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Tag: "racism"

White Supremacists of Politics Past

[ 59 ] March 9, 2016 |

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Donald Trump’s embrace of white supremacists reminds Ben Railton of that mostly forgotten election year of 1924, when the KKK dominated the Democratic Party and anti-immigrant politics won the day, closing the American borders to most immigrants for four decades.

Lost in the latest Trump uproar is that the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists have been significant players in our national politics for a century, engaged in debates over not only race and region but also over immigration, culture, and American identity more broadly. Indeed, just under a century ago, the Klan muscled its way to center stage at a national political party’s convention in a moment that captured the hate group’s tenacious national presence. Back then it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, struggling to quell the divisions within their ranks. But the story speaks volumes about the racial tensions that continue to tear at the national body politic.

It was 1924, and the Democrats were holding their national convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, a political brawl that ran continuously for more than two weeks and required a record 103 ballots to nominate the party’s presidential candidate. The two frontrunners coming into the convention were William Gibbs McAdoo, a California businessman and future U.S. senator who had served as Woodrow Wilson’s Treasury Secretary, and New York Governor Alfred Smith, a Catholic vehemently opposed by the Ku Klux Klan. The delegates linked with the Klan, which had over the preceding decade had gained significant, controversial national influence in the Democratic Party and beyond, supported McAdoo. Like Trump when first asked about David Duke, McAdoo did not disavow or decline the endorsement.

From June 24 to July 9, Catholics, immigrants, and other coalitions within the party fought the Klan delegates in a series of back-and-forth nominations of Smith, McAdoo, and a number of other candidates. The result was a convention that broke all records for length, came to be known as the “Klanbake,” and eventually nominated a broadly unpopular alternative candidate, namely former West Virginia Congressman John W. Davis. Davis went on to lose the presidential election to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge by a margin of nearly 250 electoral votes.

That historic convention serves as a reminder that white supremacists have been tied to both major parties, and that Democrats have not been immune from ugly racial attacks. Indeed, the Klan and its ilk were most prominently associated with the Democratic Party until at least the 1948 “Dixiecrat” revolt, when segregationist Democrats nominated Strom Thurmond as a third-party presidential candidate. (To be clear, this does not mean, as the recent comments of CNN analyst and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord suggest, that the KKK is a “leftist” organization; the hate group has always been and remains thoroughly reactionary.) Yet the 1924 convention also illustrates the nation’s ongoing struggle with itself over immigration and visions of our collective identity. The Klan’s rise a century ago went hand in hand with the passage of the first comprehensive national immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act).

At the time, the 1924 law extended and made permanent the so-called Emergency Quota Act, a 1921 law that had established immigration quotas based on national origin. The central arguments for both creating a national immigration law and basing it on such quotas were openly racist, as reflected in a speech delivered on the Senate floor by then-South Carolina Senator Ellison Durant Smith, himself a white supremacist dedicated to “keeping the niggers down and the price of cotton up.” Smith, one of the 1924 law’s more ardent supporters, argued that “the point as to this measure … is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. … Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power.”

I doubt I’m the only who could see Trump making speeches very similar to Ellison Durant Smith.

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“You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children”

[ 68 ] March 9, 2016 |

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I have news for everyone. There are other things happening in the world than the presidential campaign. Perhaps we should pay attention to them. For instance, there is the long-term issue of racism and housing that continues to impoverish African-Americans today. This is an outstanding lengthy discussion of the connections between race, housing, and inequality in Memphis. It explores the growth of the early 20th century black middle class when Memphis was one of the nation’s leading cities and how that was utterly destroyed by the city’s racist political machine when alliances with black politicians were no longer needed. This set off a long history of violence, white flight, and urban blight led by racist politicians and residents that has left Memphis in the dust of other southern cities economically, has created a huge geographical city with a stagnant population, and condemned African-Americans in Memphis today to long-term structural inequality. An excerpt:

White flight intensified the geography of disparity. Beginning in the 1950s, working-class whites moved just beyond the city’s boundaries, first north to Frayser and south to Whitehaven, and then “out East” to Germantown, Collierville, and Cordova, where they built roads, schools, shopping centers, and hospitals — all the features of a city, spread over small rural communities. The completion of the I-240 freeway loop, in 1984, directed commerce away from the urban core of Memphis and toward the suburbs. Today, the highest concentrations of wealth, educational attainment, and jobs are on the eastern edge.

n an ongoing effort to recapture its lost revenue base, Memphis has annexed this ever-expanding crabgrass frontier so that it can collect property taxes from white flighters. Over time, the city has grown to a sprawling 324 square miles, larger than New York City, Atlanta, or St. Louis, without increasing its population of 650,000. Now the city government is responsible for providing services to that vast area, and yet the county roll shows that a third of the land — 95 square miles — is essentially vacant, and much more is sparsely populated. In several cases the city gambled badly, annexing planned developments that never materialized, and now its diminished resources are spread thin across an ever larger territory, much of which generates no revenue.

In modern Memphis there is no figurehead, no Henry Loeb or Boss Crump, to articulate and symbolize the tenets of white supremacy. In fact, one result of white flight and black population growth has been the ascent of African-American political leadership. In 1974, Harold Ford, Sr., won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the state’s first black congressman. In 1991, former school superintendent Dr. Willie Herenton became the city’s first African-American mayor, an office he held for five terms. But the election of black leaders has done nothing to end racial division in Memphis — today, white opposition is expressed in continual growth beyond the city. In suburban malls and parks, you hear the loud echo of those nice white ladies in the mayor’s office in 1953: “You have to get out of that neighborhood if you want decent children.”

The racial prejudice of many suburbanites is revealed by their hostility to integrated public schools. Over the years, proposals to merge the government of surrounding Shelby County with the city government never gained much traction — but when county and city schools were finally merged, in 2011, that sparked a new segregationist revolt. Within two years, six suburban municipalities withdrew from the consolidated system and established their own schools (with a huge assist from the state legislature, which changed a law that had prohibited new school districts), and now those suburban districts no longer need to share their resources with the city. Urban residents nonetheless pay both city and county property taxes, benefiting the communities that have withdrawn their resources from Memphis.

This is well worth your time.

Why Are Our Cities Segregated?

[ 102 ] March 7, 2016 |

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Because that’s what the government intended after World War II:

“We have a national myth that the reason our metropolitan areas are segregated is for informal reasons—private prejudice, differences in income, demographic trends, racial steering by real estate agents and so forth,” Rothstein said. “The reality is that the segregation that we see today was established by the federal government with help from state and local governments. It’s an officially established system.”

Rothstein said the federal government purposefully created segregated neighborhoods throughout the country when it started building public housing in the 1930s. He said sometimes the government destroyed integrated neighborhoods like St. Louis’ Desoto-Carr neighborhood to build public housing that was earmarked for one race. Clinton-Peabody, for instance was built for white families on the near south-side of St. Louis while another public housing project was built for black families downtown.

After World War II, the federal government subsidized the construction of great swaths of homes in city suburbs and made them available to purchase for veterans—as long as they were white. Rothstein credits the appreciation in value of those homes as being a major reason white Americans have been able to build more wealth over the past few generations.

“The enormous difference in wealth between median African-American families and median white families is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy of the 20th century by which whites were subsidized to buy suburban homes which then appreciated in value many times over over the next generation or two and African Americans were prohibited from buying those homes so they didn’t gain any of the benefits of equity appreciation that white families gained,” said Rothstein.

Ferguson resident Cassandra Butler was part of a small but invested crowd listening to Rothstein speak Saturday. She said his research was an affirmation.

“African Americans aren’t necessarily in the economic position they are in because we ourselves are inferior,” said Butler. “It’s constructed, institutional policies that have led to where we are.”

