie continues to be used by advertisers to sell products.  The spam from one retailer in my inbox this week featured the subject line, “Columbus Discovered America, and You Can Discover Savings at Barnes & Noble.” Uhm, thanks but no thanks B&N.

While the local news stations here relentlessly refer to the parade as a “celebration of Italian heritage,” I think it’s long past time we reject the myth of Columbus “discovering America,” and instead, recognize the indigenous people who already lived in the U.S. when Columbus stumbled upon it.

Curley, member of the Crow nation

(Curley, member of the Crow nation: image source)

By celebrating Columbus, we replay the legacy of colonialism and genocide. Let’s be clear. Columbus was no hero and doesn’t deserve a celebration. The history of Columbus’ record of genocide is not in dispute. When he traveled to the Caribbean (he never stepped foot on the North American continent), there were something like 75 million indigenous people living here. Within a generation of his landing, perhaps only 5-10% of the entire American Indian population remained. When Columbus and the men who traveled with him under the Spanish flag returned to the area we now call the West Indies, they took the land and launched widespread massacres, including of children, a process they described as “pacification”. (For more on this history, see this, this and this.)

Yet, despite the genocide that followed in his wake, some see the embrace of Columbus as a national hero and the Columbus Day holiday as a response to racism and discrimination experienced by Italian immigrants here in the U.S.  Tommi Avicolli-Mecca writes:

I understand why Italian-Americans embraced Columbus. When we arrived in this country, we weren’t exactly greeted with open arms, any more than any other immigrants. There were NINA (No Italian Need Apply) notices in store windows, as well as lynchings in the South, where we were considered nonwhite.

And, like so many other holidays, this one is a bit misguided. In point of fact, Columbus is a man with a tenuous link to contemporary Italy.  As you’ll recall from the grade school rhyme, Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492; contemporary Italy wasn’t a country until 1861.

Still, I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be celebrating Italian Americans’ heritage and contributions to the U.S.  I just think we should be focusing on the radical tradition of some Italian Americans, such as Mario Savio, Vito Marcantonio, and Sacco and Vanzetti.

There is a strong, radical history among Italian Americans that has been largely forgotten.  In their book, The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism (Praeger 2003), Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, help uncover some of this history.  Their edited volume shows that in contrast to their present conservative image (cf. Carl Paladino’s anti-gay remarks), Italian Americans played a central role in the working-class struggle of the early twentieth century.  Italian Americans were leaders in major strikes across the country—notably the Lawrence textile strikes of 1912 and 1919, the Paterson silk strike of 1913, the Mesabi Iron Range strikes of 1907 and 1916, and the New York City Harbor strikes of 1907 and 1919, as well as coal mining strikes. They also made important contributions to American labor unions, especially the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the same time, they built vibrant radical Italian immigrant communities that replicated the traditions, cultures, and politics of the old country.  For example, Italian immigrants formed their own political and social clubs, mutual aid societies, alternative libraries and press, as well as their own orchestras and theaters, designed to promote and sustain a radical subculture.

This radical subculture of Italian Americans was oppositional to both the hegemonic culture sustained by prominenti (the powerful men of the Little Italys) and the dominant culture of capitalist America. Yet, for the most part, this radical tradition has been set aside in favor of the hagiography of Columbus and, frankly, the valorizing of settler colonialism.

In recent years, several cities have begun to reject the Columbus Day holiday, replacing it with Indigenous People’s Day.

Protest against Columbus Day in Seattle

(Protest in Seattle, 2014: image source)

Berkeley, California, was the first city to do so in 1992. Seattle and Minneapolis followed its lead in October 2014, generating the movement’s current momentum. Since then, seven more municipalities — including Lawrence, Kansas, Portland, Oregon, and Bexar County, Texas (where San Antonio is located)— have joined their ranks.

Whether to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, or the radical tradition of working class Italian Americans, it’s time to recognize that Columbus was no hero. We should stop celebrating him.

Trump’s Speech: Emoting White Supremacy

I just watched Donald J.Trump accept the GOP nomination and his speech was a delivery device for white supremacist rhetoric. Trump’s speech proved popular with that audience, as David Duke, noted white supremacist, tweeted his congratulations:

The language Trump used, terms like “too politically correct,” “law and order,” “war on police,” the “illegal immigrants spilling over” borders, murdering “innocent young girls,” and, of course, the repeated use of “our country” in an auditorium filled with whiter-shade-of-pale white people, are all dog whistles that signal a core white supremacist message: White people built this nation, white people are this nation.

Don’t believe me? Check this is line drawing:

white men buildings

The drawing originally appeared in Tom Metzger’s newsletter, W.A.R. (White Aryan Resistance), and I included it in my book, White Lies (Routledge, 1997).

Part of the argument I made in that book is that white supremacist rhetoric is gendered. That is, white men are viewed differently than white women. The second part is that the language used by extremists is actually echoed in the mainstream. So, for example, that image from Metzger is uncannily similar to this (recent) ad for a series on the History Channel:

men who built america

The message is the same in the extremist publication as in the television ad. Both put white people at the center of the narrative about the country’s history. (updated 9:10am to add:) This is also the same message that Steve King (R-IA) was making when he asked the (rhetorical) question: “where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”  And, Trump himself is a frequent re-tweeter of white supremacist accounts. One analysis estimates that a whopping 62% of Trump’s re-tweets are of accounts that have white supremacist connections.

Steve King on white people


It’s too easy to point and laugh at the white supremacists in the funny outfits (like Trump’s dad), while we fail to pay attention to the way white supremacy operates in our own institutions and families.

