Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic

…the tendencies operating in 1948 electoral decisions not only were built up in the New Deal and Fair Deal era but also dated back to parental and grandparental loyalties, to religious and ethnic cleavages of a past era, and to moribund sectional and community conflicts. Thus in a very real sense any particular election is a composite of various elections and various political and social events. People vote for a President on a given November day, but their choice is made not simply on the basis of what happened in the preceding months or even four years; in 1948 some people were in effect voting on the internationalism issue of 1940, others on the depression issues of 1932 and some, indeed, on the slavery issues of 1860.Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Voting (pp. 315-6)
I told ya’ll I didn’t vote, right? But if I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted [for] Trump. Kanye West

Donald Trump talked about his daughter in sexually explicit terms on a nationally syndicated radio program. In a leaked recording, taken shortly into his third marriage, Trump bragged that he could accost women without consequence as a result of his social status—and in fact, several women came forward over the course of his campaign detailing how he allegedly violated them. If an African American aspired towards the presidency with this kind of sexual baggage, his candidacy would have been dead on arrival.

Similarly, a black candidate whose business dealings were defined by accusations of nepotism, shipping jobs overseas, exploiting undocumented workers, stiffing U.S. contractors and exploiting bankruptcy and tax laws to evade financial and civic obligations would not be viewed as the kind of leader America needs. Indeed, an African American who seemed to lack basic knowledge about the major issues facing the country and possessed no experience in government would not even be on the radar as a serious candidate. He would never win his party’s nomination, let alone the general election.

Ta-Neihsi Coates makes this case in his latest Atlantic cover story, “The First White President,” to demonstrate that race matters a lot more in American politics than most pundits and politicians seem willing to acknowledge.

He goes on to highlight how Americans across the socio-economic spectrum often point to the plight of the “white working class” –a plight that white elites are themselves are often responsible for creating—in justifying policies that disproportionately harm blacks and other minority groups. Meanwhile, social problems like drug addiction, which have long plagued minority communities, only seem to grow worthy of an urgent and compassionate response when “working class” whites become affected.

Ta-Neihsi’s exploration of these topics is powerful, as is his condemnation of the President’s inadequate response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. However, a severe paradox emerges with regards to his central thesis:

Coates complains that it is reductive and misleading to “blame” Clinton’s loss on the “white working class” (as many have done) given that Trump decisively won among all whites–across the income and education spectrum, across gender and geographic lines, etc. True enough. But then Coates puts forward an alternative frame which turns out to be no less problematic than the one he is critiquing:  Trump was elected primarily because of racial resentment, and he maintains his hold on power by playing to Americans’ latent sympathies with white supremacists.

As an African American and a Muslim, like Coates I often find myself disturbed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies. However, as a social researcher I have also been consistently troubled by the near-total lack of engagement among pundits and scholars with the pretty robust data confounding the ‘white supremacy’ theory of Trump’s success. For instance: Continue reading “Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic”

Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections

Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent 2017 commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust chose to focus on the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech, arguing that it “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free speech protections.

Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.

Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color. Continue reading “Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections”

Hillary Clinton Is No Friend of Black Empowerment

As an African American, I have struggled to understand why so many of my black brothers and sisters seem to prefer Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.

Some have argued that black people are terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency, and so they rally around Clinton under the belief that she is more electable in the November general contest. However, looking at the election results so far it seems clear that Bernie Sanders actually stands the best chance of prevailing over Trump, while Hillary would likely lose.

Then there’s the notion that Hillary Clinton is somehow preserving Barack Obama’s legacy: just a few short months ago she was going out of her way to distance herself from the Obama Administration because she believed it was politically expedient to do so. Now, under threat from Sanders’ insurgency, she is cynically trying to sell herself as Obama’s right-hand. But of course, the moment she locks down the nomination she’ll go back to drawing contrast–the Clintons have always been leaders at “vote capturing.”

But perhaps the most disturbing of all is the insinuation that Hillary Clinton has some kind of proud and storied legacy in the service of black empowerment. She doesn’t. Consider the comparative records of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:

The Chicago Years

While attending the University of Chicago, Sanders served as a chapter chairman for the Congress for Racial Equality. In this capacity, he worked to end segregation in schools and housing—activities for which he was arrested.

What was Hillary Clinton doing while Sanders was organizing sit-ins and demonstrations? Well, she was also living in Chicago at the time, but she was working for the other team: in 1963-4, Clinton was a volunteer and supporter for the campaign of Barry Goldwater.