The continued institutionalized racism against African-Americans is why the argument for reparations is morally correct if politically impossible. It also means that only federal programs will fix it. That includes ensuring that educational opportunities are not significantly better for suburban white kids than urban kids of color, whether through busing or nationalizing school funding, or other innovative programs. It’s the only way to move toward solving these problems in education, in housing, in employment, and in so many other facets of American life.

Race, Class, and the Tea Party

[ 67 ] February 15, 2016 |

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What drives the Tea Party? Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel suggest it is racial resentment, not class anxiety. That a reasonable conclusion as far as it goes, but it’s not like the two issues can really be separated among white working-class voters. Racism is a huge driver of American politics and society from the beginning of European occupation to the present. That racial resentment cuts across class lines, but it certainly has long been useful for employers and politicians to deploy in order to draw attention away from class-based oppression. So white workers see government programs as helping people of color and thus oppose them based upon racism, even as opposing those programs also hurts them. But then at the same time, the economic resentment is also real in an America where employers are moving good paying jobs overseas. The reason Trump is winning the Republican primary is because he is making those racial and class resentments real and interconnected. It’s the Mexicans and Chinese and Vietnamese stealing our jobs, not the rich employers stealing our jobs, but either way, Trump says he is going to stop it from happening. So does race trump class in Tea Party (or more usefully at this point, right-wing populism) support? I suppose it defends on the definitions, but I don’t think we should be asking these questions in this form. More valuable is to understand the variety of reasons why people are inclined to feel and vote this way, reasons that will always be complex.

Does Racism Influence Our Response to Terrorist Organizations?

[ 97 ] February 11, 2016 |

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Probably. Boko Haram is as if not more deadly than ISIS. But because it is strictly in Africa, the media hardly covers it at all. Yet ISIS is the epitome of terrorism because they kill white people. This is reflected in policy as well, with far more political attention paid to ISIS than Boko Haram.

On November 13, 2015, ISIS members coordinated a bombing attack throughout France that brutally massacred 130 innocent souls from Paris to Saint-Denis. The world sat in disbelief at the audacity of the attacks, and prayers everywhere went out to France.

On January 31, 2016, just earlier this week, the Nigerian terrorist faction Boko Haram savagely killed 86 people in Dalori Village by firebombing huts and burning innocent children alive. Just 5 kms outside of northeast Nigeria’s largest city, a survivor recalled hearing unimaginable screams as their flesh was burnt away from their bodies.

Yet, days later, the executions of these same innocent victims of extremism have not garnered the world’s attention. While the mainstream media response about this tragedy has been underwhelming, the added calamity lies in how the Obama administration has seemingly neglected to treat Boko Haram and the victims of their maniacal violence with the same resources and attention that has been provided to ISIS and victims throughout Europe.

This past October, President Obama deployed 300 U.S. Armed Forces personnel to Cameroon to surveil Boko Haram, but it all seemed ‘too little too late.” The Pentagon recently asked for $7.5 billion dollars to take on ISIS in 2017. Despite the fact that Boko Haram and ISIL are responsible for half of all terrorism deaths, the response to both is clearly uneven in many ways.

We prayed and mourned with France. Global leaders pledged swift justice to those responsible. Every presidential candidate had to address the Paris attacks, including Donald Trump, who used the moment to promote prejudice against Muslims. Most American politicians took a stance on whether or not ground troops should be sent to confront ISIS on the battlefield.
-Boko Haram burns kids alive in Nigeria-

Yet the continual slaughter of innocent Africans has not elicited an equal response from the nation or from the Obama Administration, when in fact Boko Haram is the most deadly Islamic terror group on Earth. This is no exaggeration. In 2014, Boko Haram killed 6,664 people, while ISIS was responsible for 6,073 deaths. Boko Haram is also the faction that kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Government Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria, which prompted the viral #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.

