Elite White Men Ruling and Reducing Democracy

Bank of AmericaUnusual numbers of photos of elite white men are still in the news lately, since the our popular-vote-losing President Donald Trump has filled his cabinet and coteries of advisors with them. Most are from the right wing of the ruling white male elite, and that elite clearly remains in full power, as it has for att least four centuries in this country.

Indeed, in a recently published book Kimberley Ducey and I lay out the many ways in which the elite-white-male dominance system is central to the United States. It is, in effect, a triple societal helix linking together three major systems of social oppression: systemic white racism, systemic sexism (heterosexism), and systemic classism (capitalism). It is odd that no one yet, to my knowledge, has featured the whiteness or white-maleness of these capitalistic malefactors of wealth as a central feature of the often life-devastating economic, social, and political problems we still face globally. One can be sure that if these agents of mass social destruction were women or men of color that the reality of their gender and racial characteristics would be a constant topic of conversation by pundits and politicians, especially in the mainstream media. (To my knowledge there is only one serious academic research study that has ever interviewed a large sample of elite white men on their racial or gender views, one I did with two sociology colleagues. It appeared a few years back in a major Beacon Press book, White Men on Race.)

Come to think of it, elite white men (they named themselves “white” in the 17th century) created the modern Western (now much of the world) economic system. They created the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Or should we say, the Predatory Ethic and the Spirit of Exploitation. Arrogant greed and desire for European male dominance seem to be major motivations (and emotions!) behind the labor and land expropriation and exploitation euphemized by historians as “overseas exploration” and “settlement.” Certainly, powerful white men created, expanded, and maintained the often genocidal taking of millions of indigenous peoples’ lands in the Americas and the Holocaust-like Atlantic slave trade. Mostly white men created the oppressive realities of modern capitalism and North American slavery, and have made huge profits and wealth off of it, now passed along to their descendants, to the present day.

In recent centuries, elite white men have caused much death and destruction, probably more than any other elite group on the planet. White men are certainly not the only major sources of “democide” and related despotism, but they do seem to lead the list. (Consider not only the many indigenous genocides and Atlantic slave trade, but the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, Hiroshima atomic bombing [Its anniversary was yesterday]and Nagasaki atomic bombing, two massive world wars). While elite white men are not alone in such actions, the consequences of their actions have usually been more far-reaching, especially for the planet in general (for example, ongoing and soon massively destructive climate change) than have those of despotic not-white actors.

White men set up the Western legal systems reinforcing modern capitalism and North American genocide targeting millions of indigenous Americans and enslavement of millions of African Americans. They created the dominant white racial frame to explain and rationalize these often savage operations. That white racial frame is a dominant worldview that most white men, especially elite white male leaders, are still operating out of as they today exploit and oppress the world’s majority, the more than 80 percent of the planet that is not white.

And it was these elite white men, together with their white male acolytes, who reinvigorated a strong white-patriarchal frame, with its “great chain of being” notions (God at top, then angels, then European men, then European women, then “other races,” then animals, etc.). In the North American case, they easily extended this great-chain conceptual system to the racial oppression they had devised for Native Americans and African Americans.

These elite white men, centuries ago and now, generally see themselves as heroic and virtuous, even as they have created great destruction and misery for many people. Ronald Takaki speaks of this view of white men as centered on “virtuous republicans.” Note that in this centuries-old process most white men have had little sense of their own weakness and venality, but generally accented their virtues. Today, as in earlier centuries, most white men generally do not see their group’s major weaknesses, major errors, and frequent unvirtuousness. They certainly do not like to admit error. Indeed, elite and other white men now often blame the victims of their actions, as in the case of this white male commodity trader who blamed homeowners and moaned about “losers” with troubled mortgages, and not the banks now being bailed out with billions for playing the central role in creating the housing crisis.

So we seem to be moving today to what may well be a second “Great Depression” in this country’s history, yet this time one that is more than just economic, but is social, political, and political-economic in its downward anti-egalitarian spiral. We see omens of this in the array of reactionary elite white men tapped by our vote-minority president Donald Trump (he did not come close to winning a majority of voters) for his cabinet. The arrogant racial, class, and gender framing and related actions, current and future, of these and a few thousand other elite white men have yet to be problematized and examined thoroughly as the major “social problem” of our era. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such thorough racial, class, and gender examination has ever occurred in our mainstream media and other mainstream public discussions in this society. It simply is not possible to problematize the white male ruling group, as they have too much control to allow for significant problematization.

The still dominant white racial frame is more than a negative framing of the racial “others” in order to legitimate white racial oppression. At its very center, it positively and strongly accents white virtuousness, especially white male virtuousness. It has a dramatic arrogance about what is virtuous and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there virtue is exhibited. It assumes that an arrogant greed, a predatory spirit, an overarching patriarchism means white men should be at the head of society–that is, should be masters of the social universe.

Yet, it is the lack of virtue of a great many elite white men that has gotten much of planet Earth into this downward anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian spiral. This lack of virtuousness can be observed in their egocentric racial, class, gender framing — and in their greed, their lack of social intelligence, their lack of foresight, and thus their lack of public-regardingness. For example, a careful report on the “financial crisis and the systemic failure of academic economics” (by mostly European economists) makes quite clear the failure of the (substantially white male) economics profession to research and interpret the last global financial crisis called the “Great Recession.”

