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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Reservations about *this* black president

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th September 2012

There’s no question that Barack Obama has faced unremitting racism of all kinds – crude and subtle, conscious and unconscious — ever since bursting on to the national stage , or that his opponents have fairly openly displayed and cultivated that racism since he was elected President.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s smugly entitled comment  that no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate, Hollywood star Clint Eastwood’s excruciating live television “argument,” at the Republican convention, with an invisible, uppity, unrecognizably foul-mouthed Obama — these are but the latest examples of persistent, high-visibility appeals to racism in a United States that is still decidedly non-“post-racial.”

In his recent, celebrated Atlantic Monthly essay “Fear of a Black President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the evident handicap racism — or in the curious political science circumlocution, “racialization” — has been for the Obama presidency.  It isn’t surprising, of course, that it plays a strong role in any discourse about race.  Obama’s forays in this regard have been exceptionally rare — Coates cites a study* demonstrating that Obama has mentioned race less than any other president since 1961.   And when he does, it often doesn’t seem to help him or anyone else much.  Obama’s attempts at addressing the Henry Louis Gates** and Trayvon Martin stories were met by reflexive, polarizing racist/racialized responses his by political opponents.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe that even policy proposals by our first black president labor under an (undeserved, of course) racial handicap; Coates cites a persuasive study indicating that when random respondents are presented with the same policies attributed to either Obama or Bill Clinton, Obama-as-author fares significantly worse.

So yes: Obama faces a handicap in today’s decidedly non-“postracial” American politics that a white president would not. And yes: that reflects on the country, not on him.

But yes, also: he signed up for the job and wants another four years. We’re entitled to say “Read your oath of office and do what it says — preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution — regardless.”

I think it’s gone relatively unnoticed that Coates nearly says just that as well:

“…The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.

But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country. No one knows this better than Obama himself, who once described patriotism as more than pageantry and the scarfing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism,” Obama said in Independence, Missouri, in June 2008. Love of country, like all other forms of love, requires that you tell those you care about not simply what they want to hear but what they need to hear. …”

“But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country.”   However swaddled in nine thousand words of protective bubble-wrap, that sentence is the core of Coates’ essay.  On issues that challenge our ideals, the rule of law, or our cherished illusions of American history, Coates charges that Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear.

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The Great Betrayal, judicial activism, and a living Constitution

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd October 2010

September 17 was Constitution Day, always a good opportunity to reflect on that document and what it means to us.  Unfortunately, I missed that opportunity.  But of course every day is Constitution Day!  So I’ll go ahead and write down a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about lately on that subject and its intersection with another that has been occupying me lately: post Civil War American history.

In a note he published on Facebook, Patrick Bruckart wrote,

…the Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the federal government’s authority and provide citizens a means of redressing grievances against it. The BOR did not originally apply to the states. The Fourth Amendment, for example, was later applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment and subsequent court decisions. The next time we are inclined to complain about “judicial activism,” we should ask ourselves whether it would be acceptable for state or local law enforcement officials to search our homes (or property) without having first obtained a warrant based on probable cause. And that’s just one example.
(links added)

Even in colonial times, some states provided their own constitutional guarantees — that is, they acknowledged their own limitations — regulating searches and seizures.  But it was optional — especially with respect to the lower and disenfranchised members of society.


The Fourteenth Amendment
1. All persons born or naturalized
in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens
of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall
make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities
of citizens of the United States; nor
shall any State deprive any person
of life, liberty, or property, without
due process of law; nor deny to any
person within its jurisdiction the
equal protection of the laws. […]
5. The Congress shall have power
to enforce, by appropriate
legislation, the provisions of this
article.

But the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that.  In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment — in both intent and language — clarified that rights guaranteed under the Constitution were a floor under state law, not merely interesting limitations on a far off federal government.  And both these rights and the promise of equal treatment under the law were guaranteed to everyone born in, naturalized to, or simply under the jurisdiction of the United States of America.

And Congress could see to it.  According to Akhil Reed Amar’s indispensable “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” the final enabling clause — “Congress shall have power to make all appropriate laws” furthering this aim — was selected to echo specific Supreme Court rulings deferring to “appropriate” Congressional legislation. Amar:

And — here is the key point –the American people ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, with evident understanding of its, and also the Thirteenth’s, language authorizing “appropriate” federal legislation.  Knowing full well that Congress believed that this language authorized transformative new federal statutes to uproot all vestiges of unfreedom and inequality — and having seen with their own eyes that Congress had already acted on a similar belief in connection with the Thirteenth Amendment — Americans said yes.  We do.