I know the story here is more complicated than just racism, but this scenario sure reinforces the fact that the United States and its citizens simply care less about Africans than any other people in the world. And then gets reflected in both media coverage and foreign policy priorities.

This Machine Might Not Actually Kill Fascists. But It Does Accompany My Nasty Lyrics About Them

[ 11 ] January 22, 2016 |

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This is pretty amazing:

Guthrie’s two-year tenancy in one of Fred Trump’s buildings and his relationship with the real estate mogul of New York’s outer boroughs produced some of Guthrie’s most bitter writings, which I discovered on a recent trip to the Woody Guthrie Archives in Tulsa. These writings have never before been published; they should be, for they clearly pit America’s national balladeer against the racist foundations of the Trump real estate empire.

Recalling these foundations becomes all the more relevant in the wake of the racially charged proclamations of Donald Trump, who last year announced, “My legacy has its roots in my father’s legacy.”

How did Woody Guthrie relate to Trump Sr. and his legacy of building exclusively white housing?

Old Man Trump’s’ color line

Only a year into his Beach Haven residency, Guthrie – himself a veteran – was already lamenting the bigotry that pervaded his new, lily-white neighborhood, which he’d taken to calling “Bitch Havens.”

In his notebooks, he conjured up a scenario of smashing the color line to transform the Trump complex into a diverse cornucopia, with “a face of every bright color laffing and joshing in these old darkly weeperish empty shadowed windows.” He imagined himself calling out in Whitman-esque free verse to the “negro girl yonder that walks along against this headwind / holding onto her purse and her fur coat”:

I welcome you here to live. I welcome
you and your man both here to Beach Haven to love in any
ways you please and to have some kind of a decent place to
get pregnant in and to have your kids raised up in. I’m
yelling out my own welcome to you.

For Guthrie, Fred Trump came to personify all the viciousness of the racist codes that continued to put decent housing – both public and private – out of reach for so many of his fellow citizens:

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project ….

And as if to leave no doubt over Trump’s personal culpability in perpetuating black Americans’ status as internal refugees – strangers in their own strange land – Guthrie reworked his signature Dust Bowl ballad “I Ain’t Got No Home” into a blistering broadside against his landlord:

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just cain’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

Like racist father, like racist son. I guess we need some new anti-racist singers hating on Trump. Also good to know that this nation has totally rejected white supremacy. Post-racial society indeed!

Our Middle Eastern Ally, Ladies and Gentlemen

[ 102 ] January 15, 2016 |

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Looks like a Trump presidency will actually have a lot in common with Israel:

Israeli passengers on a recent Aegean Airlines flight from Greece to Israel forced the cabin crew to remove two Israeli Arabs from the flight before allowing it to take off, according to a report by Israel Radio.

The incident occurred at Athens airport on Monday night, when Jewish Israeli passengers decided that the two Israeli Arab passengers on the flight constituted a security risk. After bringing their concern to the attention of the crew, they prevented the flight from taking off by standing in the aisles.

The two Israeli Arabs finally acceded to crew requests that they disembark, in return for a hotel room and compensation.

According to the airline, “an initially small group” of passengers “very vocally and persistently” demanded that two Israeli Arab citizens be “checked for security issues.”

Of course what should have happened is that the Israeli Jewish passengers should have been taken off the airline if they didn’t want to fly. But racial discrimination won the day. Trump’s neofascist supporters and Netanyahu’s neofascist supporters have a lot in common. What a day of international cooperating in hating Muslims we could have in a year!

Racism and Opposition to Paying NCAA Athletes

[ 108 ] January 14, 2016 |

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Above: Shaquille O’Neal during the period when his labor was stolen from him.

There is literally nothing in the United States that can be explained without race as central to the analysis. This includes whether people believe that NCAA athletes should be paid:

There’s evidence that he’s right. In survey after survey, strong national majorities oppose paying college athletes. In March 2015, for example, an HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found that 65 percent of Americans do not think college athletes in top men’s football and basketball programs should be paid.