Why blame elite white men? Well, the men who have given us global economic crisis after global economic crisis have been overwhelmingly white and “educated,” often from leading universities, but not very good at egalitarian and justice thinking or in regard to the ethics of the “commons.” Then, there is the white collar crime, or at least corruption, that many have engaged in—which is for most rarely discussed in mainstream media. White collar crime and other corruption, economic and political, is usually pushed to margins of public discussion because this is the kind of behavior dominated by white men, especially elite white men. Such actions are often seen as not criminal, as normal, in part because white men wrote the laws about what is “abnormal” and “serious” crime. They decided what is to be punished, and how much. Thus, in recent economic “recessions,” millions of people have lost their homes, jobs, incomes, and pensions, yet we rarely see elite white male capitalists called-out, targeted, photographed, or treated as criminals whose greed or corruption has stolen or otherwise savaged lives–unlike hundreds of people of color who get such treatment by the mainstream media weekly.

Why blame elite white men? A reason, again, is that elite white men mostly control the major mass media corporations, and thus control how white men and their corruption get portrayed in society. They are the ones who force media portrayals of economic, political, and other social crises as situations for which “we are all responsible,” a crisis “no particular group” created. Yet, there are real people, real white male actors, who did in fact create many horrific inegalitarian realities that much of the world now faces.

In one of the most brilliant commentaries in the literature on racial matters, Chapter one of the Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois foregrounded the ways in which African Americans had come to be defined as a societal “problem”:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? … I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience. . . .

So let us now instead define elite white men as the problem when it comes to many matters of contemporary societal oppression, societal inequality, human rights, and human survival.

Then, obviously but quite daunting, the next difficult step is figuring out how to organize and change all this, and thereby create a real democracy in this country and elsewhere, one where people of all backgrounds do have major input into and control of their economic and political institutions, and thereby of their lives.

More White Assaults on Affirmative Action in Admissions

Led by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the federal government has launched a frontal assault against the last vestiges of limited, race-sensitive affirmative action programs in college admissions. According to an internal announcement leaked last week to the New York Times, the Justice Department is looking for internal Civil Rights Division lawyers to work on

intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.

The announcement stated the project would be handled by the Division’s front office and essentially staffed by Trump’s political appointees, rather than by the Educational Opportunities Section of career civil-rights lawyers who normally address cases related to education. Upon further press inquiry, Justice Department spokesperson, Sarah Isgur Flores, said the purpose of the project was to “investigate one admissions complaint” filed on behalf of Asian-Americans, but the announcement was met with skepticism by career civil rights attorneys. Furthermore, the announcement stated that multiple lawyers were needed to work on “investigations” and requested that they submit resumes by August 9.

Trump and Sessions are playing on some of the public misunderstanding and confusion about affirmative action admissions programs in higher education. These programs are voluntary and represent the efforts of colleges and universities to create more diverse and inclusive campuses as well as to expand access and opportunity for historically underrepresented groups. These programs have been thoroughly vetted and tested by a conservative Supreme Court that has established a number of significant hurdles for colleges and universities in a series of cases culminating in Fisher v. University of Texas last year.

The new initiative by Trump and Sessions is deeply troubling for the following reasons:

1. This initiative seeks to eliminate holistic admissions review processes that would enhance campus diversity and yield the educational benefits for all students that the Supreme Court already has upheld as a “compelling state interest.”
2. It splinters minority groups by using Asian Americans as a proxy and pretext to overturn limited race-sensitive admissions programs. As Nancy Leong points out, “By framing opposition to affirmative action as concern for Asian Americans, opponents of affirmative action can protect the existing racial hierarchy — with white people at the top — while disguising their efforts as race-neutral rather than racially motivated.”
3. It unites the federal government’s legal strategy with the private legal efforts of wealthy, white elites who repeatedly have challenged race-conscious college admissions programs.
4. It does not address preference programs that favor alumni children and wealthy donors, groups that tend to be heavily and disproportionately white. Donald Trump himself is described as having benefited from the connections of his wealthy father in his transfer from Fordham University to the Wharton School as an undergraduate economics major.

Recall that just last summer the Supreme Court upheld the narrowly-tailored holistic admissions plan of the University of Texas at Austin by a vote of 4-3 in the appeal of Abigail Fisher in the Fisher v University of Texas at Austin case. Edward Blum, a wealthy white conservative entrepreneur and head of the one-person organization, the “Project on Fair Representation” founded in 2005, personally recruited Abigail Fisher, the daughter of an old friend, for this landmark lawsuit.

As Stephanie Mencimer points out, Blum is the brains behind the “effort to get the Supreme Court to rethink civil rights.” Blum has engineered at least a dozen lawsuits, four of which have made it to the Supreme Court, challenging what he perceives to be race- and ethnicity-based laws in voting, education, and contracting Blum guided the 2009 lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, that successfully challenged provisions of the Voting Rights Act and opened the door to voting I.D. requirements in Southern states. He has attempted to recruit Asian American plaintiffs in his suit against Harvard University, alleging that Harvard has held Asian American applicants to higher standards than other applicant. He has also filed suit against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its own statements relating to black enrollment. Not content with the outcome in Fisher, Blum has also now filed a new lawsuit alleging that the holistic review process at UT-Austin subverts state law and will be pursuing this suit with the conservative Texas Supreme Court.

In Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, Alvin Evans and I chart the progressive change in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by the Supreme Court from protecting minority rights to protecting majority interests in college admissions programs. The appointment of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch will only further solidify this direction. As Kristin Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law noted, Jeff Sessions

has a clear record of hostility to racial diversity. [She added] We will not stand by idly as the administration continue to hijack and obstruct this Division’s core civil rights mission.

