A Belated Pardon for John Brown, Heroic Abolitionist

David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece a few days back noting that this month marks the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,

With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.

Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical 225px-John_brown_aboabolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.

A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:

Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:

Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.

And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”

Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,

Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.

Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But

A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.

Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)

Today, one needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to those who died in trying to overthrow slavery?

Anti-Racism Rally in Glasgow: Why Not More in the U.S. ?

Hundreds marched in Glasgow, Scotland yesterday in a rally (opens short video, 1:17) to call for an end racism.   According to this report, the march and rally were organized to remind people of the dangers of allowing prejudice and discrimination to go unchallenged, and was organized by the STUC, a labor union.   Reading the news about this anti-racism rally in Glasgow got me wondering, why aren’t there more of these in the U.S.?  While I recognize that a rally is not the same thing as a social movement, but it is noteworthy that the only time there’s an anti-racism rally here, it’s in response to a KKK (or other white racist group) rally, and there’s not a sustained anti-racist movement in the U.S.

There’s some recent research by sociologists Jill McCorkel and Jason Rodriguez that may shed some light on this question (recently highlighted in Contexts).   McCorkel and Rodriguez explored the experience of those who participate in movements dominated by people of other races, specifically, they used multi-year participant observation to study how white people become accepted in civil rights organizations dominated by African Americans (e.g., “pro-black” abolitionism and “conscious” hip hop). They found that white people are rarely recruited into such organizations and, when a white person seeks membership, they’re often relegated to “supporter” roles rather than given full membership. In order to move into the core of the movement, white people had to prove their “realness”— that is, their commitment to political struggle. But regardless of their efforts to “fit-in,” white ­participants in black social movements never could become full members. (You can read the entire article in the journal Social Problems, March 2009).

While McCorkel and Rodriguez’s research is focused more on the challenges that an influx of progressive, anti-racist whites posed to two racially progressive movements, their research also suggests a few speculative explanations for why there’s not a robust anti-racist movement in the U.S.  First, it suggests that whites are rarely seen as natural allies by people leading organizations focused on racial equality.  Further, it suggests that anti-racist whites are not organizing among themselves to form a movement against racism, but rather are seeking out organizations dominated by African Americans.    Yet, once in those organizations, anti-racist whites must do the work of proving their “realness” to others rather than engaging work that might change structural inequality, dismantle institutional racism, or raise the consciousness of other whites.  Perhaps anti-racist whites who want to see real social change should work on doing something to change the school-to-prison pipeline, as just one example, rather than trying to get demonstrate how “real” they are.

Or, maybe like whites in Glasgow, whites here in the U.S. could organize an old-fashioned anti-racism rally.

Teaching Doctors to Recognize Racism

Racism and unconscious bias in medicine is a persistent problem in the delivery of medical care in the U.S.   Now, it seems there may be a way to use virtual simulations to teach doctors how to recognize racism.

I wrote here recently about the racism in virtual worlds that some researchers.  Other researchers at the University of Florida have been using the same technology subvert the trend toward racism among medical doctors.

Take a look at this short video (1:31) about new research using virtual worlds to teach doctors to recognize racism (sorry, no video embed available). Finally, a promising use of new technologies to address racism.

Antiracist Action: Against Tea Party Antics in Minnesota

The twincities.indymedia.org blog (HT/ Christopher Day) has a post on, “Anti-Racists Steal the Show at White Supremacist ‘Tea Party Against Amnesty,” with some pretty funny and ironic tactics against the anti-immigration folks:

Forty-five anti-immigration activists held a small rally outside the state capitol on Saturday. Counter-protest from members of Anti-Racist Action, Bash Back, the Minnesota Immigrants’ Rights Action Coalition and others was frequent, vigorous and hilarious. (“America is not for Russians! America is not for Germans! Europeans go home!”)

The cheerful crowd of immigrants’ rights activists held a banner reading “Stop the raids and deportations”. In conversation with members of Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform, the activists repeatedly pointed out that all non-native people in Minnesota are illegal immigrants–Minnesota was taken by force by whites from the native people who lived here for centuries before white arrival. One activist, under the name “Robert Erickson,” managed to get on the list of speakers and riled the crowd into a frenzy about the theft, murder and disease inflicted by illegal immigrants… from Europe, upon indigenous populations. In a “Yes Men” moment, the anti-immigrant crowd sat in silence, trying to figure out what just happened.