Or so they believed.

“A vain and idle enactment”
To return to Bruckart’s remarks, I think one point to remember about judicial activism is that sometimes it’s needed simply to undo prior such activism.

The main example, to me, is in how the Fourteenth Amendment was bled nearly dry shortly after its ratification by one regrettable Supreme Court ruling — In re Slaughter-House Cases (1873; text)  — and one manifestly unjust one, United States v. Cruikshank (1875; text), a ruling rivaled in infamy by Dred Scott, Korematsu and few others.

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Lost no more: the story of the first Memorial Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd June 2010

One might say that one of the most remarkable events of the Civil War happened a few weeks after it ended — and in Charleston, South Carolina.  This Memorial Day, that event — the first utterly original, deeply moving Memorial Day — was remembered, and I had the good luck and rare privilege to attend that commemoration.


Union prisoners burying ground
Charleston, S.C., 1865. (George Barnard)
Library of Congress

The story, briefly, is that a Union prisoner of war camp was established in 1864 on the “Washington Racecourse,” the horse race track of the city’s high society, to house prisoners moved there from the notorious Andersonville camp. Some 260 Union soldiers died there of exposure and disease in the following months, and were buried in a mass grave.

When Charleston fell, rejoicing black Charlestonians not only staged a parade with a coffin named “Slavery” with the slogan “Fort Sumter Dug Its Grave”, but also organized to properly rebury and honor those Union prisoners. Yale University history professor David Blight, who rediscovered the story some ten years ago, described it this way (in a piece for the Newark Ledger):

Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy’s horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

It was the first Memorial Day, and — as Professor Blight put it in remarks on Monday — it amounted to a declaration by black Americans that the Civil War had been about slavery, and that the defeat of the Confederacy amounted to a second American Revolution and a birth of freedom for millions of former slaves.

And then the event was forgotten, at least by white Charleston.  The soldiers were reburied elsewhere, the grounds of the former race course converted to what is now Hampton Park.  Again, Blight:

[A] measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: “I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this.” In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance. Read the rest of this entry »

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How the Lost Cause was won

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th May 2010

Race and Reunion, David Blight, 2001
Harvard University Press
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With the end of April came also the end, for this year at least, of “Confederate History Month,” unfortunately resuscitated by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell after a long dormancy under the previous two governors.  Amidst an outcry that apparently surprised the Regent University law graduate, McDonnell hastily reworded his proclamation with a grudging nod to the impropriety of slavery and the possible existence of other points of view on the matter of a rebellion leading to the country’s bloodiest war.

One might reasonably ask why there are no  “Union History Month” or “Victory over Treason and Slavery” celebrations — and that, more or less, is what David Blight did in his book “Race and Reunion,” published in 2001.  Covering the period from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg — and the release of the notorious film “Birth of a Nation” — it’s a fascinating read.  It’s also  — still, going on ten years later — a useful, jolting reminder of just what was lost as remembering the Civil War became more about rehashing every last engagement, and about getting over it, past it, and around it, than about reflecting why it happened — let alone reflecting on the unfinished business of the human and civil rights of black Americans.


Click above to order this
book or others by Blight.

Reconciliation — on southern terms
Blight’s research led him to soldiers’ remembrances in periodicals of the time such as Century and Harper’s; to the annals and publications of the Southern Historical Society and the Confederate Veteran, and to the schedules and membership rolls of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  But he also paid attention to the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois, the short stories of Ambrose Bierce, and the novels of the unjustly forgotten Albert Tourgee (“only fools forget the causes of war”) or Nelson De Forest — as well as the celebration of Klan terror by authors like Thomas Dixon, Jr, or the perhaps more insidious romanticization of the antebellum South by authors like Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris (“Uncle Remus”).

The book tells stories you’ve still almost certainly never heard before: the first Memorial  Day (that is, “Decoration” Day) — held by black Charlestonians to honor and restore the graveyard of Union prisoners of war on the site of the city’s “Race Course,” now Hampton Park; the unveiling of Richmond memorials to Robert E. Lee in 1896, and to Stonewall Jackson in 1875; the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, when Booker T. Washington gave his “Atlanta Compromise” speech — widely acclaimed at the time, but half wishful thinking, half sadly understandable surrender; the fiftieth anniversary of Gettysburg, but with blacks in attendance only as blanket distributors and latrine cleaners.*  The Washington Post — apparently already a runaway gusher of idiotic political commentary —  marked that occasion by noting that slavery and secession were “no longer discussed argumentatively,” but were “disposed of for all time“; moreover, slavery was something for which “no particular part of the people was responsible unless, indeed, the burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction” (emphasis added by Blight.)