In the view of leading scholar Carol Anderson, these new mostly white (male) assaults on affirmative action in college admissions build on white racial resentment and seek to punish minority achievement and aspiration. The attack on limited and legally compliant affirmative action programs designed to enhance racial diversity on college campuses is but another salvo in the (extraordinarily white) Trump administration’s clever strategy of pitting minority groups against each other in the effort to perpetuate division and thwart the inclusive goals of our pluralistic democracy.

Trump Encourages Police to Go After Latinos

President Donald Trump spoke to a group of law enforcement officials in New York on Friday, July 28th, encouraging them to go after people of color. His message, in part, was telling them “Don’t be too nice,” to suspects taken into custody for questioning. Law enforcement officials in the background had smiles on their faces and cheered as he said:

They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into blood stained killing fields. They’re animals. We cannot tolerate…as a society, the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant people….But I have a simple message today for every gang member and criminal alien that are threatening so violently our people. We will find you. We will arrest you. We will jail you. And we will deport you.

It is easy to imagine whom Trump is referring to as “animals” who should be deported here. (He has famously done something similar before in referencing later-found-innocent black teenagers in a New York City Central Park rape case.) As Natalia Molina shows in How Race is Made in America, these are old racial scripts Trump is calling upon. Racial scripts are racial messages used over and over again throughout history in ways that can be reused and understood for “new rounds of dehumanization and demonization in the next generation or even the next debate” (Molina p. 7).

The racialization of Latinos as heavily or disproportionately gang members, as criminal aliens, and as animals has been circulating in this country for a very long time now as has been documented by Feagin and Cobas in Latinos Facing Racism. So, it is easy to imagine who Trump plans to “find,” “arrest,” “jail,” and “deport” in his “simple message” to “every gang member and criminal alien.”

President Trump then went on to say:

And when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them being thrown in. Rough. I said, Please. Don’t. Be. Too. Nice. [Laughter] Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head….I said, you can take the hand away okay.” [Police Cheers and clapping].

This message by the president contributes to systemic racism in US society, defined by Feagin and Cobas as:

[T]he persisting racial hierarchy, the discriminatory practices, and the racist institutions integral to the long-term white domination of Americans of color. This group domination involves not only racialized institutions, the macro level of oppression, but also the micro-level reality of a great many whites repeatedly discriminating in blatant, subtle, and covert ways against people of color in everyday settings (p. 14).

Yet another generation of Latinos continues to be “othered” and to experience systemic racism in American society because the president is openly encouraging law enforcement officials to vilify them. Viewing Latinos with this racialized framing underscores Leo R. Chavez’s argument that Latinos have been socially constructed as a threat in the U.S., and Trump’s remarks to law enforcement are only the latest example from the bully pulpit. In a time of increasing presidential pronouncements and tweets as a way to make public policy, it is easy to see how Trump is dehumanizing brown and black males in his statement to police.

My heart aches for adolescent Latino, Native American, Black, and other youth of color who are coming of age in a country that continues to find ways to dehumanize them. I think of my cousins, my brothers, and my oldest son who is darker than my youngest son and I fear for them all. As Native American author Sherman Alexie states in his memoir:

I never directly feared for my life and career during a Republican presidency until Trump won office” (p. 228).

This normalizing of the calls for violence against people of color by the state in President Trump’s speech to the police should cause us all to fear for our lives, families, and friends. It should cause us to fear for our very country.

While Trump’s remarks drew condemnation from law enforcement leadership across the country, the cheering of the rank-and-file in the moment to his racist and repugnant comments remains deeply disturbing. Similarly, during the election his supporters also cheered and encouraged this type of racialized hate. For Latinos and other people of color who have lived with this kind of vilification for generations, it is likely we should expect more of this to come from the president and from those who have been emboldened by what Leslie H. Picca and Joe Feagin call frontstage racism. These are very scary times we are living in for people of color when hate is being openly promoted and supported by our government leaders from the most powerful man in the U.S. down to our street-level (police) bureaucrats.

Kids Being Kids—More than a White Privilege

Robin Bernstein, the author of the book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood From Slavery to Civil Rights recently published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just Be Kids” that really tugged at my heartstrings. It opens with the example of George Zimmerman thinking Trayvon Martin was “a little bit younger” than him, meanwhile the boy was 17 while the man was nearly 30. Bernstein reviews numerous examples besides Trayvon Martin—and unfortunately there are too many to count—Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, the list goes on—where this faulty assumption of African American children being guilty of adult-like crimes, that they likely could not even fathom for themselves– has cost them their lives. Yet we must remember that these tragic cases are only the tip of the iceberg of what one of Joe Feagin’s interviewees has identified as the “daily murders” of racism and white privilege happening to children of color across our society, every minute the clock ticks.

Even when they are not shot to death mistakenly by police, people of color are routinely assumed to be untrustworthy and up to no good. Not just by police, but by everyday stakeholders making decisions that could affect the rest of their lives. Medical doctors, social workers, and teachers, just to name a few, make decisions on a daily basis that negatively impact people of color as compared to their white peers. These decisions are often made by people who see themselves as “colorblind” and unbiased. The Sadkers’ research, and other more recent studies looking at the intersection of gender and racial bias, are poignant in that, when teachers are presented with video/observation evidence of themselves doing these things, they can tend to even shock themselves. There is a boatload of denial surrounding the everyday racism and sexism that permeates our society.

When I read Bernstein’s piece, I immediately thought of my own son’s struggles in school. Both my son and my daughter have, unfortunately, come to expect now that when a group of kids in school are caught talking too loudly or doing something needing reprimanding, it is their names that will be called and singled out when a mostly white group is doing all that and more. They both are striking in appearance, taller and bigger than most of the kids their age, and also not white. My daughter’s coping strategy has been, when she is counted out, she works even harder to prove folks wrong, and very often does. Her grades are stellar (all A’s) and her confidence is too. But while my son is smart as a whip, with a memory like a steel trap—he’s still in elementary school with one teacher all day, so how his teacher perceives him—-I am learning—-will make or break how he ends up performing academically all year long. And this past year, his teacher perceived him as up to no good, not working up to his potential.

