Tag Archives: Race and Racism

Coates: Donald Trump and his Supporters Are White Supremacists

A lot of people will object to the title of this post. I will be told to take the post down. I will be told to modify the title or to change what I say in the post.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct, and his presentation is brilliant. Watch the following interview (in two parts) and read his book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Chris Hayes is correct to point out that the historical source of Coates title is critically important and deeply disturbing (this is something we’ve talked about here in the recent past). He is incorrect, as Coates points out near the end of the second segment, that there will be a future in which we debate the relative merits of the Trump vs the Obama presidency. I have no idea what possessed him to day that (I see Hayes slip into the false balance mode now and then when he’s tired, maybe that’s what he did there for just a moment).

On the book:

“We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president.”

But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period—and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation’s old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective—the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.

We Were Eight Years in Power features Coates’s iconic essays first published in The Atlantic, including “Fear of a Black President,” “The Case for Reparations,” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” along with eight fresh essays that revisit each year of the Obama administration through Coates’s own experiences, observations, and intellectual development, capped by a bracingly original assessment of the election that fully illuminated the tragedy of the Obama era. We Were Eight Years in Power is a vital account of modern America, from one of the definitive voices of this historic moment.

Six dead, one remembered, and the $64,000 question.

You’ll remember that Philando Castile was killed in cold blood by a St. Anthony cop, who was later acquitted with the defense that “he was a black guy, I wuz scared.”

A couple of days ago, tragically and sadly, a cop in a town near me was run over by a driver who was probably on drugs and drunk, who was told by the courts she was not allowed to drive because she is so dangerous but was driving anyway. That is very sad. That particular cop was said by others to be “one of the good ones” and I believe that. He had a boy Huxley’s age, in the same school system (but a different building). The memorial service for that officer was yesterday and today. Imma come back to that later.

Anyway, an on line fundraiser was started some time back to help feed the kids in the Saint Paul school district. Philando Castile worked in the cafeteria in one of the elementary schools there. The fundraiser, Pamela Fergus’s idea, was supposed to cover the costs of the school lunch debts for kids in Philando’s schol, which would have required something less than $5,000. Imma come back to that later.

So, anyway, today a guy was run over in Saint Paul by a drunk driver driving an SUV. Another guy was killed a couple of days ago in nearby Robbinsdale when a drunk driver ran his pickup into a building, killing the guy in side. Over the last year and a half, over an area with a radius of about 2 miles or less, three people were killed on roads near my house by drunk drivers, people who were either nowhere near the road, on a foot or bike path, or, as is the case of the police officer mentioned above, out with his police car removing an obstruction from the highway.

It is sad that all of those people died, including Philando who was killed for exactly one reason, that he was black. Including the three pedestrians who were committing the crime of walking down the street, and the one guy in the business who was just sitting there minding his own business, and the cop who was doing his job.

Two big things happened today. One of them is that several miles of road and several acres of parking were shut down, school buses delayed and rerouted, and traffic (somewhat, not much I think) messed up in order to have a huge memorial for the officer who was run over. Cops came from all over, it was a huge, huge deal.

The other big thing is that it was reported that the fundraiser for kids at Philando Castile’s school produced $64,400 instead of $5,000. So, that’s enough to cover all of the debts for all of the students in Saint Paul’s rather large school district.

I don’t have a problem with a big memorial for a cop that died in the line of duty. But I just want to point out that a huge memorial happened for one guy who was killed exactly the same way as a bunch of other people who didn’t get the memorial. It is almost like the cops are royalty, so when one of them dies there is a big procession and the streets are closed down and everybody has to salute and be sad. And since they are cops and can harass or kill people, you can’t really complain about it.

You might think I’m annoyed at the cop memorial and not annoyed at the Castile fundraider, but actually, I’m annoyed at the fundraiser as well. In Minnesota we feed the kids in our schools. Kids who are short of resources get the food for free or cheap, and if the bills are not paid nobody does anything. So, I think the fundraiser was a bit too specific. There are kids who are above the cutoff for free or reduced lunch that probably still can’t pay, but what the J.J.Hill school, where Philando worked needs, is probably some other stuff. Since the fundraiser is for lunch debt, now the extra money, it seems, will be spread across the school district, and is probably paying for something the school would have covered because they don’t have a choice. I’d love to see all the money go to just his school, for things school administrations are not already forced to cover but that kids need.

Oh, and another thing that is related to all of this in the usual sick and demented way. Today it was revealed that a security guard, a rent-a-cop, at a local Catholic college, admitted that he had lied. He claimed that he had been shot, and specifically, that he was shot by some black guy. Turns out he accidentally shot himself. This is the sort of thing that happens sometimes.

Erasing history by removing monuments and renaming things

This is a response to “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history: Science must acknowledge mistakes as it marks its past,” a commentary published in Nature. For the most part, the commentary reads like a caution to not un-name things and not remove monuments in at least some if not many cases, though it is a bit more nuanced than that. What is needed, in Nature, is a different position: Find memorials (statues or things named) to scientists who carried out horrible acts such as infecting countless people who are members of repressed groups in order to study disease, and tear down the monuments and remove the names from the buildings, scholarships, and so on. Nature should not be trolling on this issue. Nature should be clear. In any event, the editorial engendered the following thoughts by me:

We have come to fetishize monuments of a certain kind, and the naming of things, but this is not as well supported an approach as it may seem. It is in fact temporary, ephemeral, and named things and monuments have no special right to exist eternally.

At least in the united states, many many things, including rooms, parking lots and buildings, or dates, such as days, weeks, or months, and various other entities, are ever named after any person are named temporarily. Every day is somebody’s day, streets are renamed by mayors to commemorate a visiting dignitary, and so on. I’m sure most naming events are of this temporary nature, often lasting days or a week or so. Often buildings are named after someone, but then a major refurbishing involves a new name or even no name.

Also, we have this thing we do where we name buildings after corporations. So, since Target is the big corporation in Minnesota, you can go to Target Field, or Target Stadium, or Target Center, or Target, or Target Hall, depending on if you want to watch football, baseball, hockey, go shopping, or attend a literary event. (And they are all within walking distance of each other.) In this day and age, corporations shamelessly name everything after themselves.

So, on one hand, we don’t take naming seriously, and on the other hand we have cheapened the process to an embarrassing degree. So, why are people trying to protect the fact that a scholarship is named after the mastermind behind the Tuskegee study? Or that a park downtown is named after someone who ordered the massacre of of hundreds or thousands in order to take their land?

The erection of the sort of monument we make today and the naming of things we name today are practices with historical roots, but not especially deep roots. In fact,it is mainly a western and post-medieval practice, which puts it at only a few hundred years at the oldest. Perhaps we are leaving an era in which we assume stasis of status among the honored elite and occasional special waif, to an era where we realize we can’t trust the present to be quite so demanding of what future history says about us. Aside from the special case of dead or missing soldiers, maybe we are entering an era where we should not name or enstatuefy anything, just in case. And no, I’m not joking. This isn’t funny.