For those who don’t know, Goldwater’s claim to fame is that he was the first Republican to win the Deep South since Reconstruction. He achieved this feat by vowing to undermine enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, and to prevent further erosion of white privilege. His campaign was so disgusting that many Republican leaders, such as George Romney and John Rockefeller, refused to endorse his candidacy even after he won his party’s nomination. A good deal of the Republican electorate, who had traditionally championed civil rights and civil liberties, also refused to support him. As a result, those aforementioned Deep South states were literally the only contests he won other than his home state of Arizona in one of the most dramatic landslide losses in U.S. presidential history. Yet, this is the man who inspired Hillary Clinton to get into politics. And she was campaigning for him while Bernie was campaigning for desegregation.

The trend continues: in 1984 and 88, Bernie Sanders endorsed and supported Jessie Jackson’s bids for the White House, which would have made him America’s first African-American president. Rather than endorsing this movement, Bill Clinton infamously sought to elevate himself among white Southern and Rust-Belt voters at the expense of Mr. Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition.

Of course, it’d be easy to write this off–after all, it was a long time ago. However, the Clintons’ tenure in the White House doesn’t look so great in hindsight either:

The Clinton Administration(s)

Bill Clinton’s deregulation of banks and Wall Street helped bring about the 2008 financial collapse that profoundly and disproportionately obliterated black wealth. In the wake of this disaster, and despite their long and sordid history of discrimination and predatory practices against people of color, Hillary Clinton continues to defend the institutions responsible (and is richly rewarded for doing so).

Bill Clinton’s welfare reform further contributed to extreme poverty—particularly for African Americans and other communities of color.  While Bernie strongly resisted these measures, Hillary staunchly advocated for them—referring to people on welfare as “deadbeats” who were largely responsible for their own continued poverty.

And then, of course, there are the Clinton-era “tough on crime” measures, which Hillary Clinton actively lobbied for. While Sanders ultimately voted for the bill for the sake of its assault rifle ban and domestic violence protections, he first took to the senate floor to passionately denounce the draconian sentencing provisions contained therein, which he aptly predicted would be exercised primarily against America’s poor, largely people of color. In contrast, Hillary Clinton referred to the criminalized as animals, describing them as “super-predators” which have to be “brought to heel.”

More Americans were incarcerated under Bill Clinton than any previous president–almost all poor people, overwhelmingly black and brown. Yet as late as 2008, despite the by-then obvious effects of these policies on communities of color, Clinton stood by this record proudly and actually mocked Barack Obama’s opposition to mandatory minimum sentences.

Later in that same cycle, it would be Clinton supporters who first began circulating rumors that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and might be a secret Muslim (launching the “birther” movement). Not only did Clinton fail to denounce these claims from her supporters (then later hypocritically bash Donald Trump for doing the same), her campaign actively attempted to capitalize on this paranoia, dog-whistling that Hillary was “born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century” and bragging about the edge she held over Obama among non-college attending white Americans.

Little Has Changed

Then again, 2008 was almost 8 years ago, right? What about today?

Consider that one of the people currently attempting to slime Bernie Sanders on Clinton’s behalf is her long-time friend and ally, David Brock, who infamously led the hatchet-job against Law Professor Anita Hill when she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. For Hillary Clinton to sell herself as a champion of women and African Americans while closely associating herself with someone like Brock is deeply unsettling…much like Clinton taking foreign policy and national security guidance from the same consulting firm that formulates strategy for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

In a recent debate, Clinton reiterated confederate narratives about the origins of America’s racial dynamics. In the aftermath of Dylan Roof’s massacre at Emannuel AME in Charleston, she went to a predominantly-black church in Ferguson, Missouri—the site of the first Black Lives Matter uprisings following the death of Michael Brown—and went out of her way to emphasize that “All Lives Matter.”

One could go on and on. These are not instances of occasional misspeaking or malformed policies—instead, a consistent pattern of words and actions persisting over decades. This is not to suggest Hillary Clinton is racist, at least not any more than most white people, but the idea that she is or ever has been a stalwart advocate for black empowerment is absolutely ludicrous.

A Generational Divide?

