Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger's Dishonest and Cowardly Racial Politics

Captain America: The First Avenger is a serviceable movie that captures the feeling of a 1940's and 1950's Saturday morning serial and its director's previous cult hit The Rocketeer.

In terms of narrative quality, one can forgive Captain America: The First Avenger's casual disregard for the character of Bucky and how he just drops out of play halfway through the movie. I can also overlook the uninspiring action scenes that do not really feel like a Captain America film ought to, as normative and imprecise that phrase is, until the motorcycle chase in the last third of the movie.

But when viewed in total, it is hard to overlook how Captain America: The First Avenger lacks any real weight and is missing the intangibles that separate great comic book fare (The Dark Knight; Watchmen; Iron Man; Spiderman 2) from that which is merely run of the mill (The Punisher; Ghost Rider).

To this ghetto nerd comic book fan, Captain America: The First Avenger's deepest problem is how problematic, even by comic book standards, its romanticization of the past and the recycled mythos surrounding "The Greatest Generation" really is.

The movie's story is familiar. Captain America is Steve Rogers, a puny recruit who during World War 2 volunteers to become a super soldier by taking an experimental serum that will give him enhanced strength, endurance, speed, and other amazing abilities. With his childhood sidekick Bucky and the Howling Commandos, Captain America wreaks havoc on a group of high-tech Nazis named HYDRA, and their occult obsessed leader the Red Skull.

Captain America: The First Avenger applies a heavy whitewashing (or is that a "brownwashing?") to World War 2 that is distinguished by a deep commitment and dedication to an insincere multiculturalism and a childish flattening of historical events. More than simple dishonesty, the movie's keen attention to a forced quota of black and brown faces in a Jim Crow era was a distraction that took me out of the frame: rather than watch the film and be caught up in a World War 2 serial adventure, I found myself counting the conspicuous black folks in the foreground and background of almost every scene.

Just as X-Men: First Class also presented a lie of history that ignored The Civil Rights Movement, and the rich narrative possibilities those decades presented for storytelling given the comic book franchise's core themes of diversity and tolerance, Captain America: The First Avenger trips and falls into the same trap.

In a Jim Crow military there are black soldiers fully integrated as equals in fictional white Army units without a mention of tension or conflict. There are African Americans as equal partners in the most secret Allied spy programs of World War 2. Black and white folks sit side by side in integrated recruitment centers in New York City. Black and white kids play together in the streets of Brooklyn, a Nathan Glazer ethnic melting pot dream, all the same, united in childhood and rooting for Captain America and the good guys to win The Big One.

An important qualifier: As a viewer who is both a comic book fan and has more than a passing knowledge of the Black Freedom Struggle, I am not expecting, nor would I want, Captain America: The First Avenger to offer a treatise on the Double V campaign for African American freedom and full citizenship at home, and winning with the war against Nazism abroad.

Rather, my hope is for a film that works with these realities in order to enhance storytelling by adding richness and depth to a project--moves that make a movie more entertaining and not less. These are challenges and opportunities to be embraced, not run away from.

Playing script doctor:

1. There could have been a throw away line by Tommy Lee Jones' character that "his unit is the Army we need to beat the Nazis, every man and woman is the best, without exception. This is a war. We have no time for the trivialities of race bigotry in my unit!"

2. Peggy Carter, a female spy for the Brits jokes that she has had many doors shut in her face and thus has learned the value of persistence. Push that element harder by showing some WAVES or WACs in the film who are foregrounded in roles other than those of secretaries, dancing girls, and nurses.

3. When Steve Rogers comes upon the soldiers Gabe Jones (an African American) and Jim Morita (who is an Asian American) in a HYDRA prison, the film could go beyond the cheap joke about the latter being from California. The former could have said he was part of the all African-American Triple Nickels paratroopers, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, or the 761st Black Panthers Tank Battalion; the latter could explicitly state that he is a member of the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

4. Digging into comic book esoterica, Captain America's iconic shield is made of the rare mineral Vibranium. This sci-fi cousin to "unobtainium" is mined from the African country of Wakanda, a nation that successfully resisted a Nazi invasion in the Captain America comic books. Who is the leader of this small, yet highly advanced country? The one and only Black Panther.

Filmmakers more generally, and white filmmakers in particular, are often caught between a rock and a hard spot on these issues. They are often condemned if people of color are not shown in their films. They are also criticized by conservatives and others if they go "overboard" in such efforts.

My suggestions and appeals are rooted in a desire for sincerity and honesty. One need not make up history to satisfy the political correctness police, to broaden the commercial audience for a film, or to preempt complains that a movie is not "inclusive" enough. Likewise, and although for different reasons, we should be mindful of how the intentional omission of the diversity that is the human experience supports highly problematic conservative racial politics.

For example, the great HBO series "The Pacific" showed the African American marines of Montford Point without much fanfare or heavy handed evangelizing. The brothers were simply "there," albeit in the background, at the battle of Iwo Jima. Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" by comparison--a movie that is quite jingoistic despite its superficial pleadings to the contrary--chose to omit black and brown folks from The Normandy Invasion, lest their presence disrupt the whiteness of memory and the nostalgic lie that is "The Greatest Generation."

The Captain America comic book, in both its Ultimates, and Ed Brubaker run, has been great precisely because of the sophistication with which it approaches the issues of race and gender and how Steve Rogers, a metaphor for a changing America, grapples with a world that is quite different from the one he left behind in the 1940s.

Captain America is a living anachronism. The ways that he reconciles his nostalgic memories with the country's post-imperial present is one of the true joys of the character, and why Captain America has been one of the most compelling reads in recent years.

Captain America: The First Avenger throws that richness into the rubbish pile. By doing so, the movie missed a great opportunity to be a compelling story that solidly leads the audience to the upcoming Avengers film. Moreover, Captain America: The First Avenger insulted the intelligence and maturity of viewers by playing a lazy game with serious history, and hoping that its sleight of hand would go either unnoticed, or its faux history embraced by those either too young (or ignorant) or drunk on colorblind hallucinations of the past to know any better (or perhaps even to care).

Captain America: The First Avenger also commits one final, unforgivable sin. In a movie about a war against tyranny and genocidal evil, even within the rules of comic book fare and their requisite suspension of disbelief, Captain America doesn't even fight real Nazis. The crooked swastika present only for a seconds in the movie. Moreover, while Jewish folk are coded for and signaled to by Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Roger's "mentor" Dr. Abraham Erskine being the most prominent example, there is no mention of the Holocaust or the death camps.

Politics is popular culture. Popular culture is also one of the ways that history and politics are taught to, reimagined, and understood by a people. Both do serious ideological work.

I am deeply familiar with the standard objection, that fantasy should be just that--"fantasy"--and that "the real world" should be replaced in our popular culture by an America as it "should have been"...and not the America that was and is.

The Captain America character deserves better than such a flat and dishonest depiction of history...even in a comic book universe. The audience deserves better as well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Weekend Photoshop Challenge: Herman Cain, Tea Party GOP, Anti-Muslim American Constitutionalist Bigot Meets Jim Crow Memorabilia

It is so hot outside that my oven is sitting in the shade...

Sorry, I couldn't resist that old Vaudeville routine. I am going to see Captain America in a few hours and will post a review soon after. Next week, I hope to do a series on the Department of Homeland Security and white terrorism: which will be provocative to say the least as I got both barrels loaded. I really do love white folks. I am their best friend because as Paul Mooney says, "I tell them the truth." Hopefully, my intervention will help the White Soul have a moment of productive, critical self-reflection.

At present, my best friend Black Conservative Garbage Pail Kid Herman Cain is in the midst of self-destructing, despite what some pundits have suggested, with his foolish anti-Muslim bigotry and race baiting--trust, the latter is the script even though Cain's focus is ostensibly on matters of religion.

