As we close out Black History Month, and my two efforts to say something worthy of the subject ended up in the e-trash, I was thinking about giving Nina Simone the final word on the month here on my blog. A question struck me; has anyone covered “Mississippi Goddam?” Would anyone dare?
Right wing patriots love their country in much the same way that an abusive spouse loves his wife.
“I love you baby, now do what I say or else!”
When one of those participating in the riots on the 6th picked up a flag used it to beat an officer, that struck me as rather par for the course. Independent of all the other crap perpetrated by those engaged in this insurrection, Francis Stager’s choice of a weapon might have seemed ironic to some, but for me it actually seemed rather telling. An American flag used as a weapon makes a fitting symbol for right wing politics.
It makes a fitting symbol of right wing patriotism.
This morning I started thinking about another image of a flag used as a weapon.
Was it the hard had riot of the Nixon era?
After digging around a bit, I fount it. This iconic photo, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” captures a moment in the busing riots of 1976. This time the flag wielder was a student upset that his friends would be bused away in an effort to desegregate the schools. His target wasn’t a cop, it was a random African-American.
Luckily, he missed!
I don’t know if Joseph Rakes, the flag-wielding student, fits the right wing stereotype quite so well as Francis Stager, but the meaning of the moment seems comparable enough. As does the outrageous nature of the action. You’d be hard-pressed to avoid seeing in either conflict some sense of the defense of privilege; harder to still to find any meaningful excuse for the decision to turn the arguments of the day into a physical assault against a momentarily defenseless victim. Whatever the cop might have done in some other context, he was hopelessly outnumbered when Stager attacked him. Ted Landsmark, the black man in the 76 photo hadn’t done a damned thing; he too was hopelessly outnumbered and already realing from another blow. Neither deserved to be attacked with a deadly weapon.
Not any weapon.
Still, the weapon in each of these cases does seem to make a statement.
What’s a “Motte and Bailey doctrine?” The term was coined by Nicholas Shackel. It describes a position in which somebody defines a term in narrow and well-defined terms in contexts of likely dispute and/or rigorous scrutiny, only to adopt a much broader and less rigorous approach to the same topic in practice (e.g. when speaking to a very friendly audience). The language comes from a medieval system of defense in which a tower (usually built on a mound) is surrounded by a stretch of desirable land. The tower on its mound (i.e. the Motte) is where the people of the community go for defense when attacked. The bailey is where people actually live and make their living. So, the concept here is really one of equivocation wherein people employ a strict definition of their stance when pressed only to get sloppy with it whenever opportunity tempts them to less than precise applications.
Is “white privilege” a Motte and Bailey doctrine?
Well it certainly can be.
What’s the Motte version of “white privilege?”
As I understand it, the rigorous approach to “white privilege” is defined something like this; It is a range of unearned benefits conferred upon those perceived as white. [Alternatively, it is the lack of unearned debits conferred on countless underprivileged peoples as a result of their own (non-white) identity.] To say that this pattern has parallels to gender, sexual orientation, and range of other indices of social stratification is obvious.
What makes this the motte, as far as I see it anyway, is the lack of any direct assertions about the significance of this privilege relative to other issues. A white guy may have less to fear from the police during a traffic stop, for example, but he might still have grown up poor. He might still face discrimination if he speaks with a distinct regional accent. He could possess a disability, grow up with abusive parents, etc. Conversely, someone from an underprivileged minority group might still be wealthy, might still be connected, might still enjoy a range of benefits not available to all whites. In other words, the Motte version of this concept recognizes that white privilege does not automatically amount to getting the upper hand all across the board of social stratification. It is a ascribed status benefit enjoyed by white people. How that benefit stacks up against other such status benefits and detriments is another question.
What’s the bailey?
Well just ask critics of the concept!
How many times has a white guy told you he grew up in a trailer park or a crowded shack in response to comments about white privilege, or otherwise commented on countless travails of her or his early life in an effort to demonstrate that he or she did not have it easy? These arguments wouldn’t work against the motte version of this concept. They only work if ‘white privilege’ clearly entails an easier life for all white people, or at least the vast majority of them. As the possibility that other indices of social stratification would come into play is already built into the motte-version of ‘white privilege,’ all of these arguments fall well short of disproving that concept.
They really do.
So, why aren’t these points just straw man arguments?
They aren’t straw man arguments, because proponents of white privilege don’t always stay in the motte. Sometimes, those employing the notion really do seem to think (or at least say) that whites are uniformly better off. I have personally been told in no uncertain terms that I have had an easier life than they have because I am white, and I have certainly heard the sweeping comparisons from others invoking the notion of white privilege. Additionally, the practice of dismissing anything a white person says on the subject of race, racial privilege, or other social justice themes by reminding us that we speak from a position of privilege tends at least to erase the narrow definitions of the motte and nudge us all closer to a broad generalization about the overall status of white people relative to on-whites. Sometimes, people using this concept really do seem to be painting a simple picture of privilege that squashes a number of other measures of privilege and oppression under the weight of race. All-too-often the notion of white privilege, defined narrowly when scrutiny is likely, becomes in practice a categorical assumption that all white people have it better than all any-other-kinda people.
So, if it is tempting to dismiss the critics of white privilege for attacking a straw man, that temptation must be tempered by the awareness that at least some proponents of the notion actually embody that straw man, at least when they are on a roll.
And here is where the whole metaphor begins to fail us. Do people shift back and forth between strict and loose definitions of ‘white privilege.’ Yes, they do. They also do this with debates about the existence (and nature) of God, support for law and order, use of terms like ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism,” or the love of rock and roll.
Wiggle room happens!
While we might want to encourage people to stick to a single definition of the key terms they use (or even to hold opponents in a debate responsible for doing so whether they want to or not), it is somewhat of a distortion to suggest that this is unusual. It is also a distortion to suggest that it takes the form of two clearly defined variations. Often the slippage is more subtle than that.