I called the book ‘white lies’ because such narratives distort the truth about whose labor actually built the wealth in this country: African, Latinx, Asian and Native people. That labor, and the wealth and products created by it, were routinely plundered by white people.

This is the lie of Trump’s speech, too.

As he would have it, white people (those in included in “our”) are somehow more entitled, deserving or worthy of being here than anyone else. It’s the idea at the heart of white supremacy. But, fact checking Trump doesn’t seem to be working..

One of the examples I used to make my case about the connection between extremist and more mainstream rhetoric was Pat Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech, which declared that there was a ‘culture war’ for the ‘soul of America.’

Pat Buchanan was once considered on the far-right of the Republican party, but in the past few years, the party – not to mention the country as a whole – has tilted far to the right. Buchanan’s once extreme views, are now regarded as mainstream. And, tonight, Trump delivered what amounted to a ‘dumbed down’ version of Buchanan’s 1992 speech.

What Trump is better at doing than most is emoting white supremacy. He’s galvanizing people based on feelings, not facts.

Trump wearing a hat

He ended his speech tonight with the repetition and variation on “Make America Great Again,” replacing great with Strong, Proud, and Safe. The fact that Trump’s message has been so effective with 14 million people suggests that there are lots of people who are feeling weak, ashamed, and afraid.

Sociologist Thomas Scheff, who studies emotions, argues that the emotion of ‘shame’ is perhaps the most powerful feeling and that it runs underneath many social problems. Most violence, he argues, is caused by a response to shame. It’s my guess that this undergirds much of Trump’s appeal, particularly around race. The line about “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” is a way of saying, “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of the offensive things I say or do.”

Is there a political strategy to galvanize a set of emotions that run counter to the fear that he is spinning into political gold? I don’t know, but desperately wish I did.

Ida B. Wells — Happy Birthday Today!

[Note: We are repeating this 2008 review of a biography of Ida B. Wells on her birthday today. And in honor of her central role in founding a very early Black Lives Matter movement.]

There is a new biography out about Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and one of the founders of the NAACP. The biography, called IDA: A Sword Among Lions, is written by Paula Giddings (who also wrote When and Where I Enter), and promises to be the definitive biography of Wells. It’s just been released, so I haven’t read it yet, but it’s at the top of my reading list once my current book project is complete. Here’s the excellent review the Washington Post written by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a professor of history at Yale (rather than posting an excerpt, I’m including the entire review here because it’s so well done, book cover image from the same source):

Ida B. Wells was in England in 1894 when she heard that white Southerners had put a black woman in San Antonio, Tex., into a barrel with “nails driven through the sides and then rolled [it] down a hill until she was dead.” The 31-year-old Wells, a black Southerner, was seasoned to the widespread phenomenon of mob torture and murder that went by the shorthand “lynching”; in fact, she was abroad on a speaking tour denouncing it. Nonetheless, she shed tears over the latest “outrage upon my people.”

Her call to speak out against lynching had come just two years earlier, when a Memphis mob murdered her close friend and neighbor Thomas Moss. The incident started as a dispute among white and black boys playing marbles, but it quickly evolved into an excuse to murder Moss, a successful businessman who was drawing patrons away from a nearby white grocer.

White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to: when black men threatened, assaulted and raped white women. Wells was determined to expose that lie. As the murders of the woman in the barrel and Thomas Moss attest, white Southerners also killed black women and economically threatening black men. And even when the mobs tore apart a black man who had been found with a white woman, it wasn’t always rape. Sometimes, Wells declared in print, the man was not “a despoiler of virtue,” but had succumbed “to the smiles of white women.” Her editorial in Free Speech, the black weekly she co-owned in Memphis, led white residents to destroy the newspaper’s office and threaten to kill her. But even after she was forced into exile from the South, she continued to proclaim — as a banner headline over one of her articles in a New York paper declared in 1892 — “The Truth About Lynching.”

For speaking plainly about rape, sex and murder, Wells lost her home and her livelihood. For the rest of her life, she had to defend her reputation against both white and black people who called her a “negro adventuress” and “Notorious Courtesan.” A black newspaper editor suggested that the public should “muzzle” that “animal from Memphis,” and the New York Times dubbed her “a slanderous and dirty-minded mulatress.”

Wells was an orphan and a poor, single woman who supported her younger brothers and sisters through teaching and journalism. She recognized that “my good name was all that I had in the world,” yet she would not be silenced. Wells used words to fight white Southern lynch mobs, an indifferent white Northern public and, sometimes, black critics who felt that her outspokenness undermined their agenda. Southern white supremacy was cruel and crazy, and she was the rare person who could see beyond the cultural insanity in which she was immersed. For that she paid dearly.

Paula J. Giddings tells several larger stories as she narrates Wells’s life. Foremost among these interventions is a history of lynching and opposition to it. She spares no details as she tracks the development of spectacle lynchings at the turn of the century, when lynching became a premeditated act, hundreds of people converged on the scene, and the mob sometimes tortured the victim all day before killing him or her in the evening.

In exploring Wells’s early life — she was born to enslaved parents in 1862 in Holly Springs, Miss. — Giddings also paints a rich portrait of black life during Reconstruction. She movingly recounts dashed African American hopes in Tennessee in the 1880s and ’90s as white Southerners tightened segregation. Wells, for one, refused to accept it. When told to move to a blacks-only train car, she refused, bit the conductor as he threw her off the train, filed suit against the railroad and won $500 in damages.