The permanency of something like a monument to Christopher Columbus or Thomas Parran was never in a contract with those individuals or their supporters, and the long term meaning of any such thing is non-existent without subsequent reification. I know a lot of “Gusties” (graduates of Gustavus Adolphus College, in Minnesota) and every one of them can give at least a vague idea of who Gustavus Adolphus was (though at a conference at the college a few years ago few could pick him out of a lineup provided by one of the speakers). They are told about him during orientation and at plenty of other times, just like Harvard students are told about the largely irrelevant historical figure John Harvard during their first tour of the place. But I’ve yet to meet a single Gusty who can identify William Dodd even though they have all walked hundreds of times by the monument erected to commemorate his most important accomplishments. That particular monument is never engaged in a ceremony or pointed at or to, or referenced, by anyone giving a tour or writing a pamphlet about the place, or anything. You can’t even find it on Wikipedia. Therefore, while it (barely) exists, it’s commemoration, as it were, simply does not. Poor Dodd.

For the very reason that the meaning of a memorial is generated afresh every time the memorial is involved in action or ceremony, and otherwise the thing has little meaning at all, when the life and accomplishments of a person or the deeds of a movement or any other aspect of some historical thing are re-evaluated, only the perniciously old fashioned or nefariously motivated seem to lean on the crutch of historic preservation.

The above mentioned editorial in Nature demonstrated Nature’s utter lack of understanding of anything outside the perspective of British Imperialism, which is kind of funny because it is a science magazine and should transcend such things. Even the British are not “immune,” Nature laments, from the world wide efforts to trash history, with a statue of Cecil John Rhodes almost (but not quite) removed from somewhere on hallowed English land! The editorial implies that the removal of some of the statues that are currently being removed in the US erases history. No. The removal of statues erected at the behest and sometimes with the funding of organizations like the KKK recognizes history. It recognizes an ugly history, and it recognizes the fact that finally, even as we have a White Supremacist regime in the White House (or because of it) we will now identify and find that evil act and erase the act itself.

The Nature commentary ignorantly suggests installing a plaque next to offending memorials. The author(s) of the piece did not do their research. This has been done, it didn’t’ work. It could work, it might work, here and there or now and then, but generally, it has not. The statues removed from parks in New Orleans last year had previously been so marked, and in one case, moved to a new location as though that somehow cleansed it of it’s Klan history. That did not stop the statues from being obnoxious and offensive, and they needed to be removed anyway.

Nobody loves historic preservation more than I do. My move many years ago to Minnesota resulted in many happy things and a handful of great annoyances, and one of those annoyances is that preserving the buildings and artifacts of history are acts not appreciated by more than a tenth of a percent of the people here. But preserving intentional insults to repressed people, as is the case with American “Civil War monuments” designed for that purpose, is inappropriate. Monuments to eugenicists and holocaust perpetrators are a little different because they were often erected for honestly good reasons by hopelessly ignorant people. But we know stuff now. Monuments, streets, buildings, and scholarships named after the designers of unethical medical experiments, or imperialist responsible for mass murder, should generally be removed in almost all cases. Save a few special ones, put up the plaques, maybe. But mostly, maybe not.

See: Taking down New Orleans’ monuments: Not what you think.

The problem with the White Power symbol

You all know about this: It is being said that the OK sign is used to indicated “White Power” and this use has been spotted among politicians and celebrities everywhere. Is this real? I don’t know. Is it a valid symbol for “White Power”? Certainly not.

The problem with the white power symbol is that it is not a symbol. Or, if it is a symbol, it is a baby symbol that doesn’t know how to be a symbol yet, so don’t expect much from it.

Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign.  With a sign on it.)
Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign. With a sign on it.)

Try this.

Move your hands in front of you as though you were grasping a steering wheel, and pump your right foot while you say, somewhat loudly and using a touch of Vocal Fry if you can manage it, the words “Vroom Vrooom.”

Maybe snap your head back on the second “Vroom.”

You have signified rapid acceleration, but you did not really do it using full blown language. Well, you did, because you have full blown language, and so do the other people in the room wondering what the heck you are doing (I’m hoping you are reading this in a busy coffee shop). But the fact that they get that you are talking about rapid acceleration is because you made sounds like a car and play-tended that you are sitting in a car and reacting to forward rapid acceleration. That’s not really language. From a semiotic point of view, you signified the sound of an accelerating engine by imitating it, and you signified other aspects of rapid acceleration by imitating it. This is not symbolic. You were not doing a symbolic representation of rapid acceleration. You may be thinking, “yes, I was, or what the heck was that that if I wasn’t?” Just trust me, you weren’t.

(Except that since your intentional communication is essentially linguistic even when not and everyone around you is a human, you were, but that’s another matter for another time. Functionally, you were not, pragmatically you were.)

Now, do the following. Wipe that puzzled or snarky expression off your face and speak the following words, enunciating clearly.

nopea kiihtyvyys

Unless you are in a Finnish coffee shop, when you said those words out loud you were uttering a symbol, but unfortunately, a symbol with no meaning, because no one in the room, including yourself, speaks that language (if you are a Fin or among Fins, substitute some other language, please.)

Now, say, with no body movements or other fanfare:

rapid acceleration

In an English-speaking coffee shop, that was a symbolic act. There is no onomatopoeia. There is no imitation. There is no clue to the meaning of those words built into their utterance or the framework in which they are uttered (like an accompanying gesture or facial expression). However, you have made and conveyed meaning, and done so symbolically.

The very fact that these words mean what they mean in an utterly arbitrary way, a way unembellished with direct reflection of reality, is what makes them symbolic, and the fact that language works this way is what makes languae very powerful.

There are many reasons for this. For example, if your words were strictly tied to imitation or direct representation, it would be harder to extend or shift meanings. It would be harder for there to be a rapid acceleration of a political policy, or a state of war, or a child’s understanding of subtraction and addition, as well as a vehicle with a steering wheel. Also, you made this meaning using two words, each of which can be used as countless meaning making tools. There is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “rapid” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and there is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “acceleration” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and the two infinities are potentially non overlapping.

The warning sign above is like a lot of other signs (using the term “sign” like one might say “placard”). It has a triangle which, in this case, signifies semiotics. Why does a triangle signify semiotics? Because in one of the dominant theories of semiotics, which is the study of meaning making, symbolism, and sign making (the other kind of sign), meaning making has three parts (the meaning maker, the meaning receiver, and the other thing). But the triangle is not really a semiotic triangle because there are no labels. This could be a triangle of some other kind, linked to some other meaning. Indeed, the triangular shape is linked to warning signs generally, while the rhombus is for “stuff ahead” so this could be a sign signifying, by looking like something else (a danger sign), danger ahead, or pedestrian crossing ahead, or some other thing.

A google image search for "sign triangle" shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic.  If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to "danger." The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.
A google image search for “sign triangle” shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic. If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to “danger.” The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.

Cleverly, the warning sign above is both an index to semiotics and a reference to danger, placed on a sign shape usually used to warn of danger ahead (like a deer crossing).