And of course it doesn’t help that nobody seems to trust anybody enough to anybody enough to grant them the benefit of the doubt on this topic. To hear some people talk, the very notion of white privilege will bring about the downfall of America, taking Europe with us, and fairly clipping the wings of half the angels in heaven. They can’t even address the motte version of the concept, and they certainly won’t concede it. Others will assume the only reason for expressing skepticism on this concept is a clear dedication (Whether conscious or not) to the support of white privilege. The principle of charity, long advocated by introductory logic teachers all across the land, just isn’t welcome in social justice debates of the modern world. When we acknowledge doubt at all, we tend not to give the other guy the benefit of it, and since nobody is getting any of this benefit themselves, we are that much more stingy about giving it to others.
Dammit all anyhow!
…and of course one of the benefits some of us do enjoy here is the privilege of experiencing this as a largely theoretical subject. For some folks the problem is a lot more urgent than others.
In this case, in particular, the middle ground is critical, not because all things moderate are great and wonderful, but because there is a critical question here, one that falls squarely on the boundaries between the motte and the bailey of this particular notion.
Relative to other indices of ascribed social status, just how important is ‘white privilege?” In the life of any given person, or the prospect for a positive outcome in any critical situation, just how likely is white privilege to make the difference? I can well understand that a black man might enjoy the secondary benefits of wealth or that a white man might face discrimination for being poor, but how does wealth (or the display of it) really stack up in comparison to race?
In attempting to answer this question, we do so haunted by the specter of confirmation bias.
White folks like myself typically underestimate the pervasiveness of our privilege. This was once brought home to me quite vividly when driving with my gal, Moni, in the passenger seat. Seeing a police officer race up beside us on the highway only to motion at me to slow down, she was shocked to see how easily I got away with driving over the speed limit. (In my defense, I wasn’t going that fast. Honest!) This is an event she now commemorates by taking pictures of me ‘criming while white’ whenever she gets the chance. Of course, I haven’t always gotten a break from cops in such situations, but after talking to her, I have come to realize that my own ideas about how a traffic stop is likely to go vary considerably with her own, and yes, I do put the difference down to race.
Of course, some in the social justice camp may be a little too quick too assume that racial identity has made the difference in this or that situation, but of course, not all biases are equal. If I was to bet on this, I would put my money on the likelihood that those of us enjoying white privilege miss its effect in our lives far more than those who lack this privilege see it when it isn’t there. In any event, the answer to how much weight white privilege gets in comparison to other indices of social status is going to be heavily skewed by the impact of this very phenonomenon (along with other all the other variables that skew the way that humans experience and treat each other).
The notion of ‘white privilege’ isn’t sufficiently robust without accounting for its relative weight. If we just say, “yes, that’s a benefit, one of many,” then all we are doing is acknowledging that race is one of many things that could trigger prejudice, and that when this happens white people are likely to benefit from the effect of that prejudice.
That takes ‘meh’ all the way to 5!
Simply saying that whiteness is just one index of unearned privilege among many others invites us all to shrug our shoulders and go back to whatever else we were doing. Perhaps we will notice when it matters; perhaps we will not. That position is not just a motte; it’s a meh. We can do better than that.
If on the other hand, we say that white privilege trumps all other considerations in all imaginable contexts, then, well, that just isn’t true. There are at least some contexts in which class, regional dialect, age, health, sexual orientation, personal connections, or any range of considerations could trump race. That white privilege skews the likelihood of positive privilege in some of these areas (e.g. class) more likely is certainly true, but at least some of the time, being white may not matter as being something else.
Some of the time.
In the end, the concept of ‘white privilege’ isn’t significant until we assign it some weight relative to other things that can skew the way that people treat one another.
As I write this, I am envisioning a much-needed trip through the relevant statistical research, but for now I mean to wrap this up by simply framing the position that most sense to me. It is the notion that white privilege, at least in the modern United States, is the most critical index of social status, at least when you account for both the likelihood that it will come up and the impact it will have. There may be less-severe sources of social bias which are more prevalent, and there may be less common sources of bias with more substantial impact when they do occur, but in the long run, white privilege is more likely to make a difference in a critical situation than class, region, age, etc. Do I believe this? Yes, though I am quite open to reconsideration and/or modification of the position.
So where does this leave us, or me at any rate?
I reckon us (me), somewhere in the transition from motte to bailey. I am grumble when I see the easy assumption that white people just have it better than others. I grumble more when I talk to white people who can’t even grasp the possibility that their whiteness might have given them an edge in life, at least some of the time. I reckon, the most appropriate thing to do here is to think of this in terms of priorities. As far as social ills go, this is at (or damned near) the top of the hierarchy. It isn’t the be-all and end-all of social justice, but I’d be hard pressed to think of anything more critical to address than racial disparities. That’s not a blank check written for anyone who wants to cash in on the claim to fighting for social justice. A certain amount of mere noise attaches itself to every signal, and shameless opportunists find their way into every cause. Still, I do think this problem is real, and I want more folks who enjoy white privilege would take the notion seriously.
It occurs to me that I may have just taken ‘meh’ all the way to 6, but it really does seem to me that the issue only gets interesting when you start asking how important white privilege is relative to other sources of social status. In suggesting that white privilege is more important than other variables, I am certainly picking a fight with anyone who seeks to deny that white privilege exists altogether, and also with those who see it as just one variable drowning in a see of other claims on our social conscience. To say that any other variables of social status could even be weighed against race and white privilege in any manner puts me at odds with quite a few of the proponents of the notion. I may have staked out a position on the middle ground, but in this instance, I doubt this will prove convenient.
I remember him leading the chant of “lock her up” during the 2016 election. I remember him pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Well, charges were just dropped against Michael Flynn.
