I know you all are a bunch of readers. And many of you are interested in early America. So instead of reading another hagiography about Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson, how about something actually interesting that is useful at understanding the period? Here’s an outstanding reading list on race in early America. Now this is some meat for you to chew on. Or tofu if that is your ilk.
Coates argues that Obama knows his whites because he was born to them, raised and loved by them. For this reason, Coates says Obama was able to offer white Americans “something very few African Americans could—trust.” Obama’s faith in white people’s goodness and white America’s capacity to rise above racism runs throughout his presidency and Coates’s moving, infuriating, eloquent memorial for our first black president.
The essay is moving. That is because Coates wrote it. And on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency, the essay is all the more moving. Many black people will never again have a moment when they feel as American, for good or for ill, as many of us have felt the past eight years. Many of us will never again feel safe from history, seeing it reassert its racist, sexist violence so forcefully back into our political sphere. The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.
It didn’t matter that Obama had faith in white people, they needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them. Here, what is referred to alternately in Coates’s essay as Obama’s “hybridity” and “two-ness” and “biracial” identity may have mattered. It did not matter because of how it shaped Obama but because of how it made white voters feel about themselves. In sociology, there are several theories about those who are born or socialized into two cultures at once. These people have been called liminal or marginal, for being suspended between two societies. The black world and white world that Coates describes and that are often tossed about casually are important to understand. There is a black norm only because there is a white norm, and vice versa. As some of these ideas go, people like Obama exist in both spaces simultaneously. For some people this means someone like Obama has special insight into both cultures. That insight supposedly breeds empathy. That kind of empathy may be why Obama could look at years of pictures of his wife and children drawn as apes and decades of white backlash to perceived black socio-economic gains as racial, albeit not racist: “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” That is catnip to millions of white voters.
The other interpretation of liminality, or double-consciousness, that Obama is said to represent is more complicated. Not only does one trapped between two sets of social norms understand each better, but he is often blinded to the ways in which they are in conflict. Duality can breed insight but it can also breed delusions. The challenge of holding two sets of social selves, two ways of being and understanding the world at one time is to soften the edges so much that for the liminal, the edges no longer exist.
The black president that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes is one who thinks he could have ever really “embraced” or “chosen” blackness. He seems to truly believe that he exercised some great act of charity and agency in adopting black cool. My first black president seems to think that he can raise his daughters to believe in systemic racism without legitimizing the idea of systemic reparations. He thinks that he can be his brother’s keeper without changing the world that keeps his brothers in bad jobs, poor neighborhoods, bad educational options, and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My first black president seems to think he can have black cool without black burden. For all his intimacies with his white mother and white grandparents, my first black president doesn’t appear to know his whites.
There’s no other way to explain Obama’s inability to imagine that this nation could elect Donald Trump. Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs. Even after Donald Trump was elected, Obama told Coates that all is not lost. He is still hopeful about the soul of white America. He said nothing about the soul of black America. That is where my hope resides. It is where my faith has always resided.
The anger that David Axelrod says was so a part of Harold Washington and that Barack Obama wonderfully did not have is also the hope that defends against America’s worst impulses.* To think Obama is commended for not being angry, for not having the fortitude of deep knowledge about how white identity politics sustains and circumscribes black lives is enough to make me cry.
Barack Obama never seemed to really understand the nature of his opposition, from his early years of being Grand Bargain curious to the rise of Trump. This may be why his response to Trump in the last month has been near silence. I am strongly hoping Obama takes a major leadership role in the fight against Trump to come, not retiring like most presidents, but rather becoming a modern John Quincy Adams, fighting against injustice quite publicly. But it may take Obama coming to terms with the true depths of American racism to do this. And somehow, maybe he doesn’t quite get that.
“They are all so phony,” the staffer told me. “Every time I hear any of the Democratic senators, including my own boss, talk about diversity, I cringe, because it’s all one big lie. That they’ve been allowed to enjoy this reputation as a party that values diversity, while doing next to nothing of substance to align their actions with their words, is expert-level deception.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The staffer went on to detail a private network of conversations being held by staff members of color in the U.S. Senate which they half-jokingly call the “Underground Railroad.”
“Democrats in the Senate use demographics as their excuse for the fact that they only have one African-American member in their ranks. They’ll tell anyone who listens that they wish this wasn’t the case and to the untrained ear, it sounds true. It isn’t. The Senate looks just the way want it,” the staffer told me.