Although black people do vote with more cohesiveness than most other groups, we are not a monolith. And the narrative that people of color unanimously back Clinton over Sanders is misleading, at best:

While much of the “old guard” of African American politicians has rallied around Hillary Clinton, newer leaders–like Rep. Keith Ellison and contemporary black revolutionaries like Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates–have aligned themselves with Bernie Sanders in the conviction that his policies, and his approach, stand the best chance of meaningfully redressing social inequality. Still others, such as Black Lives Matter Chicago co-founder Aislinn Pulley, are demanding substantive action over platitudes or token reforms, and are increasingly refusing to be part of the DNC farce at all.

This bodes ill for Clinton: The longer this race goes on, and the more black voters examine the comparative records, platforms and prospects of Clinton v. Sanders, the more likely it is that the former’s cynical identity politics campaign will once-again implode, as it did in 2008.

Hillary’s record on civil rights is indeed extensive, albeit inconsistent and often ignoble. By contrast, Bernie has a long, proud, consistent record on fighting inequality—often far ahead of the Democratic Party in this regard–and always far, far ahead of Hillary Clinton.

Published 4/3/2016 on Salon

Why There Aren’t More Black Republicans

It is often remarked that the Republican Party was founded by Lincoln, who oversaw the defeat of the Confederacy, the emancipation of slaves, and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. But the Republican history of civil rights is much richer than this. Conversely, the history of the Democratic Party has been overwhelmingly pro-slavery and pro-segregation.

Lincoln’s successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and strongly resisted the passage of the 14th Amendment (which ensured equal rights and protections under the law, championed by Republicans). The subsequent Republican Administration of Ulysses S. Grant saw the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 71 which helped dismantle the KKK and protect black voting rights. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

In contrast, the next Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, won re-election in 1892 by campaigning against the Republican-sponsored Federal Elections Bill of 1890, which would have strengthened Grant’s civil rights legislation. Not only did Cleveland successfully kill that bill, he helped launch a movement to repeal and undermine civil rights legislation across the country.

His eventual successor, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, declared that “segregation was not a humiliation, but a benefit.” Commensurate with this thinking, when the Racial Equality Proposal was overwhelmingly approved by the League of Nations in 1919, Wilson single-handedly killed the legislation in order to protect America’s own apartheid system (and Britain’s). This was one of the pivotal acts which helped push the Japanese out of the post-WWI international community, precipitating the Second World War.

While FDR’s “New Deal Coalition” advocated a number of policies which were positive for African Americans, particularly through the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee, his administration’s record on racial equality was mixed at best: he appointed J. Edgar Hoover to direct the FBI—who would abuse his position to surveille, intimidate and otherwise undermine civil rights activists throughout his decades-long tenure. He actively supported the internment of Japanese Americans. And while FDR pushed for integration in government contracting jobs, because his coalition was heavily dependent on rural white southerners, he said little about ending America’s apartheid system altogether. In fact, black agriculture and domestic workers (i.e. the majority of black workers) were explicitly excluded from receiving benefits from the Social Security Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This whites-only welfare system, in turn, exacerbated socioeconomic inequality over generations.

While Democratic President Harry Truman passed executive orders to eliminate segregation among federal employees, he faced a revolt from his Democratic colleagues and his electoral base as a result—and was largely unable to actually realize his edicts. It would be his successor, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw the implementation and enforcement of these provisions. Eisenhower would also champion the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960—the only major civil rights legislation passed through the Congress since Republican President Grant. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education rulings, Eisenhower federalized units of the National Guard in order to help force integration of schools and protect black students.

In contrast, President Kennedy’s advocacy for civil rights was lackluster and inconsistent due to concerns about alienating his party’s base. The first real moral leader for the Democratic Party on civil rights would be LBJ, whose administration would oversee the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 68, along with 1965’s  Voting Rights and Immigration and Nationality Acts, and the 1967 appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Of course, all of these efforts were stanchly opposed by the Democratic coalition headed up by George Wallace, and only passed as a result of coalitions the Johnson Administration built with Republican legislators.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of these moves by LBJ’s Administration, Republicans Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would play to fears about the civil rights movement and the social unrest of the 60’s in order to consolidate support for the right among lower-income, blue-collar, and rural white Americans, particularly in the former Democratic stronghold of the south.  But they faced stiff opposition from the Republican coalition of George Romney, who relentlessly and confrontationally championed affirmative action, fair housing, and civil rights—arguing that the so-called “Southern strategy” was a cynical betrayal of conservative ideals and the Republican tradition.

