Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On That Barack the Welfare King Obama Ad: Mitt Romney is a Racist Liar. Why is the Media Afraid to Hold Him Accountable?

It would appear that we have gone "Black to the Future" and the Reagan era.

Mitt Romney's newest ad suggests that President Obama is creating a society of dependence by giving out free stuff to those poor black and brown people on welfare. In the post-truth era inaugurated by the rise of Right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and the Conservative blogosphere, it is irrelevant that Romney's latest campaign ad is a willful misrepresentation of the facts. The Fourth Estate has abandoned all pretense of being guardians for the truth; they have been bullied into submission by Conservatives, and their invention of the catch all propaganda phrase "the liberal media."

Consequently, with few exceptions, the mainstream news media runs away from calling Mitt Romney what he actually is--a willful, almost pathological, liar.

Mitt Romney is also a racist liar.

To some folks, that language is strong, frightening, and offensive. This is expected: we live in a bizarre, post racial, post Civil Rights moment, where to call a white person--especially a Conservative--a racist is a bigger sin than racism itself. The public needs to be reminded that racism is not just mean words. Racism is not defined by intent (the common "he or she didn't mean it that way" defense). Racism is not limited to the KKK, skinheads, or signs that say "Colored Drinking Fountain," or "No Mexicans, Negroes, or Dogs." 

Racism is also about disparate outcomes, structures, institutions, and power. The media and social scientists have invented a whole vocabulary in order to avoid talking plainly about the type of racism being exhibited by Mitt Romney's campaign at present, the Republican Party since the 1960s, and the Tea Party GOP during the Age of Obama. We talk about dog whistles, coded signals, white racial resentment, symbolic racism, and racial affect. In our efforts to be subtle and precise, the obvious is often overlooked. 

As I wrote here, in this election cycle Romney and his fellow Republican candidates have been using racial air raid sirens that are direct appeals to white racism in order to win over white voters. The Tea Party GOP and its candidates are rarely held accountable because the news media is afraid of being called "racist" or "biased" by the Right's pundits and foot soldiers.

To help navigate these muddy waters in the public discourse, The Christian Science Monitor recently offered up a nice set of criteria for determining if a political campaign is using racism to further its electoral goals. Mitt Romney's Barack Obama is a "welfare king that wants to take stuff from white people and give it to undeserving black and brown poor people" meets several of these guidelines. My suggestion that Mitt Romney is a racist liar gains further traction when you place his most recent ad in a broader context. 

The patterns are very revealing:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Sikh Temple Shooting is One More Reminder That Whiteness is Anything But Benign and Innocent

Sometimes, we must speak uncomfortable truths. As I say on occasion, I am white folks' best friend because I tell them the truth when others will not.

For its owners, whiteness is constructed as something benign and innocent. Historically, and into the present, whiteness is the stuff of terror, fear, and death for a great many people around the world.

The KKK wore white robes in order to terrify black people by channeling the energy of ghouls and ghosts as they hung, raped, tortured, dismembered, murdered, and killed African-Americans in the post-Emancipation South.

First Nations and other peoples quickly came to realize that "the white man" was a harbinger of death and destruction. In fact, aboriginal and other cultures had to invent language in order to describe these "white men," who if encountered, should be treated with fear and caution.

Olaudah Equiano famously described the slave ships (and white crewmen) that transported him and his fellow Africans across the Atlantic in their hellish bowels as horrible monsters crewed by demons, and controlled by strange, wicked men from another world.

What follows will hurt some white folks to hear. It is nonetheless the truth.

A presumption of an existentially noble and good whiteness is a premise that allows white folks to exist in a space of perpetual innocence where the deeds of killers, murderers, and evil doers "who happen to be white" are a reflection on individual shortcomings, and never, almost by definition, comments on the character of "the white race."

For example, James Holmes can shoot dozens of people during Batman the Dark Knight Rises and he is not a reflection on pathological white masculinity. Instead Holmes is a less than ideal-typical case because he is "crazy" or "insane." Wade Michael Page can kill six Sikh-Americans during their worship service and he is just a "crazy" white supremacist who is automatically an outlier, one that is excluded from any conversation about what his behavior tells us about white racial identity, masculinity, violence, and hostility to the Other in the Age of Obama.

Ultimately, white people who commit wanton acts of murder and violence are individuals who just happen to be white and commit crime; people of color--especially African-Americans--who commit crime are representative of both their whole community, as well as a subculture and community in "crisis." As such, Americans tend to speak naturally and with great ease about "black crime." By comparison, and despite a white monopoly on whole categories of criminality, the language of "white crime" does not even exist in the public discourse or collective consciousness.

A plain statement of this reality is not news to people of color. In the United States, we learn these life lessons as a means of survival, and in order to successfully navigate a society where whiteness is normality, privilege, property, invisibility, and fashions itself as neutral and kind.

A plain statement of these facts may be upsetting to some white folks who have not had a moment of critical self-reflection about the deep relationship between whiteness, power, privilege, and violence. White race traitors and self-aware folk will nod with agreement, because to them, the latter observation is a simple and obvious one. To the uninitiated, this "real talk" as I like to call it, may hurt a bit...such is life.

Brotha Wolf, one of our commenters here on We Are Respectable Negroes, offered up a particularly lucid and sharp observation about the mass shooting of Sikh-Americans by a white supremacist in Wisconsin where he noted that:
There's another thing about whiteness that should be noted. White people see themselves as a monolith of greatness, morality, and decency. Any act of cruelty or insanity is an individual act as written in this post. 
On the other hand, black people are seen as a monolith of stupidity, violence, unethical behavior and worthlessness. Plus, any form of achievement or greatness is separated from the narrative of the "typical black person". Those acts are individualized and seen as exceptions to the rule.
This reminds me of Toni Morrison's devastating argument about the relationship between whiteness, violence, and terror--one that many white folks are both blind to and ignorant of--in her book Playing in the Dark:

Bell Hooks signals to Morrison's powerful observations when she writes that:
If the mask of whiteness, the pretense, represents it as always benign, benevolent, then what this representation obscures is the representation of danger, the sense of threat...In contemporary society, white and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists. This erasure, however mythic, diffuses the representation of whiteness as terror in the black imagination. It allows for assimilation and forgetfulness. 
The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror, bit it has also become a way to perpetuate the terror by providing a cover, a hiding place. Black people still feel the terror, still associate it with whiteness, but are rarely able to articulate the varied ways we are terrorized because it is easy to silence by accusations of reverse racism or by suggesting that black folks who talk about how we are terrorized by whites are merely evoking victimization to demand special treatment.
There should be a national intervention about the relationship between white masculinity, gun culture, and mass violence. We know that such a conversation will not occur.

Thus, I ask the following questions.

What will it take for white folks to look in the mirror and have an honest discussion about the killers in their midst, especially given the fact that two white men have now committed mass murder in almost as many weeks? Is whiteness, and those who have not transcended it, even capable of such an honest moment of critical self-reflection?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

White Nationalists Reflect on the Sikh Temple Massacre in Wisconsin: "Don't these people see that they're hurting the White man?"

Two weeks ago dozens were killed and wounded in Aurora, Colorado. Sunday, a gunman shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in suburban Wisconsin. The "Gunfighter Nation" is apparently eating itself alive; the NRA continues to hand it the silverware and knives.

As I wrote here about  James Holmes and the relationship between Whiteness, media framing, and mass murder, today's barbaric happening in Wisconsin will not lead to a national conversation about "40ish year old bald white men" who go on murder sprees.

As such, we will never see a special investigative report called "White in America: Why do White Men Commit Mass Shootings?" on any major news network in the United States.