I used to think that black folks could not be racist. I still hold to that proposition: but Herman Cain flirts and has shameless intercourse with bigotry, in a way that is so racialized, there may have to be an asterisk next to his name if the Routledge Keywords series was to do a volume called Concepts in Social Inquiry. Moreover, because he has so distanced himself from the African American community, and rejected "African-American" as an affiliation of either kin or shared experience and struggle, he is subject to the "turn about is fair play rule."

Herman Cain is a black buffoon. Consequently, he should be treated as such.

To point: the wickedness of Jim Crow stereotyping and race minstrelsy was how it gave life to a lie--we were not incompetent fools, unfit for citizenship, more childlike than adult, and ultimately ill-suited for the American democratic project.

Be it Jumpin Jim Crow, Uncle Tom, or the Black Dandy, one of the recurring themes in the racist imagery deployed against black people was that we were "uppity" and aspired for a higher social standing and responsibility than either earned or deserved. African Americans were natural incompetents when viewed through the White gaze of Jim and Jane Crow America.

That lie is still with us in the 21 century. In the white animosity and resentment faced by Barack Obama, the basic challenges to his legitimacy as President, the assumption by the Tea Party Birther Palin populists has long been that Barack Obama is incompetent and should "know his place."

Ironically, Herman Cain is actually incompetent and not fit to be President of the United States. Could the white supremacist frames of Jim and Jane Crow apply to Herman Cain? Would the visual "work" when applied to him? Would the semiotics of Cain as lawn jockey or a happy servant be a good fit for his personhood and habitus?

I like to play with fire. So let's find out. Consider this our American Pickers meets Photoshop meets Jim Crow meets Herman Cain game.

Don't feel embarrassed to participate: Herman Cain gave tacit approval for such acts of imagination, because as he kindly reminded us, that whole Civil Rights deal was much to do about nothing anyway because the water from those segregated water fountains "tasted the same."

My Photoshop skills are adequate. But, I know there are folks out there who have real skills.

I offer you 3 images to play with (feel free to use your own) and I will post the winners next week. By the way, a Herman Cain themed pinball machine would be a real treat.


Herman Cain as Rastus of Cream of Wheat:

Herman Cain and the White Man's Burden:

Herman Cain and Coon Chicken Inn:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pedagogical Failures: Donald Tapscott's NPR Interview on How to Better Change Colleges to Suit the Millennial Snowflake Generation

As Mr. Burns said to Homer, "dance monkey dance!" It would seem that in the twenty-first century, the college classroom is being reduced to a carnival sideshow self-help session in which instructors are ring leaders.

The great Professor Claire Potter of Tenured Radical fame has moved over to The Chronicle of Higher Education's website. Quite kindly, she also imported her blog roll which includes this humble website. Thus, We Are Respectable Negroes has some new folks who may not have discovered us otherwise.

As long time readers know, I do occasionally comment on issues surrounding higher education where my favorite posts include the following: 1) how I have used the Black Israelites as a jumping off point for discussing white privilege and 2) the greatest student email ever sent by an entitled snowflake to their professor (which ironically The Chronicle reran for its readers last year).

In welcoming some new readers, many who likely work in higher education, it seemed appropriate to return to my theme of "pedagogical failures." Last Thursday, NPR's Talk of the Nation hosted the esteem Donald Tapscott who discussed his new book Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business And The World, and its thesis that colleges and universities need to retool for the 21st century and change how they engage the 'Net generation.

It is rare that I am moved to even consider calling into a radio program, but on that day I was quite close to pulling over to the side of the road and offering a fusillade or two for the good doctor to consider as rebuttals to his overly generous and rosy depiction of the current crop of college students.

Much of what Tascott offered was nothing new to those who are knowledgeable about the pressures facing colleges and universities in the 21st century. Instructors should place materials online, democratize information for ease of access and use, professors should move from "teacher centered" to a "student centered" classroom, change their teaching styles to suit a limited attention span generation of multitaskers, and that universities had better please the customer by making information "relevant" to students.

Context matters in this discussion. We are in the midst of a broader movement to destroy tenure and to adjunctize the profession, to radically review the role of liberal arts education in light of how it provides a "service" to students entering the labor market, and an overall assault on public education where the good work that is done in the classroom is reduced to a set of deliverables, the value of which can be assessed by bureaucrats and politicians, who then in turn decide who is to be fired and (re)hired. Ultimately, it seems that there is a whole lot being asked of college and university staff without a corresponding increase in compensation or job security.

In sum, after NPR's interview with Don Tapscott I was left with a good many questions, and some initial reactions that would benefit from a good salon. There are a good many educators and others who have thought about theses issues who frequent WARN so your thoughts are invited and welcome.

Let us begin:

1. Is it so problematic that many of the techniques used in the classroom of the 21st century are none to different from those used centuries ago? Is a good lecture, seminar, or discussion not in fact timeless?

2. Are professors employees of students? Should the former be providing some "deliverable" or "service" to the latter? How does this formulation negatively impact the quality of college-level instruction?

3. There is something to be said for the experience of participating in a classroom discussion, attending seminar or lecture, and interacting with one's fellow students. The experience of online learning and downloading materials seems to be missing out on the intangibles which separate a positive and deep learning experience from a superficial one. In the 21st century is college simply to be a way of delivering facts? Consequently, it is out-priced in an era of relatively "free" information online?

4. As mentioned in the NPR interview, is Phoenix University really a model of learning that we should be striving for across the board?

5. Tapscott has high praise for the current crop of college students, calling them "the smartest generation ever." Huh? What of data suggesting that Millennials are actually learning less than previous generations and retaining even fewer amounts of what they are exposed to?

6. Second point: how can Tapscott suggest that Millenials are doing well as measured by grades, when there has been a notorious amount of grade inflation in recent years, so severe that an "A" is now expected--even for the most mediocre of work?

7. I am no Luddite. I almost exclusively use a seminar approach in my teaching. As a function of that policy, I do not play Powerpoint karaoke, nor do I provide reading summaries, handouts, or offer copies of my notes to students. I also do not allow the use of laptops in my classes (this policy has greatly improved the quality of conversation; it has also weeded out weaker students who would rather be doing something else than giving the class their full focus). Am I so wrong? Are my students "missing out" on something?

8. I>clickers that reduce classes to a game show. Tweeting questions to professors instead of raising one's hand and asking them. Social networking in the classroom. In total: What are we teaching students by facilitating a culture where basic interpersonal skills are neglected, and their semi-anonymous narcissistic predilections coddled?

9. Tapscott praises the wondrous abilities of multitasking snowflakes who get good grades, can do three things at once, and (to my eyes and as mentioned in the NPR segment) are proud of never reading a book. Help me out, I thought the research suggested that multitasking is in fact changing brain structure...but in problematic ways? And that multitaskers perform poorly on said tasks all things being equal?

10. Back to technology. I have seen some great podcasts online of master lecturers from places such as Yale (cheers to my hometown), Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere. But, what of the move to make all lectures available to any who would want to watch them? Is this in conflict with personal and academic freedom? Does the move to put classes and lectures online create the dangerous illusion that consumption by proxy is a fair substitute for having one's butt in the seat of a lecture hall?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

You Know They Put Cows on Trial For Murder? Mobs, Madness, Mass Hysteria and the Casey Anthony Trial

Excoriation! God demands blood! She is a witch! Where is her familiar! I saw her communing with Satan by the old Elm tree! The pig killed my wife! I saw Jim rise from the dead and walk the streets after his burial, he is possessed by an evil spirit!