They were dropped because Michael Flynn is innocent until properly proven guilty.
Do you remember George Zimmerman?
He was the man supposedly acting as neighborhood watch when he took a gun and went in search of Trayvon Martin, because Trayvon looked like was up to no good. I remember George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the subsequent trial. I remember countless right wingers lecturing the rest of us about how George Zimmerman was innocent until proven guilty. Many of those same people now tell us stories about how that thug Trayvon attacked Zimmerman without provocation, forcing Zimmerman to shoot him in self-defense.
That’s the story they tell. A story in which Trayvon stands charged, convicted, and executed without a trial.
Because George Zimmernan is innocent until proven guilty!
Do you remember Brett Kavanaugh?
Of course you do.
We are all reminded of Kavanaugh every time the well-stacked right wing Supreme Court delivers a decision. Kavanaugh sits on that court, because he was innocent until proven guilty.
Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford is of course a lying scumbag who made up accusations against Kavanaugh as part of a liberal plot to keep him off the Supreme Court, so I’m told at any rate. She didn’t prove her case in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and the reason is obvious to those now happy to have him on the court.
Christine Blasey Ford is guilty because Brett Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty.
Do you remember Sandra Bland? She died in the custody of the Sheriff’s Department in Waller County Texas. Nobody was charged, because folks at the Waller County Sheriff’s Department are innocent until proven guilty. How about Timothy Loehmann? He’s the police officer who shot Tamir Rice? He was never prosecuted either, because Timothy Loehmann is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Daniel Pantaleo? He’s the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death over loose cigar sales. He wasn’t prosecuted either. Because Daniel Pantaleo is innocent until proven guilty. Do you remember Michael Slager? Okay, that fucker is just guilty! But do you remember Freddie Gray? He died over a pocket knife. All the officers involved in his case were innocent until proven guilty. Yes, they were!
How about Philip Brailsford? He shot and killed Daniel Shaver in a Hotel in Arizona. Brailsford was innocent until proven guilty.
Now we have the case of Ahmaud Arbery. Oh, don’t worry. he’s not accused of anything. He was just jogging. A black man, out jogging! That’s definitely not a cime. But apparently, a couple white men (Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael) decided that Ahmaud might have been a burglar, so they tracked him down and confronted him with a gun. Now there is some reason to believe Arbery might have been the aggressor at the point he was shot. …twice? What he was doing at that moment we will never know, but I reckon he might have meant to defend himself from two crazy white men with a gun. Such considerations won’t matter in the long run, because the McMichaels are entitled to a fair trial, and such speculation will not be relevant in a fair trial.
The McMichaels are both innocent until proven guilty*.
You know what might have worked? For me anyway. If a report had been made in the wake of a comprehensive immigration review, or just a comprehensive review of border security. If that report had included the unlikely recommendation that a wall be stretched across the entire border, or (more likely) if such a review had recommended renovations to existing stretches of wall, or even adding more wall in selected locations. Hell, I could imagine a wall helping to prevent accidental deaths among other things. I know there are people who advocate completely open borders, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t think the vast majority of modern liberals take such a view either. If such a report had come out, and Donald Trump had said he wanted to implement the changes recommended in that report, that might have worked. A lot depends on the details, but I could see myself supporting such measures.
But that is not what happened.
What happened was the semi-conscious anal fistula that currently occupies the White House came down that damned escalator and gave a shout out to all the white supremacists in the nation. He made a point to tell them he was on their side. It’s a point he has come back to time and time again. Whenever that flaming wank-maggot needs to feel a little better about himself, he stirs the racist pot by coming back to immigration and hitting that subject with a bigger dumber hammer.
Donald Trump didn’t advocate immigration reform. He hasn’t restricted his attacks on immigrants to those who come here illegally, and he certainly hasn’t made any effort to ensure that his policies will actually help, even to curtail illegal immigration, which was on the decline before he took office to begin with. He hasn’t even made responsible use of the resources already at his disposal His brinksmanship on the issue has included the demonization of all immigrants (including legal immigrants and genuine refugees), the demonization of Muslims in general, the orchestrated kidnapping of children, active promotion of immigrant caravans (only to use those very caravans to trigger riots at the border).
There are legitimate concerns about immigration, and about border security. If you think those concerns have anything to do with Donald Trump’s approach to the subject, then I have a degree from Trump University to sell you.
So here we are, waiting for Trump’s big speech at the border. He will do what he always does, which is to speak power to truth and wait for the engines of bigotry to make his malicious fairy tales into an accomplished fact. The deplorables will do what they always do which is to try and read more reasonable themes into his bullshit on the one hand, and then use his claims to press the the boundaries of bigotry on the other. If Trump supporters have their way, the utter bullshit that is every word seeping from the mouth of this festering bloodfart will one day pass for truth.
It isn’t. It never will be.
As sure as the sun rises this coming speech will be lies piled on top of more lies. We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t turn out to be the modern American version of the Reichstag Fire Decree.
There are moments (mostly the innocent ones) in Black Klansman where the movie seems to be telling us something about the 70s. There are other moments (as in references to “America First” or allusions to the Trump administration) when the movie is clearly telling us something about today. Most of the time, however, the movie seems to be telling us about both at the same time. What’s missing from this movie is the period in between, a good three or four decades, depending on how you count them, when many of us might have thought race relations were getting better. Perhaps that thought was never more than naiveté, a mere fantasy, but if so the fantasy was certainly a part of the world erased in this film. I’d like to think Spike Lee is wrong to erase those years in this film, but he isn’t.
That erasure, it seems, is precisely the point.