What had happened by 1913 was a “Lost Cause” regional movement as potent, committed, and persistent as the abolition movement had been.  What’s more, it arguably had a greater reach (at least within the U.S.), in that ex-Confederates could and did safely peddle their redefinition — for that’s what it was — of the causes and legacy of the Civil War throughout the country, for good money and to plentiful applause.

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A teachable moment in which little was learned

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st August 2009

The “beer summit” is history; were Obama’s hopes of the Gates-Crowley incident becoming a “teachable moment” realized?  I think it’s unlikely — and whatever small amount of worthwhile learning occurred was despite Obama’s intercession and retreat, not because of it.

The incident
In my view, Obama was right the first time in saying that Cambridge PD officer Mark Crowley “acted stupidly” in arresting Henry Gates.  Of course it was also right and reasonable for a passerby seeing an apparent break-in to report that, and it was reasonable for the Cambridge PD to investigate that report — and it was unreasonable of the Harvard professor to object to that, if that’s what Gates was objecting to.  Despite all that, however, Crowley’s own incident report shows he believed early on that Gates was lawfully in the residence:

While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification  […] Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard University identification card.

Once Gates presented ID sufficient to establish he was a rightful occupant of the house, that should have been the end of the story; instead, when Gates followed Crowley out onto the porch — likely still yelling, though accounts differ — he was arrested with the arch comment,Thank you for accommodating my earlier request.”

Yet it was Gates’s home and his porch; while there — actually, while anywhere, but certainly on his own property — he could be rude to and shout at whomever he likes,  including police officers, by the ancient principle of “my home is my castle,” by the First and Fourth Amendments, and even by specific Massachusetts case law.**  In one of her typically excellent analyses, digby of “Hullabaloo” sums up (emphasis added):

“Henry Louis Gates may have acted like a jackass in his house that day. But Sergeant Crowley arresting him for being “tumultuous” was an abuse of his discretion, a fact which is backed up by the fact that the District Attorney used his discretion to decline to prosecute. Racially motivated or not he behaved “stupidly” and the president was right to say so. “

Race as red herring, citizen as peon
It’s possible that Crowley was more likely to arrest an ‘uppity’ black man than an ‘uppity’ white one under the same circumstances; we’ll never know.  But I think it would have been a much more interesting discussion to take Crowley’s own documented (some would say alleged) anti-profiling expertise and/or the testimonials of his black colleagues at face value — because that would have led directly to the question why Crowley felt entitled to arrest anyone under the circumstances he described.  Unfortunately, that discussion was short-circuited first by Gates and then by Obama, both describing the case as an incident of “racial profiling” when it never really fit that label per se.

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Greensboro, NC: a racial divide on Wal-Mart?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st August 2005

Writing for Facing South and Yes! Weekly, Jordan Green argues there’s a racial divide in perceptions about Wal-Mart plans to revitalize an abandoned Greensboro shopping center:

Equitable economic development is now the call in Greensboro, with black elected officials pushing for retail investment to bring jobs and consumer choice to those who live east of US Highway 29, thus freeing residents from driving across town to shop at the Friendly Shopping Center and other retail centers located in majority white residential areas.

Little surprise, then, that the public discourse around local developer Donald Linder’s efforts to bring a Wal-Mart Supercenter to the old Carolina Circle Mall in northeast Greensboro has at times taken on racial overtones.

The actual debate, however, seems to have been about whether the city of Greensboro should cough up $300,000 in “incentives” to help acquire the necessary easements for the development. After first agreeing to that in a closed session, controversy about Wal-Mart and the need for such an incentive caused the city council to reverse course — and the developer later found the money elsewhere. But not before one black official — whose constituents currently face long drives to shopping malls across town — threatened a boycott of those crosstown shopping centers:

If it means you have to stop driving to west Greensboro to shop, to get some economic development, you need to just stop driving there,” [Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small] said, to the applause of several northeast Greensboro residents who came before City Council to express their support for the project.

Despite its length (and title — “From Woolworth’s to Wal-Mart: Economics and the Race Divide in a Southern City”), evidence for a racial divide on Wal-Mart ends about there in Green’s article, which becomes a (very well researched) essay on the potential pros and cons of Wal-Mart development. It’s hard to tell as a reader — and may have been for Green as well — but beyond the councilwoman’s outburst, there doesn’t seem to be the kind of fervent pro Wal-Mart consensus that could fuel a latter-day Woolworth’s sit-in movement in black Greensboro.