The crowds that gathered outside of the Casey Anthony trial and heckled upon her subsequent release were the stuff of the Middle Ages (or alternatively the descendants of a lynch mob in either the old West or Jim Crow South). They did not have pitchforks and nooses. So perhaps that is a whee bit of progress as Casey Anthony was not torn limb from limb by those seeking "justice."

Frankly, the reflexive spectacle of a mania fueled moral panic in which white girls and women are forever under threat by evil moms and other villains is really nothing new or special. And moreover, the media coverage--where a desperate press is running on fumes and has resorted to talking about eerie coincidences which portend the rage of the Gods and prove that vengeance will be done--would be laughable if it were not so pathetic.

Lightning strikes near the site where Caylee Anthony's body was found; lightning near the court house; "bleeding" pictures of the poor child held like almost religious relics by deranged and grieving soccer moms who were interviewed on CNN; Casey spent 1,043 days in jail, Caylee had 1,042 days of life; and other signs point to inexorable justice and astrological intervention.

From the witch hysteria that swept Salem, Massachusetts and Europe in which many thousands of "unconventional" women (and others) were killed as a way of cementing social cohesion, stealing land and property, or as acts that granted social standing to accusers, to the media circus of the 21st century, it would seem that our little monkey brains have not changed all too much over the centuries. Group think still holds purchase.

[A question: Is the allure of old habits an adaptive response for surviving in a world where big frightening monsters could gobble up our primate ancestors on the plains of the Serengeti?]

One should not forget that the "supernatural" was commonplace during the Middle Ages of Europe: It was something to be explained through the logic of empiricism and procedures of law. Thus, a historical detour on a Monday to an era when witches and warlocks were burned at the stake, pigs were tried for murder, and church authorities had to offer logical proofs of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

As we watch the crying, hysterical mouth-breathers who have been suckered into the Casey Anthony spectacle and are now forced to find another drug, such echoes of the past sound none too unfamiliar in the present, do they not?

Medieval Court Cases: Animals on Trial?

One of the most bizarre human-animal trends of all recorded history took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. This was the formal prosecution of animals accused of committing crimes against people. Animals charged with such crimes (usually murder) were brought to court, appointed a lawyer, and tried, just as a person would be. Records show that hundreds of animals were found guilty and then executed by hanging.

In the 1994 article “The Law Is an Ass: Reading E. P. Evans’ The Medieval Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals” (Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, published by the organization Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Piers Beirne described the practice in detail.

The article reviewed books on the subject by several authors, focusing on one written by E. P. Evans in 1906. Evans described 191 animal trials, mostly from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Most of the trials took place in France, Italy, and Germany. There are also a few historical records of trials in other European countries and in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Animals were tried for a variety of offenses besides murder, mostly fraud and theft. Records show that many were tortured for confessions (just as humans were) prior to the trial. It is not clear how animal confessions were interpreted, considering that animals cannot speak human languages.

Criminal proceedings against animals were handled with the utmost seriousness by medieval legal authorities. Animals that harmed humans were considered servants of the devil because they had violated God’s directive in the Bible that humans should have dominion over animals. A particular Bible verse, Exodus 21:28, was often cited as the grounds for executing an animal convicted of murder: “If an ox gore a man or a woman that they die, then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten.” The penalties for offenses less serious than murder matched those given to humans for the same types of crimes.

Evans listed a variety of domestic and wild animals, as well as rodents, sea creatures, birds, and insects, that were tried at various times by government or church courts. Those that could not be physically brought to court were tried in absentia. In general, only the larger domestic animals, such as pigs, bulls, cows, horses, sheep, and dogs, actually appeared in court and were subjected to punishments. A few animals were found innocent or granted pardons or reprieves by authorities. Many wild animals found guilty by church courts were excommunicated (exiled from the church).

The vast majority of criminal defendants were pigs, probably because farmers allowed them to roam free much of the time. In 1386 a pig accused of murdering an infant was tried and convicted by a court in Falaise, France. The pig was hanged at the gallows by the village hangman. Her six piglets were charged with being accessories to the crime but were acquitted “on account of their youth and their mother’s bad example.”

A lawyer could establish his reputation by performing well in animal trials. In France in the early 1500s, a lawyer named Bartholomé Chassenée was appointed to represent some rats that had eaten and destroyed some barley (a felony). Chassenée used a series of clever legal maneuvers to delay the trial as long as possible. At one point he convinced the judge that it was too dangerous for his clients to come to court on the appointed day because of the many cats in the neighborhood. Chassenée became famous throughout France for his excellent legal skills.

It is not clear why medieval courts went to the trouble to formally try animals before executing them. Some historians believe that these trials were intended to be warnings to animals and people about the consequences of their actions. Others believe the trials represented a philosophical desire to exert some human control over nature.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Introducing President Barack Obama, "Space Coon"

As a ghetto nerd, I love some good science fiction. As a ghetto nerd military history buff grognard I am a sucker for a good counter-factual or "what if?" scenario. Much of the latter is pure pablum--although I have to admit that I have a soft-spot for Harry Turtledove's  epic Civil War/World War 1/World War 2  alternate universe series. Nevertheless, various examples of the sci-fi "what if?" genre often hit a a sweet spot when one is looking for some late night at the bar drinking some Stella reading.

I recently stumbled upon the book Weapons of Choice which takes 21st century military technology, adds some The Final Countdown elements, and puts the U.S. Navy of the year 2021 in the middle of the Battle of Midway (I won't give away any more details). Weapons of Choice is also great fun because the author doesn't shy away from exploring how the social norms of the 21st century, especially those surrounding race and gender, would befuddle many Jim Crow era white Americans.

Weapons of Choice features a great moment where one of the white bigots in the World War 2 era U.S. Navy is shocked by the people of color he encounters and how they have mastered the stuff of Amazing Stories and Flash Gordon. In an inferiority laced moment of frustration said character utters a priceless phrase, "space coons," to describe these near-alien Americans from the future.

As a ghetto nerd, and connoisseur of racial slurs, "space coons" leaped off of the page and instantly into my mental Rolodex. Space coons also triggered a series of connected thoughts on the whiteness of science fiction.

Historically, classic sci-fi was embraced as a site of imagination that freed readers and authors to envision a world that was radically humanistic and progressive. While wonderfully imaginative and inclusive (in their best instances), in its worst iterations the genre was quite literally a "white" space where robots and aliens stood in for people of color and the Other.

In classic science fiction the protagonist was often a white man encountering an untamed world that represented the various colonial and imperial projects of the West. Alternatively, he was a time traveler who arrived in a world where a peaceful White civilization was under siege and its members were quite literally consumed by savages coded as non-white. At its heart, so much of golden age science fiction was satisfying to the the White gaze precisely because black and brown folks were not present. The race problem was solved, and thus a Utopia created, by removing what was understood to be the root of the trouble.

Never to be rendered silent or excluded, there is a rich tradition of African American speculative fiction--the Delanys, Mosleys, Schuylers, Butlers, Ellisons, and Morrisons of the world--that stand as rebuttals against the whiteness of science fiction. In parallel, there is also a growing critical literature on the role of race in the sci-fi genre.

For example, Isiah Lavender makes a great point in his book Race in American Science Fiction where he smartly suggests that Barack Obama is quintessentially the stuff of science fiction because for most of this country's history the bounded nature of racialized citizenship deemed an African American President an impossibility.

When considered from this critical framework (with policy preferences and partisanship placed aside) President Obama is a figure of The Fantastic.

Some have been suggested that President Obama is a bound man because of his role as a racial triangulator. Echoing Isiah, I would double down and add some additional nuance to his sharp observation: the figure of President Obama was/is the stuff of fantasy and wish fulfillment. He should not exist. Yet, he does.

As a fantastical figure his very personhood frightens so many because given the weight of history a black man could not (and should not) be President of the United States. As a figure that is the stuff of speculative fiction and sci-fi (or perhaps more rightly Afrofuturism and Black Science Fiction), Obama is also a vessel for the hopes and dreams of many Americans. Thus, the tears when he was elected...and an impossible standard which he cannot hope to reach as the first black President of The United States of America.

Thus, my suggestion that President Obama is a space coon. He isn't alone. For any negro or negress who turns up where you least expect them and in defiance of Whiteness and the White Imagination is one too.

That isn't a bad thing per se. His status as a space coon goes a long way towards explaining the virulent and hateful antipathy faced by President Obama from embittered Right-wing, White racial reactionary populists. President Obama's identity as a space coon also explains the frustration felt by many who seek a savior amd hero in the form of a black man who happens to be President. In total, confronting the unbelievable and heretofore unimaginable can generate no small amount of either cognitive upset and/or wild eyed dreaming.

Ultimately, space coons are people too. They both inspire and amaze. And they cannot help but to disappoint.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Irresponsible Government: Mitch McConnell's Debt Crisis Gambit and the Inauguration of Banana Republic U.S.A.

With Mitch McConnell's "creative" legislative solution to the debt ceiling crisis, the Tea Party GOP's kamikaze suicide bomber game with the U.S. economy has taken a turn from the absurdly dangerous to the theatrically tragic.

I wonder what Robert's Rules of Order would say about the following: Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate Minority Leader has proposed a solution wherein Congress surrenders its own responsibility for the debt ceiling to the President, he in turn raises the limit in face of the threat of an improbable super-majority vote to stop said legislation from being enacted, while the Republicans get to save face by issuing faux protest votes and resolutions in the face of legislation their own Senate Minority Leader proposed.

Color me confused and befuddled.

As David Brooks suggested in the NY Times, the contemporary Republican Party is a cult where crazed devotion to the most radical Conservative ideology has overruled all common sense and normal political behavior.

President Obama, a chronic compromiser, has rewarded this behavior at every turn through an almost slavish belief that the Republican Party--a group who have publicly announced that a Pyrrhic victory in 2012 in which the American economy is destroyed if need be--are working in good faith towards the common good.

Once more to a reminder of how a healthy democracy is dependent upon responsible political parties.

1. Political parties are to be responsible to the public because they are held accountable at the polls.
2. Political parties are to be responsible in government as they are working for the collective interest with an understanding that consensus and compromise are the foundations of good government.
3. Political parties are to be responsible as organizations where they act as gate keepers who put forth candidates for office who while appealing to their respective base, are also centrist enough to maintain a tradition of consensus in appealing to the healthy middle of American public opinion.

For a variety of reasons (the changing nature of mass media; the rise of opinion journalism and 24 hour cable news; a failed educational system; the transformation of the Citizen into the Consumer in an era where the State is expected to fail in its responsibilities; and an inability to confront the decline of American Empire in the new Gilded Age) the last few decades have witnessed a crumbling in the collective understanding of what good government and responsible political parties entail.

The antics of the Tea Party GOP in the Age of Obama have only accelerated this process.

Despite its troubles and a long arch where full democracy remains a work in progress, there was something to those heady, stuck on a broken repeat button talking point claims of American Exceptionalism by the Right--the country's political institutions were taken as models of healthy democracy and good governance throughout the world. With the politically skulduggerous, and twisted approach to finding a "win only for us" solution on the debt ceiling, Mitch McConnel and the Tea Party GOP has thrown that well-earned brand name into a fetid latrine.

In sum, the McConnell plan for solving the debt ceiling crisis is one better suited for a banana republic than for the world's "greatest democracy". Ultimately, McConnel's approach lacks transparency, avoids responsibility, abdicates legislative authority, and betrays Congressional power. Perhaps, and most importantly, it expands the power of the Executive branch in ways that border on the unconstitutional.

Consider the following for a moment. During the last part of the 20th century we have witnessed the rise of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. presciently described as "The Imperial Presidency." Domestically, we have seen a surrender of responsibility by Congress as a short-term solution to the debt crisis. In keeping with the law of unintended (or are they in fact planned?) consequences, McConnel's plan is one more nail in the coffin of balanced government and restraint on the "unitary executive."

There is a soundtrack playing in the background as President Obama mulls the Tea Party GOP's offer of a parlay in the debt crisis. He is the victim in a horror movie going into the dark room or opening the closet door all the while the audience is yelling at him to run away. He is the trusting soul walking into a clear trap, willing to sign a Faustian bargain that gives his enemies even more ammunition with which to shoot him.

As President Obama mulls over if he should take the poison pill from the barb laced glove of Mitch McConnell, it will ultimately be the American working, middle classes, and poor who lose in this game of political chicken.

This is how democracy ends with a death of 1,000 cuts...and perhaps not with thunderous applause as the rich, the corporateocracy, and their gaggle win out either way. Mitch McConnell's debt ceiling gambit is sadly one more brick in that long trotted road.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

At Least Casey Anthony Had the Good Taste Not to Blame the Murder of Her Child on a Black Man

See what you all made me do, with all of you egging me on about the history of white women (and men) claiming that black men giant negroes black rapists highwaymen killed their kids (or wives and husbands)?

Why do you have to let the facts, history, and weight of social and political context get in the way of a good moral panic about white children living in immediate peril? Unsafe even in their own homes? Always at risk, and for a panoply of reasons?

You folks can be so callous and cruel with all of your race obsessions.

Way back in the 1990s, Emerge Magazine had a great story on the fixation in the White Mind with black criminality and how the go to excuse--the updated version of the myth of the black rapist white women's tears get black folks hung from a tree Rosewood moment--remained a person of color.

Emerge Magazine's cover story on Clarence Thomas that depicted him as a lawn jockey is to this day the go to, classic, "boot on throat" attack against Black Conservatives. For my dollar, Lee Daniels' essay "The American Way" is a close second in Emerge Magazine's portfolio.

White women are a protected class in this country. White children even more so. Black folks the most vulnerable. Daniels captures this dynamic perfectly in the following essay from 1995.

The American Way

The crime, as the tearful, young mother reported it, was demonic–a carjacking in which two infants had been swept up by a thief as he roared off with the car. The mother’s pleas for her sons’ safe return, made to a national media who had gathered in the small city of Union, South Carolina, to report the story’s denouement in all its pathos, were wrenching.

Much of the nation was transfixed by the pictures of the angelic infants and by Susan Smith’s mask of grieving motherhood.

Looming as a backdrop to these images of innocence was Smith’s description of the demon figure: The brother in the skullcap. The Black Bogeyman.

But the nation soon discovered there was no Black devil. Smith, the young, White mother of the tear-streaked face, possessed by demons of her own, later confessed to authorities that she strapped her sons into her car and plunged them to their deaths in a nearby lake.

But until the moment when the local police officials bluffed a confession out of her, there was that image, loose again on the surface of the national consciousness-the image out of the warped mind of the ante-bellum South, out of Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, The Clansman, and D.W Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation.

There was that image again–the one that had proved so valuable to three generations of White Southern politicians during the era of Grand Apartheid, and to George Bush, the Republican Party’s 1988 standard-bearer, who restored it to a position of “respectability” in the White-centrist discourse on race relations.

There was that image again–the one that a White Boston businessman named Charles Stuart had used in 1989 to try to hide the fact that he had murdered his pregnant wife for her life insurance. Stuart’s story that a Black man killed his wife and also shot him ignited a police state of siege for African-American men in Boston for nearly three weeks. A Black man with a criminal record was eventually arrested and charged with the crime. Not until Stuart killed himself in January 1990 as his ruse unraveled, was that man–and Boston’s Black community–cleared of the crime.

In a bizarre twist, Jesse Anderson, the man killed with Jeffrey Dahmer in Wisconsin prison by a Black inmate, was serving time for the 1992 killing of his wife. He had falsely claimed that two Black men had stabbed and bludgeoned his wife to death.

Susan Smith knew the powerful grip the image of the dangerous Black man has on White Americans’ psyche.

And who can doubt it? In her descent into pathological desperation, that knowledge became for her, as it had for Charles Stuart, the crucial element in calculating that she could commit the gruesome crime and get away with it. The police of Union, South Carolina, to their credit, behaved differently than those of Boston.

They weren’t as gullible, or as willing to trample the rights of Black people based upon the mere word of a White person.

But is there anyone who believes that the story of Susan Smith will be the end of the racist scapegoating of African-Americans, a compulsion that once again suffuses American society?...

The full piece continues here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

When White Children Die Angels Cry: Of Casey Anthony, Moral Panics, and White Slavery

The world is going to hell in a handbasket. The age old con game of distracting moral panics continues with the Casey Anthony case.

The economy is dead in the water, President Barack Obama is revealing himself to be a consummate corporatist triangulator who is playing the Tea Party GOP's game of suicide with the debt limit, repressive governments continue their violence against the people's movements in the Arab world, and one more gem--manned space travel-- in what was the golden crown of U.S. Empire and global dominance has been thrown into the dust pile of history.

The latter is heavy with symbolic weight in the Age of the Great Recession: the many thousands of people who directly and indirectly depended on NASA's space shuttle program for their livelihoods will now be either in the breadline, fighting for a limited number of berths in the private sector, or most frighteningly, seeking minimum wage McJobs.

These truly important matters of national concern and well-being are sideshows and inconvenient facts to the media's obsessive coverage of the Casey Anthony case. Perhaps Stalin was correct when he said that, "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic?" The obvious sadness at a life lost too young is a given, but the Casey Anthony trial is one more example of how race, crime, the value of human life, and justice problematically intersect in American life.

Where is the outcry when black and brown kids are kidnapped, murdered, or killed? Where is the amber alert and national panic for young children like Jada Justice? Where is the complaint and shock when the "justice" system convicts innocent poor people, or at the well documented disparities in sentencing along lines of race? Or when black and brown people who are unjustly sentenced to life sentences are left to rot on death row and found innocent decades later?

My point is ultimately a simple one. Whiteness wants justice when it is convenient. Whiteness does not want justice in all things. Nor does Whiteness want justice consistently. Thus, the howls, shocks, and surprise of "mainstream America" when to their eyes a miscarriage of justice occurs and one of their own is a victim. Justice should be sought in all things, and consistently for all people.

The media circus around the Casey Anthony case, and the curious, but not at all surprising silence when the legal system fails its other citizens, once more proves the myopia of Whiteness--and again how treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity...and justice for Caylee Anthony.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wednesday Salon: William Buckley Interviews Huey Newton and Muhammad Ali

Oh the good old days when a man could smoke a cigarette on television.

In the interest of balance, I have decided to occasionally highlight Conservatives that I find tolerable...and perhaps even like, if not respect. Although he was wrong on Civil Rights, I still hold William F. Buckley's intellect in high regard.

By comparison, the metaphorical suicide bombers in the contemporary Tea Party GOP who are holding a gun to the head of the American economy with their irresponsible position on the debt ceiling makes me yearn for a return to the days of Buckley, Goldwater, and Bush the Elder. I never would have imagined that I would write such a thing.

A healthy American democracy is prefaced on responsible political parties and a responsible electorate that works in the interest of the Common Good. In the Age of Obama and the Great Recession, the Republican Party with its cultish followers have abdicated their seats at the table of good sense in order to play a game of ill informed political brinkmanship with the U.S. economy as the ultimate victim. It would seem that once more the Federalists were correct in their worries about the rabble and the dangers of vested interests in the form of a political party that has lowered itself to the level of a brutish faction.

I wonder if the Constitutional fetishists on the Right appreciate that irony?

As seen here, Ali, one of my heroes, is not a perfect man. Nor, is he always as coherent and integrated in his thinking as memory and its worshipful lens would have us believe. Likewise, Huey Newton, he whose picture adorns many a young black nationalist in training's college dorm wall, is also freed from the lens of nostalgia. Both are sincere and imperfect. Neither is as articulate as we dreamed them to be decades later. Huey P. Newton and Muhammad Ali remain high in my estimation precisely because of those traits. Once more, I like my heroes down to Earth...not so high on a pedestal that I cannot reach them.

The American people do not need great men or great women to get us out of this mess. We just need reasonable folks who are not willing to burn a village in order to "liberate it" in the interest of advancing their political ideology.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Of Happy Slaves and Racial Microaggressions: Why Herman Cain Could be the Perfect Obama Rival

If you prick me do I not bleed?

After reading The Christian Science Monitor's essay "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," I am in violation of one of my own pedagogical rules as something about Professor Charlton McIlwain's analysis has rubbed me the wrong way--and well, for lack of a better phrase, it feels personal.

I often tell my students that the "I" in our discussions of politics is a beginning and not an end for analysis. Normative priors are important to the degree to which they are transparent and acknowledged. Feelings matter, emotions matter, but they must not cloud reasoned analysis. Especially in discussions of race and identity politics--where the personal can be quite political--this is not always easy.

McIlwain's analysis of Herman Cain's branding in his campaign ads is spot on. And while the focus on the strategies used by Cain to distinguish and market himself as a black conservative to white conservative audiences may be correct, the conclusion (that those strategies will translate into electoral success) is a shaky one at best. By comic book analogy, if President Obama is Superman, Herman Cain is his bizzarro universe flying backwards doppelganger. Ultimately, the latter has not a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Republican nomination in 2012.

Nevertheless, there is a sharp moment in "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival" that gave me pause. Consider the following passage:

But Cain counters the black liberal stigma in one fell swoop. He stamped “conservative” across his political ads, making the label his badge of honor. You see, in today’s racial parlance, conservative is not only antithetical to being liberal; it is antithetical to being black, which is what you must be if you’re a black man looking for Republican votes.

Cain further showcases his conservative persona. In one such ad he recalls one of his greatest life lessons. “My daddy always said, ’dem that’s comin’, get on the wagon, dems that ain't, get out the way.” Cain’s quaint recollection taps into conservative nostalgia. They remind viewers that the good ‘ol days were not only simpler. They were days when folks like Cain’s daddy still spoke the broken English of their slave forebears, and tended the mules pulling those wagons.

Label me a pedant, but as a point of historical clarification, those times were never simple.

McIlwain offers a half-digested thought where follow through is oh so critical. Most important, a failure to bring the argument full circle and to close its loop leads to an avoidance of some hard questions such as the following:

1. Why do Conservatives find said images comforting? Why the stereotypical image of worn over, former slaves, who are simple folksy types ready to receive the benevolence of the White Man's Burden, and not of a free people with agency who fought every step of the way to liberate themselves in the face of horrific and oppressive white supremacy?

2. What precisely about the idea of black folks a few years removed from slavery and perpetual status as human property resonates with the White Conservative Soul?

3. Is this a Gone with the Wind moment, where some silly, empty nostalgia of happy darkies on the old plantation still looms large over the American psyche? What types of political work does that do for Herman Cain, for the Tea Party GOP, for Conservatives?

4.Why do folks like Herman Cain (i.e. his obsession with "being off the plantation" or a "runaway slave") and others feel so free to abuse the history of black Americans and the hellish reality that was chattel slavery? No other group, with perhaps the exception of Native Americans, has their history so easily played with, where there are few, if any, consequences for such gross misrepresentations of fact?

There is angst afoot here. In sum, "Why Herman Cain Could be the GOP's Perfect Obama Rival," feels like a racial microaggression, where it is not the intent, or even the soundness of The Christian Science Monitor's claims, but the context and implication of said work that signals an uncomfortable and unpleasant truth.

Help a brother out if you could. Am I on to something here?

Chauncey DeVega on Ring of Fire Radio Discussing the GOP's "My Best Friend is Black" Strategy

Sharing as always in the interest of improving my game.

Here is my interview from a few weeks back on Ring of Fire Radio that is a followup to my "The "GOP's My Best Friend is Black Strategy" over at Alternet. This was a solid 15 or so minutes--of which the above clip is the first half--where I covered a good amount on Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, and the other assorted low hanging rotten fruit that comprise the black face of the Tea Party GOP.

It was fun, and fingers crossed, there is more to come. I was a radio host for many years, and as I do more interviews I am reminded of how I miss the format. Perhaps Crom will smile down on me and an opportunity will make itself available in the near future? We shall see...

Monday, July 4, 2011

"The Constitution Has Been Highjacked by Vicious People": Michael Dyson's Ownage of George Will and the Constitutional Fetishists

Academics are often too nice. I am not: the Tea Party Koch brothers funded movement is sinister. They are the Know Nothings of the 21st century and should be swept into the dustbin of history with great haste.

Professor Michael Dyson brings some sonnage to George Will on This Week and the onanistic originalism of the Constitutional fetishists. Brother Dyson is sometimes a mile wide and an inch deep in his analysis. But he is never boring or lacking in lyrical dexterity, flow, and more than a few quotables--fitting given that dude is "the hip hop professor" after all.

Harvard's Jill Lepore is also great. She has had her foot ten inches up the Tea Party brigands behinds from jump street. Dr. Lepore's C-SPAN interview from a few months back is also quite good, as is her book on the tea baggers and their misunderstandings of American history and the political tradition of which they are part (but not heir, please make note of the distinction, as it is quite important).

The Constitution is a practical document, authored by imperfect people, and has always been a work in progress, whose fully democratic possibilities still await us. The Framers thought the American people to be forward looking and not moribund by a narrow devotion to the past. The Constitutional fetishists on the Right oftentimes, and in particular as of late, have forgotten that fact.

This can be forgiven: the impossible made real with the election of Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, can tend to do that to those who are drunk on the white racial frame and possessed of a sick White Conservative Soul.

On July 4, 2011 let's embrace a new maturity. America is at the apotheosis of her Empire. It is now time to grow up and see her founding document as something real and practical. The Constitution is not divine. Moreover, the answers to our collective problems do exist and will be found...but not if the American people embrace a wax museum come to life version of their collective history (and possible futures).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Independence Day Heroes: On Black Loyalists and Freedom Fighters Like Colonel Tye

I hope you are all enjoying your 4th of July weekend gluttony, cheap beer drinking, failed efforts at rutting, obligatory fireworks and patriotic proclamations. Independence Day is like all national holidays--a day to reinscribe sacred mythologies. One such mythology is that of Crispus Attucks, the first person to be killed by the British in what would become The War for American Independence.

Crispus Attucks is a great character in our national play. For Conservatives, low information real American types, the average lay person, Right-wing bloviators, and Constitutional fetishists, Attucks is proof positive that the country, and the framers, were not racist, and slavery a mere inconvenience in America's "exceptional" narrative. It would seem that in total, simple minds like simple stories.

For black Americans and their allies, Crispus Attucks is a martyr who can be channeled to demonstrate the quintessentially American nature of the black experience. Because whiteness remains interchangeable with "American," Attucks is a great counterweight. If the first American killed in the war to end British "tyranny" was black, what does that say about a narrative in which blacks folks are/were imagined as perpetual outsiders?

Moreover, what of inconvenient facts? For example, more blacks fought for the British than the Continentals. With the former promising manumission, and the later hypocrites on their failure to reconcile their own high minded virtues of liberty and democracy with the perpetual bondage of many thousands, the choice seemed a logical one. And lest there be any confusion, African American Loyalists and Continentals were both engaged in a grand freedom struggle for their people.

One of my favorite little known African American heroes who happened to fight for the British is the legendary Colonel Tye. A former slave, he put the fear of God in white Continentals throughout New Jersey and New York. Sadly, Colonel Tye will never get his own movie because Americans across the color line prefer their stories of black liberty and freedom to be portrayed in simplistic terms.

This Brother was no joke. Read on:


Colonel Tye, the most feared and respected guerrilla commander of the Revolution, was one of the many enslaved Africans who escaped and fought for the British.

Known in his youth as Titus, he was one of four young men owned by John Corlies of Shrewsbury, in the eastern part of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Shrewsbury Quakers, under increasing pressure from their Philadelphia-influenced counterparts to the west, finally began to end slavery among themselves in the 1760s. Corlies did not follow the local practice of educating his slaves or of freeing them on their 21st birthdays, and by 1775, he was one of the few remaining Quaker slaveholders in Monmouth County.

In November 1775, the day after Dunmore's Proclamation was issued, 22-year old Titus fled from his cruel, quick-tempered master, joining the flood of Monmouth County blacks who sought refuge with the British as soldiers, sailors and workers. Titus changed his name, gaining notoriety three years later as Captain Tye, the pride of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment.

While not formally commissioning black officers, the British army often bestowed titles out of respect, and Tye quickly earned their respect. In his first known military incursion, the June, 1778 Battle of Monmouth (in which not a single black from the county fought for the patriots), Tye captured a captain in the Monmouth militia.

In July, 1779, Tye's band launched a raid on Shrewsbury, and carried away clothing, furniture, horses, cattle, and two of the town's inhabitants. With his "motley crew" of blacks and white refugees known as "cow-boys," Tye continued to attack and plunder patriot homes, using his knowledge of Monmouth County's swamps, rivers and inlets to strike suddenly and disappear quickly. These raids, often aimed at former masters and their friends, were a combination of banditry, reprisal, and commission; Tye and his men were well-paid by the British, sometimes earning five gold guineas.

During the harsh winter of 1779, Tye was among an elite group of twenty-four black Loyalists, known as the Black Brigade, who joined with the Queen's Rangers, a British guerrilla unit, to protect New York City and to conduct raids for food and fuel.

By 1780, Colonel Tye had become an important military force. Within one week in June, he led three actions in Monmouth County. On June 9, Tye and his men murdered Joseph Murray, hated by the Loyalists for his summary execution of captured Tories under a local vigilante law. On June 12, while the British attacked Washington's dwindling troops, Tye and his band launched a daring attack on the home of Barnes Smock, capturing the militia leader and twelve of his men, destroying their cannon, depriving Washington of needed reinforcements, and striking fear into the hearts of local patriots.

In response, Governor Livingston, who had tried two years before to abolish slavery in New Jersey, invoked martial law -- a measure which proved totally ineffective -- even as large numbers of blacks, heartened by news of Tye's feats, fled to British-held New York.

In a series of raids throughout the summer, Tye continued to debilitate and demoralize the patriot forces. In a single day, he and his band captured eight militiamen (including the second in command), plundered their homes, and took them to imprisonment in New York, virtually undetected and without suffering a single casualty.

In September, 1780 Tye led a surprise attack on the home of Captain Josiah Huddy, whom Loyalists had tried to capture for years. Amazingly, Huddy and his friend Lucretia Emmons managed to hold off their attackers for two hours, until the Loyalists flushed them out by setting the house afire. During the battle, Tye was shot in the wrist, and days later, what was thought to be minor wound turned fatal when lockjaw set in.

After Tye's death, Colonel Stephen Blucke of the Black Pioneers replaced him as leader of the raiders, continuing their attacks well after the British defeat at Yorktown. Tye's reputation lived on, among his comrades as well as the Patriots, who argued that the war would have been won much sooner had Tye been enlisted on their side.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On "Kenyan" Birtherism: Herman Cain Goes Mandingo and Commits Black on Black Crime Against President Obama (Again)

Given Herman Cain's obsession with slavery, and how he, unlike Black folks who are not Tea Party GOPers is "off the plantation," this clip seemed oh so appropriate.

There is an interview with King High Vizier of the Black Garbage Pail Kids Black Conservatives Herman Cain in Sunday's New York Times Magazine which has already gotten some attention in the days prior to its release.

As is his recurring script, Herman Cain double blackens up and channels the worst Tea Party New Right Birther demagoguery in his Times' interview. And of course, Cain puts Dr. King in his mouth...again--just nasty given how Herman Cain has proudly admitted that he was a free rider during The Civil Rights movement because he had better things to do.

The real money shot in Cain's channeling of Birtherism is how he is the human chaff and cover for the worst of the GOP's race baiting. In the Age of Obama, he is the black front man for Lee Atwater's Southern Strategy where the latter's famous admission still rings true in the stale "Kenyan" and "show us the birth certificate" verbal Right wing ejaculations that:
''You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

''And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'''

The relevant portion of the interview follows. I do wonder what was edited out, and if the reporter tried to save some of what remains of Herman Cain's dignity.


Ballad of the Long Shot

Before you announced your campaign, you said that the liberal establishment is scared that “a real black man might run against Barack Obama.” Are you suggesting Obama isn’t really black?

A real black man is not timid about making the right decisions, that’s what I meant. Look, I’m not getting into this whole thing about President Obama. It is documented that his mother was white and his father was from Africa. If he wants to call himself black, fine. If he wants to call himself African-American, fine. I’m not going down this color road.

But you’re saying he’s not really a black man.

Not in terms of a strong black man that I’m identifying with. I identify with a strong black man like Martin Luther King Jr., or my dad, Luther Cain Jr., who didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he had a Ph.D. in common sense.

It has been said that the Tea Party has embraced you partly to provide cover for some racism in its ranks — like, How could racists support a black guy?

There’s no validity to that whatsoever. People who are still making those accusations have no other way to intimidate the growing force of the Tea Party citizens’ movement.

At Tea Party rallies, you see signs referring to Obama as Kenyan. Are those racist?

Not if you’re from Kenya. But he was born here.

I don’t think calling him a Kenyan is racist. Secondly, I think those kinds of signs have stopped because the leaders of the Tea Party movement have instructed their folks that we don’t need to do that kind of stuff.

Friday, July 1, 2011

July 4th BBQ Reading: A Brief History of Racial Violence at Chicago's Beaches

Question: Why are the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria at the beach?

Zora and I were strolling about one of Chicago's beaches last weekend when she smartly observed that the black folks were sitting on one side of the beach, and the whites on the other. Those of mixed race and members of groups who exist between the black/white binary were quite predictably sprinkled among and between the two groups.

"A practical social scientific puzzle!" I exclaimed.

My intuition was that folks take signals about seating from others and it becomes a game of sorts. Thinking more sentimentally, I also suggested that maybe the black folks sit so that they can see the South and the West of the city. Thus, they are facing home. The whites sit facing north, towards Downtown and The Gold Coast, their "natural" space and 'hood.

We did not resolve the puzzle to our satisfaction. A few days later the obvious dawned on me, in a hyper-segregated city, one with a long history of racial violence at its beaches, perhaps the racially coded spaces were echoes of the near past? Jim Crow may be dead, but history isn't even yesterday. Moreover, our daily habits are functions of the past even if it exists only as cultural memory...or for some, a practical life survival skill.

In what promises to be a long hot summer full of flash mob ign't antics, rumors of race remain real. That phrase, "rumors of race" is so beautiful because it captures so very well, and so much, the history of America. From race riots, to lynchings, to rebellion, to resistance, they are all bundled under that umbrella phrase. Rumors of race does some double work in an era of colorblindness because race remains an unspoken to signifier in the media's coverage of flash mob violence, where "urban" is the politically correct stand in term for "young" or "ghetto" black criminals.

In sum, public space is political space. When black folks would break and refuse the white supremacist law and custom where they were to get off of the sidewalk to let whites pass, those were claims on dignity and rights. Likewise, when African American men and women would put on their finest clothes and parade from their neighborhoods and into unfriendly white ethnic neighborhoods--where violent gangs of whites awaited them--those were claims on citizenship and belonging. Or in one of my newest favorite moments, when soldiers of the United States Colored Troops would remain in uniform and march through the streets of the Old Confederacy daring former rebel secesh trash to stop them, those were claims on manhood and citizenship.

Looking to the long history of the relationship between race and access to public space, Chicago Magazine has a great essay on the city's experience with violence at its beach areas that is well worth reading in its entirety. Of particular note, be sure to pay close attention to how mass public violence against black people engaged in leisure activity is so common (and was in fact fun and a rite of passage and privilege for whites and Whiteness), and the responsibility for said assaults is placed on African Americans for daring to go where they were unwelcome.


A Brief History of Flash Mobs and Chicago Beach Violence

This is starting to look like the summer of the "flash mob." It started with the closure of North Avenue Beach due to several cases of heat exhaustion. But rumors, which could initially be found at the Second City Cop blog—update: here's the right link, that one's from 2010—and newspaper comment threads, spread that the closure was due to groups of young people and/or flash mobs, i.e. groups assembled by text message or social networks to cause havoc (or, in more innocent cases, levity).

The CPD denies that was behind the beach closure, but flash mobs continue to dominate the news: last weekend, it was five youths arrested for robberies in Streeterville and on the Mag Mile, and last night another robbery downtown, though it's unclear whether there was any flash to the mob or whether it was just standard-issue street violence.

It's not terribly surprising that this incipient panic would begin on the beach. Chicago has a long history of newsworthy beach violence, which actually used to be much worse. In the early 20th century, beach riots were a fairly regular occurrence; from a scan of the Tribune archives, it seems residents could count on one every summer or two during the 'teens and 1920s, perhaps because they were even more heavily used before the advent of air conditioning. Beyond the infamous 1919 race riots, which started on a beach at 29th Street and lasted for eight days, Chicago's free and clear lakefront was often the scene of territorial battles and random violence.


(Manhattan Beach was "a popular spot for middle-class boys and girls to meet in the early decades of the twentieth century." It would later become Rainbow Beach, and would be the site of another riot.)


(Allegedly Connell was not wearing a suit that distinguished him as swimming "under the jurisdiction of the Wilson beach company.")


(On the same day, there was a crush at the Clarendon beach when 300 people tried to force their way to the water; one man was slightly injured, "and about twenty men and women fainted in the locker rooms." Temperatures were hot that summer; one night in July an estimated eight to ten thousand people slept in Grant Park, according to the Tribune.)


("Those in the crowd accused the police of undue violence, of striking girls in bathing costumes, and of roughly handling little children.")


(The beginning of one of the most notorious race riots in American history; it lasted eight days, and 38 people were killed.)


(The "simple little remark" was an exchange: upon hearing two lifeguards say "something about Jews, which Mrs. Stein resented," she responded to the [white] lifeguards, "I hear a life guard once married a white girl." According to R.L. Bessmer, one of said lifeguards, he had said nothing about Jews, and "believed he had been called a Negro and he resented it. He is not a Negro, but his skin has been tanned such a dark color that he has become sensitive about his complexion.")


(The above is an editorial, which requests: "Under the circumstances it would seem that the Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationships by remaining away from the beaches where their presence is resented.")


("Police claimed they foiled a plot by gangs of youths from various neighborhoods on the city's south and west sides to attack the integration waders at the sound of a bugle." Social media, circa 1961.)


(The scarlet head-shaving: "Judge Obermiller said yesterday he ordered the boys' heads shaved to identify them as 'teen-agers who drink.'" Because in 1962, the way to identify miscreants was... a buzz cut.)


("Local residents, however, said the increased presence of groups of high-school-age youths in the area concerns them.")

Also worth noting: the ostensible cause of the July 1966 riots, or at least the catalyst, was the closing of fire hydrants that residents were opening to cool off. In the wake of the riots, the city installed pools near where the violence occurred:

Chicago 1966 riot

I'm also reminded of Robert Caro's The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of urban planner Robert Moses, some of which is devoted to the racial conflicts that arose over access to New York's beaches and pools:

Whites routinely beat up blacks and Puerto Ricans in East Harlem when they tried to swim at Jefferson Pool; on occasion whites swam at Colonial Pool, although others felt unwelcome. Moses knew about these situations, referred to in his Harvard speech. Clearly he recognized racial and ethnic categories were in flux in the 1930s: the line was hardening between black and white, as the city became more racially diverse, complicated place. ["Race, Space, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City," Marta Gutman, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, December 2008]

Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion: Chauncey Devega on The Ed Schultz Radio Show This Thursday

I am scheduled to be on The Ed Schultz Radio Show this Thursday at 2:30pmish EST. As always, please listen in and offer up some constructive criticism--and praise if deserved. The topic is pretty open, but we (meaning me and kind patron benefactor Mr. Mike Papantonio of Ring of Fire Radio who is sitting in for Ed Schultz) will likely talk about Mr. Black Conservative Victimologist Herman Cain, my piece on the Democrats' misplaced fixation on the white working class vote, and whatever else happens to jump off.

Our last interview was a good one. Hopefully, my second appearance on The Ed Show will be worthwhile. Fingers crossed, this should be a fun 15 or so minutes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Boo Hoo Conservative Victimology: Glenn Beck and Family Attacked by "Violent Liberals" in New York City's Bryant Park

Cue up the violin for a sad, sad and familiar song: Conservatives are victims once more in the Age of Obama.

In New York City's Bryant Park, with "patriotic" blanket in tow, Glenn Beck was set upon by "bloodthirsty," "hateful," liberals that wanted to "lynch him" because he is a Conservative.

[Insert finger into mouth to induce vomiting]

Question: How long until the Right wing media and blogosphere are going to call for Eric Holder and the F.B.I. to investigate this egregious violation of Glenn Beck's civil rights as a white conservative?

Second question: Is Glenn Beck a liar, liar with pants on fire regarding this whole attention getting episode?

Let's just file this one in the capital "I" irony file. Glenn Beck is a political thug and provocateur who calls for violence against his ideological foes. Now, he has reaped a minuscule bit of what he has sowed. Thus, the rules governing the conservation of energy apply once more, even in the world of political theater:
Energy can be converted from one form to another, though. Mechanical energy, such as the kinetic energy of motion, can be converted to heat energy, for example in the heating of a car's brakes when it slows down. Chemical energy in the gasoline of the car can be converted into both heat energy in the exhaust and heating the engine, and into mechanical energy to move the car. Potential energy, such as the gravitational potential energy stored in an object which is on a high shelf, can be converted into kinetic energy as the object falls down. Electrical energy can be converted to heat or mechanical energy or sound energy in a variety of useful ways around the house using common appliances.

It is often the conversion of one form of energy to another which is the most important application of this rule. Often predictions of the behavior of physical systems are very much more easily made when using the idea that the total amount of energy remains constant. And careful measurements of different kinds of energy before and after a transformation always show that the total always adds up to the same amount.
What say you all? Is this just a little bit of poetic justice? Or is Glenn Beck, crocodile tears on full display, a legitimately aggrieved person, and "victim" of a Liberal/Progressive "lynch mob?"

Monday, June 27, 2011

Man Bites Dog in the Age of Obama: Black Hoodlums to be Charged with Attempted Lynching of White Teenager

Time for some real talk.

Humanzee mouth-breathing urban troglodyte street pirate highwaymen brigands are apparently using Facebook and other social networking tools to organize coordinated assaults and robberies in cities across the United States. One of these rampaging hordes attacked a young white man and beat him to a point where he was left disfigured and unrecognizable by his own mother.

Why? These barbarians want their gold and loot--the Ipad and other assorted electronic goodies. Thus I must ask, what is the cost of a life?

These repeated incidents of street pirate flash mob assaults have reminded me of an irony and a danger. To the first point, I love etymology. The origin of words and phrases has always been a bit of a hobby as the social history of language tracks the evolution (or is that devolution in some cases?) of a culture.

The phrase "race riot" for example almost exclusively applied to rampaging white mobs who set upon black communities where they would satisfy their blood lust in the name of racial hegemony through rape, robbery, murder, and other wanton violence. "Lynching" referred to any attack by two or more people on a single person.

Of course now solidly linked to the torturous, ritualistic murder of blacks in the United States during Reconstruction and through to some one hundred plus years later, lynchings were also conducted against Jews, Catholics, and other not-quite White immigrants. In sum, lynching was a catchall phrase that later became linked to ritualistic violence against some marked Other.

Fueled by a hunger on the part of reactionary whites to feed the beast of reverse discrimination and white victimhood in the Age of Obama, the "urban" flash mob meme is the newest moral panic, a wilding and Central Park Rape case waiting to happen in the 21st century. Drudge Report and the other media organs of the Right-wing are loving every minute of this ign't, black hoodlum foolishness because it sates their fixation on the myth of the black rapist and their yellow journalistic dreams of "When Giant Negroes Attack." Thus, these mob attacks are the ultimate fulfillment of the black image in the White mind.

The racially tinged, coordinated gang attacks on innocents in cities as varied as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Peoria, and elsewhere certainly speak to the death of shame, a lack of family structure, and a predatory urban youthocracy that has run amok. They also represent a puzzle for those race men and race women, sociologists, social workers, and others who while trying to explain these behaviors through appeals to structures and theory often give in to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Consider: When one of these trolls sets upon you, will you respond with a treatise on social disorganization and the decline of two parent homes?

When a group of these thugs tries to curb stomp you for an Ipad, will said scholar/professional offer up an explanation for how young people almost always attack in groups, and consequently a group think mentality creates bad behavior in otherwise "good kids?"

As these street pirate highwayman parade about and riot, will an appeal to structural inequalities in the labor market for black and brown young people provide comfort as they break the bones and put terror in the hearts of good, law abiding citizens of all colors?

We no longer live in an era where the hammer of white supremacy demanded as W.E.B. DuBois famously observed that it makes good sense for black folks to protect even their worst criminals given the greater evils of the white criminal "justice" system. No, we are creeping towards Bernie Geotz, one of those moments when a young tough runs into someone they should not have messed with.

When one of these street urchins are put down for their ill deeds, for death is often the wages of sin, we will inevitably witness an old ritual where grandma or auntie cries and wails that their son was a "good boy" and "didn't deserve to die," all the while knowing that he was none of those things.

In that moment the choice a simple one. Do good folks who know better stand up and engage in a little truth telling? Or do they get behind the excuse makers, and "social justice" types, who wallow in the Pollyannaish waters that are the soft bigotry of low expectations?

Theory matters. Not so much when there is a fist beating you about the head or a gun in your face.