Finally, Ida becomes a national history as Giddings skillfully recounts the great migration of Southern African Americans to Northern cities in the first decades of the 20th century. Wells moved from Memphis to New York to Chicago, where she married attorney Ferdinand Lee Barnett Jr. in 1895. There she confronted a new set of problems as a social worker and neighborhood organizer, but she also gained a modicum of power through local politics and women’s suffrage. Giddings describes the tensions within the black women’s club movement, which fought locally and nationally to ameliorate Jim Crow, and excels in portraying the sexism of black male civil rights activists and their white allies.

Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves. She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly. Ida gradually brings us to see the world through Wells’s eyes; as she shops for a new seersucker suit that we know she can’t afford or feels betrayed when fellow activists try to leave her off the list of founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we come to love this brave and wise woman.

Read it and weep. Then give it to the last person who told you that ideals are a waste of time.

Can’t wait to read it. [edited to add the next paragraph…thanks to Joe for the suggestion.]

Wells, when she is recognized, is usually acknowledged as a journalist and an activist, but she was also an important early sociologist and social theorist. Kathy Henry, in a sociological analysis of her feminist and anti-racist ideas writes:

“In the latter part of nineteenth century, social theories from Ida B. Wells-Barnett were forceful blows against the mainstream White male ideologies of her time. . . . Wells-Barnett’s social theory is considered to be a radical non-Marxian conflict theory with a focus on a “pathological interaction between differences and power in U.S. society. A condition they variously label as repression, domination, suppression, despotism, subordination, subjugation, tyranny, and our American conflict.” (Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1998, p.161). Her social theory was also considered “Black Feminism Sociology,” and according to Lengerman and Niebrugge-Brantley (1998), there was four presented themes within the theory: one, her object of social analysis and of a method appropriate to the project; two, her model of the social world; three, her theory of domination and four, her alternative to domination. Although those four themes were present in her theory, one could assume that the major theme above the four was the implication of a moral form of resistance against oppression, which is not farfetched seeing that oppression was the major theme in her life.”

Wells’ life and social thought are important examples of taking race and gender into account simultaneously.

Hillary Clinton’s Nomination: A Victory for White Feminism

Hillary Rodham Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for President of the United States. This achievement is being heralded as a victory because she has broken the glass ceiling for all women. But her victory is really a win for white feminism.

Hillary on NYDaily News(The June 08, 2016 cover of the New York Daily News)

Clinton’s campaign is a boon to white feminists who want to see themselves represented in the highest office in the US and want to read into that a symbol of progress for all women, but what has gone mostly unacknowledged is that the group who benefits most from her candidacy is white women. It is white women who will benefit most from a Clinton presidency.

Indeed, if her inner circle of 2016 campaign advisors is any indication of who she will appoint once in office, it is mostly white men, a few white women, and one or two women of color that she will bring with her.

Some people on the left have critiqued her corporate-themed version of feminism, including just some of this run-down on Clinton’s résumé to date (which I mentioned when she announced):

  • Despite trumpeting her work on behalf of “mothers and children,” she and her husband worked to reduce federal assistance to women and children living in poverty. In her book,Living History, Clinton touts her role: “By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent.”  This 60% drop was not due to a 60% decrease in poverty. Instead, it was a reduction in federal benefits to those living in poverty, many of them working poor, like those employed at Wal-Mart.
  • Clinton sat on the board of Wal-Mart between 1986 and 1992, where she says she learned a lot from Sam Walton, and she remained silent while the corporation fought the unionization of its workers.
  • In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she notes that it was Hillary Clinton who lobbied Congress to expand the drug war and mass incarceration in ways that we continue to live with today, and that have a significantly more harmful impact on black and brown people than white people. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, people of color are much more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record due to being unfairly targeted for drug law violations. Even though white people and people of color use drugs at about the same rates, it is black and brown people’s bodies that continue to fuel the machine of mass incarceration.
  • As Secretary of State, Clinton left a legacy that included both a hawkish inclination to recommend the use of military force coupled with  “turning the state department into a machine for promoting U.S. business.”  This does not bode well for black and brown people in other parts of the world, since the US is not likely to attack Western Europe under a (second) Clinton presidency, but some region of the world with people who do not have light-colored skin tones.

As author Naomi Klein noted last night on Twitter, Hillary Clinton is a plutocrat and there’s little joy in her victory for those who are critical of the damaging elite interests she represents.



Now, before the “but-she’s-better-than-Trump” crowd comes through, let me explain something. This is the cover that the NY Daily News was going to run today, instead of the one above:

I'm with Racist cover NY Daily News

And, indeed, the presumptive nominee for the Republican party is an overt, vulgar racist who is appealing to disturblingly wide swaths of the American populace. But note how whiteness operates here: the overt racism of Trump is upstaged by the white feminism of Hillary, in NY Daily News covers and in headlines throughout the news cycle, and we’re all expected to cheer. In large measure, it’s Trump’s style that so many on the right are drawn to and so many on the left are put off by. When was the last time you heard “vulgar” as a term discussed by the mainstream press?)

Here in the US, we prefer our racism to be less vulgar, hidden in the passive voice of public policy, and administered politely by a white woman.

Hillary Clinton’s form of feminism is the latest iteration in a long history of similarly situated white women here in the US and within colonialism, as I’ve chronicled in the trouble with white feminism series. Her presidency may, in fact, be better for the US than a Trump presidency. It’s hard to argue otherwise. But make no mistake: Hillary Clinton’s presidency will not decenter whiteness any more than a Trump presidency would.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the democratic party candidate represents is a victory for white women and a particular kind of white feminism that universalizes white women’s experience. If that’s what you’re celebrating, then have the clarity to acknowledge that. If you’re voting for Hillary, then acknowledge that you’re voting for her hawkish war record, her Wal-Mart board membership, her dumping people off of welfare rolls, her fondness for incarceration as a solution to social problems she helped create, her war on drugs. Just don’t ask me to celebrate – or vote – with you. This is the worst of all possible worlds, and the choice between Trump’s vulgar, overt racism and Clinton’s polite, public policy racism is no choice at all.

