Racism in Session: Richard Cebull Presiding

Recently, Richard F. Cebull, chief Federal District Court Judge in the state of Montana, sent acquaintances an extremely crude racist, misogynist email that “joked” about US President Barack Obama’s mother having sex with a dog. After the email was exposed to the public, Cebull offered an apology to the President, acknowledging the joke was “racist” and that his dissemination of the joke lacked “judgment.” Of course, like most racist commentators, the judge claims it was the joke that was racist, not the joker. In a bizarre attempt at an excuse for relaying the email, Cebull justified his actions by noting he was not a “fan” of the President.

As many critics of Cebull have stated, the judge lacks sound judgment (some might say “intelligence”) and needs to resign immediately. His stunted cognitive abilities—intellect or judgment—appear on a number of levels. To begin, one must question the judge’s sense of humor. What does his racist and misogynist “humor” say about his acumen, values, and morality? It would appear that Cebull’s appreciation of de-humanizing and personally offensive sexist and racist humor poses serious questions about his ethical compass. Sending the insulting email via a government server—in the public domain—is another sign of Cebull’s contorted judgement and thus another factor disqualifying him from serving on the bench. And it goes without saying that he likely breeched the Judicial Code of Conduct as well as the boundaries of civil discourse. But enough of Cebull the racist commentator, what about the systemically racist justice system that is peopled with individuals like Cebull?

Tellingly, the commentary about ‘the Cebull Affair’ is focused solely on the performance of Cebull sending a racist email. To my knowledge, no one in the national press has addressed problems with the racist US legal (legal is more appropriate than justice) system that recruits, empowers and perpetuates rulers of the law like Cebull. No one in the mainstream media has commented about how Cebull’s actions are part of much larger problem with the US legal system, which remains inherently racist structurally, as illustrated by the numerous cases of police brutality, shoddy convictions and sentencing, and unequalized laws of a two-tier legal system: a system for whites and a system for people of color.

Not only has Cebull’s racist private backstage emerged in the public arena, the backstage of the racist US legal system has also emerged on the national stage, exposing a vivid empirical example of the dysfunctionality of the system when staffed with people like Cebull. The US legal system historically has granted racist-thinking commentators like Cebull great power and, problematically, continues to support these racist-minded legal power-brokers, even after they demonstrate poor judgment and unfair practices. In Cebull’s case, he revealed some biased and de-humanizing views of people of color and his shortage of judgment in regard to racist joking. And yet, despite his apparent disqualifications, he still holds his position of power in the legal system.

Cebull’s racism must be viewed as a reminder of the well-institutionalized systemic racism that pervades the US legal system. While certainly not everyone in the system exhibits Cebull’s racist “joking” inclinations, numerous individuals in the justice system repeatedly demonstrate racist perspectives and practices. Richard Cebull is merely one actor in a large social network of police officers, prosecutors, correctional officers, parole officers, social workers, politicians, policy makers, bounty hunters, and other judges whose ideas and actions uphold white-framed racism in the US legal system. Disconcertingly, the larger public tends to ignore or excuse the institutional, structural, and systemic racism in the US legal system, overlooking the discriminatory actions and thoughts of many actors who are employed to uphold “justice.” For example, ex-LA police officer, Mark Fuhrman, who referred to black Americans as “niggers,” now appears as a nationally syndicated pundit and legal expert commenting on high-profile criminal cases.

The many individuals working in the justice system who do not express racist views and behaviors are nonetheless—and often unknowingly—facilitators of a highly structured and complex racist legal system. This unjust legal system still looks to the US Constitution and the Bible as primary sources for laws and the foundational principals of the legal system, when the Bible and US Constitution were both documents used to justify and condone, morally and legally, the enslavement of blacks and colonization and mistreatment of other people of color. While the United States’ justice system no longer legitimates “slavery,” nor supports “colonization,” a new-day slavery and colonization operate in different guise.

Today, the ever-expanding, unchecked prison-industrial complex incarcerates disproportionate numbers of black and brown Americans. The heavy policing of communities of color, rampant racial profiling, disproportionate number of arrests, convictions, and periods of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision affecting people of color are all factors that have lead to the modern-day plantation system or prison system. Like the plantation, the prison forcefully confines people and exploits their labor. The prison industrial complex is interwoven with capitalism, with the privatization of prisons created profits for capitalists and debt for the tax paying public whose money goes to building and operating these institutions of oppression. (See Angela Davis’ “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and, Lawrence Bobo and Victor Thompson’s “Racialized Mass Incarceration: Poverty, Prejudice and Punishment”.