Here is part of Erickson’s speech (see video here):

It’s no secret that with an invasion of immigrants, comes waves of crime. We see them involved in massive theft, in murder, and bringing diseases like smallpox, which is responsible for the death of millions of Americans. These aren’t new problems though, they have been going on for hundreds of years, and continue to this day. I say its time for us to say enough is enough! Are you with me? Are you with me? Lets send these European immigrants back where they came from! I don’t care if they are Polish, Irish, English, Italian, or Norwegian! European immigrants are responsible for the most violent and heinus crimes in the history of the world, including genocide and slavery! Its time to restore the sovereignty of people native to this land! I want more workplace raids, starting with the big banks downtown. There are thousands of illegals working in those buildings, hiding in their offices, and taking Dakota jobs. Let’s round them up and ship them out. Then we need to hit them at home where they sleep, I don’t care if we separate families, they should have known better when they came here illegally!

Rather clever use of lampooning, indeed.

Of Race, Racism and “Flattering” Whites

In order to move forward in the push for national health care reform, what we need is less pointing out racism and more flattering whites.  At least, that’s what some are arguing.

The racial politics around President Obama and the health care debate continue to rage on without an end in sight.  Political conservatives remain stalwart in their assertion that the vitriol directed at President Obama would be hurled at any president who advocated such reform, regardless of race; while many liberals continue to assert that the sharp rise (400% by at least one report) in death threats against President Obama have less to do with health care reform and much more to do with the color of his skin.    There does seem to be a growing consensus – or perhaps, weary defeat –  among white liberals that efforts to call out the racism among health-care-reform-naysayers is futile.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.   Lincoln Mitchell, writing at the Huffington Post, calls the whole thing “pointless” :

My point here is not that the attacks on Obama are not racist; it is pretty clear that some are racist. However, it is far less clear what supporters of the president gain from making this argument. It is extremely difficult to convince somebody that racism exists when they don’t want to see it. Moreover, nothing would change if this effort were successful. The right wing and much of the Republican Party have made it clear these last few months that they will stop at almost nothing to cripple the Obama presidency, which indicates that even if they were persuaded that they were racist, they probably wouldn’t stop.

In another instance, Hastings Wyman, in a piece at the Southern Political Report (via @BlackInformant), writes that President Obama declines to point out racism because he is politically savvy enough to know that “white voters like to be flattered, not accused.” Wyman goes on to say:

Whether it’s making a heart-felt address to the nation on race as he distanced himself from his long-time preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or backtracking on black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gate’s dispute with a white Cambridge police officer, Obama has consistently taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved. Who knows what his opinion is about such issues in the deepest recesses of his soul, but his political skills are very much in tact. He knows that getting the left — including African-Americans — highly and publicly incensed about white racism is a losing strategy, at least in terms of current political battles.

What both Mitchell and Wyman seem to be saying here is that whites – who obviously hold the power in this society – are put off by being called out on their racism, so better not do that if you want to win their votes or persuade them to support health care reform.  A better strategy is to soft-pedal the mention of racism, even flatter whites for their magnanimous support of an African-American president, and then we can get on with other business.

It’s important to point out that this sort of strategy from Mitchell and Wyman (and others) is rooted in the white racial frame that Joe has detailed in his recent book, and that Joe and Adia discuss in their new book, “Yes We Can? White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign.” When Mitchell talks about “Americans” he’s referring to “white Americans.”   When Wyman refers to Obama has having “taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved,” he is subscribing to a white point-of-view.  The high road, within this frame, means not calling out white racism when it exists, but instead deflecting, ignoring, minimizing.  The key to all this is, as Wyman notes earlier in this piece, flattering whites.  That need for flattery, that desire to always be right when it comes to matters of race and never be responsible for wrong-doing, that too is a kind of white racism – classic white liberal racism.

Jeremy Levine, writing at Social Science Lite, makes the sociological point that:

To discuss and analyze race is not to revert to an either/or, racist/not racist false dichotomy. Race matters as an everyday reality of inequality, yes, but it’s not as simple as the White Racist Meme suggests. Race matters because it’s always mattered. But racism matters in increasingly complex ways.