I must admit that I had also bought the lie — hook, line, and sinker — that only two current U.S. Senators out of 100, Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Tim Scott, a Republican, were black because state by state demographics just made it too hard for African-Americans to win statewide elections.
“No, that’s not it. Of course demographics are a factor in every election, but the Senate looks the way Senators want it to look. Let me prove it to you.”
What I learned next made my jaw drop.
“Do you know how many black Chiefs of Staff exist in the Senate? The whole Senate? One. Out of one hundred chances they had to hire a black chiefs of staff, they hired just one African-American,” the staffer said in disgust.
“But hold up, hold up,” the staffer continued. “I haven’t even given you the punchline yet. Guess who the one black Chief of Staff works for?”
“Who?” I asked — having no idea what the answer was.
“Tim Scott,” the staffer replied. “The lone black chief of staff in the entire United States Senate works for South Carolina Republican, Tim Scott. His office may be the most diverse in the entire Senate.”
That’s, um, not good. And while I have no way to access the educational backgrounds of Senate staffers, it takes no great leap of faith to expect that many of them come from elite schools and wealthy families that basically recreate the aristocratic class in Washington, on Wall Street, and in every other bastion of power in America. While you’d expect this from Republicans, it’s deeply dismaying but not surprising from Democrats. This is how white privilege works. You say you are for greater diversity and for greater opportunities for people of color. And your probably are. But then in your personal hiring practices, you are part of the problem.
On November 17, 1968, the New York State Education Commissioner reasserted control over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, ending the strike by teachers that started when African-American activists fired white teachers in their schools in violation of the union contract. This fraught incident represented the difficult relationship between organized labor and other social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated the increased militancy of teachers unions during this period, and suggested the complexity of labor’s responses to social groups making new demands upon society.
In 1967, African-Americans in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, working with a pretty wide variety of white allies, demanded community control over their schools. More than 95 percent of the students were African-American or Latino and about 2/3 of the teachers were white. Such demands were increasingly common among communities of color during this era, especially among Chicano activists in the Southwest. They believed their schools were failing because of their inherent racism of the educational system. They believed the teachers were racist too. They wanted the students to learn about their history, read literature written by black writers, and be part of the revolutionary change demanded by Black Power activists nationwide. The city allowed Ocean Hill-Brownsville and a couple of other districts to experiment in community control beginning in 1967. Much of this community control movement nationwide had a strong anti-union element to it, especially among whites who supported it. One architect of the idea wanted to “destroy the professional education bureaucracy,” i.e., the unions.
The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers. They were largely Jewish and many considered themselves liberals or leftists. Other teachers were indeed pretty racist. This was a tricky issue. African-American parents had real concerns. On the other hand, the teachers had a collectively bargained contract. The head of the UFT was Albert Shanker. The contract he had negotiated with the city allowed teachers to advance through a serious of standardized tests that could allow them to move ahead depending on how they did on them. This merit-based system Shanker and the rank and file believed represented teachers effectively. It did indeed serve the white teachers well. But as standardized teachers often go, African-American teachers tended not to score as highly. So the tests and the contract did institutionalize racism.
Responding to this, the community activists fired several white teachers, violating the contract. Black teachers and whites who were not union members but committed to community control of the schools replaced them. Shanker and the UFT when ballistic and 350 teachers in the district went on strike on May 22. The community fired them all. Technically this meant that they were returned to the New York central school district office, where they would have to show up and hang out all day rather than actual firing, but it was effectively firing the teachers. This strike was a foretaste of the broader response once the new school year started in the fall. The activists behind community control wanted to ensure the fired teachers would never work again. Said the head of the community board who fired the teachers, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that.”
Shanker himself and the UFT as an institution had worked for civil rights. They had actively supported Freedom Summer in 1964. The UFT’s field rep in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was Sandra Feldman, a member of Harlem CORE and a volunteer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But this was a bigger principle for the union. No union can survive if they can’t defend members’ jobs from arbitrary dismissal. Said Feldman, “From the point of view of the union, it was a totally basic issue. You’re talking about nineteen people who were told in effect: ‘You haven’t got jobs anymore.’ The Union really had no choice.”