It is often emphasized how Reagan’s “War on Drugs” helped institute the mass incarceration state. Less known is that Reagan’s initiatives largely built upon a series of Democratic “law and order” policies (see Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America). Or that Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” laws were just as destructive as Reagan’s.  Similarly, while Republicans are often (rightfully) accused of gerrymandering districts to dilute or marginalize black voters, left out of the discussion is that for most of the country’s history it was the Democratic Party who pioneered these tactics. And of late, as the Democrats have increasingly come to take the minority vote for granted rather than seeing it as a threat, they have come to champion gerrymandering once again in order to concentrate the minority vote to create “safe districts.” The result of these bi-partisan efforts is a situation in which minority voters wield disproportionate influence in a small number of districts, and virtually no influence in most others.

 

The Elephant in the Room

Given this history, it seems almost incomprehensible that up to 95% of today’s African American voters are aligned with the Democratic Party (see Leah Wright-Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican). But then again, the GOP has largely abandoned its own proud legacy of civil rights activism:

Continue reading “Why There Aren’t More Black Republicans”

Don’t say Black Lives Matter, prove it.

Let’s be clear: for various reasons a large swath of Americans support institutionalized racism, both actively and passively. And in light of the pivotal role the police have played, and continue to play, in preserving the systems, institutions and dynamics which undergird racial inequality in the U.S.–powerful backlash against Black Lives Matter was to be expected, as was a corresponding countermovement supporting the authorities.

That moment has now arrived.

There have been concerted efforts to tie the killing of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth to Black Lives Matter; this despite the fact that the alleged shooter has not revealed any motive, and there is absolutely no evidence that he was affiliated with, or drew inspiration from, BLM (other than his skin color). Nonetheless, many are claiming that the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have given rise to a climate of hostility towards law enforcement in which these crimes are more likely, with some going so far as to brand the movement a terrorist group.

Even if it were true that policing has grown more difficult or dangerous in the wake of Black Lives Matter, it would be absurd to blame the movement for this. The problem is rampant abuse of authority and public trust by law enforcement, not that citizens have grown more vigilant against it. And the solution would be to reform these institutions and practices in order to address the causes of unrest, and for that matter, crime.

But it turns out that the narrative is completely false: thus far, police fatalities actually declined by 17% in 2015 over the previous year—commensurate with a steep downward trend that has been ongoing since the early 80’s.  The #1 cause of death for cops is actually vehicular crashes (responsible for 40% of police fatalities), rather than shootings (responsible for 28% of police fatalities). But what is particularly stunning about these numbers is that police deaths in 2015 have fallen despite the fact that the overall number of murders is up significantly. The trend is unmistakable: be it relative to the number of casualties last year or the broader social dynamics of this year, policing has grown less dangerous in 2015.

A total of 27 law enforcement officers were shot to death in the line of duty so far in 2015. Meanwhile, during this same period, the police have killed 762 civilians with their guns—overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately minorities–more than 1 in 10 of which were unarmed. That is, for every 1 police officer shot to death in the line of duty, cops shot 28 civilians; police are nearly 3 times more likely to kill an unarmed civilian than a civilian is to shoot a cop.  About 1 out of every 13 lethal shootings in 2015 have been carried out by police.

In fact, given that there are 1.13 million full-time law enforcement officers in in the U.S., their overall homicide rate (3.4 per 100,000) is actually substantially lower than that of African Americans (17.5 per 100,000). Put another way, on average it is more than five times as dangerous to be black in America than to be a cop.

The data is clear: there is no war on police. To the extent that Black Lives Matter is responsible for the number of police casualties in 2015, given that policing has actually grown relatively safer this year, it seems as though law enforcement should be thanking, rather than condemning, the movement.

But of course, just because a narrative has no factual basis does not prevent it from being effective…or dangerous. It is clear that many are buying into the propaganda being manufactured to discredit BLM—and as we head into the election cycle the rhetoric, and the stakes, will only grow more dire. How Black Lives Matter navigates the upcoming 2016 race will have profound implications for the future of the movement and the reforms it seeks realize.

 

Continue reading “Don’t say Black Lives Matter, prove it.”

Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People

On average, whites are far better off than blacks. But the problem with averages is that they often conceal radically uneven distribution of the phenomena in question. This is certainly true of wealth among white Americans.