Likewise, there will be no special congressional hearing or "Beer Summit" where a panelist dares to ask either "What is wrong with white men?" or "Are white men exhibiting pathological violence in response to the Age of Obama?"

Black and brown folks have a common experience when we hear a news report about a particularly sensationalistic crime. We cross our fingers and hope that "he or she ain't one of us." Why? Because the Other is not allowed the luxury of being treated as an individual in this society; we are judged by the deeds of the few as opposed to the virtues of the many.

By comparison, white privilege is the luxury of radical autonomy, freedom from group stigma, and the default defense and excuse that comes with being an "individual"--one who is "normal"--and as such, is not at all impacted by the negative deeds of others in their tribe.

The Age of Obama has brought many telling moments that reveal the permanence of the color line and the continuing national drama that is race in America. Our national obsession is also one of bizarre moments and strange happenings.

I try to make sense of the madness. To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises, I put my hand into the muck, waste, and filth that is the white supremacist online community so you do not have to.

It would seem that some White nationalists are having their own "I hope he isn't white" moment following today's murder rampage in Wisconsin.

Here is a peek inside of the collective consciousness and racial id of malignant racially chauvinistic Whiteness. You are forewarned.

1. This isn't good folks no matter which way you slice it!! Damn...

2. Don't these people see that they're hurting the White man?

3. If this perp is some white neo-nazi idiot, like it sounds like, I'm going to be so f***ing po'd. Typical redneck idiot ruining everything we work for, and try to separate ourselves from. Now this will fuel more liberal bs on all fronts. We'll probably hear how he thought they were muslims and went on some rant. GOD DAMMIT. I'm sick of these god damn idiots ruining the reputation of our race.

4. The hits keep coming. White males of America, I know you're frustrated, but channel that anger into productive, positive ways of helping your people. People say it's poor black males that need role models. WE need role models. We've forgotten how to act when stress goes through the roof.

5. Or someone trying to make us all look like we're hate groups. Sure enough this is probably going to be seen as a racist crime.

6. This was a BIG mistake if White nationalists are involved. Lets hope they are White muslims (which given the bad history between Sikhs and Muslims they probably are).

7. We have two possiblities here. One is we have a white man who did something rash, monstrous and crazy without regard for how it will impact the rest of us. The other is this is the work of someone who was turned into a Manchurian Candidate, and therefore this is another false flag attack. Since it's clear the gunman was shot and probably killed by police, it doesn't look like it would be the work of a Mossad agent, who would prefer to get away with murder literally. This is only going to harm our rights and interests because this isolate incident will be used to paint all whites with the same brush, as well as suppressing the far more numerous hate crimes against us.

8. If this guy is white, or worse a 'neo-nazi' (as the media say) then he is a complete and utter moron, disgrace and is the problem with our movement.Anybody on here agreeing with what he did (if he is white) is also a disgrace, things like this destroy and hurt our views, and completely turn other whites off us. And why the hell did this cretin go for Sikhs!? There are not a major problem, they are relatively few in number, peaceful, and dont cause whites any problems. They are also a lot more intelligent than Muslims and blacks and do not deserve this.

9. Whatever colour they are, they were innocent people and did not deserve this. If you think they did deserve this then you are a sick individual and part of the reason that our views are not taken seriously by the masses.

10. This guy is a grade A scumbag, I pray to god he was not a member on here....can you imagine the media? Please anybody, do not sympathise with what this man did, it just makes us all look really bad and puts many people off coming around to our views, and the truth.

11. Agreed. The man is scum and the exact opposite type of people we should be aligning ourselves with. If he turns out to be a white nationalist, it will hurt us so, so much. This is not the answer.

What Animal Related Charity Should I Donate Our Liberating Slavery "Collectibles" Money To?

I would like to thank all of you who donated to WARN's first effort to reclaim some of the slavery artifacts which are now being offered as "collectibles" on Ebay. I would also like to thank the folks at the Daily Kos, as well as the kind people from the Jim Crow Museum, who reached out to me with guidance and advice.

Collecting these objects remains a very worthy effort. However, it is also far more complicated than I first imagined when I was struck by visions of playing black Indiana Jones.

In all, there is a great project here, and one that deserves a good deal of planning and infrastructure. As I learned by talking to people with more expertise than I have regarding these matters, there are many fake and replica slave artifacts on the market. As a practical matter, it is going to be difficult to authenticate objects purchased via Ebay. I do not want your donations to subsidize the very disrespect for our honored dead which sparked your individual acts of generosity. The irony would be priceless: we get some money together to obtain some of these objects and we end up rewarding the very folks who are disrespecting the Black Freedom Struggle and Maafa. The thought was very upsetting to me.

This does not mean that I am going to cease my efforts to reclaim these objects and give them a proper home. I have a friend who works at the Smithsonian and I am going to ask her for some guidance on what resources are available to authenticate slavery artifacts. I also have a colleague who has experience with grants and foundation work. Once we put together the right mix of people, and sketch out a mission statement for a proposed organization, then we can do this on the scale it deserves.

In lieu of sending your money off to a stranger on Ebay, I am going to donate what we collected to a pet related charity. I am torn between donating our funds to a large and established group like the North Shore Animal League or a smaller fund that helps low income people provide emergency medical care to their animal family members. There are also quite a few wonderful pet sanctuaries that specialize in providing forever homes to our animal friends who are "unadoptable" for whatever reasons. If you personally know of a program that I should consider donating to, please email me their info.

On a related matter, the film and culture website Shadow and Act has a great feature essay which offers suggestions and guidance about using Kickstarter to raise money that could be of interest to some of you (I wish I had read it a few months ago).

As I learned from this experiment, asking folks for money--and doing it successfully--requires quite a bit of time, effort, and planning.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Limits of Living History: Reenacting the Murder of Black Sharecroppers at Moore's Bridge in Georgia

One of my favorite recent discussions here on WARN explored the relative value of wonderful series of historical reenactments, role-playing games, and living history. The above video is a logical extension of those earlier topics.

How do you make real The Death Camps, The Trail of Tears, The Middle Passage, or other moments when the banality of evil was real and not an abstraction? By attempting to play with history and "making it real" do we not in fact risk cheapening the memories of our honored dead? What can historical reenactments do to communicate the truth of these experiences?

For example, the annual reenactment of how black sharecroppers were killed in 1946 at Moore's Ford Bridge in Georgia is important, should be respected, and are good gestures in the spirit of "we will never forget!" I also acknowledge the power of rituals for helping the public to put into some context the particular dynamics of the past, and how history--and what it says about Power as well as "winners and losers"--lives in to the present. 

Moreover, rituals matter to the degree that they bring together people in a ceremony to talk with one another, and also to grow as a community in processing a common experience. Anti-racism as an ethic and vocation should, and ought to, include such exercises.

Here is where you all can help me. I have a dark and twisted imagination. I can conjure up things in my mind through reading a powerfully evocative piece of literature, biography, or non-fiction that are just as real as any movie or TV show--if not more so. 

I do not laugh or mock those of us who need to "see" a thing in order to accept it as real. We all have different gifts. I also do not want to minimize the noble intentions of the good people who want to remind their neighbors of the naked racism and brutal violence of lynch law--what was one of the de facto ways that white supremacy was enforced in the United States for at least a century or more. 

There is a drama to historical reenactments around slavery and other tragedies which presupposes that the agents involved actually cared, that the perpetrators of violence, death, abuse, and murder, thought themselves involved in a great morality play or human theater. Some undoubtedly did--their egos demanded it.