The strike shattered the long alliance between Jews and African-Americans in New York politics. The UFT’s official stance on ethnicity was a melting pot idea that promoted teaching about ethnicity in the context of a Cold War nationalism that promoted individual achievement and consensus politics. The black activists in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rejected this liberal pluralism, especially the teaching of black history as equivalent to the European ethnic groups who had assimilated into American society. Of course black history is very different than European ethnic history, with systemic discrimination not only defining African-American life in 1968, but today. And many of the activists were openly anti-Semitic. One black teacher wrote a poem about Shanker that read “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head, you pale faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.” Most of the New York left sided with the black activists, arguing the UFT was not acting in good faith. Others, including A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, spoke out in favor of the UFT. Said Randolph, “If due process is not won in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what will prevent white community groups from firing black teachers or white teachers with liberal views. What will prevent local Birchites and Wallaceites from taking over?” The AFL-CIO also supported their UFT brethren.
Mayor John Lindsey was initially supportive of the community control plan. But Shanker was frankly much more powerful than the people promoting this idea. The school year started with the entire school system going on strike for 36 days. 54,000 of the city’s 57,000 teachers walked out. The strike quickly forced Lindsay to backtrack. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools still operated despite the strike, although with the teachers striking outside, the education was not exactly effective. Over one million students had no school. Finally, on November 17, the state took direct control over Ocean Hill-Brownsville, ending the community control. The fired teachers were reinstated and the new teachers let go. Conflict at the school and in the community remained high. Albert Shanker became nationally famous over the strike.
Woody Allen would later portray Albert Shanker as the man who blew up the world in Sleeper. He would be posthumously granted the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. Sadly, I don’t have to say which President Clinton.
I borrowed from Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s , and Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession to write this post.
This is the 200th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
It’s hardly surprising that growing income inequality would exacerbate other forms of inequality. Thus, this EPI study demonstrating the connections between income inequality and black/white wage gaps is more depressing than shocking.
What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.
Why it matters: Though the African American experience is not monolithic, our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing. For example, just completing a bachelor’s degree or more will not reduce the black-white wage gap. Indeed the gaps have expanded most for college graduates. Black male college graduates (both those with just a college degree and those who have gone beyond college) newly entering the workforce started the 1980s with less than a 10 percent disadvantage relative to white college graduates but by 2014 similarly educated new entrants were at a roughly 18 percent deficit.
What it means for policy: Wage gaps are growing primarily because of discrimination (or racial differences in skills or worker characteristics that are unobserved or unmeasured in the data) and growing earnings inequality in general. Thus closing and eliminating the gaps will require intentional and direct action:
Consistently enforce antidiscrimination laws in the hiring, promotion, and pay of women and minority workers.
Convene a high-level summit to address why black college graduates start their careers with a sizeable earnings disadvantage.
Under the leadership of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, identify the “unobservable measures” that impact the black-white wage gap and devise ways to include them in national surveys.
Urge the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to work with experts to develop metropolitan area measures of discrimination that could be linked to individual records in the federal surveys so that researchers could directly assess the role that local area discrimination plays in the wage setting of African Americans and whites.
Address the broader problem of stagnant wages by raising the federal minimum wage, creating new work scheduling standards, and rigorously enforcing wage laws aimed at preventing wage theft.
Strengthen the ability of workers to bargain with their employers by combatting state laws that restrict public employees’ collective bargaining rights or the ability to collect “fair share” dues through payroll deductions, pushing back against the proliferation of forced arbitration clauses that require workers to give up their right to sue in public court, and securing greater protections for freelancers and workers in “gig” employment relationships.
Require the Federal Reserve to pursue monetary policy that targets full employment, with wage growth that matches productivity gains.
These policies all make a tremendous amount of sense for labor issues generally, not only those that generate racial inequality.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five of their followers, charged in the armed takeover of a federally owned Oregon wildlife sanctuary in January, were acquitted Thursday of federal conspiracy and weapons charges.
The verdict brings to a close a case that gripped the nation earlier this year with its public debate about government powers, public lands and constitutional rights.
There was a Wild West quality to the episode, with armed men in cowboy hats taking on federal agents in a tussle over public lands and putting out a call for aid, only to see their insurrection fizzle.
In a monthlong trial here, the defendants never denied that they had occupied and held the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters for nearly six weeks, demanding that the federal government surrender the 188,000-acre property to local control. But their lawyers argued that prosecutors did not prove that the group had engaged in an illegal conspiracy that kept federal workers — employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management — from doing their jobs.
Police in riot gear faced off with protesters on horseback as the monthslong protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline came to a head Thursday.
At least 24 protesters have been arrested since law enforcement Humvees and helicopters began to flood the area to break up a protester encampment near the pipeline’s path.