Determined not to be a hovercraft parent, or one of those annoying parents who believes their kid’s “stuff don’t ever stink,” I tried to hang back and not over-interfere—even as I watched his confidence tank and told myself the “tough love” approach would be good for him later. All year I heard story after story of him being reprimanded for things other kids were doing too. It touched me so much when a guidance counselor asked my son to go into the bathroom and intervene in a situation with some younger boys, and he came home saying proudly, “I know Mrs. XXX trusts me”—and he was beaming from ear to ear. Because this is the kind of “trust” he did not get from his classroom teacher—that benefit of the doubt, that confidence in him to be a good citizen and do the right thing. While none of the almost exclusively white middle class female staff of this school would ever see themselves as making any decisions that have anything to do with race, when I read Bernstein’s essay, and when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I am reminded of how much our (white) society writ large expects grown-up maturity out of our children of color, and reserves the space to “let kids be kids” almost exclusively for whites. This daily injustice is what spawns all the coping strategies of being “twice as good,” and the unfairness of mediocre, average whites making it to the top and beyond each and every day—because they were allowed to mess up, fail, and come back from it.

The students in my college classrooms are heavily military, so in discussing racism in the military, we recently came across this new study, showing that black service members face more disciplinary actions than their white counterparts, in every branch of service. This criminalization of nonwhite mistakes is a pattern that those studying the school-to-prison pipeline know well. As with criminal justice system racial disparities, we know that some of these African Americans may have indeed committed these crimes, and some may not have done anything at all. But in either case, the whites who make the same mistakes are not being punished with the same gusto. I am here to tell you my kids mess up sometimes, as do I. But my son’s mistakes cost him a whole year of not being on the honor roll when he should have been, a whole year of assaults to his confidence that did not have to go down that way. He is just a child that wants to goof off and be silly sometimes. And I wish he could be able to do that just as often, and with just as much gusto, as his white counterparts. I want to live in that kind of society.

We must remember that the local decision makers and stakeholders carrying out white privilege in everyday Americans’ lives usually are not the ones who created this notion of white “virtue” to begin with. The lower-middle class female entry-level teacher or social worker or police officer just feeding her family, carrying out someone else’s policies that she did not created, and hoping she doesn’t get fired due to budget cuts, is not ultimately to blame for the fate our children face. As Joe Feagin and Kimberley Ducey argue in their new book Elite Men Ruling:

From the distant past to the present, much of the effort to create and maintain this dominant white racial frame has come from powerful white men. This is not surprising, for they are central to the frame—especially its accent on virtue. . . [T]he word virtue is derived from the Latin vir, which means man or hero. Early on, in the development of the North American colonies, white men were supposed to exhibit the supposed manly virtues of courage, strength, and piety. Most white men, then as now, have implicitly or explicitly accented certain masculine virtues. They have often exuded an arrogance about what is human virtue and what is not, about who is virtuous and who is not, and about where and when there is virtue. Not surprisingly, the dominant white frame has been replete with anti-black and other anti-others subframes—that is, subframes targeting “those people” as generally unvirtuous.

To reshape our society, we cannot settle for pointing fingers at “implicit bias” in only the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. If it were only individual biases among certain (white) officers and teachers to blame, and our highest courts of law and lawmakers were truly practicing justice, then such biases would be fairly punished and ferreted out, unable to systematically take root in institutional practice at large. Media, cultural, political practices all work to reinforce the white-virtue subframe such that a time rarely comes for us to be challenged about it. It becomes the air we breathe, whether we are white, Latino, black, male, female, or anywhere in between.

Bernstein rightly points out that, in trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools (Audre Lorde) by striving to prove that nonwhite kids are “just as innocent,” we reify this white racially framed dichotomy of (white) innocence/virtue versus (nonwhite) evil, which is a bit out of touch with reality. After all, whites’ mistakes are routinely overlooked, dismissed, forgiven, pardoned—-their conflicts with police are somehow “deescalated” without killing anyone. Whites, and white children, are hardly ever 100% “innocent”—our mostly white-controlled society just permits them to learn and grow and be full human beings more readily than it permits the rest.

I’m dreaming for the day when all those with the power to shape our kids’ future remember what it was like to be a kid—having fun, being loud, messing up, and getting back up again– and see that common humanity in all kids, not just those who “look like them.”

Denying In-State Tuition For DACA Students: AZ Follow-Up

In a previous post I discussed the predicament of DACA college students in Arizona. In 2006, Proposition 300 passed with the approval of a substantial 71.4 percent of the voters. Its goal was unequivocal: the denial of in-state tuition in Arizona public community colleges and universities to DACA students. As the State’s Attorney General explained it, Proposition 300 requires the

verification of immigration status of persons who are applying for state-funded services . . . [which include] in-state tuition and financial aid for college students.

In 2015, DACA students in Arizona were allowed to pay in-state tuition following a judge’s ruling that

DACA recipients were considered legally present in the U.S. and therefore qualify for state benefits.

However, Arizona’s State Attorney General appealed the decision and this month an appeals court ruled that the state had the right to enforce Proposition 300, thus depriving DACA students of access to in-state tuition. This court decision, in turn, was appealed and the Arizona Board of Regents voted to allow in-state tuition to remain in effect while the appeal is resolved. It was an encouraging development.