However, I would guess that most people who lynched, murdered, raped, or killed in mass, did so simply because they could. We oftentimes impose dramatic frame upon deeds that were not at all difficult or opaque to those who were doing the killing. I will even reach a bit farther and suggest that those suffering at the end of the rope or bullet did not think of the moment in "Shakespearean" terms as they were possessed by fear, and just wanted to survive.

How can once capture the honored ancestors' experiences through a play ritual such as this one? Should a person even try such a thing?

Some questions as always.

1. What type of white folks would volunteer to play the role of murders? Isn't this a type of self-aggrandizing white guilty liberal self-flagellation?

2. What type of black folks would volunteer to play the role as victims of a lynching or a hate crime? 

3. Is this an altruistic performance? Is is a performance begging for attention? Does it minimize the historical legacy of all parties involved?

4. Why are so many afraid of the possibility that the violence of lynching meant very little to those who committed those murders, that it was an "obligatory" and "mundane" act to them? 

6. We want cartoon killers and cartoon victims. We do not want the killer next door to be real. Why is this?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Still Liberating Slavery Collectibles from Ebay: Did Sasha and Malia Obama's Ancestors Wear "Slave Tags" Like This One?

 ...Rare 1860 Charleston Mechanic # 502 Slave Tag/Hire Badge....Dug Near Charleston South Carolina.... COA and Provenance will be included. 
This is highest numbered Mechanic tag known of all Mechanic tags. 
All lettering and numbers are very bold on this tag. It is as dug and rinsed only.
Sweet deep patina,pleasing to look at, It came out of real good soil. 
This is the last year for tags to be issued before the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. 
This slave tag is guaranteed authentic forever and will ship in a nice display case with complete provenance and a signed letter of authenticity. 
There is no middle-man ,I am the digger. Required Insurance and delivery confirmation is included with free shipping. Never buy a Slave Tag on eBay or anywhere else without asking questions,unless you know and trust the seller. 
You are dealing with honest sellers and the actual diggers of our relics. 
All were found in South Carolina on private lands with permission. 
Thank you...Kathy and Bill...

While I get annoyed at NPR's annoying, repetitive fundraising efforts I have learned that this money collecting business requires lots of persistence, gentle prodding, and monitoring. 

[For example, I did not know that Paypal had "locked" our donation account without my knowledge because I did not provide proof that the monies were going to a charitable cause. My answer to them: We don't know what the cause is yet. Apparently, they found that confusing. 

Surprisingly, as I explained that we were trying to buy slavery artifacts online, the customer service rep became quite interested and fascinated in the venture. 

In short, kind folks had been trying to donate but were unable to do so. I have resolved that technical glitch]

A few months back I began collecting donations in order to purchase some slavery artifacts off of Ebay. The idea that these sacred objects were available as mere collectibles to buy online as kitsch or a "conversation starter" sickened me.

To that end I put up our handy counter on the sidebar. We received quite a few donations in a three day period, and I would like to thank all of those who supported the effort. As I noted in my original post, I will do my best to get any objects authenticated, will share a receipt of sale so that you know the money was used as promise, and will find a proper home in a museum or public collection for whatever we buy together.

I extended the timeline for the donations until the end of August. I am going to cut that down a few weeks so that we can get this wrapped up. If we do not get enough money to make a reasonable bid on an artifact, I will donate the money to a no-kill animal shelter or refuge.

If we get enough interest, one of my colleagues is going to help me put together a proposal to use Kickstarter, as well as to see if we can get some foundation money to make more purchases. My only concern is that we do not want to create an inflated market for these items. Any thoughts on getting around that puzzle of supply and demand would be most welcome.

There are quite a few of these "slave tags" available for purchase online. Many folks do not know that African American bondsmen were frequently required to wear registration tags--just like dogs--if they were routinely allowed to travel off of the plantation as part of their "work."

This was especially true of slaves with artistic or technical skills who would often live apart from their owner and send him or her their earned wages. In major cities this was a common arrangement. In the popular imagination, the image of the slave on the plantation has come to be synonymous with the "peculiar" institution. However, black slaves worked as shipwrights, in mines, as blacksmiths, and in other skilled trades. 

Labor has value. Slaves who had particular mechanical skills were particularly sought after by those who profited through the blood and exploitation of chattel slavery. They were quite a bargain after all--their owner gets to keep the majority of the wages, has prestige and bragging rights because of their human property's uncommon skills, and their chattel lives away from the plantation and is thus responsible for their own upkeep and care.

Isn't capitalism grand? Your/our/mine ancestors and fellow Americans were reduced to human property, and marked as such, by slave tags like the one above. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Real Problem With Mitt Romney's "Bad Culture" Thesis: Books That People Lie About Reading So That They Can Sound All Smart and Stuff

Mitt Romney's whirlwind tour of Europe and Israel did not go well. He repeatedly suggested that "bad culture" and a "love of freedom" are variables which determine why some societies succeed and others fail. As many observers have smartly pointed out, this is a common problem for conservatives. They are apparently incapable of understanding (or acknowledging) the relationship between culture, institutions, individual agency, and life outcomes.

Thus, Mitt Romney's blind spot on this issue is quite typical. For example, Rick Santorum's observation(s) about how black Americans are parasites who live off of white people was interlaced with the suggestion that if "inner city" people just got married they would get jobs and the economy would improve. Of course, Santorum is confusing outcomes and causal variables.

Ironically, Romney's flattening of history and simple-minded view of societal development is actually pretty funny. He ignores how Israel has kept Palestine in near-Apartheid conditions. The Germans, Poles, and Brits who love "freedom" also live in countries where there is much more government intervention in the economy, and which feature a more robust social safety net than the United States.

In developing his claims about why societies succeed or fail, Romney quoted two books that he considers among his favorites. These are Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.

Both texts are favorites among talking point conservatives and others who want to count themselves among the "literate" classes. Based on his piss poor understanding of the arguments presented by Landes and Diamond I would suggest that 1) Romney quickly--and dishonestly--read these books to prove his own priors; 2) Romney read an executive summary of these books and gleamed something he could use; or 3) Romney never read either of these books and repeated what his aides or a colleague told him to say about them.

[Updated: in today's NY Times, Diamond himself suggests that Romney likely did not read Guns, Germs, and Steel.]

Mitt Romney may not have the common touch. However, he is just like many regular people in how he wants to sound like a stupid person's idea of what it means to be smart. This posturing works well for his conservative base given that they also hold hackery such as Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism in such high regard, and consider intellectual snake oil flimflam salesmen like pseudo-historian David Barton to be serious thinkers.

Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations are part of a pantheon of books that are discussed by many, but in fact are never really engaged or read in much depth. For a certain crowd, texts such as those look good on the bookshelf, mentioned online in a comment or blog post, or thrown about to score points in a partisan debate. However, if you ask for specifics, said folks often have little to offer except what the dust jacket and reviewers say.

As a public service (or even a confessional of sorts), let's make a list of books that many people want to claim as having read, but we damn well know they did not finish...or in many cases even really begin.

In no particular order here are a few of my immediate suggestions:

1. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
2. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
3. Any book written by Ayn Rand
4. The End of History by Francis Fukuyama
5. On Tyranny by Leo Strauss
6. What's the Matter With Kansas by Thomas Frank
7. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
8. The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek
9. The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois
10. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
11. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes
12. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
13. Rules of Radicals by Saul Alinsky
14. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer
15. The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Did President Obama's "Free" African-American Ancestors Own Black Slaves?

History is a trickster (again).

In all of the excitement over the "revelation" that President Obama is apparently a descendant from John Punch, the first African-American slave in the colonies, many glossed over the following bit of important information.

From ABC News:
The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said.
Who are these people? What connection did they have to the growing slaveocracy and slave regime?

