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.
One mean spirited decision intended to end the effort to end slavery led to one million dead and the end of slavery anyway.
I spent some time this weekend at a political event comparing prosecutors and other legal eagles, who were all hoping to get the job of Attorney General. They were Candidates General, I guess. Trump was mentioned, and somewhere along the line, Dred Scott was mentioned as well. I turned to a highly placed official sort of dude and said, “Did you know that Dred Scott lived in Minnesota?” He did not know that. So I asked a couple of other people if they knew, and they did not. Finally I found the smartest person in the room and she didn’t know either.
Gee, I thought, if you want to be the Attorney General of Minnesota and you are going to invoke the name of Dred Scott, you really ought to know that he lived just a few short miles away from where you are standing there invoking!
So I wrote this:
In 1857, US Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that a person who is black and of African ancestry can never be thought of as an American citizen, and therefore, has no standing to bring a law suit in federal court. In the same decision, Taney determined that a previous act of Congress that prohibited slavery in most of the territory north of a certain latitude, in land that was in the United States but not in a given state, was unconstitutional. In so doing he decided and determined that the US Congress could not prohibit slavery.
This decision was made in response to a suit filed by a slave named Dred Scott, who lived for a while, during a very important part of his life, just south of the Twin Cities.
Mr. Scott had been born a slave in Missouri, but later lived in various non-slave territories, as one of his owners was in the military and moved around a lot. During that time, he met and married Harriet Robinson, who was also a slave. Mr. Scott was owned by a military doctor stationed at Fort Snelling, which had been built on Lakota-Dakota land known as B’Dote (or Bdote) near what is now Bloomington Minnesota, home of the Mall of America. Ms. Robinson’s owner was Lawrence Taliaferro, who was the fort’s Indian Agent. Since Taliaferro was a Justice of the Peace, it was he who both gave his slave the permission to marry her fiance, and it was he who performed the ceremony.
At the time, Fort Snelling was in “Wisconsin Territory,” which is why, I suspect, Minnesotans by and large don’t know that Dred Scott lived here. Wisconsin Territory included parts of North and South Dakota, all of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and possibly tiny bits of adjoining lands. But if you come across a reference to Dred Scott in a history book, the word “Wisconsin” is right there, and Minnesotans think of the Green Bay Packers and move on.
Previous legal decisions, and a certain amount of common logic sprinkled with a sense of humanity, had already determined that a slave who then lived as a free person for a while got to be a free person for the rest of their lives. Since slavery was not legal in what was to eventually become Minnesota, and other territories in which Scott lived, he had a pretty solid legal case to make that he should be freed even after his owner moved him back into a slave state at a later time.
In order for Justice Taney to determine that Scott’s case was invalid, he had to create law that made the federal abolition of slavery in all non-state territories impossible, and to make all blacks non-citizens. Taney’s ruling was only the second time the Supreme Court had found an act of Congress unconstitutional, and of all the SCOTUS decisions ever made, this one had by far the greatest and most negative ultimate consequence.
Mr. Scott’s history is more complicated. There were changes in who owned him. He had tried to buy his freedom. He and his wife had children, including children born in non-slave territory. Abolitionists got involved. The Dred Scott vs. Sandford supreme court case, and all the legal events that preceded it, were major news at the time. The final result of Taney’s decision sealed the fate of the United States, set back civil rights by a century and a half, and contributed materially to the violent deaths of about a million people.
Fast forward to 1879.
From the time of the birth of the nation, but with greater intensity starting around 1830, and getting more and more intense in subsequent decades, the United States continuously wrestled with the issue of slavery. Abraham Lincoln had always thought slavery was bad, but he was enamored with the US Constitution and could see no easy direct way to make slavery illegal country-wide. He felt it would eventually die out as a practice, through a combination of legal and social changes.
But reducing or eliminating slavery had become an order of magnitude more difficult than it ever had to be because of Taney’s Supreme Court ruling. When Abraham Lincoln was elected to be president of the United States, slave owners felt that their ownership of other humans, and their right to spread that practice to the other sates simply by moving to them (with their property, their slaves) was threatened. This threat was sufficient that they assembled armies, caused their states to separate from the Union, and attacked the US Federal government with military force. The ensuing Civil War is the reason most of the previously mentioned million people died, but many others, blacks, have been killed before, during, and after the war by white supremacists. (This includes Union soldiers who were black, who were routinely killed on the spot when taken prisoner by Southern soldiers.)