Briefly, a thing that looks like a thing is an icon. Like the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document on the floppy disk. A thing that has a physical feature linked to a thing or meaning, but not exactly looking like it, is an index. We can arbitrarily link a representation to an index (like an index card in a library to a book, linked by the call number which appears on each item) or a representation can evolve from icon to index because of change. For example, the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document in the cloud, in a world with no floppy disks where most computer users don’t have a clue what a floppy disk is or was, but they do know that that particular representation will save their document.

(See: Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce)

A symbol can evolve from the index when the physicality of the link is utterly broken. The vast majority of words do not look, sound, in any way resemble, what they mean. Words are understood because the speakers and hearers already know what they mean. New meaning is not generated in the speaker and then decoded in the listener. Rather, new meaning is generated in the listener when the speaker makes sounds that cause the listener’s brain to interact with that third thing I mentioned above, which is shared by both.

And, of course, meaning can be generated in someone’s mind when all that happens inside your head. It is advised that, when doing so, try to not move your lips.

The point of all this: having a representation of something linked by the way it looks to some kind of meaning is asking for trouble. A totally arbitrary association between intended meaning and how something looks (or sounds, like a word) is impossible to understand for anyone not in on the symbolic system. But, such an arbitrary association allows, if the meaning making is done thoughtfully and there is no deficit in the process, for an unambiguous meaning making event. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of the symbol allows for subsequent “linguistic” (as in “symbolizing) manipulation of the arbitrary thing itself. And, the fact that the symbolizing requires that third thing, the common understanding of meaning, is what allows us to avoid meaning making that is spurious, as happens when a sign is not a pure symbol, but instead, iconic or indexical of something. And this is where the White Power symbol everyone is talking about, made up of the common “OK” sign, falls into the abyss.

Do this and show it to all the people in the coffee shop:


If you are in the US you may have just told everyone that all is “OK” (or is it “Okay”?).

Among SCUBA divers it specifically means “no problem” which is subtly different than just “OK” because the problems being discussed are on a specific list of important issues to SCUBA divers, like “my air is good” etc.

In the above cases, the gesture means what it means because it is making an “O” for the beginning of OK/Okay. The gesture is an icon of the term “OK.” It is not a full blown proper symbol.

If you are in Argentina or several other South American areas, and possibly parts of Europe, you may have just called everyone in the room an asshole. In this case, the gesture refers to that anatomy, and the anatomy is metaphorical for a state of mind or behavioral syndrome. The symbol itself is an icon or index to the sphincter region.

In other contexts (mainly in Europe), the symbol is also an insult in a different way, in that the “0” part of the gesture implies “you are nothing, a zero.”

In Arabic speaking cultures, the symbols sometimes refers to the evil eye, because it looks like an eye. So it is used, along with a mix of phrases, as a curse.

If you put the ring formed by the gesture over the nose, you are telling someone they are drunk, in Europe. Or, you may place the “O” near your mouth to indicate drinking.

In Japan, if the hand is facing down, that “o” shape is a coin, so it can mean money or something related.

In parts of china, while the symbol can mean “three” the zero part tends not to. To say “zero” one simply makes a closed fist.

In basketball, the “o” part of the gesture is just there to get the index finger out of the way. The key part of it is the three fingers sticking up, which means that the player who just threw the ball into the hoop got three points.

illuminati-triple-666Meanwhile, among some Buddhists, the three fingers part is not the point. The circle part is where the meaning is, but not as the letter “o” but rather the number “0”. Moving across the religious spectrum a ways, in another South Asian religion, it is the three fingers symbolize the three “gunas” which you want to have in harmony, while the “o” part represents union of consciousness. But again, all of these meanings have to do with the actual physical configuration of the fingers.

Rarely, the symbol means “666” and, increasingly, is linked to the Illuminati. To the extent that the Illuminati exists, and I’m not going to confirm or deny. The symbol is also found in western Christian allegoric art. I don’t know what it means there.

There are places in this world where there are both negative and positive meanings implied by the iconic nature of the symbol, which can lead to both confusion and intended ambiguity. I worked on a crew with people who were either Argentinian or who lived in Argentina for a long time, and others who had never been to Argentina. It was always great fun to watch the boss give kudos to a worker at the same time as calling him an asshole. We need more gestures like that.

I put the spreading but I think recent interpretation of the OK symbol as “white power” at the top of the post.

The Anti-defamation league identifies a version of the White Power symbol, where you use one hand to make a W (start with a “live long and prosper” then move the two middle fingers together) and an upside down OK to make the P. It is not clear that the ADL is convinced this is real; they may just suspect it. Bit generally, the symbol is found in a small cluster of mainly twiterati, who have produced a few pictures of possible or certain white supremacists or racists using the symbol. But in all cases, they may just be saying “OK” in the usual benign sense. the best case I’ve seen for the one handed WP=White Power OK symbol is its apparent use on a sign being held at a white supremacist group march, but that could be a singular case, or fake.

Of course, now that the cat is out of the bag, the OK symbol IS a sign for “White Power” or could be, or at least is an ambiguous one, so anything can happen from here on out. I’m just not sure this use was there before a few days ago when Twitter invented it.

OLYMPICS-BLACK-POWER-SALU-008But that is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that the OK gesture sucks as a symbol in the modern globalized world because it has so many existing meanings, yet is not an arbitrary symbol. It isn’t fully linguistic. It has a hard time doing the job a symbol should do, which is to be both fully agreed on, with respect to meaning, and adaptable into novel meaning contexts without easily losing its primary symbolic, historically determined, references.

And, the reason for this is that the OK hand gesture looks like something, or more importantly, looks like a lot of things. A bottle coming to the mouth, a bottle on the nose because you are so drunk, an eye (evil or otherwise), a zero, a three, an “O” or a “P”. A coin or an asshole. Probably more.

So, yes, a “black power” gesture looks to someone in Hong Kong like a declaration of “Zero!” That sign isn’t in as much trouble as “OK” because the meaning “black power” is regional, and the use of the fist is regional. But it is another example of something indexical (a fist meaning power is very indexical, maybe even partly iconic) and thus, not truly symbolic, and thus, limited as a fully powered linguistic thing.

Don’t get me started on this one:

Hook 'em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, "I fucked your wife" (in Argentina, variant of "cuckold"). "Out Out" to evil in some South Asian religions.  Heavy metal/rock on.  Satan.
Hook ’em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, “I fucked your wife” (in Argentina, variant of “cuckold”). “Out Out” to evil in some South Asian religions. Heavy metal/rock on. Satan.

America is part Mexican

The Dogs Still Bark in Dutch

I grew up in the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now known to you as the State of New York. There, I carried out extensive archaeological and historic research, and along the way, came across that phrase, “the dogs still bark in Dutch.”

It is an idea that might occur to a denizen of Harlem, the kids off to Kindergarten, sitting on his stoop eating a cruller, or perhaps some cole slaw with a gherkin, and pondering the Dutch revival architecture down on Wall Street.