Calling themselves “water protectors,” supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe set up tents and teepees on the land, which they said belongs to the tribe under a 19-century treaty.
But authorities said they are trespassing on pipeline property. Officials brought in reinforcements from seven states to remove protesters and dismantle illegal roadblocks made of hay bales and wood.
As the standoff continued into Thursday afternoon, police deployed bean bag rounds and pepper spray gas and unleashed a high-pitched siren to disperse the crowd. Debris on a bridge caught fire, sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.
Nashville hot chicken has become a thing. A recent write up of this phenomenon of a dish long eaten by the area’s African-American population credited white people for making it happen. Um, no.
George Embiricos at Food Republic has written a hot mess of an article on Hattie B’s hot chicken that gives credit for the popularity of the dish to the white guys who took a piece of black culinary culture and made it cool. This is not me paraphrasing. This is literally what Embiricos says:
Today, Hattie B’s has two Nashville locations, in addition to one in Birmingham, Alabama, with plans to expand throughout the Southeast. Lengthy lines — packed with locals, tourists and celebrities alike — regularly stretch down the block during peak times. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack may have created hot chicken in the 1930s, and institutions like Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish may have helped preserve the tradition over the years, but Hattie B’s has made hot chicken cool.
Before Hattie B’s opened, there was plenty of hot chicken in Nashville, but the emphasis was always on the “hot” part. Lasater put more focus on the chicken, using high-quality birds. That, combined with a central location, an outdoor patio, pairing the chicken with sweet options like waffles and offering local beers on tap, changed the hot-chicken experience. All have proved vital to Hattie B’s sustained success, cementing its place among the city’s staples.
Let me remind you, it’s 2016. We’ve lived through white people “inventing” rock & roll so they could sell it to white people and then half a century of people — black and white — pointing out that it’s an older art form than that. We’ve lived through a century of “vulgar” “exotic” “indecent” dances done by black kids becoming “fun” and “energetic” and “cool” when white kids do it — see everything from the hop straight through breakdancing through whatever kids are doing today. Graffiti, when black kids were doing it, was criminal and fed into gang culture. Banksy does it and now it’s worth preserving and spending money to collect it. There’s not a black art form, food included, that by this point hasn’t been popularized by white people and then the popularized version celebrated by white media like white people invented it, or at least, perfected it.
If, at this point, you’re still writing articles where black people have been doing shit for years, going mostly unnoticed by white people, and it’s only when the white people come in and decide to monetize it that you declare it cool, then you are the problem with America.
Indeed. Racism has many forms. Among them is ignoring long histories of African-American food culture to appropriate it for whites using fancy hipster words.
Here is another long essay about Trump supporters and what they see in him. The useful thing in this piece is how it identifies the divide between relatively wealthy Republicans who hate welfare programs and believe in bootstrapism no matter what and poor whites who really need government programs but who associate them with blacks and immigrants and see Trump as a way out of that.
How can we understand this growing gap between male lives at the top and bottom? For Murray, the answer is a loss of moral values. But is sleeping longer and watching television a loss of morals, or a loss of morale? A recent study shows a steep rise in deaths of middle-aged working-class whites—much of it due to drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. These are not signs of abandoned values, but of lost hope. Many are in mourning and see rescue in the phrase “Great Again.”
Trump’s pronouncements have been vague and shifting, but it is striking that he has not called for cuts to Medicaid, or food stamps, or school lunch programs, and that his daughter Ivanka nods to the plight of working moms. He plans to replace Obamacare, he says, with a hazy new program that will be “terrific” and that some pundits playfully dub “Trumpcare.” For the blue-collar white male Republicans Sharon spoke to, and some whom I met, this change was welcome.
Still, it was a difficult thing to reconcile. How wary should a little-bit-higher-up-the-ladder white person now feel about applying for the same benefits that the little-bit-lower-down-the-ladder people had? Shaming the “takers” below had been a precious mark of higher status. What if, as a vulnerable blue-collar white worker, one were now to become a “taker” oneself?
Trump, the King of Shame, has covertly come to the rescue. He has shamed virtually every line-cutting group in the Deep Story—women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees. But he’s hardly uttered a single bad word about unemployment insurance, food stamps, or Medicaid, or what the tea party calls “big government handouts,” for anyone—including blue-collar white men.