St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Americans and the Shifting Boundaries of Whiteness

Tomorrow in New York City, in Boston and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

Protestors Force Cancelation of Trump Rally in Chicago

The activists at University of Illinois-Chicago, where Trump had scheduled a rally, effectively shut it down yesterday. When the rally was abruptly canceled at the last minute, Trump supporters and protestors clashed. Several people were injured.

This brief video puts the events of last night into some context of Trump’s escalating remarks at recent rallies (12:50 with a :30 advertisement at the beginning):

As this timeline created by Maddow’s production team illustrates, the rhetoric of Donald Trump is escalating and is now, pretty plainly, inciting violence among his supporters. Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric reaches beyond his rallies. Just two weeks ago, white high school students attending their school’s basketball game chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump” as way to intimidate their mostly Latino opponents on the other team.

What the clip by Maddow doesn’t mention is the way that mainstream news outlets, including MSNBC which airs her show, are complicit in this. The television news outlets give Trump free air time because it is good for their ratings. And, of course, it benefits Trump’s campaign. According to one estimate from January this year, Fox News alone has given Trump the equivalent of more than $30 million in free air time.

Because these events happened in Chicago at an event related to a presidential campaign, many people in the US were reminded of the violence against protestors at the 1968 Democratic Chicago convention. While this became a turning point in American politics, I don’t think this is the most apt comparison.

I think that Trump’s candidacy, and the appeal to his supporters, speaks to a much more sinister comparison. As Brent Staples, writing at the New York Times, recently pointed out, Trump’s rhetoric harkens back to reconstruction era politics. Here is Staples, and it’s worth quoting him at length:

Antigovernment and militia groups have grown rapidly since 2008. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups, reported that the antigovernment militia movement had undergone a resurgence, fueled partly “by fears of a black man in the White House.” And for proof of violence like that of the Reconstruction era, look no further than the young white supremacist who is charged with murdering nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., last summer.

This is the backdrop against which Donald Trump blew a kiss to the white supremacist movement during a television interview by refusing to disavow the support of the white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Republican Party leaders in Congress wagged their fingers and delivered pro forma denunciations. What they need to understand is this: Racial hatred is a threat to the country and their party’s leading candidate is doing everything he can to profit from it.

That’s what Donald Trump is doing with this increasingly violent and hate-filled rhetoric, he’s “blowing a kiss to the white supremacist movement.” This is the GOP frontrunner and presumptive nominee for president of the US. These are dire times.

What the protests at the rally last night in Chicago showed is that it is possible for people to stand up against the bigotry and hatred of Trump and his supporters. It’s not just possible, it’s necessary.

The Trouble with Cisgender White Feminists

With her out-sized trans* visibility, retrograde politics, and gender performance, it is difficult for many cisgender white feminists to make sense of Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Cover

(image source)

(Aside: This is probably where I should disclose that I am white, sometimes identify as a feminist, and am cisgender. I also identify as lesbian, queer and femme and have a long-term partner who is GNC. I come at this critique and all my work through a lens that places critical race theory at the beginning of the analysis. This post follows on a recent one about Caitlyn Jenner, which is part of If on-going series I write called The Trouble with White Feminism, you might want to check it out.) 

In June, 2015 journalist and film producer, Elinor Burkett publishedher response to Jenner’s announcement of her gender transition, “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times. The piece caused an uproar. In it, Burkett confided that she, and “many women I know,” “speak privately about how insulting we find the language trans activists use to explain themselves.” In Burkett’s view, the rhetoric of transitioning from one gender to another does not give enough heed to the social construction of gender, but relies on a kind of biological determinism. To make this argument, she relied on an analogy with race:

The “I was born in the wrong body” rhetoric favored by other trans people doesn’t work any better and is just as offensive, reducing us to our collective breasts and vaginas. Imagine the reaction if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community.

Burkett’s objection seems to be that even though gender is not reducible to mere biology (breasts and vaginas), it is also not so easily changed. It is curious that she reaches to an analogy with race here. Curious because race is mentioned nowhere else in her piece, and race doesn’t seem to be a pressing concern for Burkett except as it is useful to make the real point she wants to drive home here, which is about gender. What Burkett’s analogy between gender and race reveals is Burkett’s lack of understanding of how race affects her, and how it is interwoven with gender. Burkett is a cisgender woman, not only a woman, she is also white. Her whiteness influences her perspective as much as her gender and her feminism, but it is little examined here. Her faulty reasoning-by-analogy is especially ironic in hindsight, as it was a short week later that Rachel Dolezal emerged as someone who had done just what Burkett set out as preposterous.

Burkett mis-genders Jenner throughout the piece (calling her “him” “Mr.” and “Bruce” throughout) – a practice trans* activists have dubbed deadnaming.  In Burkett’s view, the primary offense of Caitlyn Jenner was an insufficiently feminist approach to the performance of gender, she ends the piece upbraiding Jenner for a fond reference to nail polish, saying “Nail polish does not a woman make.”