The hope of those intervening years between the end of segregation in America and the present rise of white nationaism is in fact well well represented in Black Klansman. It’s repreented by Ron Stalworth (played by John David Washington), the central character in Black Klansman, a story inspired by events in the career of a real life police officer. We meet Stalworth as he becomes the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. It’s a step forward, some might have said back in the day. “Selling out” might be how others would have put it. Stalworth lives in the tension between these two ways of looking at his career, one which envisions police authority as consistent, at least in theory with the possibility or racial justice, and one which sees it as an explicit tool of white supremacy. For his own part, Stalworth is clearly trying to make the former outlook work, but he’s torn from all sides, both by racism within the police force and by those who see police as an essentially racist institution.
To hear him talk, Stalworth could pass for white, which probably says as much about those in the movie (and those of us watching it) who think he sounds white as it does about the man himself. Whatever the reason, this feature of Stalworth’s character has an obvious utility; it will enable him to pass, at least on the phone. Stalworth is also willing to cut his fro if the Police Chief wants him to, but no, that’s not necessary, The Chief likes it. At the same time, Stalworth fights a never ending battle against the casual racism of his fellow officers. What to do about the overt bigots whose racism is far from casual, he isn’t sure, at least not at the outset of the film. Stalworth is picking his battles. Fair enough! But is the trade-off equitable? One gets the impression no-one is quite happy with the arrangement, least of all Stalworth himself.
It’s this awkward effort to find an acceptable accommodation between social justice and institutions which have historically enforced racism that makes Stalworth a great symbol for the intervening years between the seventies and the modern era. He is a back man trying to make America work. for his own people along with the rest of us. Some might consider that a fools errand, but Stalworth lived in an era when it seemed almost possible.
The Police Chief takes Stalworth’s discomfort up a notch by asking him to go undercover to attend a speech by Stokely Carmichael so he can keep track of the radical students who sponsored the event. There Carmichael is known by his new name of Kwame Ture. Ture speaks of police abuse, even the murder of African-Americans. He also urges his audience to prepare for violent revolution. Stalworth is surprised to find that he likes Ture’s speech, and the fact that he likes the speech is a big problem. It’s a problem because Stalwort is there to spy on the man and the black radicals listening to him. From the snadpoint of the police department, he’s not supposed to like the speech at all. From the standpoint of the student radicals, he isn’t supposed to be there at all, at least not for the reasons he has come.
…and certainly not wearing a mic.
It doesn’t help matters that Stalworth knows people in his own police department guilty of the very racism Ture was talking about. It also doesn’t help that he is falling rapidly in love with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), President of the Black Student Union. She is arguably the main subject of his investigation, and she herself certainly would not approve of his undercover work. It REALLY doesn’t help that she was pulled over by racist police officers after the speech and sexually assaulted during the stop, confirming everything Ture said in his speech while underscoring Stalworth’s inability to do anything about it.
So, how is he going to explain Ture’s promotion of revolution to the Police Chief? How will he explain his role in the police department to the love interest who sees police as the enemy? It’s a problem.
All of this comes before Stalworth’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan.
If there is any ray of hope to found in these initial scenes, it comes in the form of a night spent dancing in the wake of Ture’s presentation. Whatever Ture’s rhetoric, the radicals who brought him were content to spend the evening peacefully enjoying themselves on the dance floor. This gives Stalworth an angle, so to speak. He decides that these radicals are just talking about the violent revolution. They aren’t actually planning to kill anybody. It’s not the easiest message to sell. The Police Chief doesn’t buy it any more than Patrice and her companions buy the notion that police are meant to serve the community.
If there is a way to make police-work consistent with racial justice, Stalworth hasn’t found it when the larger plot kicks off, when Stalworth stumbles upon the opportunity to open up an investigation into the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). If the black radicals he’d been investigating at the start of this film weren’t really violent, the Klansman certainly were, at least enough of them to pose a threat. Of course this investigation is the real focus on the film. It’s also where the film departs most from the actual events of the real events in question. The real investigation led to the transfer of Klansmen within the military away from sensitive security positions; the movie investigation leads to a real crime.
What interests me about the story most is the larger racial politics of the film itself, and of the society it comments upon. One gets the impression Stalworth isn’t in the most tenable position to begin with. He knows very well the laws he is charged with enforcing hurt his own people, and he also knows anyone seeking to change that poses a real threat to the institutions he represents. Stalworth is caught in the middle of many forces he cannot controle; he has set himself up for a life-time of pushing back in all directions. The main plot seems almost to rescue him from the ambivalence of his position at the outset of the film.
…which brings us back to the political history of the film. Its final moments aren’t about the tricky life Stalworth has set up for himself so much as the rise of violent white nationalism with the advent of the Trump administration. Here Spike Lee drops the fictional story-line entirely and shows us real footage of real white nationalists at work today. It’s a fitting shift, of course. Like the Klan in this story, Trump’s America has fallen on the nation like a great big old boot stomp on the many conflicts that used to plague our politics, conflicts that now seem subtle by comparison. Like the Klansmen in this film, the present administration and its supporters aren’t really all that interested in figuring out the details of social justice; they are happy to promote a clear and obvious vision of white supremacy. If the crime Stalworth thwarts in this move is fictional, the threats posed by a political regime wedded to the likes of the Klan is real. If justice eludes us, the present regime certainly ought to inject a degree of clarity into political questions of our own day.
If it isn’t entirely clear how we should handle racism in police practice, the sort of problem Stalworth is dealing with at the beginning of this film, it ought to be very clear that the present President couldn’t care less. Neither could those who support him. If it isn’t entirely clear how the rest of us should live together, it ought to be very clear that a good number of Americans no longer mean to do so at all, and that they have help at the highest levels, help they are using to undermine every means at our disposal for forking out any equitable solutions to the nations problems. The nation as a whole seems ripped away, like Stalworth, from the tricky problems about racial justice. What we have now is a problem much like that he faced in this film; how to stop those consciously working to ensure no such answers will ever be found.