But these attitudes vary significantly by race. In every survey to date, blacks are far more likely to support paying college athletes when compared to whites. For instance, in the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), 53 percent of African Americans backed paying college athletes–more than doubling the support expressed by whites (22 percent).

Huh. Wonder if there’s anything more to this? Oh, of course there is.

In a statistical analysis that controlled for a host of other influences, we found this: Negative racial views about blacks were the single most important predictor of white opposition to paying college athletes.

The more negatively a white respondent felt about blacks, the more they opposed paying college athletes.

To check our findings’ validity, we also conducted an experiment. Before we asked white respondents whether college athletes should be paid, we showed one group pictures of young black men with stereotypical African American first and last names. We showed another group no pictures at all.

As you can see in the figure below, whites who were primed by seeing pictures of young black men were significantly more likely to say they opposed paying college athletes. Support dropped most dramatically among whites who expressed the most resent towards blacks as a group.

This is not surprising at all. This doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all in understanding opposition to paying players. After all, there are still plenty of African-Americans who for some reason are totally fine with blacks performing for no money in front of mostly white audiences. But it once again shows that racism frames every single thing in the United States.

The Texas Rangers

[ 23 ] January 10, 2016 |

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I was somewhat disappointed this season that the campaign to stop saying the nickname of the Washington Racists totally disappeared and NFL broadcasters reverted to using ethnic slurs on national television. I had real hope that the pressure would continue on Dan Snyder, terrible human, even if he no interest in listening to it. I guess buying Ari Fleischer’s services helped here or something.

Anyway, it’s worth noting that the United States’ love of memorializing its own racist history in sports nicknames goes farther than just the Washington Football Racists and the Cleveland Baseball Racists. It also extends to the Texas White Supremacist baseball franchise. Greg Grandin:

 In Texas, the rangers were established on an ad-hoc basis in the 1820s, to protect the settlers making inroads into Spanish borderlands. Soon, Mexicans and Mexican Americans replaced Native Americans as the prime target of ranger repression. For a century—from Mexico’s War for Independence from Spain in the 1820s, the Texas Rebellion, the Mexican-American War, and the upheaval caused by the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted years—the borderlands witnessed all the elements that make, for a certain class, death squads necessary: concentration of wealth, military occupation, racial domination, ethnic cleansing, property dispossession, and resource extraction (the Texas legislature officially authorized the formation of four ranger divisions in 1901, the year the Spindletop oil field was discovered, setting off the Texas oil boom).

In response, the Texas Rangers: not America’s only death squad but its most celebrated, complete with its own reliquary, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.

There are historians working to document the horrors of the Texas Rangers. What are those horrors?

 Texas Rangers played a key role in these atrocities. On September 28, 1915, for example, after a clash with about forty raiders near Ebenoza, Hidalgo County, the victorious Rangers took about a dozen raiders prisoner and promptly hung them, leaving their bodies in the open for months. Several weeks later, on October 19, after a dramatic attack derailed a passenger train heading north from Brownsville, Rangers detained ten ethnic Mexicans nearby, quickly hanging four and shooting four others. Cameron County sheriff W.T. Vann blamed Ranger Captain Henry Ransom for the killings. Vann took two suspected men from Ransom and placed them into his custody and likely saved their lives. Both proved to be innocent of any involvement.

This was not Ransom’s first such action: a month before, on September 24, he casually shot Jesús Bazan and Antonio Longoria as they rode by the site where a raid had occurred. Ransom left the bodies exposed, shocking Rancher Sam Lane (himself a former Ranger) and young Anglo ranch hand Roland Warnock, who helped to bury Bazán and Longoria several days later. That fall, Ransom made a habit of running ethnic Mexicans out of their homes as he patrolled the countryside. At one point he casually reported to Ranger headquarters in Austin that “I drove all the Mexicans from three ranches.”

