So we’re not post-racial yet.
Instead, we are preoccupied with race, chafing along the color line, possessed of wildly divergent views of authority, justice and equality. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in the aftermath of widely publicized police shootings and the attacks on Dallas police officers, 60 percent of Americans believe race relations are growing worse.
Some among us lay the blame for that, absurdly, at the feet of President Barack Obama, who was supposed to usher in an era of peace, harmony and racial healing — at least according to some utterly naive predictions made at the time of his first election. Instead, it seems, his presence in the Oval Office precipitated a furious backlash, a tidal wave of resentment from those whites who see his ascendance as a sign of their decline.
But that’s not the president’s fault. He has studiously tried to avoid stirring the cauldron of race, to bridge the color chasm, to unite the warring American tribes. His only crime is in symbolizing the anxieties of those white Americans who see a black man in power as the bete noire of their nightmares.
It makes more sense to blame the presumptive GOP nominee, Donald Trump, for these troubling times. He enters his nominating convention in Cleveland as the same divisive bully he has been throughout the campaign — a man singularly ill-suited to lead a diverse nation.
Trump has not just pandered to the prejudices of his mostly white supporters; he has also encouraged them with his incendiary promises to limit immigration and his vicious insults of the president, starting with his claim that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump works assiduously to keep us divided, a state that sharpens his political advantage.
But the simple truth is that neither Obama nor Trump created this moment. This unruly time has been more than 200 years in the making. We have not yet put away the old ghosts, so they continue to haunt us.
Take the police shootings that have prompted protests around the country during the last several days. There is nothing new about police violence toward black citizens, nothing unusual about bias in the criminal justice system, nothing unexpected about the institutional racism that conspires to imprison black Americans disproportionately.
Just read Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name,” an account of law enforcement practices in the Deep South following the Civil War. White business owners demanded low- to no-cost labor, and they got it by imprisoning black men unfairly and putting them to work.
To justify their rank oppression and their state-sanctioned violence — black people were lynched with impunity for more than a century — powerful whites trafficked in awful stereotypes about black criminality. Those old biases — those hateful stereotypes — didn’t just fade away with the civil rights movement.
As President Obama put it during his moving and elegant speech memorializing the Dallas dead, “We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow — they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation.”
Still, there are many who would dismiss Obama, whose political views demand they grant him no legitimacy. Maybe they’d listen instead to Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who rose to the floor of the Senate on Wednesday to give a deeply personal account of his maltreatment at the hands of police officers.
Scott is a rock-solid conservative who rarely agrees with the president about anything. He is also black, and, as he noted, that’s enough to kindle suspicion from some law enforcement authorities.
“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers, not four, not five, not six, but seven times, in one year, as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reasons just as trivial,” he said.
That’s a powerful testament to the ways in which the old ghosts still haunt us, even in an age of a black president and two black U.S. senators. We are not post-racial yet, and until we can confront and exorcise the demons of our past, we will never be.
By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, July 17, 2016
“Let’s Not Ever Do That Again”: SC Gov. Nikki Haley; The U.S. Has ‘Never’ Passed Laws Based On Race And Religion — Um…
Gov. Nikki Haley’s (R-SC) decision to speak out against Donald Trump and other anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim forces in the Republican Party is certainly laudable — but her awareness of American history needs a little work.
The Hill reports:
She said Wednesday that Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the country is what compelled her to speak out.
“You know, the one thing that got me I think was when he started saying ban all Muslims,” she said.
“We’ve never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion,” she added. “Let’s not start that now.”
Of course, the state of South Carolina is itself a grand exhibit of America’s history of racially-based laws. It was the state where the Civil War began, as the first state to secede in the South’s effort to preserve and expand the institution of slavery, and it was where the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter.
During the Jim Crow era, the state was also home to Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948, a political mobilization for segregation that rallied against the emerging post-World War II civil rights movement.
To be sure, both South Carolina and the United States as a whole have made progress, climbing upward from these tainted beginnings to build a great country. But it sure does sound odd to hear a political leader say that we’ve “never in the history of this country” passed such odious laws — and, “Let’s not start that now.”
A better thing to say would’ve been: “Let’s not ever do that again.” That sort of myth-busting — against the idea of America as not just a great country, but a perfect one — would, in fact, be the right way to avoid doing it again.
By: Eric Kleefeld, The National Memo, January 13, 2015
If Donald Trump can thrive politically by throwing meat to the American id, what else is possible? How about the opposite?
Trump’s most recent attempt to reclaim poll supremacy — his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what’s going on” — is not simply reckless and dangerous, but also starkly clarifying. America’s bully billionaire, so rich he doesn’t have to heed the niceties of political correctness, is channeling old-time American racism, as mean and ugly and self-righteous as it’s ever been. Jim Crow is still with us. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is still with us.
Americans — at least a certain percentage of them — like their racism straight up, untampered with code language, unmodified by counter-values. Come on! An enemy’s an enemy. A scapegoat’s a scapegoat. Don’t we have the freedom in this country to dehumanize and persecute whomever we want?