I haven’t been monitoring the controversy about the Washington football team that closely for awhile now, but the topic hasn’t entirely escaped my attention. This morning, I took a moment to scan the old Redskinsfacts website, which is a case-study in double-speak if there ever was one. That hasn’t changed.
One thing I find fascinating and revolting in equal measures is the way the site uses the work of a linguist, Ives Goddard, in defense of the team’s name, If you click on the option to “Get the facts” on the home page of the “Redskins Facts” website, you will be taken to another page telling you about the history of the name. Near as I can tell, that page hasn’t changed in awhile. Here is a screenshot of that history as it is now on 4/19/18:
With just three items, this is a brief history to be sure, but the omissions aren’t entirely a function of brevity. What they leave out here is every bit as important as what they choose to tell us. Taking their bullet points in reverse order:
Notice they tell us that when the team came into being four players and the head coach “identified themselves as Native Americans.” This wording was carefully chosen to promote a common team legend without actually claiming that legend is true. Defenders of the team name commonly tell us that the team was named after a Native American (William “Lone Star” Dietz). It’s not at all clear that the team name was ever meant to honor him, but more importantly, Dietz’s claims to Native American heritage are questionable at best, having come under intense scrutiny when Dietz stood trial for evading the draft during World War I. The folks at Redskinsfacts.com know very well that team fans team defenders still cite the story of Lonestar Dietz in defense of the team name. Telling us that Dietz claimed a Native American identity enables them to promote that story without actually making any false claims on the topic themselves. So, I guess it’s not an outright lie. More like, a cowardly equivocation.
The second bullet point in this ‘history’ is simply off topic (and rather vague). That prominent native leadership of the 19th century, have referred to themselves as ‘redskins’ does not establish that the term is not now or at any other time free of pejorative implications. Resting as it does in this simple, narrative the claim that some of them have done so does nothing to tell us how they felt about the term or why they came to use it. It doesn’t even enable us to sort which ones called themselves ‘red men’ and which ones called themselves ‘redskins’. It doesn’t address problems of translation. It really doesn’t establish anything except for the sloppy thought process of the website administrator. He’d have to answer a few questions before we could even get to the ‘so what?’ part of the conversation. Or we could just skip to the chase, I suppose.
The first point in the pseudo-history of the team name is the one that interests me the most. Defenders of the name will often cite Goddard’s article as proof that the term in question is not an insult. (Seriously, I’ve long since lost track of the number of people that have done this,) I always ask them if they have actually read the article. Often that seems to be the end of the conversation. When these folks do tell me they’ve read the article, I ask them if they’ve read the last line in the article. To date, none have answered that question. So, what is the last line in Goddard’s article?
The descent of this word into obloquy is a phenomenon of more recent times.
My point is of course that Goddard didn’t write an article telling us that the term in question is not an insult. He wrote an article telling us that it did not begin as an insult, which is an entirely different claim. It isn’t entirely clear from Goddard’s piece just how he would account for the present significance of the term, but he is very clear on the fact that his own work does not actually address that question. So, the article should leave us with a full stop right around the 1830s. Goddard helps us to understand the use of the term up to that point, and he doesn’t have much to say about anything after that.
Goddard’s work is interesting for a number of reasons, but it doesn’t tell us much about what the term means today, or even what it meant by the end of the 19th century. He does take issue with the claims of at least some modern activists, Susan Shown Harjo being among them, but he himself points out that rejecting her claims about the origin of the term does not prove that many Native Americans find the term objectionable in the present time (p.1). I think Goddard does a pretty good job of showing that Harjo and others have been wrong about the origins of the term, leaving the rest of the case against the team name largely untouched by his article. The correction seems a bit one-sided to me, but at least Goddard has been clear about the limits of his own work on the subject. If he has published anything addressing the later history of the term or correcting any of team’s misuse of his work, I am not aware of it. (If anyone does know of such a response, I would very much appreciate a reference.)
So, why is Goddard’s work the first thing Redskinsfacts.com cites in their history of the term? Well they have to know that many people equate the origin of a term (or at least our earliest known account of it) with its contemporary meaning. This is called the etymological fallacy, and it’s an extraordinarily common mistake. So, they don’t really have to tell us the article proves the term is innocent; the folks at Redskinsfacts.com know very well that is what many of their fans will take away from their reference to the article. Citing Goddard and providing a link to his work enables them to strengthen the impression that the team name is innocent without actually going so far as to say that’s what Goddard has shown. They invite their readers to indulge in an etymological fallacy, just as they invite us to think of Lonestar Dietz as a Native American when he was likely an outright fraud. It’s fascinating to see how the site avoids making the false claims in question, even as they invite readers to infer those very claims from the one they do make.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t even the worst of it. Defense of the Washington football team has produced all manner of horribles over the years. This isn’t even the worst of it.
It’s always been odd to me, seeing how the history of American slavery makes some of my fellow white people uncomfortable. You can see their discomfort in the various ways folks try to minimize the significance of slavery. Sometimes, it’s enough to put slavery in the past, to grant that it was an horrible crime, but to imagine that crime taking place so far in the remote past and so completely resolved with the official end of slavery in that remote past as to be completely free of any political implications today. It’s a bit like the gambit, folks often play with the history of Indian-white relations – all the horrors of the past can be acknowledged, at least in the abstract, so long as you can contain their significance within the history books (and preferably kept well away from any of the more recent chapters). At other times, folks seem to come up with more elaborate schemes to pare down the topic of slavery until it fits into their personal comfort zones.
When I was in college, this kind of pop-racism generally took the form of an argument that Africans started slavery. They did it too, maybe even first, so the argument would go, and of course there was (and is) an element of truth to these claims, but it’s a truth poorly served by its rhetorical packaging. It would be fair to say that slavery existed in Africa (as it did Europe, and indeed most of the world) prior to the founding of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Just how much those prior-forms of slavery explain the booming industry that would come is another question. All too often I used to hear people pushing this narrative and think they wanted far too much from the point than it would bear. What they wanted was a kind of absolution, a story that diminished the responsibility of Euro-American peoples for the tragedy of the slave trade. At the very least, they wanted to share the blame with some other groups.
And I always wondered why some of these people seemed to feel personally implicated in the matter? What do you get out of this, I would find myself asking? How does it help you if this story goes to the discredit of someone else’s ancestors? The answer, I think, is (predictably enough) racism. For those who see the world through the lens of race, the disgrace of their ancestors is a disgrace to them personally, and a case against the moral character of their own kind is a direct personal attack. I think this is also the key to common refrains about ‘white guilt’ and ‘liberal guilt’. I’ve never seen liberal politics as an expression of personal shame, but I do think some of our critics are incapable of seeing liberal politics in any other terms. Such people cannot right the wrongs of the past or work to overcome inequalities in the present; they must instead demolish their own consciousness of those wrongs and rationalize any inequalities they see in the present. It’s the just world hypothesis at work in a racist mind.
In recent years, the pop-racist response to the history of American slavery seems to have evolved a bit. The latest trend seems to be countering stories about the enslavement of Africans with those about the enslavement of Irish men and women, but I should say the trend isn’t even that focused. Time and again you can see people show up with stories about Irish slavery in response to contemporary concerns about African-Americans. Write a blog post or tweet a quick message about police abuse of African-Americans in the present-day and somebody may well just show up to tell you about the history of Irish slavery. It’s as if the prospect of Irish slavery isn’t just a stock answer to any questions about the enslavement of Africans; some folks find it useful as an answer to questions about literally any injustice experienced by African-Americans today. Once again, there is a grain of truth to the narrative, and once again, those producing it clearly want more from the story than the facts of the matter will furnish them.
What proponents of the Irish slavery narratives are talking about is the practice of sending Irish men and women to the Americas under terms imposing temporary servitude upon them. Most of these were indentured servants who agreed to a term of service in exchange for passage, but at least some were prisoners whose terms of service were imposed upon them as a means of punishment.
Okay, so we know all this.
There was a time when perfectly liberal college professors were happy to spell out the horrible conditions of indentured servitude, along with the abuse of Irish in this and other contexts. I used to work with a professor who made quite a point to ensure students learned just how terribly indentured servants could be treated. None of this was part of a racist agenda, and none of it was leveraged against the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Far from fielding a rationale for minimizing the horrors of that slave trade, this was like the opening chapter of a long sequence on the horrors of the full slave trade that would come. Acknowledging both horrors (and many others) used to work just fine.
But that was then, this is now.
What is new? On the surface, what is new here is the use of the word ‘slavery’ to describe what was done to the Irish, but here as always the devil resides in the details. No, I am not linking to any of this literature, but proponents of the Irish slave narrative have worked hard to embellish every embelishible point; inflating numbers, adding stories about the defilement of white women forced to breed with African men, and of course complaining that liberals have hidden the trials of the Irish while pushing the trans-Atlantic narrative in order to keep African-Americans at the forefront of identity politics. With support from racist corners of the internet, some maintain the Irish story is greater in all respects. Who would deny it? Only a liberal, right?
Okay, I deny it.
More importantly, so do vast majority of historians doing work on the subject. Scholars have questioned many of the details put forward in the Irish slave narrative, but the central theme seems to be this, that at its heart, the Irish story really is a story about indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was by no means a benign institution, but it simply isn’t comparable to the chattel slavery associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Most simply would not use the term ‘slavery’ at all to describe indentured servitude, even when it is imposed as a criminal sanction. And of course a good deal of the push-back of these narratives consists of efforts to unmask the clearly racist agendas of key proponents. This isn’t just a mistake, it’s a mistake a lot of committed white racists want people to make.
…which leaves me feeling all somehow.
I’m happy as Hell to see the comparison between indentured servitude and the trans-Atlantic slave trade shredded, and then shredded again. What does somewhat concern me is the equation of ‘slavery’ with the specific form of chattel slavery that took place in the trans-Atlantic trade. Simply put, we do commonly use the word ‘slavery’ in contexts that do not compare in the numbers or the horrors of that specific history. History books often speak of slaves in ancient civilizations many of which fell into that status through financial ruin, or debt. The literature on Indian-white relations is full of stories of ‘slaves’ captured and trade about through raiding practices, and of course the Spanish systems of the encomienda were never described as slavery. When in 1850 California passed a law enabling others to press California Natives into forced labor, that law was actually written up as if it were meant to protect those very Natives. And of course the system of debt peonage found in the post-war south (among many other places) could in practice pass for slavery.
Hell, that was often the point!
…to say nothing of the use of prison systems for purposes of reducing free blacks to forced laborers under the pretext of punishment for crimes, real or imagined.
The subject of slavery has always been broader than the specific history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. We should not allow malicious people to equate every instance of forced labor with the scale of atrocity behind that trade, but neither should we restrict our own use of the word ‘slavery’ to that very trade. Abusive labor practices shade easily into forced labor, and once that threshold is crossed, real atrocities become much easier.
What specifically doesn’t work about Irish slave narratives is the direct comparison with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It doesn’t match the scale of atrocity in that trade, either in numbers, or in the quality of treatment for the majority of those involved. This doesn’t mean that indentured servants, Irish or otherwise, were treated well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people captured or pressed into forced labor in other times and places shouldn’t be a concern. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t let people use the suffering of their own ancestors as a means of diverting attention from that of others.
It’s a common question. It might be a little more common coming from white folks like me, but I’ve certainly heard it from some African-Americans as well. A couple years back, for example, Stacey Dash weighed in on the subject for the benefit of the Fox viewer base. I hear views like that of Dash often enough. So, I blogged my own two cents worth of a response here. It was a short post, and rather sarcastic to be sure, but I still think that post about captures my sense of the issue. (Also it was an excuse to get a Leyla McCalla song onto my blog, which has to be a good thing.) Today, I thought it might be worth spelling out the point a little more directly.
Dash’s comments are hardly unusual. Time and again, you’ll hear someone gripe about the Latin American Music Awards, the Miss Black America Pageant, the existence of Black Entertainment Television, or any number of just-for-the-minority occasions, awards, and honors. In some cases, it’s hard to escape the impression that those making these comments just don’t like the ethnic groups in question and want them to go away. I somehow doubt that’s what Stacy Dash has in mind, but she’s probably not the sole example. Not every objection to minority-specific recognition can be fully understood as a conscious defense of white privilege.
As to latent prejudice, even against one’s own people, the jury is still out.
The most interesting case against such minority-focused honors, for me anyway, seems to to be the argument that they should not be necessary, and that minority-focused recognition is contrary to the spirit of a more unbiased community. Why set aside a specific month for black history, so the argument goes, when we should be incorporating elements of black history throughout the curriculum? Why have special awards for minorities when we should be including those minorities fully in the mainstream awards? Some might even suspect that Black History Month works to put the topic in a ghetto, so to speak, giving us leave to ignore the subject matter throughout the rest of the year. It may or may not work like that, but there does seem to be a certain merit to the notion that what we really out to be doing is ensuring that minorities are recognized when they ought to be recognized on a day-to-day basis, all year. Wouldn’t this be better than trying to set aside specific moments when this or that minority gets a spot of time under the spotlight?
Dash’s comments, like those of many who generate this argument, make a seamless transition from opposition to segregation to opposition to Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, etc. Some of us might think these horribles (the segregation system of old versus Black History Month today) would weigh a little differently on the scale of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s raising a question narratives like this simply don’t address. It’s a point of principle, Dash seems to suggest, and the same principle that forbids the one should forbid the other. Hence, the absence of minority-specific recognition becomes the price of freedom from segregation with all of the horrible things that that go with it. Shouldn’t we just approach these subjects in a color-blind way, she argue, and not show any preference at all?
Maybe it’s just my inner redneck, or at least my outer whiteness, but I have to admit this argument has a certain appeal for me. The appeal isn’t entirely self-serving. Sure, there is the notion that life might be simpler without having to deal with a specific month where folks pester me about covering African-Americans in my classes. That might be convenient. But along with that goes the notion that I really should sit down and work really hard to ensure that I am covering the subject adequately all year. Then I should do the same thing for Latinos, Native Americans, Women, the LGBT+ community, and any range of underprivileged peoples who may get squeezed out of the history books and the history lessons in one way or another. Theoretically, at any rate, these kinds of responses shouldn’t lead us to forget minorities; they should lead us to distribute credit more evenly, allocating it to minorities when they’ve earned it, or when the story demands it, just as we supposedly do to those in the majority. Doing that right would not be easy. In fact, it would be damned hard.
…and by ‘damned hard’ I mean, ‘probably not going to happen’.
The plan runs aground on the limitations of human nature. We don’t really have a universal standard for any kind of recognition, not beauty pageants, music or acting awards, journalism, or anything else for that matter. Certainly not history! We all look at questions of merit through the lens of our personal experiences, values, cultural background, etc. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t simply have a privileged role in our history books for reasons of abstract merit. Like it or not, he is also there for his contribution to institutions of white dominance. Frederick Douglas didn’t simply get into the history books because he reached some imaginary threshold of significance that deserves a paragraph or maybe even a page in a textbook. He got there because he made contributions to the present conditions of African Americans. His role in our history books is itself a function of special interests, and that should be neither surprising nor all that objectionable. It’s just how this works!
All of these stories are filtered through the lens of interests shaped by issues like race and gender today. Those who rise to the top of the mainstream narratives typically have some real advantages in the competition for our collective attention. They benefit from personal and institutional bias. Some of these biases are obvious, and some of them are subtle, but the point is that bias is bound to creep into decisions about who does and doesn’t have merit. This is as true of a historical personage as it is an artist or a contestant today.
When I try to put together the materials for a history class, I make any decisions about what to include, what to emphasize, and how to explain things to my students through the lens of my own personal experiences. Those include years of life in lily white neighborhoods talking to other middle class white people. They also include years of exposure to minority subjects in college classes and even more years working in Indian country and then the arctic. Plenty of my influences point me to the dead-white male version of history; others lead me to open that story up and include lots of other people. Whether or not the one is enough to counter-balance the others is always an open question.
My answer is better on some days than others.
Under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded for one month out of every year that I might have missed something. There may be some stories about Aftican-Americans that I could and should get to my students somehow. I can’t say that the results always get into the February part of the curriculum, but I have certainly added African-American subject matter to my American history classes during the month of February. I don’t ignore these stories the rest of the year either, but the reminder certainly does nudge me toward a better balance.
More to the point, correcting bias isn’t simply a zen kinda thing. You can’t just sit there and be non-biased. As least I can’t. I’m human. My brain is subject to the same cognitive biases that I see quite readily in so many other people. So, if I just follow my first instincts (or even my first thoughts) on the subject of what to teach, I’m going to miss some things. I’m going to miss some people. I could wish otherwise, but it’s going to happen. So, somewhere in that process, I figure it’s worth it take a little time to think consciously and deliberately about those peoples who tend not to make it into the standard dead-white male narratives that still dominate so much of our common historical narratives. Whatever else, Black History Month does, it forces the issue, and it sets a number of teachers who might otherwise proceed blissfully onward to spend some time asking whether they’ve done enough.
The world would of course be better off if we didn’t need to go through such a process in the first place, if we could all be relied upon to handle minority subjects smoothly and evenly on the first pass.
But we don’t live in that world.
We never will.
Which brings me back to the imagination behind Stacy Dash’s opposition to Black History Month. The ideal she cites is compelling enough. It’s easy to say that we would all be better off without these special moments set aside for recognition of selected groups, but that only works if we imagine away the biases that make them necessary. The problem here is the notion that the ideal in this case will be achieved by eschewing the pro-minority agendas first. We may or may not get around to any sense of larger equality in due time, so the thinking goes, but as a point of personal integrity, we should all give up any effort to assign recognition to specific minorities before we can really expect movement on the larger issues. We have to forget Black History Month before we can be sufficiently color-blind to stop leaving black people out of our regular history lessons.
But that larger equality never comes. Like the communist state or the free market of Libertarian mythology, this world without prejudice just hangs out there somewhere in the ether. We can talk about it. We can imagine we are moving towards it, but it will never get here. In the interim, supposedly, the price of moving toward this ideal will be paid by those already on the short end of the stick. The first step toward that equality will be a sacrifice of what few breaks some folks have managed to gain at one point or another. The rest will come later. The big moment when we all judge each other by the content of our character sits somewhere on the other side of the moment we stop taking an extra beat to see who might have presently been left behind. But we’ll get there. Don’t worry!
My title may seem like an oddly partisan blessing, but it’s more of a partisan curse. It’s not the worst form of damnation you could wish upon a person, but for some folks it oughtta be bad enough.
The curse is real though.
Civil Rights activists must have felt the sting of this curse this last weekend as right wing America did its best to distinguish Colin Kaepernick from Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems, their efforts had been necessitated by publican of an image linking Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and Martin Luther King, all kneeling together. Outraged to see Kaepernick and MLK connected, plenty of folks took to the net to tell us Bennet and Kaepernick shouldn’t be put on the same level as MLK. Beyond that, cultural conservatives assured us that MLK was selfless and that Kaepernick is simply out for himself, that King was a patriot whereas Kaepernick hates America, and that MLK preached unity whereas Kaepernick is being deliberately divisive.
Heard that last one a lot this weekend.
I’m not old enough to remember MLK’s activism in its day, but I am old enough to remember cultural conservatives attitudes towards him before he became a national holiday, before you could find roads named after him all over America, before admiration or MLK became a forgone conclusion. And of course before conservatives began to claim him as one of their own. We heard many of the same things about Martin Luther King back then that are said of Colin Kaepernick today. Lots of folks were not so impressed with his patriotism. As to divisiveness? Hell, he could be so lucky as to be described as merely divisive! I grew up hearing stories about how MLK and other civil rights leaders were just trying to cause trouble, simply drawing attention to themselves. Things were getting better, plenty of people assured me. Those activists were simply making things so much worse. Divisive? Hell, MLK that would have been an improvement over the things said of him at some of the dinner tables I’ve attended.
It’s a poetic injustice, really, seeing Martin Luther King transformed into a means of silencing black activists. He’s been held over the heads of the Black Lives Matter movement for some time now, and thrown in the face of just about any African-American deemed a little too disruptive by conservatives, especially by those conservatives moderate enough to think of they’ve learned the lessons of the civil rights movement. Gone are the days when cultural conservatives would spit ‘commie’ after hearing the name of Martin Luther King. Now, being more comfortable with his legacy, they spit his name at any black activists they find more threatening today.
That’s gotta be a special kind of Hell, to be used against those who carry on your legacy? If so, it’s a special Hell reserved for people who’ve earned a lot better.
What I think a lot of moderate conservatives and a good deal of middle-of-the-road America likes about MLK is the notion that we should be color blind. Some folks may even mean it. Others just like the prospects of using this principle against social justice warriors, affirmative action programs, and any number of left wing causes that ask us to take difference into account. Yet, the message of equality changes a great deal when it’s employed in this manner. When King delivered his “I have a dream” message, equality was message flying in the face of white privilege. If you’ll pardon the cliche, it really was a way of speaking truth to power. Today that message is used to speak power to truth. It is a call to ignore real differences in opportunity, to silence those in need of help, and to preemptively dismiss any political agenda aimed at helping the underprivileged. There is something genuinely vicious about the way cultural conservatives have turned King’s message on its head and turned him into a weapon well-suited to re-enforcing comfort and privilege.
It’s enough to make you lose your lunch.
Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon thing. It seems that those leaning to the right have a general tendency to remember some lefty figures fondly, but only after forgetting the lefty part. How many people have complained about the politics in Roger Waters concerts over the years? Some folks may have specific complaints about aspects of Waters’ politics, but a fair number seem genuinely shocked to find political content in Animals or The Wall.
Maybe they were just too stoned to listen the first time.
I know. Pink Floyd lyrics may not warrant the same admiration as the life of Martin Luther King, but in a sense that impression too illustrates the point. Just as with Kaepernick and questions about whether he should be on the same par as MLK, the veneration of MLK here misses the mark. When someone advocates on behalf of those in need, or confronts those who abuse power, should we really be all that concerned about how they compare to other heroes? Or should we be more concerned about how their politics contributes to something of value?
Yes, that was a rhetorical question.
And then of course, there were those people shocked and outraged to find Coretta Scott King. As George W. Bush attended her funeral, some thought it inappropriate for those honoring her legacy to speak out against the Iraq. And thus his decision to honor her, became her limitation, or rather the limitation on what could be said in her honor while he was present. I get it. It’s a little rude to criticize the President when he’s sitting right there, especially knowing that he doesn’t have to be. But you know what’s more rude? Expecting the funeral of an activist with a life-long commitment to non-violence to pass by without any comments on the greatest war of the day.
In America, even our conservatives are happy to celebrate liberal activists.
Once they and their own learn to be quiet about it.