Tag Archives: racism

Who Am I?

The current upheaval over the treatment of Black people in America has stimulated some troubling memories and questions for me. I’m sure I’m not alone.

First, some history. It’s usually good to start at the beginning. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. One of the local “jokes” was that Memphis was actually part of Mississippi. This meant that the “culture” of Memphis, particularly race-related, was more like Mississippi than Tennessee. Tennessee had actually been “two states” during the Civil War, with the eastern part, heavily mountainous and not connected to the cotton-focused agrarian economy of the Deep South, aligned with the “north.”

In Memphis, it was often said that “cotton is king.” Indeed, situated on the mighty Mississippi River, Memphis at that time was a major depot for shipping of cotton delivered mainly from points south. One of the highlights of life in those days was the Cotton Carnival, a huge citywide series of fancy-dress balls, a large parade, selection of a King and Queen and various princesses plus other events celebrating the cotton that sustained the local economy. The reality that the cotton-based economy had developed on the backs of Black slaves was not much mentioned or considered. It simply wasn’t “relevant.”

The history of the Cotton Carnival, started in 1931 and now called Carnival Memphis, can be seen at https://carnivalmemphis.org/carnival-history/ including a brief but revealing video montage of the Cotton Carnival parade and this strange photo:

At the time, I did not know the origin of the “cotton is king” mythology but, come to find out, it originated, not surprisingly, with a South Carolina pro-slavery politician (owned 300), James Henry Hammond, who made a speech in 1858, declaring that,

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. … It constitutes the very mudsill of society …. You dare not make war on cotton — no power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is king.

https://bit.ly/3fKWzbG That, of course, turned out to be quite wrong a few years later. If you choose to read Hammond’s story in Wikipedia, brace yourself as he is reported to have been, among other things, a serial rapist, a fact that did not prevent his being elected to the U.S. Senate.

Most of the young boys I grew up with were overt racists. The n-word was used in normal conversation to refer to all Black people. These boys thought all Black people were ignorant, dirty, untrustworthy and dangerous. I seriously doubt, however, that any of them actually knew any Black people, except possibly in their role as maids or people who performed menial tasks for their parents. For reasons I still cannot explain, I was the odd- man-out in this racially problematic environment. This was partly because I did know two Black people, one a Black man who worked in my father’s carpet business and the other was Beanie, my grandmother’s maid/housekeeper/cook/attendant. Both of these people were naturally kind, among the best people I have ever known.

I am still bothered by an incident involving Beanie. When I returned to Memphis from college at Christmas holiday time my freshman year, it was expected that Beanie would prepare all my favorite foods for a true feast at my grandmother’s place. Beanie was an extraordinary cook. When it was time for Beanie finally to go home, I insisted on driving her. She reluctantly agreed but insisted on sitting in the back seat. When I pressed for an explanation, she said it would be trouble for her if she were seen in her neighborhood driving in the front seat with a white man. Such were the wages of our sins.

The hostility of whites to Black people, and Black people’s apparent acceptance of that reality, made no sense to me. As a non-practicing Jewish person, I was acutely aware of the oft-heard theme in my family and elsewhere that Jews were the subject of class discrimination, placing them below other white people but above Black people in the social/economic hierarchy. That discrimination didn’t make sense either and felt like a constant wounding. I could not understand what these considerations (being Black or Jewish) had to do with anything important, with what kind of person you were.

In any case, I think my personal interactions with Black people from a very early age likely shaped my thinking and left me “out” of the typical racial attitudes held by my friends. Whenever the subject came up, which was rare, and I asked, “why do you hate Negroes,” no one could ever answer coherently. They just did. They thought it was obvious why they should fear and hate them. And it was not a question they thought was important. It was just how things were.

One of the consequences of my upbringing in this environment was that I “identified” as “southern.” Questions of “identity” as such did not come up in those days, of course, but it was clear to me that I was “southern.” When fate delivered me to Yale University in 1960 in New Haven, CT, the “southern” contingent found its members quickly and during early and long nights in Vanderbilt Hall on the Old Campus quadrangle, students would sometimes open their windows to shout. It was common for someone to scream “I am not a number” and slam his window. A contest of sorts emerged and we “southern” boys met the “Yankees” singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic with robust renditions of Dixie.

This exchange wasn’t about race; there were few Black students in that class, and I don’t believe anyone thought of it as a racial thing. It was just “who we were.” We missed home and this was a way, I suspect, of proclaiming that. We didn’t much think about the complex and troubled history of the key words:

I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
….
In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’,
….
Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie….

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixie_(song) for more on that. Looking back, however, it is horrifying and shameful that we were so ignorant about this subject. The words of the song are prescient because those who still believe in it are stuck in what they imagine are the “old times” and happily proclaim their willingness to “take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” The question is, stand for what?

Fast forward a full lifetime in which I have been blessed to, among other things, have traveled the world and interacted with people from many cultures, some quite alien to our own. From those experiences I came away with one major impression – ordinary people everywhere want pretty much the same things: an opportunity for personal development and security from want. In short, they desire personal freedom, the chance to grow, to have a family, to get an education. Everywhere I went, it was the same.

Fast forward again. The United States is torn apart by the realization by many, almost certainly the majority, that something is fundamentally wrong with our society. While Donald Trump is not responsible for this condition, he has sponsored, promoted and encouraged division from the very first moment of his presidency. The reality is that he is playing on something that already existed. It took the murder of a Black man by police, one of many such events over many years, to once again shatter the veneer that has enabled American society to overlook this gaping hole in our history and in our national morality.

One of the many consequences is the movement to take down the symbols of our hateful past – the statues, the paintings, the flags and other indications of our troubled history. The central question now, at long last though not for the first time, is “what does it mean to be an American?”

That question is really one of identity. What symbols do you identify with? And why?

While enjoying the light breeze in Central Park Sunday morning, my wife observed that there were many statues in the Park whose provenance she did not know. I thought, that’s pretty normal; many of these things we “see” but do not really think about unless we have a particular reason to observe more closely. These are in a sense failed symbols most of the time. Even tourists often don’t pay attention; these symbols are no different to our conscious minds than the trees and rock formations that cover the Park.

But there are some such symbols that we do notice. In our case a good example was the Confederate soldier statue that, until recently, stood in the middle of the intersection of South Washington Street and Prince Street in Alexandria, VA where we lived for many years.  I suspect that we were conscious of it because of its peculiar location that forced you to veer slightly around it when driving north on Prince. We often wondered aloud why the statue was still there in what had become a politically liberal community.

The many proposals to remove these symbols of the Confederacy have sparked a fierce reaction among many Americans who claim that these monuments are not symbols of racism but are only reflective of their “heritage” and their “history.” These are puzzling claims.

It is 2020. Americans are still arguing that statues of Confederate soldiers who fought against the country in order to preserve the system of slavery – the ownership of one person by another in which the slave was forced to provide free labor to enrich the other – on which the economy of the south had been based are related in some way to their current conception of themselves.

The question that puzzles me about this is: why would anyone in 2020 see his identity as tied to the “heritage” of slavery and treason against the country?  The Confederacy lost the Civil War. Why are so many people attached to the iconography of a defeated political entity? Americans typically do not think of themselves as “losers.” Most astute observers agree that the Vietnam War was lost, but even then, many Americans refused to accept the idea that America “lost” a fight.

Why then do so many Americans reimagine the Civil War as a conflict over “states’ rights” when the main, if not only, “states right” at issue was the power of people to own other people for the purpose of extracting free labor from them? These folks are not going around regularly pondering the complex relationship between the federal and state governments or how that relationship is affected by the structure and language of the Constitution.

There are many options available for building an identity, but these people are passionate, sometimes to the point of violence, that these symbols reflect who they really are.