Former Rangers were also among the worst perpetrators of violence. A.Y. Baker, a Ranger involved in disputed shootings of Mexican suspects during the previous decade, had left the Ranger Force to become Hidalgo County’s sheriff by 1915. He also developed a similar reputation for casual racial violence. Many sources named him as the instigator of the September 1915 mass hanging. Decades later, a soldier deployed by the National Guard in 1915 who stayed in the Valley recalled he witnessed Baker “killing three guys, three Mexican fellows in cold blood . . . that’s the kind of man A.Y. Baker was. He was killing Mexicans on sight.”

A large portion of the United States military was mobilized and deployed on the Texas-Mexico border because of the violence unleashed by the Plan de San Diego. Military officers became increasingly alarmed at the conduct of the Rangers and other law enforcement officers. As mass executions began, the Secretary of State telegraphed Texas governor James Ferguson to enlist his support in “quieting border conditions in the district of Brownsville” by “restraining indiscreet conduct.” This oblique reference to lynchings was soon replaced by more pointed and adamant condemnations of state officials, such as General Frederick Funston’s threat to put South Texas under martial law so as to restrain vigilantes, Rangers, and local law enforcement personnel.

After a brief resumption of a few raids in the spring of 1916, the uprising associated with the Plan de San Diego ended. But the Rangers’ involvement in subordinating ethnic Mexicans continued. In May of 1916, José Morin and Victoriano Ponce were arrested in Kingsville on suspicion of plotting a raid, and disappeared after Ranger Captain J. J. Saunders took custody of them. Thomas Hook, a local Anglo attorney, helped residents prepare a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson asking for federal intervention to safeguard their rights. Soon thereafter, Saunders pistol-whipped Hook in a courthouse hallway.

The entry of the United States into World War I brought changes to the Ranger force that heightened this kind of retaliation against the exercise of political rights by Mexican Americans. The State expanded the Ranger force, increasing the number of Rangers from seventy-three to more than one hundred and thirty. Moreover, legislation empowered the governor to appoint three “Loyalty Rangers” in each county in order to monitor anti-war activity. In South Texas, these loyalty Rangers participated in an unprecedented assault on Mexican-American voting rights. In the 1918 election, for example, Rangers reduced the number of votes cast in Alice, Texas from some three hundred in an earlier primary to only sixty-five in the general election. “The former large number of Mexicans who have voted in previous elections was conspicuous by their absence,” noted one observer. “They did not congregate at the polls, but up town they gathered in small groups and discussed among themselves this new thing of being watched by the Rangers.” Voting across south Texas plummeted when Rangers were deployed. Rangers also harassed, disarmed, and humiliated Mexican American office holders such as Cameron County Deputy Sheriff Pedro Lerma. Rangers entered Lerma’s home while he was absent, “frightened his wife and daughters to death.” Other Mexican Americans in similar positions were forcibly disarmed; one was hung by the neck twice.

A new, more brutal white supremacy had come to the border.

So why are the Texas Rangers named after these white supremacists? Well, given that it’s the team of the Dallas metroplex, these racial crimes are a feature, not a bug. Unlikely we are going to see any grassroots effort in Texas anytime soon to rename the Rangers to the Texas Executors of Innocent People or the Texas U.S. Constitution Doesn’t Apply Heres. But at the very least, we can bring awareness of just how deep America’s racist past remains intertwined with its sporting teams.

Black Pain, Past and Present

[ 31 ] January 8, 2016 |

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I liked this Lisa Wade piece connecting the desperate attempts by ex-slaves to reconstruct their families through placing newspaper ads in the late 19th century to Black Lives Matter today in the terms of how white people consistently denigrate and ignore the emotional pain African-Americans have felt over the centuries over the violent destruction of their families and their bodies. It includes a link to this newly released digital collection of these advertisements. Wade’s conclusion:

I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?