The unfolding Trump phenomenon is stunning to behold because there’s no telling how far — or where — it will go. Following his latest reckless “proposals,” which include mandatory IDs for Muslims, he’s being compared with Adolf Hitler. He’s also being called the best friend ISIS could have, as he spreads outrage and hatred across the globe and, in the process, helps foment the same war they’re attempting to engage.
Fascinatingly, some of Trump’s biggest critics are neocons and fellow Republicans, who, though not that far away from him politically, feel threatened by his reckless candor. The conservative strategy, at least since the Nixon era, has been to use and manipulate American racism rather than directly rouse it to a fever pitch. That sort of volatility isn’t so easy to control and could be counterproductive to the economic and geopolitical interests of the stewards of American empire.
For all the baseness of Trump’s scapegoat politics, he’s doing, it seems, one thing right, which is what makes him unacceptable as the Republican presidential nominee. He’s speechifying as though values matter, as though they supersede market and strategic interests. The danger Trump represents cuts in multiple directions.
All of which makes me wonder whether American democracy is, in spite of itself, at a transition point. I mean, it’s been decades, from my point of view, since real, society-changing values have been on the line in a presidential election. Questions of war and peace, among much else, have been utterly off the table, with any serious questioning of U.S. militarism ignored and belittled by the mainstream media and completely excluded from the corridors of national decision-making.
The Republicrats rule and war is no longer merely inevitable but eternal. At the same time, the security state has grown like cancer and the prison-industrial complex has expanded exponentially. America in its exceptionalism is the world’s largest arms dealer, snoop, jailer and hell raiser. We destabilize the planet in the interests of the corporate few and call it exporting democracy.
And none of this is Donald Trump’s doing.
But the fact that he’s a threat to this status quo raises some interesting questions. Trump is a dangerous idiot, but perhaps as he pursues his own interests he is also, unintentionally, helping to crack open the locked vault of American politics.
“He’s essentially the American id,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “simply channeling pervasive sentiments unadorned with the typical diplomatic and PR niceties designed to prettify the prevailing mentality.”
The challenge Trump poses, it seems to me, is this: If the basest of human instincts — fear and revenge and the hunger to blame our troubles on a scapegoat — can enter, or re-enter, American politics, can the best of human nature enter as well and, in the process, challenge the prevailing status quo more deeply and profoundly than Trump could ever imagine?
Let me put it another way. “In the practice of tolerance,” said the Dalai Lama, “one’s enemy is the best teacher.”
Such a statement poses a serious challenge, of course, on the order of a quote I heard several years ago from a seatmate on a transatlantic airplane flight: You’re as close to God as you are to the person you like the least.
What if such ideas had political resonance? What if — even in the face of tragedy, even in the face of murder — we lived within a social and political structure that was committed not to dehumanizing and destroying a designated enemy but to understanding that enemy and, my God, looking inward for the cause of problems, not simply flailing outward with high-tech weaponry? What if human compassion, soul deep and without strings attached, played a role in international relations?
Believe me, I’m not asking these questions simplistically, with some pat belief that the answers are obvious. Rather, I’m pressing forward into a dark unknown, or so it seems.
“It is terrifying that on the one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said earlier this year, in the context of a global refugee crisis staggering beyond belief.
To grow spiritually is to begin to realize how little one knows and practice reaching out not with aggression but with humility. This is what takes courage. Can we begin creating nations with this kind of courage, whose “interests” embrace the welfare of the whole planet?
By: Robert Koehler, an Award-Winning, Chicago-based Journalist and nationally syndicated writer; The National Memo, December 13, 2015
“Official Reports Usually Side With Police Officers”: Sorry, But It’s Going To Take A Hell Of A Lot More Than An “Official Report”
One day in April of 1880, a cadet named Johnson Whittaker was found unconscious in his room at West Point.
Whittaker, who was African American, had been gagged and beaten, tied to his bed and slashed on the face and hands. He said three white cadets had assaulted him. West Point investigated. Its official conclusion was that Whittaker did these things to himself.
He didn’t, should that need saying, but I offer the story by way of framing a reply to some readers. They wanted my response to news that outside investigators have concluded a Cleveland police officer acted responsibly last year when he shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid who had been playing with a toy gun. Specifically, the local DA released two separate reports Saturday from two experts on police use of force. Both said Officer Timothy Loehmann’s decision to open fire on the boy was reasonable.
As one reader put it: “What say you???”
I say a few things, actually. In the first place, I say this is not an exoneration. That question is still up to the grand jury, though it’s fair to suspect these reports might be a means of preparing the ground for a similar finding from that panel.
In the second place, I say these reports sought to answer a relatively narrow question: Was Loehmann justified in shooting once the police car had skidded to a stop within a few feet of the boy? They left aside the larger question of the tactical wisdom of pulling up so close to someone you believed to be armed and dangerous in the first place.