Burkett’s is a nasty response, but not an unfamiliar one. For US-based, second wave, cisgender, straight white feminists, like Burkett or like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, femininity was key part of what they were struggling against. For cisgender, straight, white women who came of age at the height of Playboy culture, rejecting the trappings of (heterosexual) femininity was a crucial form of resistance.

Gloria Steinem bunny

(image source)

A Bunny’s Tale,  Gloria Steinem’s indictment from within a bunny suit of the Playboy culture and that particular form of femininity, was a touchstone for many feminists of that generation. What the cisgender white feminists tend to miss is that this form of femininity was not available to all women. This is not to diminish how oppressive some women find make-up and high heels, but this is not a universal experience. Julia Serrano, who identifies as trans*, argues that femininity has been scapegoated and should be reclaimed and celebrated. But hers is an unusual voice among white feminists. Many more agree with Burkett.

Even acclaimed scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling found herself agreeing with Burkett’s critique of femininity:

“I do not identify with the culturally feminine. I don’t wear make-up or high heels or dresses. I have always viewed the dominant presentation of the feminine woman–as someone physically weak, dependent and physically impeded by tight clothing and high heels–as disempowering…”

Fausto-Sterling then posted a series of disastrous Tweets, and sought to correct them through a longer blog post. In that post, Fausto-Sterling says:

The visual pin-up-girl presentation of the ultra-feminine Caitlyn Jenner in the pages of Vanity Fair did not fill my heart with joy. After my fateful tweets some of my correspondents directed me to Julia Serrano’s defense of femininity and I am struggling both to understand her position and to decide whether I agree with it or whether it is possible to embrace parts of it.

This is a common mistake of a white feminism. It wants to herald “all women” as sharing some universal experiences that should unify us all. It’s what was behind that hashtag, #YesAllWomen.

(image source)

This is the kind of faulty logic that is behind Madeleine Albright’s quip, “There is a special place reserved in hell for women that do not help other women.” While she was recently made to apologize for the remark when she said it at a rally for Hillary Clinton, in years past it was a favorite line of hers and even printed on Starbucks coffee cups. But, what does the category ‘woman’ mean when cisgender, straight, white feminists use it?

As the posts and graphics in support of International Women’s Day floated through my social media timelines earlier this week, I wondered who they meant. Certainly not me. As someone who identifies as queer and lesbian, the category ‘woman’ as most people use the term, barely adheres to me. French feminist theorist Monique Wittig wrote:

“for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.”

Wittig was writing at the peak of radical lesbian feminism and her words may seem shocking today, but they still resonate for me. The category woman as many cisgender feminists mean it, is not one that resonates for me. I am far removed – by my own design – from the dangers inherent in heterosexual systems (e.g., violence against women, unintended pregnancy, the need for abortion). I certainly stand in solidarity with those who live within that system, but it’s not my life. I am not a ‘woman’ in that way.

I also identify as a queer femme, so the kinds of insults hurled at Caitlyn Jenner for her performance of femininity could have just as easily been thrown at me. And yet, I am a cis white woman, which carries all kinds of privilege with it. This, too, troubles the simplistic category of ‘woman’ used by cisgender white feminists like Burkett.

Lesli-Ann Lewis, writing at Ebony, explains this disconnect she experiences reading Burkett:

Burkett’s White cis middle class womanhood looks nothing like my Black poor cis womanhood, and that her issues are not my issues. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a meeting and have my breasts discussed because I’m not invited to those meetings. With natural hair and a state college education, I’m not let in to make those $0.75 to a man’s dollar. Most Black women do not. She discusses periods and birth control as defining difficulties of womanhood, but the women I know have found their womanhood rooted in deeper, more communal issues. Becoming a Black woman in America means worrying for yourself and your loved ones when they go out, for fear of police.

Understanding police violence as every bit as foundational to womanhood is beyond the scope of conventional formulations of cisgender white feminism. Instead, cisgender white feminists insist on critiquing trans* women for their expression of femininity.

When Allure magazine ran a stunning, mostly nude photo of Laverne Cox, cis white feminist Megan Murphy lost it.

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Murphy called Cox’s photo a “cartoonish version” of what a woman looks like, “like any other objectified female body, sculpted by surgery and enhanced by Photoshop.” Murphy, like Burkett, critiques a trans* woman’s expression of femininity as part of that oppressive system of representation that (some) feminists want to break free from. But such a critique misses more than it offers. Here is Lesli-Ann Lewis again:

Critiquing marginalized women for embracing femininity is tone deaf as it ignores our history of being denied femininity.

Lewis is on point here. The critique of femininity by cis white feminists assumes that everyone – all women – have had femininity thrust upon them, that it has oppressed universally. But some of us have been denied femininity, or had it twisted and turned against us.

Cis white feminists critiquing the femininity of trans* women of color such as Laverne Cox are displaying a kind of ignorance that is fostered by whiteness. Accustomed to taking their experience as women, without regard to race (or class), and then universalizing that to all women, they call for a feminism that shores up whiteness. It’s a feminism I want no part of. I’ll be standing with the trans* queer and gender-non-conforming folks of all races who want to get free. Some of us will be wearing nail polish.

The Trouble with White Women: Caitlyn Jenner Edition

Caitlyn Jenner is doing quite well for herself.  Her visibility, and the responses to it, raises some troubling issues about white women and white feminism.

Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports(Caitlyn Jenner for HM Sports, image source)

At a time in LGBTQ politics when Janet Mock, Laverne Cox (both African American) and Caitlyn Jenner (white) are making transgender women more visible, it is Caitlyn Jenner who secured the cover of Vanity Fair (photographed by Annie Leibowitz) for the announcement of her gender transition. Jenner also has her own reality-based tv show, “I Am Cait”, and is racking up major endorsement contracts, most recently with MAC cosmetics and HM Sports. While Jenner’s already-existing celebrity status – as a former Olympic athlete and an adjunct member of the Kardashians – has helped to launch her new career, it is her whiteness that has helped her monetize her gender transition.

Caitlyn Jenner and Donald Trump

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Since being catapulted into the media-designated spokesperson for trans* people, Caitlyn Jenner has voiced her ardently conservative views and declared her support for Republican party presidential candidates, recently offering to be Ted Cruz’s “trans ambassador.”

On a recent episode of her show, Jenner said Trump would be “would be very good for women’s issues” (although she doesn’t like his ‘macho attitude’). A group of mostly white ‘gal pals’ of transgender women try to coax her out of her support for Republicans and her misguided belief that they don’t have anything against transgender people. It’s this construction of Caitlyn Jenner in the role of “student,” or “anti-hero” in the narrative of the show that Zack Ford calls “brilliant” :

There’s something brilliant about the fact that this is a show with a cast made up entirely of transgender women who are speaking openly about their experiences and calling out problematic anti-trans rhetoric without it feeling like an after-school special. Even if Jenner plays the foil for these discussions, she’s also still the reason that they’re taking place and that hundreds of thousands of people are watching them.

Perhaps so. I agree that it’s a good thing that Caitlyn and her antagonists can discuss the dire implications of Republican policies for transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) people, such as the wretched bathroom policy in Houston, for a wide audience.

Caitlyn and pals

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Part of the trouble with  “I Am Cait”, is to join trans* identity with whiteness, wealth and a particular kind of gender identity. In her show, the trouble with white women expands the franchise to include trans* women.

As generative as the conversations on her show about trans* issues may be, they do little to address the systemic racism which leads to the disproportionate murders of trans* women of color. Statistics on this are hard to come by because most federal surveys designed to estimate populations simply don’t account for trans* people, according to the Williams Institute. According to one estimate, 22 trans* women of color were murdered in 2015. The actual number is likely far higher.

Although Caitlyn says she favors the Republicans for their economic agenda, she and her pals are not talking about how this agenda affects the economic precarity of trans* people.The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 26% of trans people lost a job due to bias, 50% were harassed while at work, and 78% of trans* students were harassed or assaulted. Joblessness among transgender people is around 14%, double the national average (for 2011). Black trans* people had double that rate, 28% unemployment, according to an NGLTF survey.

Preston Mitchum notes many of these same critiques of Jenner but argues that we, as cisgender LGB people, are too hard on her. He writes:

What’s frightening is that when we reach our social justice journeys, we often expect others to immediately be on the ride, despite the fact that it takes most of us a lifetime to get where we are.

To be sure, Jenner is ‘not a perfect advocate’ for LGBTQ rights and I agree with Mitchum here. We are all on a journey, and Jenner seems to be new to thinking about social justice issues. There’s a way in which Jenner gets held to a different standard because she is in the spotlight.

My critique is less about her as an individual and what her ascendance means for the culture. What’s happening with the rise of Caitlyn Jenner as media-designated spokesperson on all things LGBTQ furthers an equation of ‘whiteness’ and ‘queerness.’

Caitlyn Jenner is now part of a larger cultural apparatus that produces whiteness. Which bodies do we mean when we say trans*,  LGBT, or queer? Often, they are white. And this affects how we view the world. As Hiram Perez writes:

“Queer theorizing, as it has been institutionalized, is proper to—and property to—white bodies.” 

Caitlyn Jenner as hypervisible trans* woman and corporate pitch-person reinforces this circuit of queerness, whiteness and property.

Scholar and activist Cathy Cohen describes the time we are living in as one of “multicultural neoliberalism,” characterized by:

a sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.

As a response, Cohen calls for transformational politics and substantive solidarity, and urges an embrace of deviance. Juxtaposed to Cohen’s lucid naming of the moment, it’s here that we see the real contrast to Caitlyn Jenner’s politics. Based on her public persona, Jenner is not interested in a socially transformative politics nor is she interested in a substantive solidarity with black or brown or poor trans* people, nor does she seem to be interested in an embrace of deviance.

My point is not that Jenner is a less-than-perfect advocate for LGBTQ rights, but a subtler one. Part of Caitlyn Jenner’s success is her ability to fit rather seamlessly into the cultural apparatus of whiteness. It is whiteness that has also enabled Jenner to monetize her gender transition via large endorsement contracts. And, given her embrace not a rather conventional performance of femininity, she has reaped certain cultural and monetary rewards (e.g., Vanity Fair cover). 

And this is where Caitlyn Jenner poses a dilemma for cisgender, mostly straight, white feminists. Next in this series, I write about the trouble that cisgender white feminists have with Caitlyn Jenner.

Melissa Harris-Perry: Public Intellectual

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I’m more than a little heartbroken at the news today about Melissa Harris-Perry’s departure from MSNBC. Her show is set to record on my DVR each weekend. Mostly on weekends, I’m running errands or sometimes at church or just somewhere else when her show airs but I always – always – watch it later (skipping the commercials, thank you DVR). Harris-Perry’s has become for me a kind of touchstone for Where We Are Now in the nation in terms of race, gender and a range of social justice issues. Melissa Harris-Perry is also a the North Star for what it means to  a scholar-activist-journalist in the digital era.

“Probably my biggest angst about being an academic is that question of whether or not it makes a difference beyond just your students in the classroom,” Harris-Perry said during a 2012 interview.