There was a war between the Dutch and the English in the 17th century, and as a result of that war, colonial lands were passed back and forth multiple times. In the case of the colony of New Amsterdam, the passing to the English involved the arrival of a warship on the Hudson, but they used their cannon only to wake up the governor so he could receive a letter telling him about the change. Actually, the colony went back and forth a couple of times.

But when the English took over that Dutch colony, they did not remove the Dutch, or really, do much at all. There were some old Dutch customs, such as the Pinksterfest, a bit of a happy go lucky free for all dance party with vague religious overtones, that were illegalized, because the English versions of Christians at the time didn’t like dancing. But mostly nothing happened to affect day to day life for most people. The Dutch parts of the collection of English Colonies and the early United States retained its Dutchness long enough for someone to remark of the time that even with all the political change, the new form of money, the change in monarch, all of that, the dogs still barked in Dutch.

(I oversimplify two centuries of history slightly.)

We know we are eating burritos, yet we call them tacos

I think this is a Minnesota custom but it could be more widespread. This is what you do. You get a large flour tortilla, some kind of meat or beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa or hot sauce, grated cheese and sour cream, and you put all that stuff inside the tortilla, roll the tortilla up, eat it, and then say, “That was a good taco, you betcha.”

The part about the tortilla, lettuce, cheese, etc. is not Minnesotan. That is widespread. But calling a burrito a taco may be more local. And, we know it is a burrito. Nobody in Minnesota ever gets confused about what they are ordering at a Mexican restaurant. In fact we’re pretty good at that. Indeed, of all the upper mid west cities, I’ll bet you that Minneapolis has one of the oldest Mexican restaurants, and there has always been a Mexican community here, though it has grown in recent decades.

But never mind the taco-burrito distinction. We Minnesotans also mix up “yet” and “still” and do things “on” accident instead of “by” accident. Don’t get me started on soda vs pop vs sodapop.

What I really want to talk about here is “Mexican food.”

Go find some hipsters and tell them, “Imma go get Mexican food, wanna come?” and you’ll find out that there is no such thing as “Mexican food,” that what you really mean is “Tex-Mex” and that if you want some authentic “Mexican food” there’s this great taco truck down the street that has authentic tacos.

So you got to get the authentic tacos. I did that the other day. Hipsters everywhere. All the tacos, though, were various meat or bean substances, some kid of lettuce, tomato, etc. with some sort of sauce, on a flour tortilla. The only difference between our home made “tacos” and these legitimate “tacos” was that our burritos are chimichanga size, and those burritos were hand size.

Don’t get me started on chimichangas.

Anyway, here’s what I want to say about Mexican food. It is Mexican, and it is not Tex-Mex. Why is it not Tex-Mex? because Tex-Mex is a made up word, a made up category of food. It was made up because people thought this stuff we call “Mexican food” was fake, an American, non-Mexican version of what they eat in Real Mexico. It was not understood that America did not invite Mexico over as long as they bring the Tacos, that things Mexican in America are not immigrated, but rather, indigenous, often. Even though many Mexicans actually do go back and forth across the US-Mexico border, the truth is, the geographical and cultural entity that gave rise to the Country of Mexico also gave rise to the Country of the United States, in part. In part for both. The Yucatan is no more Hispanic Mexican than El Passo is Anglo-American.

Both modern countries have histories that involve big areas of land, country size areas of land by European standards, that had this or that national, ethnic, or cultural thing going on, and all of that stuff contributes to the present. Native American zones were everywhere, of course, and for the region of which we speak here, that included hundreds of languages, many language groups, and numerous entirely different but often overlapping or intermingled lifeways (such as foraging, bigly civilization, and all the arrangements to be found on the small-group-forager to pyramid-building-nation spectrum).

America did not become a first-Native then Anglo-European country that then had Mexicans show up to fix our roofs and run Tex-Mex style taco trucks. Mexican culture, or more broadly speaking New World Hispanic culture (or some other word, you pick) was in place, across a huge area, long before the United States took its current form, and a whopping big chunk of the eventual United States was part of that. And no, I’m not talking about Texas, or even New Mexico, or the Southwest, or the land ceded to the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I’m talking about a big blobby thing that includes regions from Atlantic Florida to California, from the Rio Grande to the Great Lakes, overlapping with other big and small blobby things that were French, English, Dutch, Creole, Acadian, Russian, and so on.

So don’t call what we eat “Tex-Mex” because that implies that we are America sans Mexico. We are Mexico. Even up here in Minnesota, the Cowboys sometimes spoke Spanish. A cowboy IS a Spanish-American thing. And out east, the dogs still barked in Dutch. And our northern beginnings are as French as anything else.

America is part Mexican, but not because they came to us. Rather, we come from them.

The Norms of Society and Presidential Executive Orders UPDATE

A brief update: This morning, Senate Republicans set aside the rules that say that both parties must be present, with at least one member, for a committee vote to advance a Presidential nominee for a cabinet appointment.

In other words, as outlined below, our system is based not only on enforceable laws but also on rules that only work if everyone involves agrees to not be the bully on the playground who ignores the rules. The Republicans are the bully on the playground.

The system requires honest actor playing by agreed on rules. So, without the honest actor, you get this. This fits perfectly with Trump’s overall approach.

Democracy is not threatened by this sort of thing. Democracy was tossed out the window a while back when this sort of thing became possible, and normal. Whatever we see now that looks like democracy is vestigial.

Original Post:

The title of this post is based closely on the title of a statement posted by my friend Stephan Lewandowsky, representing the Psychonomic Society.

The post is the official statement by this scientific society responding to President Trump’s recent activities, and it begins,

Last Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops in 1945. U.S. President Trump marked the occasion with a statement, although it omitted any specific mention of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

On the same day, Trump also signed an executive order that banned citizens of 7 mainly Islamic countries from entering the United States.

This order—at least initially—also applied to legal permanent residents of the U.S. (“Green card” holders), thus barring them from re-entry to their country of residence after a visit abroad, as well as to dual nationals if one of their citizenships is from one of those 7 countries.

I’m going to use this as a starting point to discuss the most important thing you need to know about the situation in the United States right now.

You know most resources are limited. We can cook along ignoring this for long periods of time, ignoring a particular resource’s limitations, until one day something goes awry and that particular resource suddenly matters more and of it, we have less. So a competitive framework develops and then things happen.

It is the business of the rich and powerful to manipulate the world around them in such a way that when such a limitation occurs, they profit. Candidate Trump mentioned this a while back. A housing crisis is a good thing for a real estate developer. This is not because it is inherently good; a housing crisis can put a real estate developer out of business. But the developer who is positioned to exploit such a crisis, or any kind of economic or resource crisis, is in a good position when thing go badly for everyone else.

One of the long term goals of many powerful entities is to maintain working classes, or other lower classes of servitude, in order to have cheap labor and a market. This has been done in many ways, in many places, at many times. Much of our social history is about this. Many wars have been fought over this, and many social, cultural, and economic revolutions have occurred because of this.

And every now and then, a holocaust happens because of this. This is, in part, because of what I’ll term as Mischa’s Law. Mischa Penn is a friend and colleague who has studied race and racism across all its manifestations as represented in literature, but focusing on the Nazi Holocaust and the holocaust of Native Americans. Mishca’s Law is hard to understand, difficult to believe, enrages many when they hear it, and is often set aside as lunatic raving. Unless, of course, you take Mischa’s class on race and racism, get a few weeks into it, know enough about it. Then, he gives you the thing, the thing I call “Mischa’s Law” (he doesn’t call it that) and you go, “Oh, wait, of course, that’s totally true.” And then you get really depressed for a while, hate Mischa for a while, hate his class. Then, later, ten years later, a life time after you’ve taken the class, and you’ve graduated and moved on to other things, Misha’s Law is the only thing you remember from all the classes you took at the U, and you still know it is true.

The fundamentals are always in place for Mischa’s Law to take effect. Competition, limited resources, different social classes or groups, a limited number of individuals in power, etc. But we, in America, have lived in a society where checks and balances kept one ideology (including, sadly, my own!) from taking over for very long, and there is a certain amount of redistribution of wealth and power.

But over recent years, the rich and powerful have convinced the working class that the main way we distribute wealth, through taxes, is a bad thing, so that’s mostly over. Social welfare has become a dirty word. The rich are richer, the powerful more powerful, and those with little power now have almost no power at all. But we still had a governmental system of checks and balances, so that was good.

But then the system of checks and balances got broken. In fact, the entire system of government got broken. Did you notice this? What happened is, about half the elected officials in government stopped doing the number one thing they were supposed to do, and this ruined everything.

What was that one thing? This: play by the rules.

Playing by the rules requires both knowing the rules and then making an honest attempt to respect them. Not knowing the rules is widespread in our society. I’m sure the elected officials know the rules they are breaking, but increasingly, I think, the average person who votes for them has no clue what the rules are or how important it is that they be observed.

Imagine the following situation. You go to baseball games regularly, to see your team play. Let’s make this slightly more realistic and assume this is a Little League team.

One day a big scary kid who is a bully gets up to bat. The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. Strike one. It happens again. Strike two. One more time. Strike three.

But instead of leaving the batter’s box, the big bully kid says, “I’m not out, pitch it again.” The following several moments involve a bit of embarrassment, the coaches come out, some kids are yelling at the bully, one parent hits another parent, and finally, it settles down, but the game is ruined and everyone goes home.

Next game, same thing happens, but this time nobody wants a scene, so they let the pitcher pitch the ball until the bully hits a single. Then the game continues. But the next game, there are a few bullies, not just one, demanding that the rules be ignored for them, and some other players decide to ignore other rules as well, and pretty soon, there is nothing like baseball happening.

You see what happened here? I’m going to guess that you don’t quite see the key point yet. The reason you leave the plate and go back to the dugout when you get three strikes is NOT because of the properties of matter, gravity, magnetic attraction, the unstoppable flow of water or a strong wind. You are not blown, washed, pulled, pushed, or dropped by any force back into the dugout when you get three strikes. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, right?

No. Still not right. You go back into the dugout because you got three strikes, the rules say you are out, AND THEN YOU FOLLOW THE RULES.

The Republican party, about half the elected officials, have unilaterally decided, in state houses across the country and in the Federal government, to stop following the rules.

A few years ago, in the Minnesota State House, a Republican representative made the clear and bold statement that he represented only the voters in his district who voted for him, and not the other citizens. He was resoundingly condemned for doing this, and he backed off and stopped talking like that. But over time, in state houses across the country, and in congressional districts, this increasingly became the norm, for Republicans. The rule is, of course, that once elected you represent all the people of your district. But more and more Republicans decided that this rule did not apply to them. They only represent those who voted for them. Now, this is normal in the Republican Party, and the first Republican President to be elected after this change said during his first news conference after his election, prior to his inaugural, that blue states would suffer and red states would benefit from his presidency.

I’ll give you another quick example. In one of Minnesota’s legislative chambers, the chair, who is from the leading party, has the right to silence any legislature who gets up to speak if the topic being discussed is not related to the matter at hand on the floor. So, the legislature is debating a proposed law about bicycles. The Democrats are in charge. A Republican gets up and insists on talking about his horoscope. The Democratic chair of the chamber says something like, “Your remarks are not relevant to the matter at hand, sit down and be quiet.” Good rule.

Last time the Republicans were in charge in that Minnesota chamber, they did this to every single Democrat who stood to say anything about anything, including and especially the matter at hand. The Republicans disregarded the actual rule (that the chair can silence a member who is off topic) and misused the power (that the chair can silence any member) to their benefit.

Tump is not following the rules, the Republicans in Congress are not acting like a “check” on Trump, and we have seen government officials in the Executive branch, apparently, ignoring court orders.

Trump’s executive orders over the last few days have been an overreach of power. For example, in its initial and badly executed form, his “extreme vetting” plan removed the rights of green card holders. Two different court orders neutered at least parts of this executive order temporarily, but it is reported that some officials, working for the Executive branches, ignored the court order. Since these are basically cops ignoring an order from a judge, and judges don’t have a police force, there isn’t much that can be done about that. Cops are supposed to follow the orders of judges. That’s the rule. The only way the rule works is if the rule is followed. There is no other force that makes the rule work.

Trump’s apparent abrogation of previous decisions on major pipeline projects was done without reference of any kind to the regulatory process that had already been completed. Regulations are acted on by the Executive branch, but they come from laws passed by Congress, and the whole judiciary is involved whenever someone has a case that there is something amiss. Trump’s executive orders and memoranda related to the pipeline ignore all the different branches of government, departments, process, and rules of governing.

It would appear that Trump had brought together the two major changes in rule observation that have developed over the last 20 years in this country. First, like the average citizen (of all political stripes) he is ignorant of how anything works. Second, like the bully that stands by the batter’s box, he shall not observe any rule that he does happen to find out about.

You see, for a United States President to become a dictator, he has to do only one thing: Stop following the rules. The US Court System, the Congress, and the Executive exist in a system of checks and balances, and that is supposed to keep everybody, well, in check. And balanced. But the Executive is the branch of government with multiple police and security forces, an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, Marines, and a Coast Guard. There is a rule that only the Coast Guard can carry out military-esque activities on US soil. But there is a mechanism for putting that rule aside. The President puts the rule aside. That’s it.

We live in a world of limited resources, and a pre-existing system of inequity, class, and ethnic categorization that allows the powerful to exploit and control most everyone else. We live in a country in which a single individual can take over the government by getting elected president then ignoring the rules, whether or not he formally declares himself in charge of everything. There is no mechanism to stop this from happening. There are all sorts of rules in place to stop it, such as the political parties putting up qualified candidates, the electors making sure they elect a qualified candidate, the Congress certifying the election of qualified candidates. But those things did not happen, and we now have a man who by all indications intends to dictate, not lead, dictate not rule, dictate not represent. There is no indication of any kind whatsoever that we do NOT have an incipient dictatorship as our form of government right now, and there are strong indications that this is where Trump is going.

And this is where Mischa’s Law becomes a thing.

“Racism, left unchecked, will eventually lead to holocaust.”

The checks, they have been neutralized.

The House Should Demand That Trump Apologize For John Lewis Insults

A lot of people are just catching up on who John Lewis is. One way to do that is to read his memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is presented with the 2010 Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is presented with the 2010 Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
He is a senior African American Representative to the House who was famously involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, along side Doctor King. If you watch any news at all you’ve seen him plenty of times. He is now also known as the latest person Donald Trump decided to denigrate and insult on Twitter.

I would like to see everyone ask their representatives in the House to treat Donald Trump’s remarks about John Lewis as they would treat similar remarks made by any other member of the House against a colleague. Generally, there are rules and you can’t do or say certain kinds of things, or you get sanctioned. I want Trump’s remarks addressed as though they were remarks on the floor made to another member. To put a point on it, since little that Republicans in Congress do relates to decorum or ethics, since to them it is all partisan politics, let’s assume the hypothetical offender is a Democrat and the remarks are made against a Republican. And when making the remarks a little bit of spit flew out and landed on the guy.

Here’s my letter to my representative, who is, sadly, a Republican. Can you please write a letter too?

Representative Erik Paulsen
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

To the Honorable Erik Paulsen,

I write to ask you to take appropriate action in response to the outrageous statements made by the Republican President Elect in regards to your colleague, the Honorable John Lewis, of Georgia.

On the 14th of January, 2017, President Elect Trump railed against Representative Lewis, and denigrated the important work he has done as a member of Congress and as a leader in the area of Civil Rights, on the very eve of our national celebrations of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

How many of your colleagues in Congress have literally had their skulls smashed as a result of protesting racial injustice? This is what happened to young John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. The Congressman has dedicated his life to fight racism, injustice, and to honorably and effectively represent the people in his district.

Mr. Trump’s remarks are uncalled for, outrageous, and should not go unanswered.

I ask you to stand in defense of the Honorable Mr. Lewis on the floor of the House, to make a public statement responding to the President Elect, and to make clear that this sort of behavior is not acceptable. Alternatively, perhaps you could let me know why you would chose to remain silent, should that be your decision, or why you might support Mr. Trump’s remarks, if that is your intent.

I understand that Mr. Trump is a Republican and so are you, and Mr. Lewis is a Democrat. It is possible that the Republican Party’s position is to denigrate men like Mr. Lewis. If so, that would be a shame. If, on the other hand, you and your Republican colleagues truly represent the citizens of your respective districts, not just the narrow range of folk who voted for you, then you can not sit silently. You have to stand up and say something. As your constituent, I demand this. Do note that several of your colleagues in your party have done so.


Greg Laden

This is what racism looks like

Trigger warning: This post contains several images of racist or similar messages found through history and throughout the world, including a handul from the US over the last few weeks. These are provided as documentation to go along with the text of this blog post and to inform the reader of the nature of these messages. Most of the images are from mainstream media and are regarded as genuine. If you feel any are not, indicate so in the comments if you like.

An antisemitic graffiti in Lithuania.
An antisemitic graffiti in Lithuania.
I am a scientist who studies race and racism and related topics. This includes the critique and evaluation of so-called “scientific racism” and the history of racism and closely related political and social concomitants. I point this out here because some people feel that I should not be writing about this topic on a science blog. Those people are wrong for a lot of reasons, and the fact that I am a scientist who studies race and racism is only one of those reasons.

There have been many notable cases of racist, often anti-Muslim, as well as misogynistic, attacks or incidents since Donald Trump was elected, apparently carried out by Trump supporters emboldened by the presumptive election of a candidate who is a known supporter of normalizing sexual assault and whose White House promises to have close ties to the White Supremacist movement.

graffiti-on-a-wall-in-belfast-kill-all-brits-and-cops-c0bax5This is important because of this simple historically demonstrated fact: racism left unchecked eventually leads to holocaust. By “holocaust” I mean many things, and what actually happens would depend on conditions and circumstances, but generally, registration, incarceration, removal, etc. with the eventual killing of large numbers of individuals associated with a certain racial, ethnic, or religious identity.

Why does that happen? It is not true that sometimes, push comes to shove. It is not true that sometimes resources are limited, or opportunities are seen to be shaped by competitors, or success is viewed as threatened by other’s success. It is not true that sometimes these things happen. It is true that these things always, eventually, inevitably happen. If racism is unchecked, and competition continues, it eventually becomes logical, normal, convenient, and eventually imperative, that the object group of the unchecked racism be rounded up and gotten out of the way.

That is the final solution.

Fortunately, racism is usually not left unchecked. But when if it is left unchecked for too long, it is very hard to stop. Since the victims of overt racism are victims even if they are not rounded up and put in a mass grave, it is imperative to recognize an increase in overt racism when it is happening and to speak out about it, to not allow if a foothold.

One way to allow racism to spread, become increasingly overt, increasingly normal, and to eventually develop into things like registries of muslims or jews, or special laws governing certain kinds of pepole, or the rounding up of this or that group, is to support those policies. To support policies of registering people of a certain religion is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism. To support policies such as rounding up people who look a certain way or come from a certain place is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-33-26-pmTo vote for and in fact elect a presidential candidate who advocates these policies is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism. Then, to add to that campaign’s rhetoric by displaying grafetti, or carrying out certain acts of violence, and so on, is to enhance and speed up the rise of racism.

There is another way to enhance and speed up the rise of racism, which if sufficiently enhanced and sped up, will lead eventually to registry, ghettoization, and possibly genocide, is to tell people who are pointing out the racist rhetoric, graffiti, harassment, etc. to shut up.

This Star of David superimposed on the "corrupt Hillary" image is widely seen as an anti-Semitic hate image, used by the trump campaign.
This Star of David superimposed on the “corrupt Hillary” image is widely seen as an anti-Semitic hate image, used by the trump campaign.
What does racism unchecked look like? Well, we can see it in historical contexts. We see it in the writings of Spanish academics and religious leaders, writing about the presence or absence of a soul in the Native American body, discussing whether it is better to exploit, contain, or exterminate Native Americans and how to do so in a way that is moral. We see it in the registration or labeling of Jews in Europe and the development of ghettos to put them in, and the wiping out of Jewish villages in Russia. We see it in the internment of Japanese in the US. We see it in the demonization of the other tribe in Central Africa, where the other tribe is blamed for all the ills of the dominant tribe, and considered a threat to all that is important.

That unchecked racism looks like graffiti. Unchecked racism looks like calls for registering Muslims. Unchecked racism looks like massive deportation schemes that involve rounding people up in large numbers with no clear plan as to where to actually put them. Some of these things are happening now, some are proposed.

From a NYC Subway platform.  Every racist movement needs some antisemitism, but now and then there must also be a touch of misogyn
From a NYC Subway platform. Every racist movement needs some antisemitism, but now and then there must also be a touch of misogyn
The other day I posted an example of the outpouring of racism we are suddenly seeing with the election of Donald Trump. It appeared to be, and as far as we know was, a hand written note sent to three different Islamic facilities in southern California. The language was profane, the message threatening.

The incident was reported in mainstream media (NBC, etc.). Police authorities are investigating and are taking it seriously. The letter indicated that there is a “new sheriff in town” — Donald Trump — and Trump would do to the Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.

You can read the details here

This was a particularly poignent example, a particularly threatening example, of the current enhancement and rise of racism in the united states, not skipping a beat to go directly to the threat of extermination of Muslim people in the US.

The reaction to that posting included a handful of white men of privilege telling me, on Twitter and elsewhere, that I should not post such a thing, because it was presumably a joke, or because it was profane, or for any of a number of other reasons.

One person noted that it was inappropriate to have posted the profane letter itself as a “featured image” … the image that is at the top of the blog post. That individual had a point, since the featured image automatically goes along with the post in various social media settings, etc. Personally I think it is shocking but not inappropriate, but I can see where others may disagree. For this reason, I took the post down in order to write a more contextualized post, this one. And, to add a note about the reactions of various caucaso-andro-privilaged individuals who scolded me and told me that there was no such thing and that I needed to sit down and be quiet. Here is that image:
If I find out that this is a fake, I’ll change the image and put a link to the documentation that it is a fake. Meanwhile, it is one of many similar messages, likely none fake, that are appearing all of the US.

This is racism enhanced, racism rising.

It is imperative that we not let this happen unchecked.

One more thing. I use the term “overt racism” several times. That was very intentional. It is very important to note that we are not fighting racism in this country as much as we are fighting overt racism. Here is why we do that, and how we do that.

You think this year’s election is strange?

Clinton beat Trump by a large margin, by electoral standards. A couple of percent is actually a lot these days. Yet so far it appears that Trump won the electoral vote, even though those votes are not yet cast and who knows what is actually going to happen.

But this year, strange as it it and stranger thought it may become, is not the strangest ever. That goes to 1876.


Changing the racist mind after Trump

Question: How do we wipe out racism by making racists not be so racist?

Answer: We don’t.

We do something else that actually works.

The expanding Trump-fueled conversation about racism

It has been absolutely fascinating to observe myriad conversations reacting to the Trump electoral win. All the usual suspects are engaged, but also, many others who had previously been little involved, or not at all involved, in the national political conversation, are saying things.

And along with this has come a certain amount of method or concern questioning. I won’t call it trolling because only some of it is that, and “trolling” is one of those terms of art used in a not very artful world. Let’s just say that people are questioning approaches in ways that are sometimes interesting.

Many people seem to think there is a way to communicate to those who hold opposing views that will make their views more entrenched, and a better way to communicate that will change their minds. This opinion is often based on very strongly held feelings but lack reference to any scientific study or valid body of data.

Communication experts are not as dogmatic, because communication is an academic field, a science (an artful science, perhaps) and therefore, complex. Communication experts know that, for the most part, people don’t change their minds much, or if they do, not for very long. People’s opinions on widely discussed issues do not alter in the face of argument, and when they appear to do so, it is often only a little, and only temporary.

Jodie Burchard-Risch was unhappy that Asma Mohamed Jama was speaking her native language, KiSwahili, to her family, while having dinner at Applebees. So, Jodie Burchard-Risch took her beer mug and slammed Asma Mohamed Jama across the head with it.   Minnesota nice is not what you think it is.
Jodie Burchard-Risch was unhappy that Asma Mohamed Jama was speaking her native language, KiSwahili, to her family, while having dinner at Applebees. So, Jodie Burchard-Risch took her beer mug and slammed Asma Mohamed Jama across the head with it.
Minnesota nice is not what you think it is.
(I quickly add that people do change their minds completely, going into a process with dogmatically held beliefs, later leaving the process with nearly opposite beliefs. I’ve seen this happen may times in the evolutionary biology classroom. Go to any meeting of atheists, and you’ll see it there too, people who were dogmatically religious who are not dogmatically not. Numerically, these people are rare. But, they do count.)

A few days ago I said something insulting to or about (can’t remember the details, it happens so often) someone or some group that was spewing racist hogwash. I was mildly scolded (as often happens) for being so nasty. You catch more flies with honey. People are going to hear that sort of thing and not change their minds. You can’t convince anybody of anything that way. And so on.

And yes, that scolding was half correct. A harsh approach will rarely change someone’s mind. But, the obverse assumption, that being nice would change someone’s mind, is almost nearly as incorrect.

Convincing someone was not my objective, and when it comes to racism, rarely is. Getting people who are deeply racist to become un-racist is nearly impossible. Changing those minds should not be the objective if one wants to be efficient (though efficiency is not always the goal, I quickly note).

There is a different goal, and that is to make people shut up.

“… go right into the zoo where you belong …”

I have a story that I think is true. I am a trained anthropologist, and I’ve focused some of my work on racism, so I believe myself when I tell this story.

Act I: Once upon a time, closing in on 20 years ago, I moved from the Boston area to the Twin Cities. Before moving, I lived in that space between Harvard, MIT, and a half dozen other colleges, where most of the people one meets are progressive and liberal, and standard white American racism simply isn’t something you encounter on a day to day basis, even if it is more common in other parts of the metro area or elsewhere in New England. Indeed, the majority of people I worked with on a day to day basis were not even white Americans, so it would take extra work to locate that sort of racism. A nice, safe, academic bubble.

Soon after moving to the Twin Cities, I ended up in a northern near-outer-ring suburb (we classify our suburbs by which ring they are in). The northern outer ring suburbs are working class, conservative (but often Democratic because of the Union presence), and a bit xenophobic. If you hear a story about something bad happening in the Twin Cities area — something racist, or just plane Coen-Brothers-Fargo — there is a good chance it happened somewhere between Fridley and Coon Rapids. This is where I lived for a while. Also, Falcon Heights, which is an odd mix of academic university people and white fear (google that city’s name, you’ll see).

So, I go to Target for the first time. Targets were everywhere in the Twin Cities but had not taken over the entire planet yet. A young white woman is greeting each customer in a friendly matter, a fitting attitude in Friendly Fridley, Minnesota (yes, that is the town’s motto). Each customer had a few items (this was the fast lane) and she put them carefully in a bag, took the money, handed the bag graciously to each customer, and send them on their way with a “Goodaytcha” (a traditional Minnesota greeting, like Aloha or Chow).

Until the black customer came up in line. She did not speak, scowled instead of smiling, slammed his two or three items on the counter expecting him to bag them himself, and gave him nothing close to the time of the day. I was the next customer. I got the bagging, the greeting, the goodaytcha, all of it. That was my first observation of racism in the checkout line in Minnesota, and it turned out to not be a unique experience. This turned out to be how it was done most of the time in Friendly Fridley and many other northern suburb communities.

(I’m careful to get the geography right, because other parts of the Twin Cities are diametrically opposite in attitude.)

On another day. I’m just leaving a BP gas station, the one on Snelling and Larpenteur, just a few meters away from the exact location Philando Castile was murdered by a local cop.

As I’m heading for the door, the young woman who worked there came around the counter to do some stock related task or antother, so she’s standing by the door, and I’m about to leave but holding back because I’m messing with the bag of items I just bought. At that moment, a man who had just exited a fairly fancy but rented car, wearing a three piece suit (the man, not the car), black, enters the establishment and asks directions.

“I’m looking for Como Zoo, I’m late for a conference,” he said, in a medium-thick West African accent. “Can I please get directions?”

I was about to answer, but the girl beat me to it.

“Go right down that street,” she said, pointing to Larpenteur Avenue. “Take a right at Hamline, go down a few blocks…”

At this point the man is starting back out the door, hearing the directions, in a hurry, but still listening.

“Then turn left where you see the sign, and head right into the zoo…”

At this point the door is about to close behind the man.

“… where you belong.”

Because he’s an ape, I remember thinking. She is telling this man, probably a doctor or scientist or something from a West African nation visiting us and giving a talk at the local zoo, which is often the venue for small conferences, that he is an ape.

The man stopped, holding the door open, almost said something, then instead, kept going and drove off.

The Decline of Overt Racism in the Twin Cites

None of that is unusual. I saw stuff like that all the time.

It might be a surprise to some that overt racism was widespread in the great state of Minnesota, which gave us Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone (I first met him, by the way, in Friendly Fridley itself!), Walter Mondale, and all that. I’ll note that in the months after first moving here, the two things I heard again and again from others who had moved here a bit earlier were these: 1) Wow, people are really racist here, I had no idea; and 2) “Minnesota nice” … it is not what you think it is.

Transgender CeCe McDonald and some friends were violently assaulted outside a Minneapolis bar.  CeCe had a knife, and defended herself from a beer-mug wielding assailant.  The attacker did not live, CeCe did hard time, but is now out, and telling people about her experiences.
Transgender CeCe McDonald and some friends were violently assaulted outside a Minneapolis bar. CeCe had a knife, and defended herself from a beer-mug wielding assailant. The attacker did not live, CeCe did hard time, but is now out, and telling people about her experiences.
Act II: During this period of time, a large number of Hmong people had recently moved into the Twin Cities, many to the neighborhood I lived in for a year. Indeed, Hmong farmers grew food in my back yard, they kinda came with the house. Great efforts were made to make the Hmong feel welcome, though there was also plenty of racism. Then Somali people started to move into the area. Almost no effort was made to help them feel comfortable. Apparently, Asians are tolerable, Africans are not. Similarly, people from West Africa, mainly Liberia, were moving here, and it turns out there has long been a strong Mexican presence. I discovered that in some parts of the Twin Cities, anti-Mexican racism was clearly more rabid than anti-Black racism.

And things started to get worse and worse. Bullying in schools was becoming more dangerous. This was not likely related to racism, but was closely linked to intolerance, in this case of transgender and gay students. The CDC almost shut down the largest school district in the state. Take the most populous county in the state and combine it with a very rural county. Remove the major city (Minneapolis) and all the wealthy suburbs. What you’ve got left is traditionally white but with recent non-white immigrants, working class, conservative. That is the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The death rate from suicides, mainly caused by bullying supported by teachers and administrators, was so high that the school district became a point source of youth mortality, which set off alarms, and broght in the CDC.

Two African American women were severely beaten by a bunch of white dudes in a pickup. Transgender people were attacked, some killed. Other bad things happened, joining the intolerance against Somali people, other racist things, the suicides, all that, and ultimately seemed to create a backlash. Programs were implemented. Non profits formed from the blood of some of those who were killed. Government officials and agencies responded. The school districts got involved. There was a not very well organized but widespread push against racism and general intolerance.

Making intolerant remarks and acting in a racist manner went from being expected, normal, maybe even a form of local enterainment, to becoming not OK, frowned upon, disallowed, and in some contexts, punishable.

I believe that overt racism in the northern ring suburbs of the Twin Cities declined.

In one of many incidents, a Muslim girl was attacked at Northdale Middle School, Coon Rapids, for wearing a headscarf.
In one of many incidents, a Muslim girl was attacked at Northdale Middle School, Coon Rapids, for wearing a headscarf.
Did this happen because people got less racist? No. It happened because racists learned the one thing that we can actually teach them, and that they can actually do.

They learned to shut the fuck up.

They learned to top being so overt.

This is important because overt racism normalizes racism. Overt racism provides a daily ongoing lesson for the young, growing up and trying to figure out how to act. Overt racism perpetuates racism. Racists shutting up attenuates the cultural transmission of racism.

Making racism not normal, making racists shut up in as many contexts as possible, slows down the spread of racism, and can lead to its decline, much more effectively than being nice to racists can ever hope to accomplish.

The rise of white supremacy, with Trump

Then Donald Trump gets elected. Act III.

maplegrovhighschooltrumpsupporterdoorI’m not going to argue about whether or not Donald Trump is some sort of leader of the American white supremacy movement. He has been cagy in what he has said, and rather than definitively repudiating the white supremacists, he appointed as “top advisor” one of the country’s best known and most active white supremacists. His immigration policies are mainly directed at people not considered white by white supremacists, and that policy includes getting certain people on a registry, which is the first step in incarceration which is one step closer to elimination by some means or another. I assume that when Trump tries to throw people out of the country because of their ethnicity, he will encounter problems similar to those encountered by the Nazis in their efforts to get rid of undesirables. For example, you can’t just expel people to another country. The other country can say no. In the end, the Trump administration will have to find a solution to that. What, I ask, will be Trump’s final solution?

Within minutes, it seems, of Trump’s victory, we had overt racism everywhere. In these places in Minnesota that had experienced serious intolerance, where this intolerance was just starting to be handled (making people shut up being the first step), we see the name “Donald Trump,” the name “Hitler,” the symbol of the swastika, and phrases like “whites only” or “fuck niggers” and “white America” scrawled on walls and doors and other things in schools, added to notebooks handed in to teachers, and so on.

Racism, rather than being pushed down and smothered, is being normalized, and those who would normally keep to themselves, and thus not be contaminating the up and coming generation, have found their voice.

maplegrovehighschooltrumpsupportertpIt is not time to be nice. It is not time to make reasonable, thoughtful, convincing, logical, nuanced, historically contextualized arguments. Well, sure, do that, we all love such things, that’s why we watch the Rachel Maddow show. But when it comes to communicating with racists, don’t bother. Just shout at them, and tell them to sit down and shut up.

The two images I’m showing here are from the a high school in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities. From a farther Western suburb, I could show you a homework assignment with swastikas and “Trump” and “Hitler” written all over it, but I don’t have permission to use the photo. White supremacists, racists, the other scum of the earth that always live among us are rearing their ugly heads and letting us know who they are. Even when they are violent, as they often are, we should not be violent against them. But we can make them shut up.