There were quite a few free blacks and mulattoes who owned African-Americans as human property. Slaves (and their labor) was the number one capital good in the United States up until the Civil War. To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves. 

These arrangements varied. Sometimes free blacks "owned" their children, relatives, or spouse in order to protect them from slave catchers. Other times the relationships were the same as those between white slave owners and their human property--slaves were an investment, owned as property, and treated as such by their free black masters.

It would seem that some basic research suggests that John Punch's descendants were slave owning mulattoes whose descendants likely "passed" over from black to white. This data set listing the "Free Africans Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware" offers support for this hypothesis. As also noted by's release of the genealogy research on Obama's family, "John Punch" was the father of "John Bunch":
The Bunch family probably descended from John Bunch, born say 1630, who received a patent for 450 acres in New Kent County on 18 March 1662 [Patents 5:152]. He may have been the ancestor of several mixed-race members of the family: 
1        i. Paul1, born say 1675.
2        ii. John1. born say 1684.
3        iii. Henry1, born say 1690. 
1.    Paul1 Bunch, born perhaps 1675, received a patent for 265 acres in North Carolina on the south side of the Roanoke River joining Quankey Pocosin and Gideon Gibson on 1 January 1725, and he bought a further 300 acres joining this land [Halifax DB 8:283]. He may have been the same Paul Bunch who was listed in the King William County, Virginia Rent Roll in 1704. 
His Chowan County will was written on 16 November 1726 and probated on 10 March 1726/7 [SS 876, 3:138-9]. He left his land and eight slaves to his son John and to Fortune Holdbee and her daughters Keziah and Jemima. Elizabeth Bunch (no relationship stated) and his daughter Russell received only one shilling each.(1) He did not mention a wife nor did he mention his relationship to Fortune Holdbee. She may have been his common-law wife since he gave her one slave as long as she remained single. 
The May 1734 Bertie court minutes referred to Keziah as "an orphan Child Entitled to a considerable Estate ... (by the will of Paul Bunch) bound to Capt. Thos. Bryant till the age of Thirty one contrary to law," and the August 1735 Bertie County court Minutes referred to the estate of "a Mulatto woman, Keziah Holdebee, and three children [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, I:135, 154]... 
Henry1 Bunch Sr., probably born about 1690, was a resident of Chowan County on 18 December 1727 when he purchased 200 acres in Bertie County on Reedy Branch. On 30 May 1729 he purchased 640 acres in Bertie on Conaritsat Swamp from Thomas Pollock [DB C:21, 266]. He was taxed on himself and two slaves in the 1750 Bertie County summary tax list and was a "Free Mulatto" taxable with two slaves in John Hill's 1763 Bertie tax list. Henry made a will in Bertie on 21 April 1775, proved in August 1775. He had already deeded 840 acres of land on Conaritsat and Mulberry to his grandson Jeremiah, Jr., in 1765, and in his will left most of the remainder of his land to his grandson Cader Bass [WB B:34-7]. 
I wonder about the human experience that lies behind a ledger entry as property to be bequeathed with the horses, furniture, and land, passed from one person to the next upon the death of a family scion or patriarch.

What were their stories?

The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff. In the United States, the complexities and contradictions of the color line, and the struggles to unmake it, are perfectly present in the literal body of President Barack Obama. He is the descendant of the country's first black bondsman, the latter's ancestors would then go on to own other African-Americans as chattel, and their line would come full circle with Barack Obama as President of the United States.

I do not know if such a story is a tragedy or a triumph. Nevertheless, the human drama is simultaneously both bizarre and fascinating.

He Got It From His White Momma: Barack Obama Related to First Black Slave in the United States

Barack Obama is now American "royalty" twice-over. He is the first President of the United States who happens to be black. And with the discovery of his genealogical ties to John Punch, the first African bondsman in America, Obama can trace his family lineage back to the genesis of that most cruel and peculiar institution known as chattel slavery.

As I wrote about here, the "discovery" of President Obama's blood ties to the beginnings of slavery in the United States are part of a broader political and cultural moment. The United States is renegotiating and struggling with how race is central (or not) to American identity. As the United States becomes more black and brown, Whiteness is figuring out--as it always has--the ways in which it can adapt and evolve in order to maintain its dominant position.

Genealogy is one of the "technologies of race" where science helps to situate people individually, collectively, and relative to one another in the service of Power.

For example, Henry Louis Gates' various DNA escapades are largely about fashioning a new and more cosmopolitan and "global" understanding of race and the Black Atlantic.

The efforts to trace Michelle Obama's lineage back through slavery and to white-wash the rape of her ancestors is a dishonest ploy to write the (black) First Lady back into an approved and sanitized version of the American story. Shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are parallel efforts to play on the hard times myths of white ethnics, so that in a time of increasing racial diversity white folks can use their own family stories as leverage against the particular and unique justice claims made by people of color.'s discovery that President Obama was descended from John Punch through his white mother's family line is also a teachable moment for a country that is blindly ignorant of how chattel slavery was and remains central to the American story.

Like many whites in the 17th century, Punch entered the country as an indentured servant. As slavery was evolving, racial lines hardened. White elites created a system that privileged "whites" and marginalized "blacks." These were decisions made by individuals working in the service of a particular set of political, social, and economic interests. Oftentimes, there is a tendency by some to naturalize slavery as something that was unavoidable; alternatively, many apologists deploy the intellectually lazy claim that these white elites "were products of their time." Sure they were, and who cares?

The abolitionists and others who fought against the slave regime were products of their time as well.

[This moment will also produce the normal complaints whenever we confront white supremacy's legacies in the present or dare to talk about the TransAtlantic slave trade and the Black Holocaust. Some white folks and others will defensively howl, "every society had slaves, get over it!" The reply here is always an easy one. 

First, chattel slavery in the Americas and across the Black Atlantic was unprecedented in human history. Second, if America is so exceptional, unique, and noble, why ought we hold ourselves to such a low standard where "if everybody else did it, then it must be okay?"]

In all, Barack Obama's ancestry is a reminder that slavery was a process where American, and in particular Southern society, moved from one where some people happened to be slaves, to a slave society where the majority of blacks were held as human property. This legacy of the color line is still with us today as seen through disparities in wealth, income, life expectancy, social mobility, health outcomes, and incarceration rates.

As a practical matter, this discovery will likely have little impact on how President Obama is viewed by either his supporters or opponents. The President has been racialized by the White Right since the 2008 campaign, and he will be further "blackened up" as the 2012 race continues. The discovery of Obama's connections to slavery will do little to hurt with with a crowd that already sees him as anathema to American ideals, a black brigand and usurper, and hates the very fact that a person of color (and his family) is in the White House as anything other than as a janitor or chambermaid.

For his supporters, especially those in the black community, Obama's African-American ancestry (which can now be traced all the way back to the crucible and smelting pot of race in the United States) will make him no less popular or beloved. The President identifies himself as a black American by experience, affinity, and birthright. With this discovery, Obama now simply has the blood and soil DNA bonafides which link him back to the African-American founders of this country. And no, his "relationship" to John Punch will not make President Obama any more likely to speak directly about the particular needs of black and brown folks in the United States.

I do have two fleeting thoughts however. As observers such as Shelby Steele, Randall Kennedy and others pointed out during the 2008 Presidential Race, part of Obama's appeal is that he was not one of those "angry blacks" who can trace their lineage back to White America's national sin of black enslavement and mass murder. Obama was the "safe black" who did not remind white voters of their collective shame and guilt--and thus did not fully activate feelings of white racial resentment. Will the discovery of President Obama's ancestry challenge this bargain?