In this feint, Trump solves a white male problem of pride. Benefits? If you need them, okay. He masculinizes it. You can be “high energy” macho—and yet may need to apply for a government benefit. As one auto mechanic told me, “Why not? Trump’s for that. If you use food stamps because you’re working a low-wage job, you don’t want someone looking down their nose at you.” A lady at an after-church lunch said, “If you have a young dad who’s working full time but can’t make it, if you’re an American-born worker, can’t make it, and not having a slew of kids, okay. For any conservative, that is fine.”
But in another stroke, Trump adds a key proviso: restrict government help to real Americans. White men are counted in, but undocumented Mexicans and Muslims and Syrian refugees are out. Thus, Trump offers the blue-collar white men relief from a taker’s shame: If you make America great again, how can you not be proud? Trump has put on his blue-collar cap, pumped his fist in the air, and left mainstream Republicans helpless. Not only does he speak to the white working class’ grievances; as they see it, he has finally stopped their story from being politically suppressed. We may never know if Trump has done this intentionally or instinctively, but in any case he’s created a movement much like the anti-immigrant but pro-welfare-state right-wing populism on the rise in Europe. For these are all based on variations of the same Deep Story of personal protectionism.
Yet again, race and class are intertwined here. The white, poor southern men (the linked article profiles Louisiana) who love Trump are racist. There’s no doubt about that. They see their white privilege slipping away at the same time that they feel their class stability collapsing beneath them. How then to get the help you need in a world without good-paying working class jobs? Demonize those you used to demean for getting the programs you now need. Talk about yourself as a real, deserving American and the others as undeserving of Americanness.
There is no simply policy to solve racism. There are however policies that can undermine the class insecurities these people feel. Just because they vote for Trump and are racist doesn’t mean we should not take the precariousness of their lives seriously. Moreover, any class-based program that helps these white people in Louisiana also helps people of color. But sadly, working-class issues really are not on the table in this general election campaign (although arguably there are no issues under any kind of serious discussion right now). Democrats are a little better at recognizing the need to put people to work, but they have struggled mightily to come up with any sort of serious jobs program that would find good work for poor Americans. It’s all education and retraining, which are easy panaceas that make policymakers feel like they are doing something but which do almost nothing for the affected people. That’s what has to change–people of southern Louisiana, black or white or Asian or Latino, all need access to good jobs in the places they live. Racism will never go away. But until good jobs are in place, it will be very easy for fascists like Trump to make the kinds of connections between economic hard times and racial mythology to create very scary political movements in the United States.
Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.
If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.
Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.
To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.
Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).
Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.
Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.
Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.
“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”
The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.
“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”
This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”
Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.
Beyond that, Clinton’s call for everyone to “do the work” to unite against hatred overlooks the fundamental fact that it’s whites — and only whites — who must work to fix the racist structures in our society.
To quote another historical figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The thing wrong with America is white racism. … It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks.” Clinton could have spoken about racial justice.
Instead, like so many others, she focused on the rhetoric of unity. And calling for unity places yet another burden on black people.
Look at what happens in the wake of a shooting by police like the ones last week in Minnesota and Louisiana and Texas: The relatives of the victims are clearly grieving and traumatized, yet they are pushed to extend empathy and forgiveness to those who killed their loved ones, and to the system that profits from these tragedies. Routinely now, we encounter scenes of black folks hugging racists, praying with and dancing with police officers, being asked to do the additional work of teaching white folks how not to be racist and help them find solutions to a racist system we didn’t invent — while we struggle to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.
Talk of unity, reconciliation and restoring trust is a diversion from the raw, ugly, excruciatingly painful work of addressing the systemic racism that is tearing our nation apart. In their rush to avoid the real work in favor of a kumbaya fantasy comfort zone, they refuse to confront history and the truth about present moment.
Asking black people to participate in this reconciliation process — one that centers on Lincoln — suggests that we bear responsibility in this mess. But we didn’t invent the concept of race. We didn’t create and don’t sustain institutionalized racism. And we surely don’t benefit from it.
Rhetorical calls for unity won’t address the fundamental sources of inequality: mass incarceration, employment discrimination, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, divestment in communities of color, political disenfranchisement, displacement of poor and working-class people of color from gentrifying cities. The emphasis on unity makes no room for discussion about growing white resentment and feelings of victimization, and it presumes that black folks bear responsibility for the entrenched problem of a “colorblind” white America that denies racism even exists.