I strongly suspect that the Confederacy identifiers’ actual knowledge about the conditions that led to the Civil War, and its aftermath is shallow at best and for most it is just a set of simplistic and false ideas about what happened and why. And I am even more convinced that they have blocked out, if they ever knew it, the history of what happened after the war and that continued until at least the mid-1950s, sanctioned by the Supreme Court throughout.

I recall that in my own eighth grade American History class, our teacher informed us that in our reading and discussion of the Civil War there was to be no mention of slavery. That was not, she said, what the war was about and therefore we were to avoid the subject. Instead, we spent our time memorizing the names and dates of major battles.

That was in the 1950’s, of course, more than a half-century ago. While I hope that educators today are more informed than that, the truth is I don’t really know what is taught to children these days. Maybe that is part of the answer to my question.

But I suspect there is something else, something deeper, at work and I think it’s just plain racism. I just saw a video on Twitter of a white woman sitting in the back of a pickup truck covered in Confederate flags. She is holding a large such flag and shouting at someone off-camera: “I will teach my grandkids to hate you all,” as she drapes herself in the flag, raises a fist and says “KKK.”

This is not a unique event. Huge swaths of Americans are in thrall of Donald Trump’s overtly racist policies. Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting Nazi slogans and Trump said there were “fine people [pause] on both sides.” Trump has facilitated the public emergence of an overtly racist class of Americans who are attracted to his idea that America was once “great” and that he will make it “great again.” It is these same people who identify with the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians who tried to destroy the country and waged war that killed 750,000 men in arms and an untold number of “civilians.”

Racism seems to be the only unifying principle behind all this. The virulent response to the removal of statuary that, bizarrely, sits in, among other places, the hallowed halls of Congress cannot be explained by anything else. The “history” and “heritage” represented by the Confederate flag and monuments of traitors who fought against the country so they could retain the slavery system is the concept at the heart of racism historically: that Black people are a subordinate and inferior people whose biological destiny is to be under the heel of the superior white race. There is much scholarship on this history, including recently Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the documented revelations in which will stun you.

If it’s not racism, what could it be? Adherence to a mythology that conflicts with the very “idea of America,” the notion of American “exceptionalism” on which we have for so long rested our moral-superiority hats, must have a powerful source. If you stood up at a meeting and announced only that, “I want to be identified with losers, people who identify with a vile ideology from the distant past,” most people would think you had a screw loose. But if the meeting were in rural West Virginia or South Carolina and you then broke into Dixie, it’s likely most of the people there would immediately understand and rise to join you in the chorus: In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.

Good old times are not forgotten.

 

The Silence of the Wolves – Profiles in Cowardice

As reported in the Washington Post, Republicans in Congress, who swore an oath requiring, among other things, that they execute their constitutional duties as a check and balance against the Executive Branch, have once again shown their lack of integrity, responsibility and courage by refusing to even talk about Trump’s attacks on Omarosa Manigault Newman whom the president of the United States called a “dog,” among other things because she wrote a “tell all” book about her time in the White House.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), second ranked Republican Senator, reportedly said,

“I’ve got more important things on my mind, so I really don’t have a comment on that.”

When asked whether any of Trump’s statements on race made Cornyn uncomfortable, the good senator said,

 “I think the most important thing is to pay attention to what the president does, which I think has been good for the country.”

What those great deeds are is left to our imagination. Cornyn’s deflection of the question translates to “I don’t mind if the president is a racist as long as he does other good things,” presumably referring to the tax cut, one of the few clear legislative acts Trump has led into law. He refused to talk about what his constituents think about Trump’s remarks, calling the question “an endless little wild goose chase and I’m not going there.” Yessir, the question whether the president of the United States and the leader of your party is a racist is of no importance compared to a deficit-exploding tax cut for the rich. Well played.

The Post says it “reached out to all 51 Republican senators and six House Republican leaders asking them to participate in a brief interview about Trump and race. Only three senators agreed to participate: Jeff Flake of Arizona, David Perdue of Georgia and Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate.”

Flake had negative observations about Trump’s long history of racist remarks (“it’s been one thing after another”), but, of course, Flake is “retiring” at the end of his term so it’s pretty easy for him to “stand up” to Trump, particularly when he is not being asked to actually vote on anything.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, another Trump sometime objector (he almost always voted as Trump wanted) who is leaving Congress in January, was also critical of the “divisive” approach on racial issues: “I think that’s their kind of governing. I think that’s how they think they stay in power, is to divide.”

The most remarkable thing about all this is that “Several other lawmakers said they did not like some of Trump’s language, especially on race, but did not consider Trump to be racist.” Hmmh. You can talk like a racist all day but still not be one?

This insight makes one wonder how a Republican identifies a racist. If it’s not their words, what are the hallmarks of a real racist? White robe with eye holes? They burn a cross in your yard? They lynch you?

The Post reports that,

 “Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said Trump’s description of former black adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “dog” was “not appropriate, ever.” But he stopped short of pointing to a time when he felt the president had crossed a racial boundary.”

“I just think that’s the way he reacts and the way he interacts with people who attack him.” ….“I don’t condone it. But I think it’s probably part built into his — it’s just going to be in his DNA.”

So, another insight into Republican “thought processes.” You can have racist attitudes in your DNA but that doesn’t mean you’re a racist. No wonder Republicans are anti-science and think climate change is a hoax.

We have to recognize and call out racism when it is found and regardless of how it is manifested. The Post reported that “In a January Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted immediately after Trump called African nations “s—hole” countries, 52 percent of Americans said Trump is biased against black people. But among Republicans, 16 percent said Trump is biased against blacks while 79 percent said he was not.”  [emphasis added]

To make matters worse, the Post says, “The president’s defenders say that he is not racist nor is he exploiting the country’s existing racial divisions. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lead lawyer for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing Russia probe, noted several prominent African Americans with whom the president gets along.

“If the presidents likes you, he likes you — white, black, whatever,” Giuliani said. “He’s not a fan of Omarosa, but he’s become a fan of Kanye West. He likes Tiger Woods, but he doesn’t like LeBron James.”

So, yet another insight. The president is not a racist because “some of his best friends are black.” Uh huh.

And here’s another insight. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary under George W. Bush, reportedly believes that while Trump is wasting opportunities to woo minority voters, there exists a “line between being a boor and being a racist.”

So, making racist comments is just being boorish. Like spitting out an olive pit at a Republican cocktail party. Totally uncouth. Fleischer went on to blame Democrats for claiming all Republican candidates are racists. They lack credibility on the race issue, he said.

Talk about deflection: “yes, my boss, the president, makes constant racist-like remarks but since you are always upset about racist-like remarks, the fault lies with you and not with him.” Remarkable.

So, I hope this little trip through Republican land has illuminated your thinking about what shows that one is a racist. Republicans seem more than a little confused on the question, but not the rest of humanity. If you’re near any Republicans and you happen to be African-American, Latino, an immigrant, almost anything but a white male, watch your back.

We Will Not See Their Like Again

A phrase borrowed from Shakespeare is appropriate as President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama move toward their last day in the White House and prepare, somehow, to turn the presidency over to Donald Trump. Based on interviews they have given, this must be a bittersweet moment for the Obamas, a mixture of sadness and relief. I have worked in high pressure situations many times in my professional life but never did I have the fate of the nation and even the world potentially turning on decisions I made. No decisions I made came remotely close to directly affecting millions of people. I don’t believe that any of us can imagine the stress on the person who holds the highest political office in the land. The Obamas were fortunate to have the humanist strength and character of the Bidens at their side but at the end of the day it was Barack Obama who made the hard calls and had to live with their consequences. Was he perfect, making all good decisions? No. But no president in history, no matter how venerated today, would have laid claim to such perfection.

I will not recount here the accomplishments or the failures of the Obama administration. Others are doing that. I will simply note that few if any occupants of the White House have lived there with the grace, compassion, energy, breadth of vision, commitment to people of all stripes, humor and drive that the Obamas have shown. They will be missed, oh, will they be missed.

Not by everyone, of course. There are the Republicans who, upon Obama’s election in 2008, made clear their principal, if not only, goal was to prevent him from having a second term. To fulfill that un-American objective, they obstructed almost everything of consequence that the President tried to achieve. They failed to deny him e-election, but were not deterred. The obstruction continued throughout his second term.

There also were the racists for whom Obama’s election and re–election were an abomination. The very idea that an intelligent, educated and accomplished Black man could be President of the United States was almost more than they could bear. Now that the Obamas are leaving, the racists are in full flower again, encouraged and enabled by the rhetoric of the incoming president. We who thought racism was on the way out in America were just dreamers. The exposure of police killings of unarmed Black men and the vicious disgusting racist statements made by members of the anti-Obama crowd, including people closely aligned with and serving as advisors to President-Elect Trump, have shocked all people of good will, including many who disapproved of Obama’s politics but who recognized him as the good man that he is.

While we always like to think that each person is evaluated on his own merits, the reality is that we also judge people based on the groups they choose to belong to. If you choose to hang out with a gang, you will be seen as the gang is seen, whether or not you actually behave the way they do. If your friends and associates are criminals, you likely will be suspect as well.

So it is that Mr. Trump has chosen to align himself with people who are openly racist. A prime case in point is the following undisputed statements by Carl Paladino, former Republican nominee for governor of New York and advisor to Mr. Trump [Caution: this is really offensive]:

“Artvoice: What would you most like to happen in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her.

Artvoice: What would you most like to see go in 2017?

Carl Paladino: Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

[Source: Washington Post at http://wapo.st/2ixpP8p]

Mr. Paladino denies that these and other similar messages he has sent are racist. He claims they are just political discourse and stands by them. See CBS News Report at http://cbsn.ws/2i8ihda. Judge this for yourself.

Despite all of that and more, President Obama has continued to conduct himself as a President should, with calm resolve and thoughtful actions. He has not responded in kind to Trump’s provocations. He and the First Lady have stated repeatedly that they will do everything they can to responsibly assist Trump’s transition even as Trump actively works to undermine the President’s authority by, among other things, interfering (unsuccessfully) in a United Nations vote related to Israel and by proposing to resume the nuclear arms race with Russia, all the while sucking up to Vladimir Putin for being such a “strong leader.”

Whatever one may think of President Obama’s politics, and I have some serious criticisms of my own, I do not believe it can be disputed that he and the First Lady are a model for the way a President and First Lady should conduct themselves. Based on Mr. Trump’s campaign style, which he has carried over into the transition period and thus is likely a forerunner of his style in the White House, we are about to witness a complete reversal in the tenor as well as content of the conduct of our national affairs. The Constitution itself is in jeopardy in the hands of an angry autocrat.

I do not intend by this to denigrate the point of view, or the people who subscribe to it, of responsible conservatives, of which there are many, who have legitimate arguments that should be considered in evaluating public policy. But what I cannot endorse are those conservatives who saw Trump clearly for what he was during the campaigns, but who now have knuckled under and sought to be employed by him.

If you believe in the efficacy of prayer, now would be a good time for it. But, I suggest, with respect to those in prayer, that we need a better plan than praying for good outcomes.  We need a leader to step forward now to establish himself/herself as the leader of the loyal opposition on a national scale — someone to lead the resistance, lead the effort to restore Democratic control of the Congress, and ultimately to occupy the White House if it is still standing in 2020. Meanwhile, we should all be grateful, as I am, for the often monumental and always difficult work, with grace and compassion, that the Obama and Biden families have given to our country.