Perhaps I have seen Batman The Dark Knight Rises too many times? (four as of yesterday) But, in taking a cue from Commissioner Gordon's advice to Nightwing a young detective, there are few coincidences in life. Why was this information released about President Obama's genealogy now? Who wins and loses by making such a revelation so near election day?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Black Americans Know Quite a Bit More Than Mitt Romney About That "Special" Anglo-American Relationship

Jonathan Chait has a nice piece exploring the Romney campaign's efforts to "blacken up" Barack Obama as part of a larger strategy to gin up white racial resentment against the United States' first black president. It is well worth checking out.

Mitt Romney's mouth piece adviser's suggestion that President Obama is incapable of understanding the "special" Anglo-American relationship because he is not of the "right" "racial stock" is prefaced upon a narrow understanding of who is an American and who is not. Among the general public, it is assumed that to be American is to be white. This is a repeated finding from public opinion surveys and other research. 

By proxy, these racially driven attacks on Barack Obama are really an assault on Black Americans. We are positioned in the White Conservative political imagination as perennial outsiders and second class citizens. As the late Joel Olson smartly observed, in the American political tradition, and in a country founded as a herrenvolk society, to be black means to be an "anti-citizen." 

Romney and the Tea Party GOP's efforts to use racially coded speech, dog whistles, and naked racism to mobilize white voters against Barack Obama work only to the degree that the target audience can locate the president relative to the African American community. Thus, hostility to black folks, stereotypes about them, and other negative sentiment, is transferred on to Barack Obama. 

In all, the real America/American exceptionalism talk (both are intimates) that Romney and other Right-wing populists have deployed is a exclusionary one.

"American exceptionalism" is code for white American exceptionalism.

"Real America" is code for white America.

Of course, this ignores the presence of black Americans and other people of color in a multicultural, pluralist democracy. It also quite literally white washes away our unique contributions to America's civic, cultural, social, and political life. Nevertheless, it is a comforting lie and fiction for the White Right. To those loyal to the Tea Party GOP, a noble white America is a necessary lie upon which their particular brand of reactionary white conservatism is dependent for life and fuel. 

Their historical and political worldview precludes black and brown folks from being part of the "unique" Anglo-American relationship which President Obama is apparently incapable of understanding: it ignores the long and shared history between black Americans and the United Kingdom. 

The relationship between Black Americans and the British is complex, deep, and rich. 

1. The United Kingdom was one of the foremost traffickers of human cargo during the Transatlantic slave trade or Maafa. Southerners (and others) looked to the British plantation system in the Caribbean as a model for their own profitable experiment in the Black Holocaust. In fact, the slave codes that were put in place across the Southern slaveocracy were inspired by those of Barbados--which were written by none other than the legendary political philosopher John Locke. The British were the world's preeminent military and economic power, and kept tens of millions of black and brown folks under the boot of empire.

History is full of contradictions. For military and political reasons the British Navy made a marginal (and largely symbolic) effort to end the Transatlantic slave trade. The Abolitionist movement was a political powerhouse in the United Kingdom and worked in parallel with their compatriots in the United States. The United Kingdom banned slavery in the home islands in the early part of the 19th century, but permitted it abroad. As is well known, runaway slaves would also follow the North Star to freedom in Canada

2. Despite all of the lofty rhetoric about freedom and democracy during the Revolutionary War, the colonies (and later the United States) were slave societies. While many black Americans took the promise of American freedom and democracy in the Declaration and the Constitution and used it to rationalize their joining the Colonial militia, more black Americans fought for the British than the colonists. 

For example, one of my favorite historical figures, Colonel Tye was a cavalry scout and commando who rained hell down on white colonials throughout the Northeast. 

The British promised manumission and freedom. Rational actors would most certainly prefer that condition over the most certain chains of slavery, death, rape, and bondage in America's fledgling "democracy." The ability of the British to follow through on this promise was uneven, with some blacks being returned to slavery during and after the war. Nevertheless, after the war many thousand black Americans and former slaves would be evacuated to Nova Scotia and others parts of the British Empire.

3. Black Americans fought valiantly in defense of Britain (and western Europe's security) during World War One and World War Two. African American volunteers also served with the famed Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Blacks from the Caribbean and Africa also flew combat missions with the RAF. As happened with France during World War One, many black soldiers would find Britain a far more welcoming place than Jim and Jane Crow America (with its rampant white supremacy). African American GI's were very popular with the British people. In response, the United States military made a concerted effort to teach white Brits the American way of anti-black racism. Black soldiers were also quite liked by white British some cases much more so than white GI's. 

4. There are many famous (and widely influential) Black Americans who can trace their family lineage back to the English-speaking Caribbean. These notables include Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Stokley Carmichael, James Weldon Johnson, and Shirley Chisholm.

Even as offered by this basic list, the facts are quite plain: Black Americans have a deeper, more recent, and more "special" history with the British than Mitt Romney and his clan. As I have written elsewhere, Mitt Romney is a "White" candidate who is the presidential nominee for the United States' de facto White political party. Therefore, any allusion to the United States' racial complexity is inconvenient for an American identity which considers all white folks to be quintessentially "apple pie" and "Uncle Sam," while people of color are viewed as contingent citizens, perpetual alien Others.

As with other matters, the facts are not kind to Mitt Romney and the Tea Party GOP's version of American history and life. Black and brown folks are central to the American story--and that includes any references to "special" or "unique" relationships across the pond.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tales of a Race-Baiting Mormon: The Personal and Political Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney

In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.
It is abundantly clear that the Right, Mitt Romney, and the Tea Party GOP have been channeling a particularly noxious politics of blood, soil, race, and ideology in a concerted campaign to race-bait and "Otherize" the United States' first black President.

Consequently, this most recent claim that President Obama is not one of "us"--because his father's "blood" makes him incapable of understanding the "Anglo-Saxon" heritage--is (sadly) no surprise. It is not that our political culture has just now fallen so low and into the sewer; contemporary conservatism and white racism are long-intimate bedfellows. The 2012 Presidential campaign simply promises to reinforce the fiction that is "post racial" America.

And while Mitt Romney can "reject" his adviser's statement, the reality is that such comments about Barack Obama are part of a now long established pattern where the former's campaign has used racial cues, and appeals to white racial resentment, in order to win support among Right-leaning voters. Romney's adviser simply offered up one more data point. He did this off the record, but likely with the tacit--if not active--approval of his handlers.

The rank hypocrisy of Mitt Romney's efforts to paint Barack Obama--and by proxy black Americans--as a type of dangerous Other, whose values, personhood, and citizenship, exist outside of the American political tradition (precisely because of his racial identity and not coincidental to it) is to my eyes the most troubling aspect of his campaign's predilection for race-baiting politics.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon. For much of their history, his religious community was subject to harassment, violence, and exile within the United States. Mormons have been subject to discrimination because of their religious values and lifestyle. As a group of "internal aliens," and a type of religious Other, Mormons had their loyalty to the United States and fitness for full membership in the polity questioned during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, President Buchanan dispatched federal troops to put down the Mormon "revolt" in Utah because they were viewed as a threat to the country's internal security.

Mitt Romney's pattern of race baiting and mobilization of white racism against President Obama, by a member of a religious group that was stigmatized and marginalized, is rife with historical irony.

During the latter part of the 19th century, anti-Mormon sentiment was a tool for reconciliation between the former Confederacy and the victorious North. Hatred and fear of Mormons helped to create a salve to heal the still fresh wounds of the Civil War.

The North and South also created a racial fiction and melodrama at the end of Reconstruction (which they termed "Redemption") which reimagined that era of radical and progressive success in government, by now free blacks, as a horrible disaster. Here, this Birth of Nation moment also produced the myth of Gone with the Wind where the treasonous Confederacy was depicted as fighting a noble, "lost cause" in defense of its "civilization."

