Thursday, February 28, 2013

John Lewis Calls Out Scalia's Racism

Before speculating about how John Lewis must have felt about yesterday's events, I should have looked around to see if he has responded publicly. It turns out he has. He was in the courtroom! He described his response to Scalia's racism:
It was unreal, unbelievable, almost shocking, for a member of the court to use certain language. I can see politicians and even members of Congress — but it is just appalling to me.
He also said Scalia's comments were "an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for."

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Where Scalia Got It Right

By the way, I should have mentioned that Justice Scalia was right about the concept of racial entitlement. He just forgot which race this concept has worked for in the United States. We usually just call it white privilege. Somehow I doubt Scalia would be comfortable applying his racial entitlement idea to the group to which it actually belongs.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness by George Lipsitz and "Whiteness as Property" by Cheryl Harris are good resources on this topic.

Racism At The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v Holder yesterday, the Voting Rights Act case. I haven't had a chance to read the full transcript but I managed to pick up a few choice morsels here and there, which I will share in a moment.

But let it be said at the outset: it is hard to describe how sad and angry I am. I think of one of my heroes, John Lewis, and I wonder how he goes on. After all the beatings and death threats he just kept going, kept loving. I can almost wrap my mind around that -- a life spent absorbing the hatred of others culminating in redemption and the victory of your cause. How, then, must he feel to see the things he suffered for being rolled back?

This growing effort to entrench white privilege even further is why I do not assume our current periodization of the civil rights movement is the one historians will embrace a century from now. We're still in it. Its gains remain contested and its failures are yet to be adequately addressed. If the court rules against section 5, as seems likely, it will be the clearest signal yet that a new movement is needed.

Why, I ask myself, do John Lewis and others of his generation have anything other than hatred for the United States? How do they not collapse in rage and bitterness? As a Christian, I am supposed to have the love of Jesus in my heart, but Lewis and others like him have tapped into a measure of love that I don't understand.

A preemptive note on all the harsh language I am sure to employ below, complete with fulsome use of the racist label: I know most people don't take kindly to being called a racist. I know that people like me are seen as constantly playing the race card. Do you have any idea how tired I am of trying to give people an out? Do you have any idea how much emotional and mental energy I spend trying not to call people racists? I'm constantly searching for less likely explanations; over and over I make excuses for people and patiently acknowledge that they may be well meaning but misinformed. I'm tired of that. If you don't want to be known as racists (ahem, certain supreme court justices), stop doing and saying racist things. Stop it. For my sanity's sake, for the country, for the sake of your eternal soul, stop it. Do you have any clue how offensive it is, how nauseating it is to hear echoed in the supreme court of the United States the very same arguments I find while doing my thesis research on southern segregationists over 40 years ago?

Let's take a look at something Justice Scalia said yesterday:
This Court doesn’t like to get involved in — in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be left — left to Congress. The problem here, however, is suggested by the comment I made earlier, that the initial enactment of this legislation in a — in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear was — in the Senate, there — it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term.  
Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it. And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.  
I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless — unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution. You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it.  
That’s the — that’s the concern that those of us who — who have some questions about this statute have. It’s — it’s a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress. There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose — they are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act. Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?
In Scalia's mind, the act designed to give equal voting rights to all is a "racial entitlement." Moreover, he is greatly concerned that this law will be unending and that it produces, in effect, unfair accumulations of minority voting power -- "black districts by law just about now." Also, like slaveholder spokesman John C. Calhoun and segregationist leader John Stennis, he articulates a view of the constitution that sees protecting states rights as more important than the protection of individual rights.

Let's unpack this a little bit more. The second idea has merit in its own right. We should be careful not to treat states disparately without carefully considered due cause. But as Justices Kagan and Sotomayor pointed out, the states covered by section 5 do in fact continue to correspond to higher levels of litigation and voting rights discrimination. Much of this evidence was assembled by congress when it renewed the act in 2006. Since the covered jurisdictions are not the only places that discriminate, it would make sense to expand section five across the country. But Scalia does not want that either. He'd rather see it repealed, which amounts to saying that because the worst offending states are not the only ones at fault we should just give up.

But the heart of Scalia's critique of the law is that it represents a "racial entitlement" that will go on in perpetuity because no one will have the guts to vote against it. This is a racist argument. Again, to drive home the offense to my reality-denying readers, there is no way to arrive at this statement without your starting assumptions being racist. Unless you're a racist, Scalia's critique would not cross your mind.

Here's why. Scalia is worried about a racial entitlement giving unfair advantages to minorities, and yet the law has been in effect for over 50 years without producing any such thing, nor does he produce any evidence or reasoning for how it might possibly do so in the future. In fact, the situation is just the opposite. Despite the voting rights act, as a percentage of the population whites are drastically overrepresented in elective office in the United States while minorities hold much less political power than their numbers would imply. You have to be a racist to look out at a landscape of institutionalized disproportionate white power and say, gee, I sure am worried about racial entitlements for minorities.