But a series of recent events augur rough times ahead for DACA students in Arizona and elsewhere in the US. The attorneys general of Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia as well as the Governor of Idaho asked the Trump administration to “phase out” the DACA program. Speaking for the group, arch-conservative Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stated in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the DACA program

confers lawful presence and work permits for nearly one million unlawfully present aliens in the U.S.

He added the following:

[T]he multi-state coalition that made the request . . . [is] prepared to pull a lawsuit challenging the deferred action program currently pending in district courts if the program is ended by Sept. 5. If not, he said the suit would expand to include DACA and remaining expanded DACA permits.

Recently members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to discuss the DACA program. Luis V. Gutierrez, the U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 4th congressional district, was at the meeting and evaluates its outcome as follows:

Secretary Kelly said . . . that the future of DACA is up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, America’s leading advocate against immigration, so Kelly was basically telling us DACA is facing a death sentence. . . I fear for anybody currently with DACA.

Gutierrez’s closing comments are sobering:

Trump, Sessions and Kelly want to take 800,000 DREAMers with DACA . . . who are registered with the government and in compliance with the law and make them into criminals, felons, and deportees in the next few months. Anyone with a conscience who thinks legal immigration is an integral part of who we are as a country just got called to action.

I prefer to close my posts on a hopeful note. I can’t do it today. Congressman Gutierrez said,

I think we have to prepare for the worst and get ready to fight mass deportation.

I believe that he is right.

Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July

On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

 

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In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

 

Denying In-State Tuition for Arizona’s DACA Students

On December 7, 2006, Proposition 300 passed in Arizona with the approval of 71.4 percent of the voters. According to the state’s Attorney General,

The enacted measure requires verification of immigration status of persons who are applying for state-funded services . . . [which include] in-state tuition and financial aid for college students.

From the point of view of an Arizona state representative, the measure was necessary because “illegal” immigration was having catastrophic effects:

Arizona has been overwhelmed with illegal immigration and all the negative things that follow — crime, increased public service costs, especially education, and depression of our wages — and the federal government seems barely capable of doing much. . . . Denying the in-state tuition . . . deters illegal immigrants from coming here.

In 2015, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in Arizona were allowed to pay in-state tuition following a judge’s ruling that

DACA recipients were considered legally present in the U.S. and therefore qualify for state benefits.

Arizona’s Attorney General appealed the decision and this month a federal appeals court ruled that

federal immigration law allows each state to decide on optional benefits for DACA recipients [and] Arizona law [i.e., Proposition 300] bars in-state tuition for anyone who doesn’t have a legal status.

The consequences for the education of Arizona’s DACA youth are substantial. For example, at the Maricopa Community Colleges that operate in the larger Phoenix area, the cost per credit hour is $86 for Arizona residents and $241 for non-residents. At Arizona State University the current undergraduate basic tuition is $10,792 for residents and $27,372 for non-residents.

Some students intend to persist. Belen Sisa a junior at Arizona State University who came from Argentina when she was six-years old, said “I can’t let this stop me. I’m so close to give up now.” Oscar Hernandez was brought from Mexico when he was 9-years old and has lived in Arizona ever since. He has one year left to get his degree but it may take him three years to finish if he has to pay out-of-state tuition but said that “he is determined to finish.” Their resolve is admirable, because they will unjustly confront new obstacles in the pursuit of their education.

Karina Ruiz, board president of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, a group that advocates for undocumented young children brought to the U.S. as children, criticized the state for taking away in-state tuition from DACA recipients. “This is all hate,” Ruiz said.

There is nothing else. There is no reason for the state to be fighting students that want to get educated. This is wrong.

It is difficult to disagree with her. What rational purpose would it serve to deprive the DACA students who have been in Arizona since they were very young of in-state tuition? How just is it? Doesn’t a state benefit from an educated citizenry? How will it discourage undocumented migration?

Arizona has a long history of white racism. In recent times the undocumented have become the target. This is the state where Sheriff Joe Arpaio, according to the U.S. Department of Justice,

Oversaw the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history.

Arpaio is currently on trial for allegedly

defying a federal judge’s orders that barred [him] from enforcing federal immigration law.

I wish I could be optimistic and hope for a quick solution. But with Donald Trump in the White House, racists in Arizona and elsewhere will find fertile ground for their odious plans.

Racism and Sexism Online and OffLine

Dylann Roof discussed his motivations for killing nine in a Black Church in Charleston, North Carolina. He answered the FBI investigator’s question by stating: “It’s pretty much the internet…. All the information is there for you.” His statement refers to a larger trend of online hate speech being directed towards offline violence. This also occurred when Arnita Saarkesian cancelled an event because someone emailed her, saying that they would commit a mass murder if she spoke at Utah State University. Yet the police there felt there was no risk to students. This assumption changed when the posting involved a black man and police in Ferguson. The Supreme Court ruled that online threats are not necessarily illegal when deciding a case where a husband wrote he would like to see his wife’s “head on a stick” on Facebook. Most recently, as hate-type violence rises in the offline world, there are critical questions we must ask about the connection between online communities and offline violence. Trolling and trolls are a type of collective behavior that satisfies the emotional desires of racists or sexists.

The common assumption that internet activity is “fake” is also not helpful or an accurate analysis of the internet. According to Pew Research Center, 68% of adults are Facebook users. While on Facebook, a person can tag a friend in a picture, post on a person’s wall for their birthday, consider adopting a pet, donate to a charity, or let someone know you are graduating. This time can be filled with meaningful details that are shared within social networks; it can involve scanning news sites as I do on Twitter, or catching up with your favorite sports teams. The internet provides a different element than radio or television does: social interaction. This interaction can be positive or can be negative. It is the intention behind actions that often is not discussed when trolling is covered by media outlets, bloggers, and even academics. I do not deny that, to a degree, anonymity gives commenters a sense of freedom, which can result in certain behaviors.