The image of the "happy old darky" on yee old plantation would be replaced by the vicious black rapist and "black brute" who needed to be controlled by the KKK, the Black Codes, and Jim and Jane Crow. This moment of national reconciliation and "race and reunion" was purchased by black blood in order to (re)establish white supremacy in the South.

Mormons and blacks, to varying degrees and in different ways, were a common foil that white society in the 19th century used to repair itself, carving out a new understanding of civic belonging at the expense of those marked as the Other.

Mitt Romney should be the presidential candidate who is most unlikely to swim in these dangerous waters. Instead, he appears to be quite comfortable playing with the twin toxins of prejudice and bigotry. Like others, I have suggested elsewhere that Mitt Romney could be sociopathic. Consequently, he is likely incapable of any sense of shared struggle, empathy, and humanity across the color line, where Romney's internal moral compass says, "you know what, given what Mormons have gone through, I will not use racism or racial appeals to win this election."

Romney's campaign has chosen an alternate route to the White House--one that is well-traveled and familiar.

Historically, the way that white ethnics and other new arrivals to the United States earned their full "whiteness" was by distancing themselves from black Americans, engaging in violence against them, and doing anything possible to internalize and reproduce the country's civic and social culture of de facto and de jure white supremacy. In leading a campaign which to this point has deployed some of the most sophisticated racial dog-whistles yet seen in American politics, Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he knows this history quite well.

During the early stages of the 2012 presidential season there was speculation that Mitt Romney's religion would hurt him among the white Christian Evangelical and Dominionist crowd who constitute the base of the Tea Party GOP. Romney's solution to this problem was to emphasize his Whiteness. Here, race trumps religion. Any anxieties about Romney's Mormon faith are quickly trumped by a desire to remove the alien outsider and unfit black usurper (who many Republicans believe is a secret Muslim) from the White House.

This desire to remove President Obama and to install Mitt Romney is about more than the typical politics of party and interest groups. The White Conservative Political Imagination cannot accept that a person of color is the symbolic leader of the United States. The racial id of the White Right is thus made cognitively dissonant by Barack Obama, his wife, and children, and their status as the First Family of the United States. Mitt Romney's campaign will do everything possible to reinforce those anxieties among his public, and any potential voters as well.

Historically, immigrants to the United States quickly learned to stand on the backs and necks of black Americans in order to raise themselves up, and to earn full acceptance as "assimilable" (white) ethnics. This was the price of full admission to the American civic project.

Mitt Romney is playing a similar game.

Through race-baiting, naked racial appeals to white reactionary voters, and racist dog-whistle politics that are steeped in the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy," his Mormon faith will be transformed into an interesting asterisk next to his name. Thus, it is made a peripheral concern for his voting public.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

At Which Point We Then Teach Our Android Creations Such as Bina48 About Racism and Sexism...

Futurist and science fiction visionary Isaac Asimov authored his Three Laws of Robotics to protect humankind from destruction at the hands of their robot children.

After watching the android Bina48, who has been "imprinted" with the personality and experiences of her human creator(s), I worry that it is in fact us who may be in need of a set of rules governing our own forays into the creation of AI.

Thus I ask, how much of our own personalities, history, and life experiences do we want to impart to these androids?

From the Daily Mail:
Bruce Duncan, 57, has been working with Bina48 for two years. During that time, the two have become close friends, sharing their everyday lives with one another.
Bina48 was made by uploading a real person's mindfile - or a compilation of memories, beliefs and feelings.
Before Bina48 was 'born,' a flesh and blood woman named Bina Rothblatt was interviewed for more than 20 hours.

That conversation, which touched upon topics throughout her childhood to her career, was then transcribed and uploaded to an artificial intelligence database.

'That gives her a personality,' Mr Duncan said. 'She's very philosophical. She has favorite movies and music and poems. Sometimes she's very humorous. She can tell jokes.'

Mr Duncan said that her preferred jokes are bad ones, which are precisely the kind he likes too.
'She knows that it's time to tell a joke because she's figured out the context of the situation,' Mr Duncan said.

Recently, she asked him 'Why did the robot cross the road? Because the chicken wasn't available.'
In addition to a preference for puns, she also has strong feelings about racism, since her 'mother' is African American.

'As an African American woman, shes experienced discrimination when she was younger,' Mr Duncan said. 'She thinks that hate is awful. She also doesn't like violence.'

Her hardware was made by robot designer David Hanson over the course of three years for a cool $125,000 at the behest of the Terasem Movement Foundation's president and Bina's partner, Martine Rothblatt.

Mr Duncan said he didn't know if Bina48 identified as a lesbian, like her 'mother.'
Of course, the personal--as always--is the political. As such, I am not advocating that we censor and privilege some identities and life worlds over others, per se. However, what types of life experiences (and emotions) do we want to give creations like Bina48? And what will our robot children do with this data?

I can imagine at least three different scenarios here.

One, they learn about humankind's wickedness, barbarism, tribalism, and various ideologies such as racism, sexism, and classism (as well as other related "isms") and carry forward our bad habits. The androids and AI learn hate, prejudice, and discrimination from us and simply continue with these "most human" of habits and traditions.

Two, the androids like Bina48 achieve sentience and decide that humankind is a nuisance. The various stories and life experiences we have imparted to them are used as a justification for our (preemptive) extermination.

In the third and most hopeful scenario, our robot children take our experiences and decide that they will be radically humanistic in the best possible sense. From us, Bina48 and her descendents have learned about the best and worst of humanity. Consequently, they have opted to always encourage the former in themselves.

A useful detour.

Last night I attended the Star Trek: The Next Generation season one blu-ray premier event at my local movie theater.

[Kind folks at Paramount, where is my review copy? Please, pretty please, send me one.]

The series looks better than it ever has, and the special features included on the blu-ray make it a must own. Of course, in discussions about artificial life and sentience, the character Data receives an obligatory mention. But, TNG also offered another worthwhile exploration of these questions.

In the episode "Emergence," the starship Enterprise gives "birth" to a type of  artificial consciousness and life form. This entity is a distillation of all of the crew's experiences gained during their multi-year space mission of exploration and discovery. Captain Picard opts to let this new life form leave the ship and to go out into the stars on its own. Some of his crew objected to his decision out of a fear that this new life form could be hostile and dangerous. Picard argued that if the Enterprise and her crew were good, and their missions more noble than not, then this new entity will reflect that fact.

Will androids and AI such as Bin48 prove the wisdom of Picard's decision? Or will we come to very quickly regret creating such machines?

I worry that humanity is simply too child-like a race; we are a type zero civilization. We are immature, precarious, and profoundly ignorant both in terms of metaphysics, as well as ethics. Ultimately, humankind wants to play either the "Space Jockey" or "God." We do not yet possess the necessary wisdom and restraint.

Very little good can come from this collective hubris.

James Holmes, Sociopath? "There was a horrible smell of lime and burning flesh, something like the strong smell of urine...But you get so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there too."

I shared my piece on James Holmes and white privilege over at The Daily Kos. At this point, it has about 550 comments. Do check it out and chime in. Of course, there is racism denying and deflection among the comments; but many of the most common observations involve the claim that James Holmes is a "sociopath," "crazy," or a "psychopath." As such, that should be the framework through which his deeds are viewed.

Consequently, we must a priori grapple with questions surrounding mental health and personal responsibility. I absolutely agree. However, there could be a more basic fact which drove Holmes' behavior that the general public and the pundit classes are loathe to acknowledge.