After the war, there was a rapid and remarkable shift in society and politics in the south. Federal authority made it possible and relatively safe for southern Blacks to run for office and to vote in elections. Suddenly there were black faces in state legislatures and the US Congress.
But at the same time organizations like the Klu Klux Klan formed, and these organizations and their supporters infiltrated local and state governments. In some cases, they set up separate governments. On election day, in some jurisdictions, there were two voting boxes, and you could pick which one to cast your ballot in. The white supremacists had their vote, everyone else had a different vote, and when the results were different, the federal government would enforce the correct vote. At times, these disputes turned into small shooting wars, and were sometimes accompanied by random slaughter of blacks living in local communities.
Eventually the new fight over the old south fully evolved at the federal level and things got really strange.
In 1876, the United States had its most contentious election for president ever. Samuel Tilden, a Democrat (and thus of the party of the South) from New York (and thus maybe not so much from the party of the south) won 50.9% of the vote to Rutherford B. Hayes’ 47.9%. Hayes is credited with having had 185 electoral votes to Tilden’s 184.
Initially, however, the count was Tilden with 184 electoral votes, Hayes with 165, and 20 from that special category of votes that involved the multiple voting boxes and other shenanigans. The states with the bad votes were Florida (of course), Louisiana, and South Carolina (and there was a small problem in Oregon as well).
Eventually, a deal was struck. This deal was almost certainly illegal and extra constitutional, but even if that wasn’t the case, the deal was bad. But it is hard to say because the process and even details of the decisions made in the deal were kept secret and to this day we are not entirely sure what happened.
Rutherford Hayes, the Republican, was awarded all the messy votes, and became president. But, in return for keeping the Presidency out of the hands of the Party of Slavery, the federal authorities that were in the South keeping the white supremacists at bay, were withdrawn.
This is the beginning of the Jim Crow era, the era of terror and and harassment, hate and murder, bestowed by southern whites on southern blacks.
OK, fast forward to 1879 but for real this time, now that you have the context.
Slavery, a fight against slavery, Roger Taney personally ensures the continuation of slavery for a few, as well as the many, and produces the most bone-headed court decision ever, which is on the top list of three or four reasons that definitely led to the Civil War, followed by a lot of white supremacist whinging about, followed by the Jim Crow era.
And that is when art and antiquities collector William Walters (of the Walters Museum), who had hid out in Europe during the Civil War and seems to have been involved in about zero political activities as far as I can tell, paid for the erection of a monument to Roger Taney in Baltimore.
Now, fast forward a bit farther to March 6th, 2017. That is when this happened:
This is Charles Taney III, a great great grand whatever of Roger Taney, hugging Jynne Jackson, a great great grand whatever of Dred Scott, in front of the Taney statue. This photograph was taken at a ceremony in which Taney publicly apologized to Jackson.
Lynne M. Jackson winced outside the Maryland State House on Monday as she listened to Charlie Taney repeat some of the words his great-great-grand-uncle wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision 160 years ago.
Black people cannot be U.S. citizens and have no rights except the ones that white people give them. Whites are superior to blacks. Slavery is legal.
“You can’t hide from the words that [Roger Brooke] Taney wrote,” Charlie Taney said, standing a few feet from a statue of his ancestor, who lived in Maryland and was chief justice of the nation’s highest court from 1836 until his death in 1864.
“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t look away. You have to face them.”
Then Charlie Taney turned to Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom. He apologized — on behalf of his family, to the Scott family and to all African Americans, for the “terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”
And just a few short months later. during the early morning hours of August 18th, as a result of civil unrest stemming from pro-Nazi and pro-white supremacist remarks made by President Donald Trump, that Taney statue was removed:
Many of the Southern statues related to the Civil War, or, I suppose,pro-slavery supreme court decisions, were installed at about the same time as the Taney sculpture. The motivation behind the Taney statue, and possibly, who was really behind it, are an enigma, but in many cases, statues or monuments were erected by local governments under pressure (from within or elsewhere) by organizations like the KKK or other post war white supremacist groups and individuals. These statues were put up after the election of 1876 and the start of the Jim Crow era and their erection was very much part of that social movement.
A second wave of statue building and memorializing of things Southern happened during the 20th century Civil Rights Era. At this time, many schools were named after southern notables.