Soft Power and Muslim Immigration

[ 31 ] January 2, 2016 |

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The diplomat Jason Lewis-Berry has an op-ed in The Oregonian about why the U.S. is stronger and more secure when it is tolerant and open than when it is militaristic and hateful. It’s about soft power.

The United States has the world’s strongest military. Our “hard” power is unmatched. But American “soft” power, which includes the world’s perception of us, is equally important. I have worked in more than a dozen countries — from Congo to Bangladesh. I’ve seen Moroccan girls learning English so one day they can do business with America. I’ve seen Syrian refugees receive training in democratic governance and then — putting their lives at risk — go back into Syria to set up a city council. I’ve been in remote African villages where kids know that the U.S. elected a president who looks like them — just one more sign for them that anything is possible in America.

This stuff is important. It matters that people around the world are attracted to our values. When a politician disowns those values, the world notices. It makes us less safe. And it makes my job harder.

This stuff is really important. People around the world, for the most part, don’t hate the United States. But they do sometimes hate what the United States does to their people and their nation, whether through bombing, assisting right-wing governments to imprison and torture civilians, destroy their local economies, treating their brothers and sisters and sons and daughters poorly when they go to the United States, etc. When the United States does not do these things and instead engages with the world in constructive ways, the United States is therefore a stronger nation because external threats become fewer. When Donald Trump blasts his rhetoric of white supremacy through the world and demonizes Muslims and immigrants, that makes the United States less safe. Now that Trump is appearing in Al-Shabaab recruitment videos, you make the call who the real threat to American security is. And when the meat corporation Cargill decides to end policies that allow Somali immigrants to pray while on the job and then fires them all for praying, you tell me how a corporation like this is not hurting national security.

Police Abuse, Racism, and the Long Arc of Injustice

[ 6 ] December 18, 2015 |

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This is a guest post from Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. He is a former resident of Chicago, and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago’s black community.

As the crow flies, the strip of Pulaski Road where Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times sits about three miles from the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Facing murder charges in that shooting, Van Dyke continuously is paraded into the Leighton Courthouse for hearings in the murder case. Having now been formally indicted on six counts of first-degree murder, he heads back again on Friday for still another hearing. Meanwhile, political heads in Chicago are rolling, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel perhaps the next in line to fall.

Interesting, the ways that history resonates here. Since 2012, Chicago’s courthouse has bore the name of Leighton, a trailblazing African American attorney and judge. In June of that year, city officials dedicated the building in his honor, in a public ceremony attended by many city and county officials, including Emanuel and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. At the ceremony, officials professed hopes that the building would serve as a permanent reminder of “the importance of the pursuit of justice.” Emanuel spoke admiringly of Leighton’s “service to our community, to our laws, and to our country.” Ever since, Chicago’s most prominent official halls of justice have resounded with the name of George Leighton.

A bettor would guess that Emanuel – who is now facing calls to resign or be fired for possible collusion in covering up the details of McDonald’s killing – knew nothing about Leighton’s work that he did prior to his judgeship. But it’s here that irony really abounds.

Prior to his election to the Circuit Court in 1964, George Leighton served as chairman of the Chicago NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee, and his most sustained work in that role involved combating police brutality there. In doing so, he repeatedly framed racism and police violence as endemic: “the number of [police brutality] cases…so numerous,” and the tapestry of brutalities “so complex,” that the NAACP had taken to hiring a designated investigator to document brutality cases. He referenced numerous instances of black women and men beaten or shot while handcuffed, subjected to coerced confessions, illegally searched, wrongly arrested, and blatantly harassed. He warned that “unless something was done about this plague in the community,” the Department of Justice may have to be called in.

A few years earlier, in 1960, then-CPD Superintendent Orlando Wilson had implemented the police department’s first self-investigatory unit, called the Internal Investigations Division (IID). Three years into its operation, Leighton accused it of being neither “cooperative nor effective.” Others called it “an eyewash operation not vitally concerned with changing improper police behavior or serving the public interest.” As one black CPD Sergeant who had served on the IID during its first few years put it, the entire system was molded by “purposeful and deliberate malfeasance.”