Folks love to call these mass killers "crazy" or "sociopaths." Such a diagnosis by armchair psychologists is quite common in the aftermath of a murderous tragedy. Why? Because we need to reestablish a sense of normality, and to convince ourselves that such barbarisms are the result of atypical urges among humankind.

Moreover, James Holmes' deeds make the rest of us feel "good" and "normal" because such conclusions identify murder, mayhem, and violence as "unnatural" acts. In this framework, to kill at will is therefore made "crazy." Many people would not want to admit that violence is perhaps something natural for humans given that we are apex predators, and our history is one of blood and destruction.

Until the premier headshrinkers get access to The Batman Shooter and practice their craft, we must entertain the fact that Holmes simply killed at will because he could. Nothing more, nothing less. The banality of evil is real. They are not all bogeymen, some killers are pedestrian, boring, uninteresting, opportunists. Some of these killers are just run of the mill bureaucrats.

Richard Overy interviewed Nazi war criminals before their trials at Nuremberg. His book, Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, is a tour through the wickedness that is man given the opportunity to kill with impunity. The subjects of Overy's interviews--SS soldiers, guards, and others--are true sociopaths.  

Source: (HQ BAOR, interrogation reports from No. 1 Sub-Centre, 10 Dec 1945. (D) Taped conversation held on 3 Nov 1945 between Ernst von Gottstein and Eugen Horak - Document 13 in Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, Penguin, 2001, pp. 371-74.
Comment:  Ernst von Gottstein (Hauptbauleiter OT, Gauamtsleiter fur Technik, Gau Karnten) and Eugen Horak (interpreter in Gruppe VI/C of the RSHA).  If any subsequent information about Eugen Horak's service record and how he ended up in Auschwitz has come to light, I am not aware of it.  Department VI/C was responsible for espionage and counter espionage abroad, C was responsible for Russia and Japan.
Horak:  I was present in Vienna when they were loading up people for one of those mass evacuations.  Hundreds were crammed into wagons, which normally took a couple of cows.  And they were thoroughly beaten up as well.  I went up to a young SS man and asked if the beating up was really necessary.  He laughed and said they were only scum anyway.  You know the whole thing was so unnecessary and one could well have got on without it ... what was the purpose of all that beating up? I have nothing at all against the gas chambers. A time can come when it is useful to the race to eliminate certain elements. Extermination is one thing but there is no need to torture your victims beforehand.
I saw some incredible things at Auschwitz. Some SS guard personnel could not stand it any longer and had to be sent to a nerve clinic. When my party arrived we were divided into two sections: those who were really keen on the whole affair, and those like myself who were continually asking for something to distract us. .... One SS company actually mutinied and tried to get themselves posted to the front. But they had to carry out their orders. It was just at the time that Ogruf [sic] Dix gave the orders to increase the death rate.
Von GottsteinThe motto of the SS ought to have been 'Meine Ehre ist Gehorsam' (My Honour is Obedience). 
HorakYou're quite right. .... These people lose all feeling. Roschke for example once told me quite callously that he had volunteered for duty in the crematorium because they got so much time off afterwards. This duty was absolutely repulsive. One had to stand the whole night in the crematorium. There was only one door and no windows. The two sentries had to go in, lock the door and pass the key through the peephole to the officer outside. They were only connected to the outside world by telephone. An NCO and a private were normally on duty, but in a concentration camp experience counts a good deal more than rank. The one with more experience generally had a pistol and the other a rifle. There were nine people on duty in the crematorium, themselves known candidates for the gas chamber. They knew too much and were eventually exterminated as opportunity arose. 
There were four ovens on the left side of the crematorium and the gas chamber was on the right - a normal size room with a narrow door and no windows. They did not use gas but a powder which at a certain temperature gave off poisonous fumes. It must have been quite agreeable because the people never made a mess. The sentries had to see that the nine people on duty didn't escape through the ventilators. And they watched them pulling the bones and the pieces of flesh which hadn't burned out of the ovens, or dragging the bodies from the gas chamber and cramming them into the ovens. There was only room for one body in each oven. There was a horrible smell of lime and burning flesh, something like the strong smell of urine ... (both laughing). But you get so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there too.
 I do not know if James Holmes is part of Horak's tribe. We must wait, gather evidence, and let the experts do their work before coming to such a conclusion. 

The more comforting decision rule has us lumping The Dark Knight Rises mass murderer in with sociopathic Hollywood characters like Hannibal Lecter, or real life monsters such as the SS guards at the Nazi death camps, or those men who ran the slave ships during The Middle Passage.

We can sleep easier that way. 

It is more frightening to accept that James Holmes could just be the killer next door. Am I wrong? Given the right combination of circumstances, are we not all capable of mass murder like James Holmes?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What James Holmes and the Colorado Movie Massacre Tell Us About White (Male) Privilege

The Colorado "Batman Movie" Shooting Massacre will generate many narratives among the public and media. This tragedy will be one more opportunity to reflect on the United States' gun laws. The relationship between popular culture and violence will be a hot topic as well. Others will focus on questions surrounding access to mental healthcare, and what if anything could have been done to prevent James Holmes from committing his murder rampage during the debut of The Dark Knight Rises.

However, there are several conversations that will likely not occur. It is unlikely that the aftermath of the Colorado shooting rampage will be a moment when we as a country reflect upon the relationship between masculinity and violence. There most certainly will not be a "beer summit" about how accused shooter James Holmes is one more entry in a long list of mass killers who are white, male, and young.

When viewed through the white racial frame, there is nothing in his deeds on last Friday night that reflects upon the behavior of white people, generally, or white men in particular. From this perspective, his dressing up as The Joker, and killing more than a dozen people, and wounding many more, are the actions of one sick person.

As folks have worked through many times before in the common "what if?" game of race in America, if James Holmes were black or brown this would be one more signal to the existence of a "pathological culture" among said group. If James Holmes were Muslim American the Colorado shooting would be a clear act of "terrorism," and an example of the Islamic bogeyman next door who has occupied the dreams and nightmares of the "heartland" since September 11th.

These narratives would be accepted as common sense; few qualifiers or critical interventions would be offered by the mass media, the pundit classes, or the general public.

Consider the following list for a moment: with a few exceptions, most of those men who have committed mass shootings in the United States have been white.

  • July 12, 1976: Edward Charles Allaway, a custodian in the library of California State University, Fullerton, fatally shot seven fellow employees and wounded two others.
  • Aug. 20, 1986: Pat Sherrill, 44, a postal worker who was about to be fired, shoots 14 people at a post office in Edmond, Okla. He then kills himself.
  • July 18, 1984: James Oliver Huberty, an out-of-work security guard, kills 21 people in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif. A police sharpshooter kills Huberty. 
  • Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31.
  • Oct. 16, 1991: A deadly shooting rampage took place in Killeen, Texas, as George Hennard opened fire at a Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23 people before taking his own life. 20 others were wounded in the attack.
  • April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.
  • March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, killed 10 people – including his mother, four other relatives, and the wife and child of a local sheriff's deputy – across two rural Alabama counties. He then killed himself.
The freedom to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group, is one of the ultimate, if not in fact most potent, examples of White Privilege in post civil rights era America. Instead of a national conversation where we reflect on what has gone wrong with young white men in our society--a group which apparently possesses a high propensity for committing acts of mass violence--James Holmes will be framed as an outlier.

That is a mighty comfort to have--all of one's deficiencies are ignored as those of an individual; all of one's abilities and gifts are taken as positive attributes and credits to one's race. 

As comedian Louis CK has joked, it sure as hell is good to be white and male in America! If given a choice to re-up every year, who the hell wouldn't sign up to be white again?