And while Clinton may not have intended it this way, what the message of unity winds up doing is blaming communities of color for failing to assimilate, rather than acknowledging that the very fabric of this nation is built upon a diabolical, calculated and constantly evolving system of racism. That has the same effect as when Republicans blame President Obama for dividing the nation and making race relations worse, or when the media chastises Black Lives Matter protesters for alienating liberals with its “violent tone.”
All that said, I don’t really see what else a presidential nominee is going to say four months before the general election.
Rob Parkinson, a colleague from my master’s program many years ago, has a great editorial in the Times on the connections between the fear of slave revolts and American independence.
FOR more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.
The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.
In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.
Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.
Fear of slave insurrection and Indian raids infused white American independence throughout the war, in part because slaves were fleeing to the British lines whenever they could and the British were making deals with indigenous peoples to fight against the colonists, deals that made a lot of sense to people who knew that the Proclamation of 1763 was the only thing between them and obliteration from westward expansion.
As I have said before, the creation of the United States was utterly catastrophic for African-Americans and was genocidal for Native Americans. No amount of hand-waving about Jefferson’s fancy rhetoric can avoid these facts. There was a reason the large majority of African-Americans and Native Americans (although certainly not all) who could take a side in the war sided with the British. That’s because they recognized their interests and acted upon them. That’s why I love this anecdote:
At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”
For thousands of African-Americans, the British were liberators, not oppressors. That doesn’t mean of course that those who managed to get out lived great lives after the Revolution, especially those who ended up in cold, hostile Nova Scotia. But you know what? It wasn’t slavery. No one was whipping them, no one was selling their children, no one could kill them with impunity. And the ability to do those things was absolutely central to many of the Americans who supported the Revolution. Parkinson’s conclusion is powerful and I will close with quoting it:
This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.
But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.
Fifty years ago this month, the term “Black Power” became known to Americans as the participants in the March Against Fear picked it up as their slogan. N.D.B. Connolly, whose book you should read, discusses both its implications for today and then goes onto criticize how historians of radical African-Americans have gone far to undermine the potency of radical Black Power scholarship by focusing their attention on popular figures like Stokley Carmichael, promoting trade books and liberal notions of inclusive diversity instead of what Black Power activists actually fought for themselves. The whole thing is a must read. But I want to focus on his discussion of how Black Power never really ended.
This year will no doubt see plenty of fitting and necessary commemorations of Black Power’s importance in American history. Still, 50th anniversaries seem as good a time as any to clear up enduring confusions. “Black Power” is not some dusty or even hallowed slogan trapped in the past. It resides in the here-and-now as a set of living political and civic commitments. It includes a healthy suspicion of white-run institutions and an enduring desire for black ownership and other forms of self-determination. It also includes a hope that an unapologetic love of black people can, indeed, become a site of interracial political consensus. Chicago’s Black Youth Project 100, Baltimore’s Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and scores of #BlackLivesMatter activists and their affiliates around the country represent but a handful of the groups that sharply echo the most militant political practices of the last half-century.
Not unlike Meredith’s marchers, courageous men and women over the last 50 years have also kept alive a certain intellectual fearlessness, advancing what one could fittingly call a Black Power method. A Black Power method remains both anti-racist and, often, anti-liberal in its interpretive and archival practice. Interpretively, it refuses to caricature black radicalism as doomed for failure. It also remains attentive to racism’s class and gendered dimensions, even if, like historical Black Power, it is not uniformly, or even necessarily, “progressive” on either. Projections of black unity, as Elsa Barkley Brown recently reminded, often require silencing. Thus, it still takes real intellectual work to prioritize the stories of working-class people, queer people, and women who might otherwise be erased from the historical record, either by white supremacist history-making or black bourgeois responses to it.
I consistently tell my students that the civil rights movement has no start or end. If it has a starting point, it’s the moment the first African slave entered Virginia in 1619 and it continues to the present. We just talk about the Civil Rights Movement as a thing (with capital letters) because it’s one of only two times in U.S. history that enough white people cared about the oppression of African-Americans to pass legislation to do something about it (the other time of course being during Congressional Reconstruction). Black Power is not a thing of the past. As we see in Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, the anti-Confederate flag movement, and many other places, the issues driving black activism in 2016 are in many ways not that different than in 1965 or even 1865. And some of that activism has and does today reject white-dominated liberalism and unchallenging notions of diversity. That’s certainly Connolly’s position, as the rest of this essay makes clear and even if it makes white people uncomfortable, it’s a perfectly legitimate position that if anything makes actual acceptance of black people in American life more possible.