Indeed, racism matters in increasingly complex ways in the current era.  But, I would argue, that it does not make whites any less culpable for perpetuating – and benefitting from – systems of racial inequality.  And, if that makes some whites uncomfortable, well so be it.

Critics like Mitchell and Wyman seem to be making an old point:  “sure, there’s racism, but what can you do about it?” As if racism were like gravity – a law of physics that cannot be altered by human behavior.

This is simply false.

Racism was created by human beings (relatively recently in human history), and it can be dismantled, done away with, abolished.   But not if we keep ignoring it and flattering those who perpetuate it.

Community-Based Racial Healing

There is a new grant opportunity that readers here may want to consider from the Kellogg Foundation:

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is pleased to announce a new and exciting grant opportunity in response to our commitment to becoming an effective, anti-racist organization that promotes racial equity. Racial Equity refers to principles of fairness and justice. Racial equity work describes actions designed to address historic burdens as well as to remove present day barriers to equal opportunities. This is accomplished by identifying and eliminating systemic discriminatory policies and practices. Specific remediating strategies, policies, and practices are also required. These actions address the effects of historic injustice and prevent present and future inequities. Our approach to racial equity is inclusive. We will focus on priority concerns for vulnerable African American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, Arab American, and European American children and families within the context of their communities.

This grant opportunity seeks to strengthen and bolster community-based approaches for racial healing and racial equity efforts targeting vulnerable and marginalized children. The Kellogg Foundation anticipates awarding grants up to $400,000. You are invited to submit a proposal for our Community-Based Racial Healing work as outlined in the Request for Proposals (RFP).

This is exciting for those of us concerned about racial inequality because it indicates a new funding stream for anti-racist work.   Please spread the word, and good luck for those who apply!

Can Social Media End Racism?

One of the preoccupations of this blog is thinking and writing about anti-racism and effective strategies for dismantling systems of racial inequality (image from here).    So, I was especially interested to learn about a panel just the other day at SXSWi in Austin, called ‘Can Social Media End Racism?’

The panelists were: Kety Esquivel, New Media Mgr, National Council of La Raza and CrossLeft; Jay Smooth, Ill Doctrine; Phil Yu,  Angry Asian Man; Latoya Peterson  Racialicious.com.

I couldn’t attend but thanks to the interwebs, and some fast typing, there’s a partial transcript of the session up at Liz Henry’s blog, Composite.    The lively panel discussion to transcript translation can sometimes leave you wondering what happened, but this one is very good and gives a sense of what went on.   Parts of the transcript made me reflect a bit on our corner of the blogosphere.  Here are a few of the relevant bits:

Latoya: This discussion is intermediate level, not Racism101 We don’t want to talk about whether racism exists. not interested in that. It’s about our experiences with social media.

So, Latoya starts out saying that this is not a “Racism101” discussion, that is, debating whether racism exists or not.    More emphasis on experiences with social media.  Fair enough.

Then, the Kety offers that the project bloggers working against racism are engaged in involves these elements: 1) spreading knowledge 2) creating refuge 3) mobilizing to action.  And, one of the interesting examples of mobilizing using the web is NCLR’s Stop the Hate campaign.

Several times, the discussion returns to the theme of racist (even violently racist) comments at these various online spaces.     And then, danah boyd asks what I think is one of the key questions, which is (paraphrased): given the history of racism online, [and given that] racism has different roots in different countries… how you get people talking, [when] they don’t know the history?

Indeed, how do you get people talking?     I see that as a struggle that gets played out here, at this blog, all the time.  I know that (possibly) conservative commentors who come by here, such as Robby – who asked recently about my reaction to Heather McDonald’s writing – see me (and others here) as engaging in “the same ol’ agit prop BS couched in impenetrable race jargon,” when what I thought I was doing was making a earnest effort to respond to what I thought was a sincere query.    And, the level of name-calling here, even by people who are supposedly supporters of anti-racism, sometimes makes me sigh.    And, that’s just among the people that bother to drop a comment.  Blogs notoriously suffer from “participation inequality” in which 90% of readers remain “lurkers” and never post a comment.   This blog is no different in that regard. So, how do you get people talking seems to me to be the central question.