This is an exercise in futility. The choir will be edified and the unconverted will be offended. One of the things I most despise about modern racism is its invisibility to its adherents. I highly doubt, for instance, that Justice Scalia knows he is a racist. That makes the problem all the more intractable and the evils of his character all the harder for him to mend.

Justice Roberts also had a question that was noteworthy for its stupidity. He asked the lawyer arguing for the government this question:
General, is it — is it the government's submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?
It seems appropriate at this point to ask if Justice Roberts dismisses out of hand any polling or social science research as a matter of principle, or if he just ignores what he happens to find unpalatable. The answer to his question, which the solicitor general was understandably unwilling to answer correctly, is yes. White southerners oppose interracial marriage at significantly higher rates than other whites, for example. Perhaps we've gone so far down the rabbit hole that even that can't be called racism anymore.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Discrimination? Eh, Who Cares! Diversity Training? A Racist Outrage!

Fox News is busily alerting its audience of white senior citizens that there is a scandal at the USDA. No, it has nothing to do with the discrimination against black farmers that the USDA practiced for decades. It was fine for Fox to ignore that; it involved black people being screwed, after all, so who cares? The current scandal is much, much worse. It turns out the USDA has been -- gasp! -- paying for diversity trainings!

Fox broke this monstrous story last week and then O'Reilly brought Glenn Beck onto his show to say the stuff he's not quite willing to say. What does Beck think of diversity training?
Look at what this government is doing! This government under Barack Obama is hiring people to teach people how to be racist! …This is a coordinated, planned effort to go in and teach government workers to be racist!
Beck went on to talk about how "stupid sensitivity trainings" are in general, and demanded that the speaker and everyone involved in hiring him be fired. In a google search I was unable to find Beck ever calling for accountability at the USDA for its decades of racial discrimination.

Anyway, I bring this silly little episode to our attention because it presents a nice little microcosm of how racism functions on the right. It is a bigotry too cowardly to honestly present itself. Beck and O'Reilly are unwilling to say -- or perhaps even to face in their own hearts -- what they believe, namely, that white males should enjoy all sorts of privileges in life that others do not. But since these guys talk about the news for a living, their belief is constantly leaking out. It reveals itself in the things they ignore as well as that which outrages them.

I have heard Beck angrily respond to perceived slights against white people dozens of times. I have never heard him speak up for people of color or for women, even though they bear the brunt of discrimination. You see the upside down worldview of these guys in their assumption that diversity training is itself racist.

I think a lot of diversity training is poorly done, but I'm unaware of good, justice-loving people who oppose the idea in principle. Yet Beck says all diversity training is "stupid." Likewise, what are all these complaints about "political correctness" if not the frustrated ravings of white men who resent the fact that they are no longer able to define others however they want and thus hold power over them?

In this little episode we see perhaps the fundamental feature of colorblind racism: acknowledgement of diversity and an attempt to deal with it honestly and proactively is itself seen as being racist. Actual discrimination is over and over again ignored or explained away, while attempts to deal with it are attacked. And yet these reactionary forces delude themselves into thinking that, somehow, they're different from the segregationists of old.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: Defying Dixie

Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008).

The popular understanding of twentieth century African American history goes something like this: a placid black population endured decades of discrimination until, suddenly, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Martin Luther King led a boycott, and thousands of respectable middle class black folks began marching out of Baptist churches in a Christian-inspired non-violent campaign. The great achievement of Defying Dixie is to forever discredit this simplistic narrative. Gilmore argues that the civil rights movement was rooted not in the Christianity of a fledgling black middle class, but in the radical activism and global awareness of communists and other leftists in the decades after World War One. She contends that by situating the civil rights movement in this more expansive time frame and larger geographic context we can gain a better understanding of its origin and influences.

Gilmore introduces a cast of underappreciated southerners, black and white, who fought Jim Crow throughout the interwar years. She recovers the stories of southern communists who went to Moscow for training and returned to the United States to organize workers across racial lines. There were activists such as Pauli Murray, who articulated a strategy of non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience a full two decades before these tools were brought to bear at the apex of the civil rights movement. The importance of this small group of radicals and misfits, Gilmore argues, lies not in its tiny numbers but in the fact that it existed at all.