Melissa Harris-Perry is, in many ways, a 21st century scholar-activist. She is a respected scholar, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, an activist, and until this weekend, her eponymous talk show on the MSNBC news network gave her a wide reach beyond the traditional classroom.

Calling Harris-Perry the “foremost public intellectual today,” Ta-Nehisi Coates described her show this way:

“[it] brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions”.

Her weekend morning show routinely featured two hours of scholars, activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers from diverse range of backgrounds discussing the social issues of the day. To augment the conversation further, the show’s producers also curated a conversation on the Twitter hashtag #nerdland, evoking her – and her audience’s – identification as ‘nerds.’

Twenty years ago, leading academic thinker Ernest Boyer, in his famous remarks on the ‘scholarship of engagement’, conjured a show very much Harris-Perry’s when he sought to reimagine the weekend news show of that day, Washington Week in Reviewwhen he wrote:

I find it fascinating, for example, that the provocative Public Broadcasting Service program Washington Week in Review invites us to consider current events from the perspective of four or five distinguished journalists who, during the rest of the week, tend to talk only to themselves. I’ve wondered occasionally what Washington Week in Review would sound like if a historian, an astronomer, an economist, an artist, a theologian, and perhaps a physician, for example, were asked to comment (Boyer, 1996, p. 25).

What Boyer instinctively knew, and what Melissa Harris-Perry has demonstrated, is that there are productive, vibrant and interesting conversations to be had across traditional lines of journalism or academia and that at least some segment of the public is interested in listening to these. Harris-Perry extended this a step further by regularly inviting grassroots activists on to her show for conversation with journalists, scholars of all kinds, artists and filmmakers.

The fact that many of her guests were people of color, including many African American women, meant that Harris-Perry created a unique and much-needed space within the mostly white and male set of guests on mainstream and cable news shows. Each of her carefully curated and produced shows made liars out of those who only schedule white men (and some white women) as guests, experts and pundits because they “can’t find” people of color to book.

It may have been her critical stance on race and gender that MSNBC executives objected to. There are some reports suggesting that it was a proposed segment on the recent Beyoncé video that prompted MSNBC executives to cancel her show. Of course, Melissa Harris-Perry has not been with out her missteps on the race, such as the cringe-worthy interview with Rachel Dolezal.

Still, Melissa Harris-Perry’s critical and mostly spot-on takes about racism for four years at MSNBC have marked an important shift in the culture. For the four years her show was on the air, an African American woman and a public intellectual led a conversation that elevated the public sphere by bringing in new voices to the conversation that most cable news viewers rarely get to hear. Her show also did the kind of thing that Ernest Boyer imagined twenty years ago, by bringing together people from a range of backgrounds, scholars, activist, journalists and filmmakers.

The decision by MSNBC to effectively disappear Melissa Harris-Perry and her show is a loss for us all and diminishes the public sphere. It also serves as a reminder that being a public intellectual on a corporate-controlled platform is always a Faustian bargain.


2015 Year in Review

As 2015 comes to a close, this is my take on the most important trends and events of the last year in the ongoing struggle against racism.

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Black Lives Matter

What started as a hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2014, created by three Black, queer-identified women Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, has grown into a full-fledged social movement in 2015. The movement not only shows no signs of going away, it’s become a political force to be reckoned with.  Here, Shantel Buggs and Noel Cazenave wrote about the problems with the white counter-narrative of “all lives matter,” and Lessie Branchhttp://www.racismreview.com/blog/2015/09/06/elisabeth-hasselbeck-fox-and-hate-grouplabels/ wrote about the call from conservative media to have Black Lives Mattered declared a “hate group.”

 Racism on College Campus

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In March of this year, members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were captured on video singing a racist chant. The fraternity was eventually closed and two of the young men in the video were expelled from OU. Here, Edna Chun wrote about the lower salaries for faculty of color.

In the fall of this year, we witnessed the spread of the movement to college campuses. At the vanguard of this movement were the students at the University of Missouri, who galvanized their campus over the fall semester, ultimately leading to the ouster of the chancellor and a dean. Similar protests emerged at campuses across the U.S., including at Ithaca College, Smith College, Claremont McKenna College, and Yale University. At the University of Missouri, the tipping point of the protests seemed to be when the football team got involved and said they would refuse to play until the chancellor stepped down (he resigned a short time later).

Here, Darron Smith wrote about the long tradition of black athletes and social protest.  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva wrote a short piece about the “racial innocence game” that is used by whites to defend against charges of systemic racism on campuses.

Police Brutality & Murder

US police killings by race 2015

(image from The Counted, The Guardian)

Much of the social unrest in 2015 was driven by the systematic police brutality and murder of black people, particularly young, black men. The U.S. government does not collect data on murder by police, so it is left to journalists and activists and data scientists to do this important work, through projects like The Counted from The Guardian and Mapping Police Violence,

The situation of police violence in the U.S. is so egregiously in violation of international human rights standards, that in 2015 the United Nations made dozens of recommendations for eliminating racial discrimination and tackling excessive use of police force, including the creation of an independent commission to prosecute racially motivated crimes (which the U.S. declined to do).

Here, I wrote about why grand juries fail to indict officers, the fact that police-involved killings continue with no end in sight and police continue to get rewarded for killing citizens and what no one will say when a cop gets killed.