It is well-established that white people are overrepresented in the upper classes. And even in the middle class, whites are far more likely to own their own home, to own their own business, to send their kids to better primary schools and have them go on to college. By contrast, the children of most black middle-class families earn less than their parents when they reach adulthood, often sliding into poverty—and for blacks, college does little to ameliorate this trend. And even among the lower classes, blacks are far more likely than whites to live in areas of “concentrated poverty,” which has a severe debilitating effect on social mobility.

However, the fact that blacks are so much worse off relatively speaking does not entail that white people are generally enjoying prosperity. Although most Americans continue to believe they are “middle class,” overall 15% of the U.S. population lives in poverty—40% of these in “deep poverty.” An additional 30% of the total population lives just at the cusp of poverty. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans struggle with economic insecurity, and most will sink below the poverty line for some period of their lives. And these dynamics persist across generations, regardless for instance, of how hard people work: the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor.

A majority of America’s poor are white, as are a plurality of those receiving federal assistance. Why does this matter? Because poor white people seem to be a natural ally for the social justice movement. In fact, there is widespread support among this constituency for policies addressing inequality, enhancing social mobility, protecting social safety nets, and reforming drug and sentencing laws.

However, when crime and poverty are discussed in racialized terms, this dynamic changes completely: whites become far more likely to support stricter enforcement of the law and harsher sentencing. They also grow far more receptive to policies which erode safety nets for the poor and redistribute money to social elites. And this is not just a problem for old white men, these trends are just as prevalent among millennials. Similarly, when reminded of the fact that whites are trending towards being a minority in America, both Republican and Democratic whites grow more conservative in their political views.

Is this racist? Of course. But it’s easy to misunderstand what this means. At its core, racism is not about xenophobic reactions to difference, stereotyping people from other groups, or a sense of intrinsic superiority. Racism is about preserving a socio-economic order which privileges the majority group (in this case, whites) at the expense of minorities. And while hate can (and typically does) play an important role in justifying this cause, strictly speaking, it is not necessary: there are plenty of racists who do not hate black people, per se. Many may even have black friends and colleagues whom they hold in great esteem. But this does little to alleviate the gnawing, pervasive and persistent fear that the empowerment of minorities will ultimately come at the expense of whites. For those many white Americans already struggling (or failing) to keep their head above water or support their families, this prospect doesn’t just induce dread—it motivates resistance.

Continue reading “Progressives: It’s Time to Stop Patronizing White People”

Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)

I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.Confederate General Robert E. Lee

With the Confederate Battle Standard finally removed from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, many conservative commentators have expressed concern that the battle may not be over, that the movement to abolish public symbols of the Confederacy in may spread to other monuments—for instance, renaming streets and public schools which honor white supremacists, or re-appropriating landmarks and dismantling memorials which commemorate slave owners and segregationists.

Of course, these fears are not unfounded: there is such a movement underway. But what is perplexing is why anyone would find this to be problematic. Conservative claims that these actions amount to “whitewashing history” or “cultural cleansing” are beyond ironic:

It is whitewashing history, on several levels, to celebrate and honor the Confederacy independent of its subjugation of blacks. The so-called “states’ rights” narrative about the origins and meanings of the war are falsified by Declarations of Secession from the southern states, and the words of Confederate leaders themselves—who left no doubt that what they were fighting for was the continuation of slavery. In fact, had they won independence from the North, the vision was to build an empire by conquering and enslaving the denizens of Mexico and Central America as well.

While it is true that there were issues related to the proper collection and allocation of taxes and tariffs, representation in the Congress, and the extent of federal sovereignty—even most of these problems ultimately turned on questions about the legal status of blacks (especially given that slaves constituted the majority of the population in many southern districts, and the economy was heavily-dependent on slave labor).

The developments which provoked outright secession were principally the northern state’s general refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slaves Act, along with concerns that Lincoln and the Republicans might ban slavery in any new states which joined the Union (even if they allowed existing slave states to continue the practice, for lack of viable alternatives).

That “Southern culture and way of life” the Confederates were so eager to preserve? It was entirely contingent upon the subjugation of blacks. Whites in slave states rightfully viewed emancipation as an existential threat to their livelihood, their culture and their very lives. They dreaded reprisals by newly freed slaves, be they political, economic, or violent (they assumed the latter most often, given the “savage” constitution of blacks). For this reason, even those few southerners who supported the abolition of slavery generally proposed dumping blacks back in Africa, rather than allowing them to live free and equal alongside their former oppressors (even when the slaves were eventually “freed” they were kept separate from whites through America’s apartheid system).