And in the third place, I say this:
Forgive me if I am not impressed by an official report. The experience of being African American has taught me to be skeptical of official reports. As an official matter, after all, Johnson Whittaker beat, bound, gagged and slashed himself. As an official matter, no one knows who lynched thousands of black men and women in the Jim Crow era, even though the perpetrators took pictures with their handiwork. As an official matter, the officers who nearly killed Rodney King while he crawled on the ground committed no crime. As an official matter, George Zimmerman is innocent of murder. For that matter, O.J. Simpson is, too.
I am all too aware of the moral and cognitive trapdoor you dance upon when you give yourself permission to pick and choose which “official” findings to believe. And yes, you’re right: I’d be much less skeptical of officialdom had these reports condemned Officer Loehmann.
What can I say? A lifetime of color-coded, thumb-on-the-scale American “justice” has left me little option but to sift and fend for myself where “official” findings are concerned. Indeed, the only reason I was willing to give credence to a report exonerating Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown is that it came from Eric Holder’s Justice Department, i.e., a Justice Department that gave at least the impression of caring about the civil rights of black people.
Sadly, most prosecutors don’t give that impression. And that failure colors these findings irrevocably.
Last November, two police officers responded to a call of someone brandishing a gun in a park. Rather than position themselves at a safe distance and try to establish contact, as would have seemed prudent, they screeched onto the scene like Batman and came out shooting. Tamir Rice, a boy who had been playing with a toy firearm, lay dying for four long minutes without either officer offering first aid. When his 14-year-old sister ran up and tried to help her little brother, they shoved her down and handcuffed her.
And I’m supposed to believe they acted reasonably because an official report says they did?
Sorry, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than that.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, October 14, 2015
“Our Collective American Blind Spot”: To Teach Only ‘American Exceptionalism’ Is To Ignore Half The Country’s Story
In late July, the College Board, the administrators of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, issued new guidelines for teaching AP United States history. One change was to add a section on “American exceptionalism,” a concept as old as the country itself that the United States is qualitatively different – and, arguably, better – than other nations.
While “exceptionalism,” at its best, nurtures civic pride, at its worst, it blinds Americans to the country’s long history of remarkably unexceptional ideas and actions. What George Santayana so neatly encapsulated over a century ago remains painfully true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a historian and tour guide, I often see this collective American blind spot on display as I lead walks of historic New York City. On Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, a quaint carving of a witch on a broomstick is a jumping off point for discussing the deep anti-Irish sentiment in the city following the influx of immigrants after the 1845 potato famine. Political cartoonists like Thomas Nast depicted the Irish as apes and Catholic bishops as monsters; “No Irish Need Apply” signs appeared in shop windows.
As I tell these stories, I can see the anger grow in some of my listeners. One woman flat-out told me to stop talking. “You can’t say that,” she admonished. “It’s not true.” I clarified that these were not my opinions, but those of many Protestant New Yorkers a century and a half ago. “No,” she repeated. She did not want to know about an America where such things were possible – which, of course, meant she didn’t want to confront the idea that she might still live in such a place.
Similarly, in Chinatown one day, my explanation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively banned Chinese immigration for six decades, led one visitor to launch into a tirade about America’s porous borders. I shook my head – not at his critique, which had some valid points – but at his inability to connect the country’s history with his own past. You see, he was Chinese American. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been an affront to his heritage; current immigrants were an affront to his political and economic ideals. He saw no link between the two.
In revising their standards, the College Board is hoping to bridge this gap between the nation’s history and students’ contemporary experiences by providing “sufficient time to immerse students in the major ideas, events, people and documents of US history,” where before “they were instead required to race through topics.” The revisions were also a reaction to conservative input on the AP curricula revision process – beginning in 2012, there had been a groundswell of conservative criticism against the proposed standards, which the Republican National Committee argued “emphasize[d] negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” The College Board sought input from teachers, historians and parents to shape teaching guidelines that present a “clearer and more balanced approach to the teaching of American history.”
Unfortunately, the new standards have also softened the language about the country’s most shameful episode: its 244-year history of slavery. As recent “heritage not hate” rallies centered on the Confederate battle flag illustrate, there is perhaps no greater myth in America today than the idea that the Civil War was predominantly about states’ rights. Well, it was about one right: the right to own Africans as chattel.
In Texas, new textbooks minimize the role of slavery in the Civil War, despite the fact that the state’s own “Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union” explicitly stated that the Confederacy was “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity” and that “the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free….” Gone from the state’s new books are mentions of Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the “you can’t say that” woman in Central Park writ large. This is especially troubling since Texas’s large population means that its curricular standards influence textbook buying in other states.
America is, in fact, an exceptional place. Founded by groups as diverse as indigenous Native Americans, Dutch merchants, English separatists, Spanish missionaries, French frontiersman and Africans – both free and enslaved – the country’s diversity stretches back four centuries. Each of these groups, and the many immigrants who followed them, brought strengths, and weaknesses, with them. We are right to celebrate the strengths, but if we don’t shine a light on the weaknesses, we are ignoring at least half the story.
By: James Nevius, The Guardian, August 3, 2015