So at the start of Jim Crow, blacks living in southern cities were served up a reminder of their place in southern society. During the Civil Rights Era, black students were served up a reminder of their place in southern society, during the period of forced integration of schools.
No wonder so many northerners require southerns to prove that they are not a) assholes or b) stupid before giving them a break. Considering that our least racists and overall best presidents have come from the South, and Donald Trump comes from Queens, New York, northerners should give southerners more of a break. But we can do that while at the same time noting that there are a lot of people in this country that don’t deserve anyone’s respect because of their hateful views.
Meanwhile, in Bloomington, MN, you can find a memorial to Dred Scott, as well as a Dred Scott miniature golf course, a playground, and a car repair place.
I’d tell you what the plaques in Bloomington say, but I can’t find the text. I will visit the park soon and report back, it is not too far from me.
Meanwhile, if you live in or near the Twin Cities, get over to Fort Snelling and visit the place where Harriet and Dred lived. There is some interpretive history there, and the rest of the historic site is pretty interesting too.
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.
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.
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:
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 language 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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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. But 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.
Since I originally wrote this post, in 2017 (this is a 2021 edit you are reading right here) I’ve noticed that actual white supremacists who want to make it clear they are using the OK White Power symbol do so vigorously or obviously in some way to reduce ambiguity. That does not make it more of a symbol, but it does make it easy to spot the assholes. Which is not what the OK sign is being used to represent, except in an ironic way it really is. But I digress….
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.
But 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
To 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
It 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.
… violated the Constitution when it policed to raise money and with a racial bias toward African-Americans, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the report.
The investigation, the source says, concluded that blacks were disproportionately targeted by the police and the justice system and that has led to a lack of trust in police and courts and has led to few partnerships for public safety.
The report will be released on Wednesday. But there are some tidbits available including two emails between police and court employees.
One says Obama will not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another says a black woman in New Orleans was admitted to a hospital to end her pregnancy and then got a check two weeks later from “Crime Stoppers.”
According to the data assembled in the report, African Americans constitute 67% of the Ferguson population but make up 85% of the vehicular stops and 93% of those arrested, and are twice as likely to be searched as whites but less likely to possess drugs or weapons one searched.
In the court sytem, African Americans were 68% less likely than non-African Americans to have cases dismissed by municipal judges and more likely to have arrest warrents taken out on them. NPR reports that “From October 2012 to October 2014, 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant were black,” and “Blacks accounted for 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure to comply charges and 92 percent of all disturbing the peace charges.”
I will assume you are paying some attention to the discussion of racism vis-a-vis Charlie Hebdo, Muslim bashing, obnoxious religious (in this case Islamic) rules of behavior, freedom of speech and expression, etc. If you were thinking that this situation is simple you better check your thought process, or your privilege, or something. Get an oil change. Take a class on race and racism. Something. Because it is not simple.
The following thought experiment is still an oversimplification but perhaps worthy of consideration, as a means of parsing out the very first level of complexity and nuance. I’d love comments on it.
A religion includes a prohibition against drawing its prophet. Otherwise, nothing interesting happens. Practitioners of that religion are barely noticed by the rest of society. They are easily confused with Unitarians, perhaps, except this one rule they have. However, a very large percentage of people in this religion are not of the dominant ethnicity/race. Indeed, when a run of the mill working or middle class white person is found to be of that religion, almost invariably, people are at least a little surprised. So they are like brownish Unitarians. Indeed, for this thought experiment we shall call them the Brown Unitarians.
Somebody draws their prophet simply because there is a rule against it. Since these people are slightly brown, there is a certain amount of racism already baked in. This was a racist act. It might have been an intentionally racist act, or it might have been a blunder, but that would have the same effect, and failing to recognize the similarity is itself a racist act (intentional or otherwise). At the very least, the act is not polite, is harassment, and mild racism, but it could be worse depending on the nature of the drawing, the context in which it is distributed, and other factors. (It was possible that someone drew the Brown Unitarian Prophet entirely by accident, unknowingly, and the test of that is that if they are informed of the wishes of the Brown Unitarians, they make some effort to undraw the prophet and apologize, because, after all, offending people’s religion is a dick move, and why do that without a reason?)
Now imagine the same scenario as above, but previous instances in which the Brown Unitarian Prophet has been displayed have resulted in peaceful but strong protests.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act but it might also simply be a counter protest by someone concerned about free expression.