Again, this is spelled out unambiguously by the very people who spearheaded the rebellion—so it is ahistorical to deny or minimize these realities. For elaboration on this point, see the video below featuring Colonel Ty Seidule, the head of the history department at the US Military Academy at West Point:

 

Continue reading “Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)”

Change We Can Believe In

“It was like hamburger meat shootin’ out of his chest.” 

His burger was rare; blood & oil ran down his double-chinned beard, down his marshmallow-chain fingers, staining his freedom fries. Nirvana on his face. Brown on the outside, pink on the inside. Just like a nigger.

 

I.

That nicotine itch on the back of my brain. Dim lights, lukewarm coffee, waitresses preparing for the worst. Denny’s. Just after Friday, approaching 2AM, the bars letting out soon; the diner to be filled with drunk, obnoxious GI’s & 20-somethings who wished they didn’t live here anymore. All looking to fight or to fuck, some looking for both, maybe simultaneously. Our cue to leave.

Three of us: me, King, and Jones. This story’d be better if you knew ‘em. Hell, your life would be better if you knew ‘em. But I’m sure this story & your life will both be pretty good anyway, so let’s move on. We’re black, the three of us. I wouldn’t usually take the time to point that out, wouldn’t usually have to, but again, you don’t know us. Yet.

Waiting for the bill, got that paranoid itch on the back of my neck. Turn around — green eyes socketed into a blue-collar cracker, polo shirt that doesn’t fit on so many levels. Looks like he’s got something to say.

People stare at King. A lot. He’s not a fan of that. He engages our suitor, with a touch of menace in his voice:

“Yo, you need something man, or what?”

Guy picks up his burger.

“You ever seen that movie, Boondock Saints? Best goddamn movie ever made. They’re making a sequel. I killed a black guy once.”

Takes a bite; just like that.

Continue reading “Change We Can Believe In”

Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston

In the wake of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), analysts have been busying themselves with apparently self-evident questions as to whether the atrocity was racially motivated, or constituted an act of domestic terrorism. Americans have been focused on questions about gun control and the ubiquity of the Confederate Flag—with an emerging consensus that there will be little-to-no evolution on the former issue at this time, and token movement on the latter (while the flag will likely be removed from the S. Carolina capitol, most other Confederate icons will remain in place, both in S. Carolina and across the South).

But there has been one glaring absence in our public conversation about the tragedy—namely any meaningful acknowledgement of just how pervasive and dangerous the white supremacist views which motivated the Charlotte massacre are—and not just in America, but throughout most Western societies.

This omission is shameful, not only because the victims of this massacre had dedicated their lives to exposing these ideologies and dismantling the systems, institutions and practices built around them (indeed, this is why they were targeted for assassination)—but also because this silence enables further crimes, creating a culture of complicacy and complacency about the threat these groups pose to the security of Western nations, and also to the values which are supposed to define them.

 

Continue reading “Do Black Lives Matter? The World’s Shameful Response to Charleston”

The attack on Emanuel AME was certainly terrorism

The Charleston Massacre was an act of domestic terrorism. Consider:

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was a historically black church founded by a freed slave who eventually tried to lead a revolt to free his people. In the aftermath, the church was burned down. Because predominantly-black churches like Emanuel AME were known to be hubs of activism for the oppressed, soon after the church was rebuilt it became illegal for congregates to gather there. They had to hold their meetings in secret until after the civil war.

Since that time, it has remained a seat of civil rights activism, hosting the likes of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. And for this, Emanuel AME and other predominantly-black churches were (and remain) frequent targets of domestic terrorists with segregationist and white supremacist leanings.

None of this was lost on the shooter—he chose this target precisely because of its symbolism. He drove 100 miles to get there, arrived during a Bible study, and asked for his primary target by name: Rev. Clementa Pinckney—the serving pastor of Emanuel AME, a tireless civil rights activist, and a sitting state senator. All said, the spree resulted in the deaths of four preachers and five others—almost all of whom were involved in various types of community organizing, civil rights activism and public service.