The mechanisms by which the police department examines officer misconduct have changed from then to now. But the overall results have not. An overwhelming majority of citizen complaints against officers, particularly those lodged by black citizens against white officers, are today dismissed for bureaucratic reasons. The few not dismissed result in little to no disciplinary action. This overwhelming inability of the current review system to weed out dangerous and racist officers is an extraordinary detriment to the entire community. Chicagoans deserve more accountability from the police department that their taxes fund. Today as then, they don’t receive it.

Chicagoans also deserve more transparency about the ways that departmental decisions are made, what officials know about cases that are of the public concern, and how they’re responding to those cases. The graphic video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald sixteen times has drawn sharp attention to the choices made and apparent veils drawn by Emanuel, Alvarez, and now-fired Superintendent Garry McCarthy in the shooting’s aftermath. Their obfuscation has already cost McCarthy his job, and calls from the community echo with increasing volume for Alvarez and Emanuel to give up theirs, as well. Rightly so. The actions of all of these elected officials have been deplorable throughout this case.

But sadly, Chicagoans have really never been able to count on anything much better from public officials in these moments. Spin backward to that early-1960s moment once more. After George Leighton’s accusations of rampant brutality – including police torture practices such as simulated drowning and electric shock – reached the office of Superintendent Wilson, Wilson convened his central staff to discuss the accusations. The minutes of this meeting survive. They show Wilson acknowledging that there was, for instance, “no other logical explanation” than excessive force in the 1962 death of a young black man named Ralph Bush, who was taken into police custody alive and came out dead from blunt force trauma. (Bush’s family lodged a successful civil suit against the city. Leighton represented them.) The minutes also detail the central staff discussing tossing officers’ lockers and vehicles to try to find cattle prods and other “torture devices.”

This differed substantially from the department’s public face, where officials presented the department as effectively beyond reproach. To the public, they used the existence of the IID as a shield to ward off any external criticism coming its way. To the rank-and-file, they called most citizen complaints “slander.” Dishonesty and obfuscation were the norm.

Clearly, they still are. Despite the passage of time, despite decades of atrocity and activism to expose and oppose it, city and CPD officials have learned little. And Chicagoans of lesser means, particularly in its black communities, have been asked to bear an unbearable burden as a consequence – in the abrogation of their rights, the violations of their privacy, and the circumscriptions of their senses of safety.

For generations, community activists in Chicago have called for an expanded role of civilians in the review of police misconduct and in the shaping of police policy. Their demands have ranged from the implementation of a citizens’ review board to complete community control of the police, in which citizen oversight is paramount in virtually every stage of policy-crafting and decision-making. Activists today continue to make similar demands. One can, given the history, hardly think such calls wrong.

These voices must be taken seriously, for they speak not just of current agonies, but resound with decades of pain and frustration wrought by the city. Ignoring them, as the city has too often done, risks continuing Chicago along this decades-long spiral, and risks more black and brown lives being lost at the hands of officers who are clouded by racist visions and who are too quick to turn to violence. We should absolutely concern ourselves in a dedicated fashion with what’s happening right now – with Jason Van Dyke and Rahm Emanuel and the terrible price that Laquan McDonald paid for Chicago’s reticence toward self-critique. But lingering in all of our minds’ eyes should also be the generations of policymakers, department heads, police union heads, and city officials who have actively resisted putting the house in order, despite the pleas of black people.

In the meantime, history continues to prove inescapable, lodged not just in those accumulating frustrations and furies, but also in the names given to brick-and-mortar edifices of justice. Friday, there in the courthouse building named for a man who dedicated himself to fighting police violence and an intransigent city, the legal case of Police Officer Van Dyke in the murder of Laquan McDonald will proceed.

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