I wonder about the space between #1 and #2 and #3 in Kety’s list (above) and about what we’re doing, those of us who blog against racism.   Is it possible to “spread knowledge” and “create refuge” at the same time?  And, can you do both those things while you’re “mobilizing for action”?   I don’t know, but it seems to me that a lot of what we do — here at least —  is not so much “spread” knowledge as engage in a politically-contested struggle over knowledge about race and racism.    And, if we’re “creating refuge” are we just talking to ourselves and people who agree with us?

To my mind,  talking about the basics of racism (e.g., “Racism 101”) and the empirical research that demonstrably shows that racism persists, both individually and institutionally, is necessary, if not sufficient, first step.

Countering Racist and Other Stereotyping

Anti-racism protest

We like to accent here resources for dealing with various forms of racism, sexism, and heterosexism (Creative Commons License photo credit: uwdigitalcollections). Leslie Aguilar has put together an important website and book that suggests various strategies for dealing with stereotyped and prejudiced commentaries and performances that you may encounter in your daily rounds.

The suggestions include responding to racist and other stereotyped comments from acquaintances or others with a simple reaction like, “ouch, that hurts” or “ouch, that stereotype hurts.” I have suggested similar modest counters such as, “what does that mean?” or “what did you mean by that?” Or “can you explain that joke to me?”

Such counters are important for several reasons, including the act of calling out the racist, sexist, or homophobic remark for what it is–that is noting the stereotyped image, notion, or emotion in such a remark and not letting it pass by unremarked upon. By calling it out, you often keep more such remarks from coming. Calling it out also may allow a further discussion about why that remark or joke hurt, and who was hurt. We need to build such actions into regular Stereotyping 101 and Racism 101 courses at all levels of U.S. schooling.

Try out his video preview here.

Racism and Anti-Racism in Suburban New York

Yesterday, two white teenagers were arrested and charged with a hate-crime after assaulting a black man as they all waited in line to register for classes at Westchester Community College, just north and west of New York City.  The persistence of this sort of racism within educational institutions is consistent with the research evidence on this topic, such as Feagin and colleagues’ The Agony of Education (Routledge, 1996)  and this newly released research by Sarah Stitzlein, Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).  That this sort of thing happened in suburban New York, once again underscores that the northeast is not immune from racism because the states in this region of the country happen to be above the Mason-Dixon line or because these white teenagers’ ancestors never owned slaves.  I wonder how the story of the young black man’s educational experience might read if he were to write it down for us?  The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education must sound like a hollow promise to him as he is getting called racial slurs and then pummeled as he tries to register for classes at a community college.

In another suburban community, this one to the east on Long Island, in Suffolk County, is seeing some anti-racism organizing on the part of some residents.   This is a welcome change of tone from Suffolk County, as this is the same county where Ecuadorian immigrant Marcello Lucero was killed by a group of (mostly) white teenagers recently.    (The fact that both these recent attacks were the actions of white male teenagers also speaks to the gendred, and specifically masculine nature of this violent form of white supremacy.)   The Town of Southhampton’s Anti-Bias Task Force met on the steps of Town Hall (photo by Kelly Carroll, Hamptons.com) to voice concern over the issue of hate-crimes against immigrants and against native-born racial/ethnic minorities.   Referring to the murder of Lucero, Lucius Ware, president of the Eastern Long Island NAACP said, “That was a lynching, which is injury by mob violence.  There are still hoods and gowns in some of the closets around here,” a reference to Long Island’s history of KKK activity.

It seems to me that suburban New York in these two events serves as a sort of microcosm for some of the choices we have facing us with regard to racism.   We may engage in overt racist attacks, we may be victims of such attacks, and we all have the option to stand together, across differences, against the legacy of racism.  At the moment, there is no large, anti-racist social movement in the U.S., but there are small groups of concerned people, like these folks in Suffolk County.  Perhaps if more of these small groups can sustain the collective interest in seeing an end to racism, then we could for the first time see a viable anti-racist movement in this country, and really begin to change systemic and entrenched racial inequality.