Mr. Roof committed this atrocity with political ends in mind: he wanted to restore segregation, and to ensure that whites continued to be the socio-economic and cultural majority in the United States. He was hoping that his massacre would spur a race war, from which whites would emerge victorious, reclaiming their rightful place in American society, and subjugating the vanquished minorities. He viewed pluralism, equality and tolerance as Trojan Horses, existential threats to his kind—and ideologies which would be abolished in the aftermath of the cataclysm he was hoping to provoke.

To indicate both the historical and global dimensions of the conflict, he wore a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. His car had a Confederate Flag license plate, and in the lead-up to the shooting he took a pilgrimage to notorious slave plantations and Confederate landmarks, photographing every step of the journey and disseminating these images online.

He participated in internet forums with fellow ideologues both in America and worldwide, and released a detailed manifesto explaining what how and why he chose his target, how he was drawn into the movement, and what his aspirations were for the attack.

It was a textbook example of domestic terrorism, and the single most lethal incident in the United States since 2009. It is disturbing that there is even controversy as to if it was a terrorist act, or if it was a racially-motivated hate crime. Disturbing, but typical of incidents of white terrorism.

What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)

Police brutality has been an integral part of the black experience since the birth of the modern law enforcement. Until recently, however, it was difficult to establish how stark or pervasive the problem was; this opacity plagues many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. In part, the data has been hard to come by due to the decentralized nature of policing in America: while the FBI attempts to collate national statistics on the use of force, they rely exclusively on voluntary reporting from America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies–the overwhelming majority of which (more than 95%) do not participate fully or at all.

However, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have trained the social consciousness on police use of force. And as a result of open-source data mining and some outstanding investigative journalism, a clearer picture of the problem is finally beginning to emerge…and it isn’t pretty.

By the numbers

An in-depth report from the Washington Post identified nearly twice as many fatalities from police than FBI estimates–and this investigation only considered shootings. Over this same period dozens have been killed by Tasers, in chokeholds, by vehicles, or otherwise while in police custody. For information on these, The Guardian has a more comprehensive and interactive database, updated in real-time.

Some troubling patterns elucidated by these studies include:

  • On average, three people have been killed by police every single day in 2015—this equates to 1 out of every 15 homicides in the country (by all means).
  • Gunfire is the cause of 87% of police killings, and 82% of non-accidental line-of-duty police deaths (vs. 73% of all national homicides).
  • As of the time of writing, 419 Americans have been shot to death this year by police. These amount to nearly 1 out of every 12 gun deaths in the country overall. Over this same period, 14 police officers were casualties of hostile fire: for every cop killed by guns, the police shot nearly 30 civilians to death.
  • Adjusting for census data, blacks are killed at more than 3 times the rate of whites or other racial groups: while whites are nearly 64% of the total population, they only constitute about 51% of the total gunfire casualties (49% of overall police killings). By contrast, blacks amount to roughly 12% of the total population in America, but total 26% of police gunfire casualties (28% of overall police killings).
  • Nearly 1/10 of police shootings (and more than 1/5 of all police killings) are against people who are unarmed. For whites, the ratio is 1/16 shooting deaths (1/6 total casualties). For blacks, the unarmed ratio is more than 1/6 for shooting deaths, and roughly 1 out of every 3 total casualties. That is, police are twice as likely to kill an unarmed black suspect as an unarmed white one. But even among those suspects who were armed, dozens were killed while running away.
  • Nearly a quarter of those shot to death were known to be mentally ill or disabled.

 

Continue reading “What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)”

On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct

The problem of police brutality and misconduct is uncomfortable for many Americans–in large part because it contravenes so many of our cherished narratives about social progress, and about the United States as a land of freedom & justice–not to mention our post-9/11 idealization of first-responders.

When forced to confront these kinds of issues, which we would rather not have had to acknowledge at all, there is a temptation to seek out some kind of simple solution which can be easily applied to the problem wherever it manifests–and which can thereby allow us to stop thinking (and talking) about it.

Perhaps the primary focus in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore has been on body cameras. Advocates point to the Department of Justice (DoJ) “Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” which suggested that among the precincts studied, officers wearing body cameras had 87.5% fewer incidents of use of force, and 59% fewer complaints than officers who were not wearing cameras. These reductions, they claimed, are in part due to the fact that both police officers and suspects behaved differently under the knowledge they were being recorded. However, while “observer effects” on behavior have been well-documented in myriad contexts, there are reasons to temper one’s optimism as it relates to reducing incidences of police misconduct:

Continue reading “On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct”

Police Reform Is More Important Than You Think

In the wake of Freddy Gray’s death and the uprising which followed in Baltimore, President Obama acknowledged the need to reform police practices and accountability, but insisted that the real problem faced by the black community in Baltimore, and around the country, is not the police—but a system of institutionalized racism, socio-economic polarization, and a public which has refused to confront and address these disparities.