Specifically, the belief that anonymity and computers change behaviors has been held by academics as well as online news media. The suggestion often goes “Don’t Read the Comments.” In many ways, this assumes that online behavior is radically different than offline behavior. Without face to face confrontation, it’s assumed that behavior is more uncivil. It is argued that in situations of anonymity on the internet, instead of breaking down boundaries, interaction is based on an “us versus them” expectation. This can also be thought of as “me” versus “them” in which the perception of users is that they are part of a social group. This is a common explanation for why the comments sections are racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic, which is theorized by Tom Postmes, Russell Spears and Martin Lea in their article “Breaching or Building Social Boundaries? SIDE-Effects of Computer-Mediated Communication.” In short, many users go from perceiving the interaction as being based on “me and you” to being “us versus them.” It is the “them” that is a placeholder for a man’s girlfriend, a black woman (see Southern Poverty Law Center’s reports from 2016 and 2017) or a feminist. This behavior can also be done by marginalized individuals, such as Hotep culture (See “Hotep Explained” by Damon Young). I do not deny that, to some degree, technology can influence behavior, but there is a stronger connection to offline reality. This behavior can be analyzed as more purposeful and fostered by offline language, political setting, structures, and institutions.

Trolling is a contested concept; just read the various definitions in the Urban dictionary. The Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT) provides a survey in which a person can indicate identification with trolling culture. Trolling often relies on attacking someone, usually based on their physical identity or social identification–e.g., race, gender, or sexual orientation. The normalization of trolling assumes that categorization is natural. Whether or not social differentiation is “natural,” the larger point is what we do with categorization. This historically has legitimated slavery, segregation, and even now legitimizes the gender pay gap.

The belief that racist, sexist, or homophobic language is done because individuals are online ignores the offline reality of these behaviors. This could also be reduced to “locker room talk” although this language occurs in many settings. This behavior in fact takes place because of social cues or who is in the room, i.e. men only. Thus, this language is tolerated, even expected, and excused in a variety of places and spaces. Therefore, the language used in the comment section of media reports is learned and encouraged as being “boys will be boys” or other euphemisms that protect the privileged. These euphemisms often legitimize rape culture and racist jokes. Those who teach this discriminatory behavior toward “others” use a space that is free from people of color to teach racism, free from women to teach sexism, free from others who are “out” to teach homophobia.

Some of this racist action is defined as backstage racism by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in their book Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage. The idea that we whites act differently in certain spaces is not especially radical, as how you act at work and with a group of friends on a Saturday night is usually understood as different. It does not mean we are “less authentic” at work or “more authentic” with our friends. This also means that those who mean to foster racist sentiments that whites are superior, or men are superior, or both simultaneously, can create communities. Rather than seeing racism as part of a mental illness, or as someone being irrational, there is a clear intention and goal in people engaging in most such racist behavior. This also in part illustrates that there is not a clear transition from the “me and you” to the “us and them” behavior. Many online users perceive themselves as part of an “us,” e.g. white and male, and the “them” as substantially less than them in social status. At times this is heightened when group members that are historically oppressed reach a point of higher status, or if those in the dominant group fear diversity. This emotional response is also associated with voting for Trump as Trump voters often “fear racial diversity.”

This emotional satisfaction has been tested by computer-mediated studies. In a study authored by Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell and Delroy L. Paulhus called “Trolls just want to have fun,” they found sadistic behaviors were associated with trolling. Thus, many trolls want to inflict pain, which is more than what is often included in articles about trolls. This should not be surprising as emotional defenses of racism are part of the dominant white racial frame theorized by Joe Feagin. Some argue that this behavior is maintained by certain internet platforms, such as Reddit, or by video games that have an “inherent” culture that includes sexism and racism. That is where the interjection that there is nothing “inherent” or “natural” about racism or sexism comes in. They are aggressively taught from a young age and can be unlearned (with great effort). If it is not clear by now, this also illustrates that there is a choice made in trolling, and all forms of harassment online and offline.

The “locker room talk,” which has been criticized by athletes, includes bragging about “moving on her like a bitch.” Thus, locker room talk is an extension of the larger rape culture and relies on men bragging about their actions. Sure, in many situations this could be bragging without any action, but given the consequences of this type of behavior in the case of Roof and Jeremy Joseph Christian, the most recent suspect in a hate crime or act of terrorism, this should be taken seriously. Locker room talk illustrates that the performance of masculinity is important in collective spaces, as is the practice of white supremacy. Such beliefs are part of a practice that is reaffirmed by others in communities. It’s important to recognize that key element of trolling as trolls often are encouraged by very powerful members of the white elite. Some elite white men encourage trolling of marginalized people, which is committed by their followers, such as in Gamergate. The negative behavior of specific white individuals, many being white Christians, is often removed from US culture, institutions, and society, thereby reducing it to an individual’s actions. Thus, white groups online, who are often white males, are mostly referred to as trolls, not “mobs”. Either people frame them as acting that way because of the anonymity allowed on the Internet or it is just “locker room talk.” These two frames leave whites to be innocent or at least do not recognize that the behavior is learned, happens offline, and is part of systemic white racism.

Gamergate is an example in which masses of men were attacking a few outspoken women like Zoe Quinn. Although Quinn characterizes it as mob behavior, others do not. In fact, of the 258 references on Wikipedia for Gamergate, only one website explicitly uses mob in its headlines. Only two people are quoted referring to the harassment in Gamergate as mob behavior, Quinn the target of the harassment, and Anders Sandberg, a University of Oxford research fellow. Even those critical of trolls such as Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson may describe them as a swarm, but still do not describe them as a mob. Pearson states that one troll “invited his unmerry men to join in the fun.”

Additionally, a somewhat lighthearted, or only modestly critical, framing of internet trolls is not isolated to Pearson, but part of the racial grammar of the internet. This racial grammar implicitly teaches children and adults negative racial stereotypes about people of color, while allowing whites as a group to be virtuous and innocence.

Trolling is indeed mob-like behavior, especially when encouraged by a leader online. The behavior is filling some psychological desire to inflict pain. Why else would individuals engage it for hours? Like hate groups and activist groups, the distinction lies in understanding if they aim to be constructive or destructive. This performance of toxic masculinity and whiteness online through online discussions or trolling is part of an emotional satisfaction that users use to perpetuate racist and sexist systems. The intent behind much trolling is part of a larger system of racism and sexism. It is an integral part of offline structures, institutions, and places; and this reality negates the naïve argument that you need to either reach out to a troll to “reform them” or that they would not be racist or sexist offline. The reform should come in organizations and communities with the recognition that trolling is verbal violence which can inspire physical violence. This important general point is articulated by terrorism expert Ehud Sprinzak in his book Brother against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination. We need to ask ourselves if this trolling racist/sexist language does not benefit democratic dialogue and results in violence, why should it be tolerated in a democratic society?

Juneteenth: Why Celebrate?

“By putting on their very best clothes, the black people were signaling they were free,” historian Jackie Jones relates. “It enraged white people. They hated to see black people dressed up because it turned their world upside down.” Sartorial display is woven into resistance and celebrations of the African American holiday Juneteenth.

Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900 (from Wikipedia)

 

Today marks the anniversary of the original  Juneteenth, a celebration marking the end of slavery. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration that people celebrate in a variety of ways. NPR’s Code Switch has been collecting stories of how people celebrate at the hashtag #WouldntBeJuneteenthWithout, but I there is a pall over the usual celebratory mood of this Juneteenth by recent events in Seattle, where Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she called them to report a burglary, and in Minnesota, where the police officer on trial for killing Philando Castile, was acquitted on all charges.

Indeed, after the ongoing police-murder of Black people, the celebration of Juneteenth and the struggle behind it, take on a renewed sense of urgency and poignancy. Why celebrate it at all? It wasn’t always a widely recognized holiday, and it was a struggle to get it recognized.

The Struggle to Make Juneteenth a State Holiday

Juneteenth hasn’t always been recognized as a holiday, and in the family I came from it was often scoffed at (lots of derision about the name of the holiday).  So the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas and many other communities across the US, is significant and is only possible because of a political struggle waged by one Houston Democratic legislator, (former) state representative Al Edwards.  It seems impossible now to mention a black, Democratic state representative and not call to mind, Rep. Clementa Pinckney, gunned down while leading that Wednesday night service in Charleston.

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Former Texas State Rep. Al Edwards

Edwards was born in Houston in 1937, the sixth of sixteen children, and was first elected as a state representative in 1978 from Houston’s District 146, the area known as Alief. A year later, in 1979, Edwards authored and sponsored House Bill 1016, making June 19th (“Juneteenth”) a paid state holiday in Texas.

Everyone, it seemed, opposed the idea. In a recent interview about this bill, attorney Doug McLeod, a conservative Democratic representative from Galveston at the time said of Edwards, “He really had an uphill battle. He had opposition from the left and the right.” Mostly white conservative Democratic majority viewed the bill as a hard sell to their constituents and many of Edwards’ 14 fellow black legislators saw it as a diversion from securing a holiday for Martin Luther King.

House Bill 1016 appeared to be headed nowhere when Edwards, a Democrat who was new to the legislature, originally filed it. Eventually, he got McLeod to sign on to the bill and Bill Clayton, then speaker of the Texas legislature.

Then-Gov. Bill Clements, a Republican, declined to endorse the Juneteenth bill, but he agreed to sign it if passed. Through a series of negotiations and brokered deals over votes, Rep. Edwards eventually prevailed and got the bill through the legislature.  When the bill passed, white conservative opponents urged the governor not to sign the bill, but Clements kept his word and signed the bill on the Texas State Capitol steps. This prompted other states to follow suit. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way or another.

History and Struggle Behind Juneteenth

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, but people remained enslaved within the state of Texas.

This happened for two reasons.

First, Texas slave owners refused to release the people they were holding as slaves.  They basically just wouldn’t acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation or Lee’s surrender had happened or had any bearing on them (cf. “States Rights,”  see also Texas is a Whole Other Country).

Second, slave owners from neighboring states in the south looked on Texas as a haven for slavery, so they poured into Texas with an estimated 125,000-150,000* enslaved people  from surrounding Confederate states (*historians debate the precise number).

In a recent interview, Jackie Jones,a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.”The idea was Texas was so vast that the federal government would never be able to conquer it all. There is this view that if they want to hold onto their slaves, the best thing to do is get out of the South and go to Texas.”

This ended on June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and again declared the end of the Civil War, with General Granger reading aloud a special decree that ordered the freeing of some 200,000 people still in bondage in Texas.

Today, some 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth in some way. This would not have been possible without the vision of Rep. Al Edwards and the struggle to make it a reality.

In times like these, what’s to celebrate?

With the official, legal end of chattel slavery — and the enforcement of that decree in Texas — there was much to celebrate in 1865. It was no longer legal for human beings to be sold on auction blocks as they had been. And, to be clear, the US didn’t just tolerate slavery as an economic system, it expanded and prospered on it.  The overturning of this dehumanizing system was a momentous victory for a multi-racial group of abolitionists who waged a decades long campaign to end slavery.

Reconstruction followed, creating new opportunities for African Americans who owned and profited from their own land and began to participate in local politics.

Most Americans remain confused about the period of Reconstruction, and many still subscribe toA false story of Reconstruction disseminated in popular culture through things like the film Birth of a Nation.  Although historians including Columbia University’s Eric Foner have shown the extraordinary political, economic, and legal gains of Reconstruction, as Gregory P. Downs notes at TPM.

One historian, C. Vann Woodward, has called the period of “the forgotten alternatives.” During the period between 1870 and 1900, there was some racial integration in housing and privately-owned facilities. Black people could travel on public transportation, vote and get elected, get jobs, including on police forces, and enjoy many public facilities.

But. the gains of Reconstruction were short-lived.

This “alternative” approach to race during Reconstruction ended when what Woodward calls the “strange career” of Jim Crow segregation, began — first by whites in the North, and expanded with a vengeance by Southern whites. Within thirty years of emancipation, laws were instituted that stripped African Americans of their rights, making celebrations like Juneteenth a distant memory. A prison-labor paradigm developed. White jail owners profited from the hard labor of their black inmates who were incarcerated for petty crimes like vagrancy, which carried long sentences. White landowners replaced chattel slavery with a deceptive practice called debt peonage, a new form of bondage continued for many blacks for decades. It wasn’t until 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 which strengthened the Anti-Peonage Law of 1867, making it a criminal offense.  Roosevelt launched a federal investigation, prosecuted guilty whites and effectively ended peonage in 1942.

So, why celebrate Juneteenth if white supremacy re-emerged with such a bloody return thirty short years later? Because celebration, commemoration and community are how we gain strength for the larger struggle.

Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name land co-executive producer of the documentary film by the same name, said this about Juneteenth:

“It’s important not to skip over the first part of true freedom. Public education as we know it today and the first property rights for women were instituted by African-American elected officials.”

Even as there is terrible news of continued police killing of Black people, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on other times, other struggles and other victories on this anniversary of Juneteenth.

 

 

 

Imposed Identities: Perils of Racial-Ethnic Identifiability

In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum describes racial identity development as an ongoing, continuous process comparable to climbing a spiral staircase. Building on the theory of William Cross, she chronicles the journey arising from encountering the beliefs of a dominant white culture, recognizing one’s own devalued position, exploring the multiple facets of one’s own identity, and emerging to affirm a positive self-identity and support diverse others in their exploration. Intersectionality complicates the picture even further as the multiple dimensions of social identity that include race, gender, and sexual orientation among others combine to create what Patricia Hill Collins calls multiple jeopardies or interlocking systems of oppression.

As a biracial individual with a strong physical resemblance to my father who immigrated from Mainland China and much lesser resemblance to my German-American mother, I have repeatedly encountered the question: “Where are you from?” and when I answer, “New York,” the questioner invariably probes deeper to “Where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?” or even sometimes, “Where are your grandparents from?” Even with friends I have known for years, I will be asked questions about the culture, customs, and society of mainland China, although I have not lived or visited there and have only been to Hong Kong when it was a British colony. The irony even extended to my mother, who although white, was sometimes mistaken for being Asian due to her last name and asked what part of China she was from.

Frank Wu identifies the invisibility of Asian Americans in serious public discourse and their high visibility in popular culture that has led to powerful stereotypes such as the notion of the perpetual foreigner. In Yellow: Beyond Black and White, he underscores the way that context operates to create forms of exclusion:

Race is meaningless in the abstract, it acquires it meanings as it operates on its surroundings (p. 22).

The conflation of race with citizenship has led to the common experience among Asian Americans that he so aptly describes:

More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and literally returned to Asia and ejected from America (p. 70).

This outsider syndrome and the stereotypes it perpetuates have consequences. In The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin highlight research revealing that Asian Americans are less than one percent of the boards of Fortune 500 firms and are generally described as technical workers and not executives. Despite extensive qualifications, Asian Americans are only rarely considered for management roles and have frequently chosen scientific professions due to the subjectivity that can accompany non-technical careers in other professions.

Perhaps to Native Americans or African Americans who have suffered enslavement and even efforts at extermination, the persistence of the perpetual foreigner syndrome and other stereotypes that Asian Americans face might seem like less serious concerns. But what is deeply troubling to all Americans of color is what Joe Feagin refers to as “imposed identities.” As he points out, the hundreds of published research papers on racial and ethnic identity are almost always devoted to questions of how individuals seek to define their own racial or ethnic identities personally (typically on check-off lists) instead of how they must deal with the racial or ethnic identities imposed upon them by white employers, police officials, and others with decision-making power in a highly racialized society. Indeed, Derald Wing Sue identifies the nature of contemporary oppression as involving the imposition of identity upon marginalized groups that can take place through acts of overt and covert racial-ethnic exclusion–a range of acts including micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, and micro-invalidations. And exclusionary racial-ethnic stereotyping and other racial-ethnic framing can occur literally in seconds as the results of many Implicit Association Tests have regularly demonstrated.

Even more than ever in the context of a deeply divided society, we are called upon on a daily basis to nurture a community in which interpersonal interactions resist the simplicity of such imposed stereotypes and other framing, bridge the divides of physical identifiability, and assert the underlying connection between our diversity and our common humanity.