Terrorism, Islamophobia & White Supremacy

Terrorist attacks in Paris – in February and then again in November – led the headlines of global mainstream media outlets and fueled Islamophobia here in the U.S. The response to the attacks in February, in which many rallied around the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (for the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that was targeted) drew a good deal of criticism. Here, Raul Perez and Sean Elias both offered critical takes on the whiteness of the Je Suis Charlie marches, as well as the racism of the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

Je Suis Charlie protest in France

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Muslims of all nationalities are racialized in the U.S. lens, as Saher Selod explained here. This form of racism had deadly consequences for three Muslim Americans in , Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were shot and killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As the Syrian refugee crisis worsened, the racialization of Muslims did as well, as Dr. Terence Fitzgerald explained here.

Overall in the U.S. and beyond, there was a reluctance by government officials and reporters to call any acts of violence “terrorism” that involved white men (yes, they’ve all been men) doing the violence. I wrote about this reluctance to name white terrorism in the shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Spring and the deep roots in white supremacy of such acts, back in November.

Mass Murder, African American Church Arsons

Perhaps the most shocking act of white terrorism in 2015 was the murder of nine people during a Bible study. The Charleston shooting victims – Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59 – are a painful reminder that the violence of white supremacy costs lives.

Here, Sophie Bjork-James wrote about the shooter’s involvement on the Internet prior to the attack, Terence Fitzgerald asked important questions about the denial of truths in South Carolina, and I asked why is it always a white guy, and made the connection to other acts of white supremacist violence, like the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. President Obama looked for grace amidst the terrible carnage.

In the days following that attack, there were a string of arsons at African American churches.

Racism & Presidential Politics

As our first black president winds down his second term, Kimberley Ducey wrote about the persistent and pervasive racism that Obama faces. I wondered about racial justice after Obama. While his presidency has broken an important symbolic barrier, his policies have done little to address systemic racism in the U.S., and his use of drones for killing of those deemed terrorist threats is arguably one of the biggest drivers of global terrorism.

José Cobas has looked at how several of the candidates have responded to the issues and concerns of Latino/a voters, including Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. Trump seems to intent on creating his own cottage industry of anti-Latino racism, and anti-Latino racism has very real consequences for housing, as Maria Chavez explained.  Cobas has also written about the bumbling mainstream media attempts at reporting on Latino/a issues and a failed attempt by NBC to meet with Latino leaders.

Cara Canelmo wrote about the appeal of Ben Carson, and I critiqued Hillary Clinton as good for white feminism but bad for racial justice at the launch of her presidential campaign in April.

Complicated Role of Social Media

There’s much to say about the complicated role of social media and racism. Whether you want to argue that social media is driving liberation movements like black lives matter or that trolls and racist commenters, and white supremacists find a resurgent purpose online, you are both right and wrong. The reality is somewhere in the messy middle of these two.

In writing about social media and racism here, Kishonna Gray wrote about the systematically embedded discrimination that black gamers involved in Microsoft’s Xbox experience.

Shantel Buggs wrote about the importance of race in online dating – and the fact that any discussion of it is missing in on the most popular sociological titles of the year, Modern Romance.

In Germany, the government reached an agreement with Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove hate speech online within 24 hours. When I called for similar response to hate speech online here in the U.S., it still gets pretty widely regarded as outlandish.

Barring the possibility of government action, the usefulness of posting racist videos and emails online for public view and as a strategy for disrupting white-only backstage racism is a source of some hope. Of course, this hope is tempered by the fact that many whites refuse to be shamed by such public disclosures.



As always, there were milestones this year – remarkable people and events that were commemorated.

As Sean Elias wrote in this salute, the still living and quite remarkable Rep. John Conyers was honored for his activism in the civil rights movement and his distinguished career in the U.S. Congress.

In March, President Obama and thousands of others marked the 50th anniversary of the march at Selma in 1965.

And, April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, a leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule.

This year also marked the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, a racist, poverty-shaming report, Susan Greenbaum called it.  Stephen Steinberg offered an in-depth analysis of the research behind the report and what got left out.

April also marked the 23rd anniversary of the LA Riots, which many linked to the uprising in Baltimore.


This year we were also gifted by some amazing art, writing, and creative projects in the struggle against racism.  Art, as Edna Chun points out, can be part of the healing process.


One of my favorite pieces of work this year was the reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones on school segregation now.  In addition to the magazine reporting she also collaborated with This American Life for a podcast series on the same topic.  If you haven’t listened to it, stop what you’re doing and go listen to it now. It’s so good – and so terrible.


As per usual for me, I watched a ton of documentaries this year, and several of them are relevant for folks reading here and interested in racism. Stanley Nelson’s Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution, is excellent, if a bit skewed to favor the men in the party. It would make a wonderful teaching companion to Alondra Nelson’s terrific book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

The Seven-Five, is ostensibly a documentary about police corruption in the NYPD, but my resistive read of the film is that it is all about a particular kind of white masculinity and the homoerotic bond between cops.

I also really appreciated, if not quite enjoyed, What Happened Miss Simone? as a kind of exploration of the madness that racism and sexism create when it crushes the spirit of a genius.


I read a lot this year, too, and several books have stayed with me:

Ta-Nahesi Coates seems to be everywhere this year and his Between the World and Me has received well-deserved praise. That said, I don’t think Coates is the next Baldwin (apologies to Professor Morrison), but that’s a subject for another time.  I was really affected by Claudia Rankine’s, Citizen: an American lyric, for the way it plays with form, it rests somewhere between prose and poetry.

For academic sociology books on racism, I found Paula Ioanide, The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in the Era of Colorblindnessto be a timely intervention into the current political landscape. The subtitle “how feelings trump facts” is not intended to be a play on the leading republican candidate, but it could very well be.



Standing with you in struggle.