Now imagine the same scenario, but advanced one level. Some of the protests over drawing the Brown Unitarian Prophet are violent, and there is an attempt to codify the prohibition over creating this image into law.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act, or it might be a simple counter protest about free expression, but it could also be an important, not really optional, statement against the spread of bone-headed rules (like “you can’t draw a picture of my imaginary friend”) in otherwise secular society.
Now imagine the same scenario, but amid the various sorts of protests, we now have acts of deadly and bloody terrorism involving guns, bombs, etc. People linked with the drawing of the Brown Unitarian Prophet are now being gunned down now and then, occasionally in large numbers.
In response, somebody draws the prophet again. This might be a racist act … nothing that has happened has obviates that possibility. It might be a routine protest in favor of freedom of expression. But it might also be a brave and necessary, forceful and meaningful, slap in the face against those who want to repress others with their unreasonable, extremist, and very annoying rules based on dumb-ass rules about their imaginary friends.
Did you notice that this starts with the people drawing the prophet being dicks? Did you notice that the racism (actual or potential) never goes away? Did you notice all along there may be a large grey area in which racist acts can be achieved, but disguised as noble acts?
I think this is a partial analogy to the circumstances surrounding the Charlie Hebdo situation, except the beginning, the first scenario.
I originally wrote this in August 2009. It still pertains, though I’d probably write it a bit differently today. Slightly edited:
There is no doubt that this country is not ready for a Black President.
Nor would this country ever be ready for any non-white or non-male president until we actually went ahead and elected one–ready or not–and then made the necessary adjustments. And that could have been what would have happened with the historic election of Barack Obama.
Except it didn’t.
Join me, if you will, in a moment of utter, deep cynicism. That would mean you thinking, for just a moment, exactly like I think every second of the day. This will be painful for you, unless you are already where I am. In my world, I see almost every nationally elected Republican, almost every one of the teabaggers at the town hall meetings, and almost every one of the strutting libertarians with their strap-ons (because they don’t have real ones) as a racist. I also see half the liberals that I know as racists. I see almost every white person who lives in the suburbs and who has a job and an income with benefits as a racist. I probably think you are a racist. You may think I’m over doing it, you may think I’m being unfair, you may think I’ve oversimplified, and you may think I’ve got it wrong.
I have oversimplified, but I’m not overdoing it, I’m not being unfair, and I don’t have it wrong. It is you that has it wrong and that is the problem. Standing by and letting what we are seeing happening on the national stage and doing nothing about it is plain and pure complicity.
I’m thinking about the response to health care reform. The most active of them all, the teabaggers and the Republicans in office, each and every one, are reacting not to anything about health care, but rather to the fact that our president is a black man, and they are reacting to little else. Proposals that the Republicans have made themselves over the last decade are being touted as attempts to kill grandma or take away our freedoms or introduce socialism. There is nothing rational in what the teabaggers and Republicans are saying. Not. One. Thing.
Does any of this mean that we have prematurely elected our first black president? No, of course not. That is all to be expected. That would all be part of the transformation our country will go through to make the election of non-white-male presidents (in some combination) plausible rather than jaw-dropping remarkable.
The problem is not that the crazy right wing is upset and screaming at us from the back of the room telling us to shut up. The problem is that the rest of the country, or at least a significant number of individuals, especially in elected office and in the media, are not calling this what it is. Yes, there have been hints, here and there, of racist undertones and overtones, but the spade is not being called a spade. As it were.
And the reason is disgusting. The reason that the mainstream press and numerous elected officials are not identifying the town hall teabaggers and the anti-health care Republicans as racists is because the ground has been prepared to make sure that when someone does call someone else out on racism in the mainstream public square, that act…the act of identifying racism…is considered just as bad as the racism itself. It is called “playing the race card.” The whole “Oh, now you’re going to play the race card, aren’t you!” gambit was developed, prepared, and inculcated into society over the last 15 years (really, 14 years…since the OJ Simpson trial), so now racism has a place at the table. Where it does not belong.
Over the last 24 hours (as I write this on Monday) the public option part of health care reform has been taken off the table. I can hope, tell myself, guess, fantasize, that this is just a strategy, and that the public option will be back. I can figure that this is just to give some time for the famous Obama grassroots organizing to get up to speed, and that the public option will be in the health care bill and will be voted into place. But I doubt it. I strongly suspect that the golden opportunity, which comes around very 12 to 20 years, has been lost once more.