The determination to strike at the heart of segregation with aggressive tactics in pursuit of full social equality emanated from the radical left years before most white Americans became aware of a civil rights movement. Gilmore shows that these radical roots were obscured in the 1950s as anything associated with communism was discredited in the polarized environment of the Cold War. Thus, with the radical left in disarray under withering persecution, it became convenient to believe that the civil rights movement drew its inspiration simply from the middle class black church – even as these respectable Christians utilized the methods pioneered by the radical left. Ironically, a twisted sort of truth about the radical roots of civil rights lived on in white segregationist propaganda that insisted local activism was caused by communists and outside agitators.

Defying Dixie is a tale well told. It recovers forgotten chapters of the civil rights story and reframes the era in surprising ways. Yet, like most works that seek to redress an unbalanced historical narrative, it introduces excesses of its own. For example, Gilmore refers to the activism that finally burst on the national consciousness in the 1950s as “the vestige of the movement” rather than the movement itself. In reality, scholars have focused on the 1950s and 1960s precisely because during these years the movement became so much larger and more broad-based than it had ever been. To call this a vestige is a dramatic overreach. Gilmore would have done well to hew more closely to the thesis her title indicates, remembering that roots are, by their nature, smaller than that to which they give birth, but no less important. Yet these concerns should not obscure Gilmore’s successful redefinition of the origins of the movement that changed America.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: Railroaded

Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

For those who grew up on visions of mighty titans of industry sweeping all before them as they laid down bands of steel across a vast continent, this book comes as something of a disappointment. Richard White’s thesis is that the men who built the transcontinental railroads were not the mighty capitalists or ruthlessly efficient robber barons of the right and left’s imaginations, but were, in fact, startlingly inept – yet for all that they helped to usher in modern America. These men were financiers skilled in the arts of fraud, kickbacks, and bribery; they knew very little about running a railroad. The roads they led relied on massive subsidies from the federal government and most of them went into receivership within a few decades of being built. Yet America’s economy and politics would never be the same. Thus the transcontinentals were, in Richard White’s pointed phrase, “transformative failures."

If this seems paradoxical at a glance, it is only because of our unfounded assumptions about the nature of American development. Americans, as exemplified by the transcontinentals, did not only march triumphantly toward modernity; they failed their way to it. Using the personal papers of the railroading elite, White takes us into the bowels of the companies, revealing that they were not ruthlessly efficient corporations, but disjointed fiefdoms unable to bring order to their operations. This is at once the heart and the weakness of White’s book, as he delves into an endless series of unscrupulous financial manipulations, driving his argument to the point of redundancy. He is fascinated by the zombie-like quality of the railroads as they lurched along on the edge of financial disaster, threatening the nation’s economy and making liberal use of federal government support – all while earning fortunes for a select few. The parallels to contemporary events are unavoidable.

Countering the notion that the railroads were smartly run, in a convincing conclusion White argues that the transcontinentals should not have been built how and when they were. They preceded demand rather than meeting it, wasting capital and producing economic inefficiencies. White contends that the roads encouraged artificial settlement in areas that could not sustain the agricultural practices and population densities the railroads counted on to make their business profitable. They also hastened the subjugation of Indians, enabled the extermination of the buffalo, and produced environmental degradation.

Yet for all their “dumb growth” and horrible mismanagement, the railroads transformed American life. They produced new battles over space and time, as regions previously distant from one another were suddenly economically close because of a rail line, while a place that was geographically quite close might become far because of the absence of a rail link. The transcontinentals gave birth to the modern corporate lobby and the symbiotic nexus between big business and an activist federal government. After the rise of the railroads, it became impossible to maintain the fiction that the economy was not fundamentally political, for better or worse. The men who ran the transcontinentals transformed America not because they were ruthlessly competent but in spite of the fact that they were not. In this process of transformative failure, White sees a fundamental feature of modern American life.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Housing Segregation Is A Good Window Into Unearned Privilege

Ta-Nehisi Coates had some good thoughts today on Thomas Sugrue's book Sweet Land of Liberty. For some reason I never got past the introduction of that book; I hope to read it later this semester. Anyway, here's TNC commenting on housing segregation:
The policy was to keep black people from moving out of ghettos, and to keep them from marketing their labor in competition with whites, unless absolutely necessary. It is not enough to merely understand segregation as a means to keep the "races" separate. Segregation is about rendering black people a permanent underclass. This is not about an amorphous diversity. This is about power.

Part of keeping power out of black hands is turning the community's aspirational class into a bevy of easy marks. You can only imagine what kind of money was made exploiting the dreams of middle class black people trapped in the ghettos of America. That money represents a transfer of wealth from black hands to white hands. It continued unabated from the early 20th century, through the New Deal (which actually aided this process), well into the 1960s.

We spend a great deal of time talking about the black poor, but less talked about is how America for most of its history has actively punished black ambition. The black middle class has been the field for demonstrations upon the subject of what happens to "niggers with ideas." Any history of race riots in America will note that the targets are invariably institutions of black improvement -- churches, "black wall streets," schools, homes, etc. It's worth considering what message a country sends to a people when it persecutes ambition.
This is as important as it is widely misunderstood. People are very confused about the dynamics of segregation, and its purpose.

First, the dynamics. Why didn't black people just, you know, move? The first answer to that is that they did, in the greatest mass movement of people in our history as African Americans ventured north during the World Wars. But that still leaves the question of why, in a given metropolitan area, blacks remained in segregated ghettos. There's actually nothing mysterious about it. For much of the period in question it was perfectly legal to carve out huge swaths of cities and have the homeowners agree that blacks were not allowed.

But even after the Supreme Court struck down restrictive housing covenants, blacks were still faced with the collective power of city governments, the police force, the realty industry, and the intransigence of the local white population. Until 1968, it actually wasn't illegal for realtors and homeowners to discriminate based on race. After 1968, the burden of proof still rested on the party claiming discrimination, enforcement was toothless, and even winning a case could leave you in debt.

As white Americans fought to keep black Americans down, there were other measures to turn to once the legal maneuvers failed. That's why bombings of black-owned houses was a regular feature of life on the west side of Chicago in the mid-1950s. This rigidly enforced segregation produced two housing markets: one for whites and one for blacks. Whites had the whole city to choose from and consequently paid less for housing. Blacks were forced to pay more for less in crowded and dilapidated buildings in cordoned off sections of cities.

The reason we ask why segregation persists is that we don't know, or have difficulty imagining, how hard white Americans have fought to maintain it. But now you know! So remember that African Americans seeking to move out of the ghetto have faced the following hurdles, some of which have faded, though others persist:

1) It might have been illegal.
2) The new house might have been bombed.
3) It was a life-threatening decision.
4) Somehow a realtor or homeowner had to be found who was willing to sell, and you had to come up with the money for the extra premium they would charge a black family.
5) Social isolation could be expected, and parents could not feel safe walking down their own street, or letting their kids go to the local park.
6) You and some other black families finally make it into a neighborhood, and before you know it all the whites have left and suddenly the city isn't providing the services it once was.

Seen in the clear light of day, our questions look a bit silly. "You can pay more for the house than it's worth and, oh yeah, you might die in the process, but it's a great neighborhood! Why not move?" Thankfully things are not nearly that bad now, but the 20-1 wealth gap and the ongoing discrimination of banks and realtors (look it up if you doubt it) goes a long way toward explaining things up to the present day.

Please don't ever lapse into thinking that residential segregation is some sort of benign dynamic in which people just congregate among those who are like themselves. No, our segregated neighborhoods were built just as surely and purposefully as our highways and skyscrapers were built (actually, they were often built together, as highways make great borders in cities).

I guess I didn't get to the second part yet: the purpose of segregation. As TNC noted, it had little to do with a silly desire to keep people separate from one another. If you think that's what segregation was you're missing the point. It was power. It was money and life and death and social status. It was about regular white people having more money and power and status than they would have possessed in a free country. It was about taking some of what is owed to others and keeping it for yourself. It was about keeping others down so that you could be a little higher.

This relates to some of the themes I've been addressing lately such as colorblindness and white privilege. How quick we are to deny any responsibility for what happened in the past, even as we enjoy the benefits of it. Both my grandparents were homeowners. They got those homes in the white housing market. They paid less for them. They built up some wealth. And now my parents own a home and a business. They paid most of my way through college. They'd be happy to help me get my first house.

How can I say I owe nothing for our past? I'm living in it right now! I'm enjoying its fruits. How desperately we avoid being honest with ourselves. We tell ourselves we built our success with our own hands, that we started out at first base like everyone else, that we only had opportunity, never privilege. That's certainly not how Christianity encourages us to think. The Bible says everything we possess is a gift. You say, wait a minute, I worked hard for that! Sure, but the Bible says that, for the Christian, boasting is "excluded." It is completely illegitimate. We take satisfaction in a day's hard work and a job well done, but we don't think it makes us better than anybody else. Anybody.

When Paul said God forbid that I boast in anything but Jesus Christ, he wasn't just making a pious statement of his devotion. He was implicitly acknowledging that he was no better than any other human being -- that, somehow, his arrival at such an exalted place was a gift. One suspects he recognized his own privilege: his early life in the Jewish elite, his education, his Roman citizenship. Most of all, he experienced the Gospel as a sudden invasion of unearned privilege as he was doing everything in his power to fight it. He spent the rest of his life trying to turn that privilege into an opportunity for the people of the Roman world.

Here's a helpful experiment: if the thought of being privileged feels threatening to me, it is a sure sign I'm indulging in an enormous amount of pride.