But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen. Wal-Mart has been able to exploit the need for visible development in faltering local economies around the country. What’s more, it may be that in a case like this one in Greensboro, a Wal-Mart is in fact better than the blighted ghost mall it will apparently replace.

To my mind, the goal isn’t to oppose Wal-Marts per se, but to achieve higher wages, workplace standards, and labor rights within Wal-Marts — and to not take it on faith that big-box stores are always the very definition of economic success. That debate is taking place in Greensboro, too:

Toni Graves Henderson, who is also running for the District 2 seat, is also cheering Wal-Mart’s entry into the city’s northeast quadrant.

“We do need more jobs,” she said, “because I hear people say: ‘I need a job; I’ve been looking for months and months and I can’t find one.’ If someone wants to come to Greensboro and offer jobs, I can’t be against it.”

Only one District 2 candidate, Ed Whitfield, sounded a cautionary note about the arrival of the big-box store.

“The question of wages, health care, working hours and conditions, a number of issues that employees within Wal-Mart have been raising and sometimes getting fired for — these should be the guiding principles of any economic development initiative,” he said. “I know some people that work for Wal-Mart, and they needed the job, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to fight to improve their conditions there.”

To do that, the Ed Whitfields of this debate need help getting those questions posed and answered. And the Toni Hendersons must have their needs for jobs and solid economic development taken seriously.

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Natalie Davis on DWB and affirmative action

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th August 2003

If you care about either issue — and in America, you should — you should read how Natalie Davis connects her opinions about being pulled over for DWB (driving while brown) …

I swallowed my sudden feelings of anger and humiliation and handed him the crumpled item, which he examined. At that point, I couldn’t bear anymore, and tears began to roll down my face.

The cop opened the foil, saw the remains of a partially eaten hamburger, grimaced, and then turned his attention to the quiet, weeping woman before him.

“All right, ma’am, you can go,” he said. “I won’t write you up, but you should get that light fixed right away.”

Tell me that demeaning encounter wasn’t about or didn’t involve DWB — the dreaded “driving while brown.”

…and affirmative action (aka “AA”):

This member of the one race — the human race — does not want to be judged by melanin for any reason: not for “racial” profiling, not for college scholarships, not for preferential or derogatory treatment of any kind. And that is why I can not support affirmative action: If pigmentationism is immoral in cases of “racial” profiling, then it is always immoral, in my estimation.

Responding to a comment, Davis goes on to write:

…I believe focusing on economic disadvantage is the only decent way to achieve all of those things. Few favors are done for those who don’t have the ability to achieve and learn in college. No favors are done for melanin-enriched people who earn their accomplishments but are saddled with the hideous AA specter. No favors are done for the majority-group people who pay unjustly for previous generations’ sins.

Ms. Davis’ post generated a good discussion, including Tony “Ampersand” Deutsch’s comment:

I certainly favor economic AA, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for racial AA. There are at least three problems that economic AA cannot address (limiting myself to black/white examples to keep the discussion simpler):

1) Racist favoritism of poor whites over poor blacks.
2) Racial discrimination against middle-class blacks.
3) The effects of the enourmous disparity in wealth between whites and blacks at every income level (every economic AA program I’ve ever seen proposed is based on income and ignores wealth).

In the end, racial AA doesn’t ask us to make a choice between pigmentationism and non-pigmentationism. It asks us to make a choice between unmitigated pro-white racism (no AA) or partly mitigated pro-white racism (some AA). The choice we’d all prefer – no discrimination at all – just isn’t on the menu. So, for me, saying “we shouldn’t favor racial AA because we favor no discrimination” doesn’t hold water, because it suggests that “no discrimination” is an option when it isn’t.

I suppose none of this is news, but the arguments are well laid out by Davis, Deutsch and others, so go have a look. I think Deutsch’s objections to “economic affirmative action” are less telling than he does; race-based favoritism and discrimination could and should be fought as such, as matters of criminal prosecution and administrative decisions, rather than compensated for with race-based preferences. So I prefer the “economic assistance” model Ms. Davis does — although I also intuitively like schemes like scholarships for the top percentiles from each high school — schemes which are attractively agnostic about what accounts for disparities between high schools.

But these may be easier issues for me to theorize about than they are for Ms. Davis. So I respect her all the more for taking the position she does — and I won’t do her the disservice of considering the case closed just because she happens to agree with me. I’m just not sure enough of my position for that.

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EDIT, 8/29: last paragraph rewritten, see comments.

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