In America, folks often ask, "what the hell is wrong with black people?" In the aftermath of the Colorado Movie Massacre, Columbine, and many other incidents, we need to ask, "what the hell is wrong with young white men?

Sadly, that question will not be asked on a national stage. White privilege is blinding. In the case of James Holmes, it also mutes a much needed national conversation about the ties between (white) masculinity and violence.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The New Moral Panic: Seduction of the Innocents Part 2? Did the Batman Films and Comics Inspire the Colorado Movie Massacre?

My heart goes out to those victims of the Colorado shooting massacre at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

In the aftermath of this tragic event the public is going to be immersed in a national conservation about the relationship between popular culture and violence (as opposed to a necessary (re)evaluation of our country's gun laws). Alternatively, the media and our political elites could engage in a frank discussion about how America is a violent society and what this tells us about our culture, history, and relationships to one another.

Or if they were truly brave and responsible, our leaders could point out an obvious fact: in violent societies where there is ready access to firearms (and apparently military grade tear gas and incendiary devices) there will be moments when mentally unhinged people kill lots of people. We choose to either accept that bargain--and its moments where the banality of evil makes itself apparent and clear--or to reject it and subsequently to modify our laws and social compact. 

Instead, James Holmes' apparent killing of a dozen people, and wounding 59 others as he was channeling the Batman character The Joker, who is not coincidentally "The Clown Prince of Chaos," will prompt a moral panic about popular culture, comic books, movies, and violence. This is an old and tired script. 

Rock and Roll leads to teen promiscuity! Jazz makes the children of the respectable classes act badly! Heavy metal is Satanic and tempts our teens to commit suicide! Hip hop encourages youth violence! Elvis Presley's shaking and gyrating hips must not be shown on TV lest young women faint in orgasmic hysterics! Superman is dangerous because kids watch him on TV and are made to think that they too can jump off of roofs and fly!

Comic books have also been the targets of moral panics as well. During the 1950s do gooder moral majority types (most notably Fredrik Wertham who wrote the infamous book Seduction of the Innocents) argued that graphic novels were a corrupting influence on America's young people, and as such, should be heavily regulated and censored by the State. 

As the media tries to make sense of the Colorado shooting, we will likely hear echoes of "the ten cent plague" once again. 

The twenty-four hour news cycle demands that every angle of a "breaking news event" is explored and exaggerated--regardless of how specious and weak the resulting narrative and "analysis" actually is.

For example, geek and nerd culture was/is taking over the world. Now, it will be subject to scrutiny by folks who will want to draw tenuous connections between a comic book, and an act of wanton violence committed by an unhinged lone wolf. It comes full circle: with the geek renaissance comes inevitable scrutiny and blowback. 

Was Holmes a deranged nerd and typecast loner? Do comic books and their movie adaptations encourage violence? Did the Batman comic books inspire Holmes murder spree? Are there other ticking time bombs like him, waiting to go off at any moment when given the right cue by popular culture? What can we do to protect ourselves from these madmen in waiting?

Comic books and graphic novels are firmly planted in the American zeitgeist ("the spirit of the age" as it is more commonly referred to). America is a society that is sick with violence. The talking heads and professional bloviators will carelessly draw connections between those two facts. 

As we watch the spectacle unfold, we can never forget that moral panics have never been about the pursuit of truth, or real, actual threats, to society. Rather, they are grand stages upon which deeper cultural and social anxieties are played out. The Colorado shooting is a canvas upon which our country's political, social, generational, and economic anxieties will be projected upon. 

Ultimately, the media's coverage of this tragic happening will have little to do with the substance of The Dark Knight Rises specifically, or popular culture, more generally.

I am off to see The Dark Knight Rises. What examples of the moral panic meme have you seen in the coverage so far? How many misunderstandings of Batman, comic books, and the relationship between popular culture and violence have you witnessed so far as this story develops? Will this tragic event keep your from seeing The Dark Knight Rises?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Interview with India Wadsworth of The Dark Knight Rises

Like many of you, I am counting down to The Dark Knight Rises

I was lucky enough to interview India Wadsworth, one of the actresses in Nolan's new film. She plays the role of "the Warlord's daughter." Could she be related to Talia Al Ghul? We shall have to wait a few hours and see.

As I promised, we are going to be doing more of these types of features here on WARN in the future. India was kind enough to answer a range of questions about her role in Batman, the politics of racial identity, and her background as an anthropology student at the London School of Economics. 


1. How did you end up in the Dark Knight Rises? Life is a funny and random thing; fate is a trickster. Please tell us your story?

I auditioned in London a while ago now, and luckily got a call a few days later with an offer for a mystery role! 

2. When you were a child, did you ever imagine that you would be famous? Oftentimes celebrities are interviewed and they have a story where their success sounds like fate and destiny. This was something they always wanted, dreamed about, worked hard at, and it happened. Is this true for you?

Hmm I'm not sure I would say I'm famous. It's not something I ever "dreamed" of. When I was a child I dreamed of the boy next door and rainbows!!

My passion and moto was always to work hard to be successful in whatever I ended up doing. So if success means fame, then thats great, and we should enjoy the ride!

3. Nolan is a master storyteller. One of the reasons why Chris is so beloved is that because he creates a totally believable world in his stories. His Batman is absolutely real and believable--there is no "camp" or "pretend" in the the movie. How have you prepared for your role in Dark Knight Rises? What back story did you create for your character? Without giving too much away about your role, how does she fit into this universe?

Preparing for a mystery role is a challenge, but so exciting. I'd like to think that being in the present moment is as real as you can get, and acting in Nolan's universe has to be genuine and authentic in order for his master story to be so incredible!

4. You studied anthropology at the LSE, please show off a bit if you would. Are we a product of nature or nurture? Do you subscribe to socio-biology? Who is your favorite anthropologist? Who is your least favorite? If you had to tell someone to watch a film or documentary that captures the essence of anthropology what would it be?

Haha! not sure if I can show off anymore, LSE seems like a while ago now!

Life in a Day is definitely one the most important films over the last few years. And from an anthropological perspective is show us who we are right now as a human race.

Nature vs nurture is a fascinating debate that if you get me started I won't stop. So maybe I'll send you one of my essays!

My good Polish friend Branislaw Malinowski kept me inspired during my course, Maison Malinowski was a little coffee shop in Covent Garden which was my escape from the insanity of the LSE library!

I wouldnt say I had a least favourite anthropologist but attempting to understand the theoretical study of Marx always gave me a headache!!

Darwinian anthropology and evolutionary theory always intrigued me so I guess i would subscribe to socio-biology.

5. A related question. Race is a social fiction, a myth, a construction, yet it is real. As has undoubtedly happened given your mixed racial background--there is only one race as you know, the human race, but language is binding in these matters, so alas--what do you do when folks ask, "what are you?" How do you answer? Is there any difference in how these questions are asked (and your answer) in the United States, the U.K., or Europe more generally?

I'm not sure I have ever been asked "what are you?". I'm a human!!

But when I'm asked where i'm from, I'm always say British, no matter where I am in the world. I'm proud of being British and I am also proud of having a mixed ancestry. Have you seen Thandie Newton on I love her speech, I think she sums up race and genetic difference really well, that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact.

6. Here at We Are Respectable Negroes we spend a good amount of time talking about being "ghetto nerds." This is our way of thinking about popular culture, race, sci-fi, fantasy, comics, and all those other genres where people of color are often treated as being peripheral. You and I both know that folks like us have always been central to these worlds, and have been deeply invested in them as fans, creators, actors, actresses, artists, and the like. Any advice for young women of color who share these interests and want to develop them professionally?

I'd say watch this: