Rand Paul: Resetting the Civil Rights Clock Back 120 Years

In case you missed it, Rand Paul, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has been getting a lot of press in the last day or so for his views on civil rights. The junior Paul, like his father, is a committed libertarian in his views of the government, and his comments recently on the Rachel Maddow show illustrate just how problematic such a stance is for civil rights. In this clip, Rand Paul effectively resets the clock on discussion about civil rights back about 120 years (video is on the long side, 19:35, but worth watching):

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As you might imagine, Rand Paul’s comments have ignited discussion in the blogosphere and Twitterverse. One of the most cogent observers is Prof. Blair L.M. Kelley (@profblmkelley), a scholar who has studied the Civil Rights Movement. Prof. Kelley offers a thorough analysis of Rand Paul’s nonsense in this piece at Salon.

Coming soon, Prof. Adia Harvey-Wingfield, professor of sociology at Georgia State University, will offer her own analysis here at Racism Review of Rand Pauls’ recent comments. Check back soon.

Powerful New Civil Rights Documentary: “Soundtrack for a Revolution”

While the nation will celebrate the holiday on Monday, today is the actual birthday of Martin Luther King. He would have been 81 years old today had he lived. There seems no more fitting way to celebrate than to share this new documentary about the music of the civil rights movement, “Soundtrack to a Revolution.” The film is on the short list for upcoming Academy Awards. Here is a short (about 2 minutes) trailer for the film:

I had the chance to see this film last weekend at the Tribeca Film Institute (random name-drop: Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte were there). The film follows the story of the civil rights movement by charting the music that was most powerfully identified with it. There are moving, contemporary versions of classic songs sung by top musicians in studio settings and there are engaging, acapella renditions of these songs sung by the people who lived through the movement. My personal favorite was Richie Havens singing a civil rights ballad over images of civil rights pioneers – black and white – who were killed in the fight for racial justice.

It’s an excellent film that would be suitable for using in the classroom for teaching about race, political struggle and resistance, the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King. In a Q&A session with the filmmakers following the screening, they noted that educating young people about the civil rights movement was one of their intended purposes in creating the film. Sadly, they also noted that in pre-screening the film in high schools that a majority of students and their teachers (!) did not know most of the civil rights leaders featured in the film.

If you’re considering using the film in a college classroom, I have a couple of companion book recommendations. The first is a wonderfully creative way of looking at social movements through the art that inspired them, called The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle,by T.V. Reed. The second is a compelling analysis of the way television was used by the civil rights movement, and in particular, how prescient Dr. King was in his use of television, called Black, White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights,by Sasha Torres. Both books are excellent, and suitable for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, and will further elaborate some of the themes addressed in the film.

William Kunstler and the Active Voice to Discuss Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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