I will die before there is a good health care system. My daughter will reach middle age or even old age before there is a good health care system.
The outcome, years later, as we enter the last two years of President Obama’s second term, is this: The Democrats can not nominate another black president, ever. The Republicans have succeeded in their strategy. Keeping the White in the White House.
Donald Sterling appears to be a hard core racist, and this, appropriately, got him in trouble. Recently, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson released an email he had written some time back, which discusses race related issues vis-a-vis the Hawks, and announced that he was bowing out of ownership from the team because of this racist email.
The media reaction to this has been fairly uniform, and includes an aspect that I think should be examined more closely. Bruce Levenson, and his statement, have been placed in the same category as Donald Sterling and his statements. But they should not be. Given the relatively high degree of personal and institutional racism found in professional sports in the US, one could argue that Levenson’s racism is mild. One could even go further and say that he indicates a disdain for racism, and this disdain is reflected in the offending email.
The reason this is important is that racism is important, and racism associated with a major American institution like sports is very important. A child who brings a switchblade to school is treated in the same way, by school regulations, as a child that brings a plastic knife to school to make it easier to eat his apple, in some districts, because both are seen as the same thing by an unthinking (or, worse, pre-thinking, let the rules do your thinking for you style thinking) policy. The equation of Levenson and Sterling is a similar phenomenon. The discussion about race and racism in America and in sports needs to be smarter than this.
To expand on this idea I’ve Fisked Levenson’s letter (leaving off the first part). My objective is to give Levenson something of a break in considering his written words, pointing out where he is actually being anti-racist. Having said that, it is true that the email is insufficiently critical of certain aspects of the Hawks’ situation, and makes some assumptions that are probably incorrect and essentially racist, by someone who is not a trained sociologist or anthropologist. But, it is just an internal memo expressing thoughts for consideration, so to some extent that can be understood.
I don’t want to say that Levenson should or should not own the Hawks. I do want to say, though, that equating and placing in the same narrow category Levenson and what he has said and done, and Sterling and what he has said and done dumbs down the conversation too much.
From: Bruce Levenson
To: Ferry, Danny
CC: Foreman, Todd (ucg.com); Peskowitz, Ed (ucg.com)
Sent: 8/25/2012 11:47:02 PM
Subject: Re: Business/Game ops
…4. Regarding game ops, i need to start with some background. for the first couple of years we owned the team, i didn’t much focus on game ops. then one day a light bulb went off. when digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35–55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league….
This is not a racist statement per se. It is probably true that wealthier white males and traditional corporations (owned and operated mainly by wealthier white males) are the market for season tickets for major professional sports. This reflects many aspects of how our society works, and therein certainly lies racism. But pointing it out as the guy trying to sell the tickets is a simple observation.
when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games
– we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.
Then i start looking around at other arenas. It is completely different. Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience.
Before we bought the hawks and for those couple years immediately after in an effort to make the arena look full (at the nba’s urging) thousands and thousands of tickets were being giving away, predominantly in the black community, adding to the overwhelming black audience.
These statements can be taken as observation, not a judgement. One might ask for verification or more information, but the author of these observations has not said here if this is a good or a bad thing intrinsically, but rather, is simply pointing it out as background. The equation of various observations with a race-based trope is potentially problematic. Also, this is a laundry list of things to blame for bad sales, and that is more than a little uncomfortable. But this is a memo about bad sales.
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident.
There is simply no way to interpret this analysis as blatantly racist. It is quite the opposite. Levenson is pointing out that there seems to be racism among the fans, and that a threshold of sorts has been crossed making racist white male potential fans less likely to go to the arena.
This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
This is a very important statement. He is expressing disdain for racist attitudes about the venue.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.
One could argue over what the best approach to handling the lack of high price ticket sales is, but if that is the goal, appealing to a white audience by including among some of the amenities and concurrent events more white is the same as appealing to any effort at diversity.
The problem with this is the intent to undue what appears to be an overwhelming interest by African Americans in this particular team and venu. Saying that these components of the experience is “too black” certainly seems racist, but it is also couched in terms of the goal of “increasing diversity” (in this case white male country western listening potential ticket buyers, which is not the sort of diversity we are usually concerned with). A better statement might have been to express an interest in maintaining what appears to be a very successful inclusion of the African American community which is apparently predominant at the location of the venue while at the same time encouraging others to engage. In other words, it looks like the idea is to “undo” a shift towards a strong African American fan base.
Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.
This is obviously a sensitive topic, but sadly i think it is far and way the number one reason our season ticket base is so low.
This is a potentially important statement because it reveals Levenson’s feelings about the situation. He acknowledges the racist nature of the situation and the discussion, and expresses a dislike for the apparent fact that “too many” black people scares away white people.
And many of our black fans don’t have the spendable income which explains why our f&b and merchandise sales are so low. At all white thrasher games sales were nearly triple what they are at hawks games (the extra intermission explains some of that but not all).
Regardless of what time a game starts, we have the latest arriving crowd in the league. It often looks and sounds empty when the team takes the floor.
In the past two years, we have created a section of rowdy college students that has been a big plus. And we do a lot of very clever stuff during time outs to entertain the crowd. Our kiss cam is better done than any in the league.
We have all the same halftime acts that other arenas have but i question whether they make sense. people are on their cell phones during half time. i wonder if flashing on the scoreboard “$2 off on hot dogs during halftime tonight” just as the half ends would be a better use of our halftime dollars and make the fans happier.
We do all the usual giveways and the fans are usually their loudest when our spirit crew takes the floor to give away t-shirts. It pisses me off that they will yell louder for a t-shirt then for our players.
These are all context-free observations about how the games are sold together with an observation about late arriving fans and cell phone use. These issues may be generally true across sports, or the league, when a team is not generating enough excitement.
Our player intro is flat. We manufacture a lot of noise but because of the late arriving crowd and the fact that a lot of blacks dont seem to go as crazy cheering (another one of my theories) as whites, it is not great. Even when we have just returned from winnng four straight on the road, i am one of the few people in the arena standing and cheering when our team takes the floor. Bob has kicked around ideas like having the starters coming down aisles rather than off the bench during intros. Sounds cool but may highlight all the empty seats at the start of games.
This is more about the nature of the games and lack of excitement, but embedded within it is a statement about “blacks” behavior at games … less crazy cheering than white people. I have no idea what to make of that. This may be mainly an unexamined bias in observation or attribution of a lack of enthusiasm because the team does not generate it to being explained as a “black” trait. One gets the feeling more focus should be placed on the team and its ability to generate enthusiasm.
Not enough of our fans wear hawks jerseys to games. i have just begun to push for ideas like discount food lines for folks wearing jerseys, special entrances, etc. I think we need a committed and perhaps incentivized fan club. We need to realize atl is simply different than every other city. Just adopting nba best practices is not enough. we have to create our own.
If this team, this city, has a local culture, it would be just like a lot of other urban sports venues. Only Wisconsinites wear cheese on their heads. Saint’s fans (NFL) seem to like to watch their team beat up the other team. And so on. It is not unreasonable to address the local culture no matter what it is or how it might arise, though obviously a more careful analysis would be preferred.
I am rambling and could probably go on forever. If you have any specific areas you would like my thoughts on, let me know.
ps – I have cc’d todd and ed so they can chime in with additional or different thoughts.
Sent from my iPad
In the end, Levenson decided that he was too much like Donald Sterling to own the team and gave up ownership. He stated “If you’re angry about what I wrote, you should be. I’m angry at myself too."
That is a lot more than Donald Sterling ever did.
There is an entirely different perspective out there that has to do with Levenson’s motivations vis-a-vis his career and business. I don’t accept that as an alternative to the race-related narrative. Levenson’s memo exists and is a discussion of race in relation to business, regardless of whether he fabricated it from thin air or really thought these thoughts. Nonetheless, the it’s business viewpoint does have a ring of reality to it. So I’ll end by quoting Mo Ivory who is one of the commenters who has suggested this, and who lives in Atlanta (though she is originally from New York and is not a Hawks fan):
So, like all other non-Atlanta natives living in Atlanta long term, when the Hawks play the New York Knicks, this native New Yorker whips out her Carmelo Anthony jersey and heads to Phillips Arena. The reason Bruce Levenson could not make the Hawks profitable is not because black people don’t buy season tickets, or arrive at games late, or spend all their time at the bar, or black fathers don’t bring black sons to the games. It’s because the Hawks suck. They have no marquee players and they don’t win games!
When sports fans tuned into the NBA finals Tuesday night to see the San Antonio Spurs take on the Miami Heat, they got a look into another fierce standoff.
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