Along with the “racialized” mass incarceration of people of color, new racist laws have emerged in northern US state of Michigan that disenfranchise a large portion of the state’s black population. In response to budget crises related to the recent financial meltdown, Michigan cities and towns with large black communities were stripped of their basic democratic rights of political representation and decision-making. Town and city councils representing black communities have lost power of political decision-making and civic management of community affairs to outside “managers,” who were granted vast power to determine all policy decisions, government operations, and allocation of funds for the “at-risk”-labeled communities. Alarmingly, Michigan’s disenfranchisement of blacks is being echoed across the nation with a number of states establishing voter id laws, which disproportionately affect communities of color and the poor.

Down in the southern US, in Arizona, two high profile representatives of the US justice system have become noted national figures, social celebrities and politicized heroes for some, because of their racist ideas and actions. Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona established legislation that legally sanctioned racial profiling of Latino/a Americans. Despite national public uproar and condemnation by the US Justice Department, Brewer’s legislative act has not yet been overturned. To enforce Brewer’s legislation, there are “justice” officials like Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a person who makes no excuses for his excessive racial profiling, arrests, and de-humanizing, humiliating treatment of undocumented Latino/a workers, or “illegal aliens” according to Arpaio (all incarcerated males are de-masculinized, forced to wear pink jump suits). Now, Arpaio is making news and expanding his legal “authority” to the national stage by questioning the authenticity of US President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

Arpaio, Cebull, Fuhrman, Brewer, and countless other members of the legal world (many exposed, many not) uphold a racist US legal system. With individuals like these, the term “justice” loses meaning and US citizens are left with a legal system that is flawed and presently unable to provide grounds for fair decision making and just legal action. Truth, right and wrong, and the basic rules on how to co-exist in society become hypocritical, arbitrary and baseless and laws that favor or disfavor select groups remain a mockery in such a tainted system. As critical race theorists and sociologists of race have observed, the US legal system was corrupted by racism from the start and remains routinely unjust toward people of color. (see Derrick Bell’s Race, Racism and American Law and Silent Covenants: Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform; Joe Feagin’s Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations and Systemic Racism: A Theory of Racial Oppression; and, Ian Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. Corrupt discriminatory laws and justice officials who abuse their position and power have created a cloud of meaninglessness and despair throughout the US legal system, a dysfunctional legal system that perpetually erodes its own legitimacy and purpose.

Considering what people of color endure in this society (namely, the long history and continuation of racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, politics, the media, and health care facing most people of color), the US legal system should serve as the one sanctified place where social justice and a fair playing field exist and are valued. However, today, as in the past, the US legal system fails to provide justice and fairness to people of color and the poor. Indeed, the system is blatantly divided along race as well as class lines. Piles of empirical evidence demonstrate year after year that people of color and the poor are not treated fairly within the US legal system; yet, obstacles to legal reform and the persistence and regeneration of racial and class injustice in the system are commonplace.

Those who attempt to revamp the legal system realize quickly that it is not neutral and objective but rather a structural mechanism of suppression created by those with power, resources, and connections. Conscious observers of the US legal system quickly discover that the system is rigged and that changing it—like attempting to change any powerful and well-embedded bureaucratic structure—appears a daunting task. The Cebull case reminds us that racism persists in the upper chambers of the legal system and, as the proceedings to remove Cebull will prove, that dysfunctionality of the system, and dysfunctional individuals managing the system, are not easily dismantled.

Dramatic Resurrgence in Hate Groups

There is a new study from our friends at the SPLC, reported in The New York Times, that indicates a dramatic resurgence in the number of racist, neo-Nazi, and far-right extremist groups operating across our country. The SPLC, which has kept track of such groups for 30 years, recorded 1,018 hate groups operating last year.  And, lest you think this is a southern U.S. phenomenon, the states with the most active hate groups were California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York.


The far-right patriot movement began its current resurgence in 2008, after the election of Mr. Obama and the beginning of the recession.  Chapters of the traditional white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan fell from 221 to 152.

As reported in the NYTimes piece, the federal government does not focus on groups that engage in racist hate-based speech, but does monitor paramilitary groups and others that it determines have some inclination toward violence, said Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The SPLC also has a fascinating interview with Daryl Johnson (from summer 2011) about how the DHS has bowed to political pressure around not focusing on domestic, right-wing terrorism.  It will be interesting to see if this latest report changes the policy of the DHS.

Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about racial injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who recently gave an inspiring TED Talk about racial injustice. Stevenson founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive, unfair and racist sentencing. This is a rare TED Talk for confronting issues of racial injustice, and well worth watching (23:14):
Stevenson’s talk even includes an oh-so-gentle challenge to the audience at TED to “be more courageous” and talk about issues of racial injustice with more regularity. Yet, the online comments that follow the video quickly get mired in white-framed thinking, where one person derails the conversation away from racial injustice. Still, bravo to Bryan Stevenson for his work, and good for TED for including his talk at this elite venue.

How Does It Feel to be a Curse? LDS Racism

On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on black priesthood ordination for men was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.

Just when we thought things had quieted down in Provo after several busy years of open and public displays of what can only be described as pure hatred for African Americans, up pops the Brandon Davies controversy, BYU Blackface video, and now BYU professor of religion Randy Bott’s recent remarks underscoring the enduring Latter day belief in black inferiority. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them,” the professor told the Washington Post, highlighting a significant problem for the Mormon faith.

Some years ago, I conceived of plan that had the potential to transform the way Black folk and other progressive thinkers within and outside the Mormon faith understood race. Black members are made to suffer by dealing with the continued belief among many well-intentioned Whites that having black-skin was an unequivocal mark of God’s disfavor. Yet, I believed that if enough like-minded white members could lend their voices and concerns to church authorities regarding this enduring pain and struggle, then we could cajole church authorities to issue a public apology in order to dispel the persistent racial folklore well-known in Mormonism. Unfortunately, the group I was trying to convince (Mormons for Equality and Social Justice) was not on board with my plan.

The folklore explains that the biblical counter-figure, Cain, was allegedly “cursed” with a skin of blackness for slaying his brother Abel. Despite official statements from LDS Church headquarters to the contrary, many active members still believe this to be the case. And this (mis)belief led to the many racial practices of the Church, such as those that denied black males the right to hold the priesthood and black women the blessings of the LDS temple ceremony. And though these practices were never official doctrine, through the many teachings from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, these became assumed doctrine or pseudo-doctrine, if you will. In fact, many of these teaching still circulate today in Mormon theological published works. (pdf here).

White members are not the only ones, however, to believe in black Latter-day Saint inferiority. Surprisingly, many Black members of church actually believe the folklore as well, making it difficult to understand why anyone of African descent with a reasonable mind would consider joining the Mormon faith given its history of marks and curses upon black folks. And sadly, there are many other racist concepts found within the LDS Church.

Church authorities stubbornly sidestep charges that the predominately white faith is a racist organization. When racial issues arise such as with Randy Bott, it becomes significant enough to warrant an official statement by church authorities. However perfunctory it may be, it is still not enough. Mormons are not alone. African-Americans historically experienced similar racist encounters in other predominately white churches as well, which led to the creation of the Black Church and later caused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” Regrettably, this fact has not changed much in America. Yet, the continued silence of the LDS Church implies that it is okay for black Mormons to bare the greater burden to defend the Mormon faith; a burden that is often turned inward in the psychological toll imposed on black members by white mythmaking which has an impact on mental wellbeing (White Parents, Black Children). The LDS Church must go further by issuing an official apology to all people of African descent.

Randy Bott’s comments made in this day and age in the 21st century are not unlike those of the white slave master who felt that slavery was ultimately good for blacks. Given his recent remarks, it would serve LDS Church authorities well to straightforwardly and unequivocally denounce all racist folklore ever uttered by any church authority on the matter. But to denounce these comments would be to openly admit that the Brethren made mistakes in their teachings and interpretations. Thus far, we have not seen anyone of authority in the church willing to take that stand.

This is Mitt Romney’s headache: to inherit and answer the definitive question (if he indeed gets the GOP nomination) of whether or not the LDS Church is or was ever racist. The truth is, the constitution states that there shall be “no religious test” to hold office. But Romney, must be prepared for a flurry of questions from media representatives and other political pundits as to how, if elected to the highest office in the land, can he actually be a president for all the people given his connection to the Mormon faith and its racial history. Though Romney is not a church official and, therefore, should not be made to represent the church, he will be deemed a de facto spokesperson by the media and nation. Romney has thus far avoided bringing his faith into the political arena, but he may not be able to avoid these questions for much longer. All issues are fair game. The American people deserve to know the particular social, cultural and religious experiences that shape the character and ideology of their leader. The American people want to know does Romney feel the same as Professor Bott?