This assessment is absolutely correct. The issues facing the black community are systemic, reinforced over the course of generations. At the same time, however, the President and others who express similar sentiments, seem to misunderstand the reason police are in the crosshairs of activists:

 

Institutionalized Racism

Relative to other groups who arrived in America, black people remained at an immense disadvantage as a result of slavery, neoslavery, and then Jim Crow and segregation. Exclusion from many sectors of the formal economy dramatically inhibited the ability of blacks to build wealth. Meanwhile, the political marginalization of blacks allowed whites to continue these exploitative policies more-or-less uncontested until the very recent present.

For instance, 2.5 million blacks volunteered for service in WWII—about half of whom were accepted into combat. They fought in segregated units, for a society that viewed them as subhuman, and they paid a terrible price—as they have in virtually every war in U.S. history. However, after the war many received GI Bill benefits which raised their economic position relative to white people to perhaps the highest level ever achieved previously or since.

But they returned home to an apartheid state, and housing policies from the 50’s through the 80’s prevented the wealth of blacks from growing or being transferred across generations at the rates of whites. And even the relatively small amounts blacks managed to painstakingly accumulate and maintain in the intervening time was wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis: a full 50% of the wealth relative to whites disappeared in a flash. Black families currently make about 60% as much income as white families (which is, of course, a problem on its own), but only have about 5% of the wealth of white families.

This calamity was in large part due to predatory programs which explicitly targeted blacks, encouraging them to refinance their homes for short-term cash to weather the crisis—and with sub-prime loans, even if they qualified for better ones. As a result, when the housing market imploded and interest-rates skyrocketed, black families more than any other group were forced to forfeit their property, and found themselves once again living in poor urban settings.

These housing disparities have profound ripple effects. For instance, funding and distribution of school resources is heavily dependent on property taxes in many areas. Because blacks tend to own substantially less property (and less valuable property) than whites—their schools were and remain often radically inferior: underfunded, understaffed, with insufficient resources for extra-curricular activities, vocational training, advanced placement courses, technological assets—or even basic school supplies, up-to-date textbooks or needed renovations and maintenance.

As neighborhoods are gentrified, schools improve. But blacks rarely reap these benefits: often the increased property costs, cost-of-living inflation, and other factors displace even longstanding residents into poor suburban areas—in the process tearing apart critical social networks which help people cope with poverty, and diffusing black voting power.

Imbalances in the criminal justice system exacerbate these trends.

 

Continue reading “Police Reform Is More Important Than You Think”

Pamela Geller is No Rosa Parks

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”

Pamela Geller

 

 “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.”

Rosa Parks

 

In the aftermath of the shootings in Garland, Texas New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi had the audacity to ask, “Free speech aside, why would anyone do something as provocative as hosting a ‘Muhammad drawing contest?’” The question was met with widespread outrage and derision.

Wall Street Journal author James Taranto set out to answer that question more thoughtfully. In the process he cited an example from my recent Salon piece about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while advocating pacifism, would often deliberately stage his demonstrations to evoke a forceful response from the authorities or communities they were confronting. Likening the ‘Draw Mohammad contest’ to civil disobedience, he argued that despite the risk entailed, it is sometimes important, even necessary, to be provocative in order to, not only defend freedom, but resist (perceived) oppression.

Mr. Taranto tried to avoid conflating the struggle of Dr. King with the actions of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which hosted this event—albeit with mixed success. However, Alan Dershowitz would later repeat this comparison, again quoting my description of King almost verbatim on The Kelly File, comparing AFDI head Pamela Geller to MLK. Subsequently, Ms. Geller has also drawn from the WSJ arguments–comparing herself to Rosa Parks.

As a black American and a Muslim, I believe this comparison demands a response. And so, I have highlighted below a few guidelines for provocation which help illustrate the vast moral differences between how civil rights activists use(d) provocation, as compared to the AFDI:

 

Continue reading “Pamela Geller is No Rosa Parks”

Social Movement Requires Force

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard…And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity… And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 'The Other America'

On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace.   We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.

Continue reading “Social Movement Requires Force”