Zócalo Public Squareracism – Zócalo Public Square http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org Ideas Journalism With a Head and a Heart Thu, 23 Nov 2017 01:59:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 To Black Athletes, Donald Trump Is Playing the Dozenshttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/10/03/black-athletes-donald-trump-playing-dozens/ideas/essay/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/10/03/black-athletes-donald-trump-playing-dozens/ideas/essay/#respond Tue, 03 Oct 2017 07:01:15 +0000 By Kenneth L. Shropshire http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=88515 President Donald Trump did not say, “Yo’ mama!” in front of a partisan Huntsville, Alabama audience. But he might as well have because that is what athletes heard directed at them.

Perhaps without even realizing it, the president had engaged in an age-old tradition of playing the dozens, the term for an African American game involving the exchange of insults before an audience. Or did he just think he’s playing the politics of distraction-as-usual, and playing to his base?

Whether he knew it or not, the bully, Trump, went after one group that has spent their lives beating bullies: black male athletes. And, in this new-age mix of politics and sports, these men also possess a pulpit as powerful as the president’s and a combined Twitter following that far exceeds his. Had he met his match?

It remains an open question whether Trump understood the game he had started

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President Donald Trump did not say, “Yo’ mama!” in front of a partisan Huntsville, Alabama audience. But he might as well have because that is what athletes heard directed at them.

Perhaps without even realizing it, the president had engaged in an age-old tradition of playing the dozens, the term for an African American game involving the exchange of insults before an audience. Or did he just think he’s playing the politics of distraction-as-usual, and playing to his base?

Whether he knew it or not, the bully, Trump, went after one group that has spent their lives beating bullies: black male athletes. And, in this new-age mix of politics and sports, these men also possess a pulpit as powerful as the president’s and a combined Twitter following that far exceeds his. Had he met his match?

It remains an open question whether Trump understood the game he had started to play. For one thing, his tone was off. On playgrounds you rarely hear as circuitous an insult as “son of a bitch,” the phrase Trump used when urging NFL owners to fire players who protested during the national anthem.

No, the dozens are more direct.

“Your mother is a bitch” is what a truly street-hardened president would have said to the players, as he anticipated the return blow and stood ready to dish out more. But Trump has clearly stumbled into this unfamiliar territory. He was just using the so-called genuine language that has brought him political success.

Meanwhile, the athletes’ response to Trump on social media was massive and direct. None that I saw took the traditional path of going after his mama, but sometimes that phase is skipped, in favor of going straight to the source spewing the dozens, delivering a punch in the face. In that vein, Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy just tweeted the unambiguous: “asshole.” LeBron James of the NBA’s “u bum” tweet at Trump was viewed by more people than any single tweet by the president himself.

President Trump greets the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among the many ironies of this exchange is the unity it has brought, if only momentarily, between professional players and team owners, between player unions and the leagues. The moment goes beyond football. Basketball players have been brought together by Trump’s decision to rescind his invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House. Baseball players have joined the protests, and golfers, tennis players (including the icon Billie Jean King), and even the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have tweeted in favor of the right for peaceful protest.

Although it’s new for a president to engage (consciously or not) in the dozens, athletes are also facing new expectations and responsibilities. We are witnessing many of our athletes coming of age to fulfill a new requirement of contemplation and intellectualism. They need an opinion, whether they choose to express it or not. They need to know what they are going to do or not do.

LeBron James has been the leader in this new era; he spoke out during the Trayvon Martin homicide back in 2012. But today, the political decisions facing athletes are more complicated, and the expectations for fast and meaningful responses have been raised.

The difficulties of navigating this athletic-political minefield were exemplified by two players on the same team. When the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stay in the locker room during the national anthem last Sunday, an offensive lineman and former Army Ranger, Alejandro Villanueva, chose to come out alone and salute the flag. Ben Roethlisberger, the team’s star quarterback, stayed in the locker room with the team. They both later expressed regret for making their decisions separately, which suggested a lack of unity. Politics, like football, is a team sport.

Political pressure also falls on the team owners, who were the other group targeted in the Alabama speech, as the president told them how to run their businesses. This is the rich person’s equivalent of the dozens, and no doubt the thought bubbles arising from this group of football billionaires and millionaires said, “This guy was one of us, and not even as rich as me, and he’s getting in our business?”

The New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, who befriended Trump and backed his campaign, said he was “deeply disappointed” at Trump’s comments, and clearly by his lack of reciprocity. He wasn’t the only owner who experienced presidential betrayal.

Trump’s attacks were news, and not just because Trump is always news. Most of the time, sports are about the games themselves. Political protest has been a lesser concern, usually a one-off when it touches sports—a boycott, an arm band, or a political punch added to a Hall of Fame speech. When sport has been invoked in politics it’s rarely been about whether athletes are pulling the nation apart, but instead it’s generally been related to the need for national healing. (An exception is the fist-extended protests of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics).

We are witnessing many of our athletes coming of age to fulfill a new requirement of contemplation and intellectualism. They need an opinion, whether they choose to express it or not.

One of the most understudied exchanges between sports and politics took place between then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1942. In what has come to be known as the “green light” letter, Roosevelt advised Landis that the games should be played during World War II. The president’s logic was that in time of war, the American workers “ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” Landis followed the presidential advice, and Major League Baseball was played throughout the war.

In a similar spirit, the NFL decided to play their Sunday games two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, although the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, would call it one of his biggest regrets. (In retrospect, he might have listened to one owner, who sought a court order to stop play).

When the Gulf War began, 10 days before the 25th anniversary Super Bowl in Tampa in 1991, it made for a memorable juxtaposition of football and military display. That created a charged atmosphere for Whitney Houston’s famously stirring rendition of the national anthem, which concluded with a flyover by four F-16 fighter jets.

But sometimes sports gives way. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the NFL postponed the games that were scheduled to be played on the following Sunday. For a brief period all planes were still grounded in the United States and the players, like all other Americans, had mixed feelings about travel even when flights resumed.

Even after real tragedies, moments of national unity are short-lived. Today’s Donald Trump-inspired unity won’t last long. The athletes and the owners will soon head back to their respective corners, at least until another unifying “your mama” moment brings them together again.

Maybe it will be Trump, the distractor in chief, who provides that new moment, as he blasts away at others to take our attention away from the racism and political problems that surround him. As LeBron James observed recently, the president doesn’t seem to recognize how he might bring people together, if he so chooses. “He doesn’t understand the power that he has for being the leader of this beautiful country,” tweeted James. “He doesn’t understand how many kids, no matter their race, look up to the President …”

In this upside-down world of politics and sports, maybe Trump will own up to his own productive divisiveness. He could channel the great basketball player Charles Barkley, who famously declared in a TV commercial, “I am not a role model.”

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How Southern Rock Reclaims Regional Identity While Facing Down Old Ghostshttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/08/02/how-southern-rock-reclaims-regional-identity-while-facing-down-old-ghosts/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/08/02/how-southern-rock-reclaims-regional-identity-while-facing-down-old-ghosts/ideas/nexus/#comments Wed, 02 Aug 2017 07:01:53 +0000 By Steve Dollar http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=87168 The South spawned rock ’n’ roll. Some scholars pin its arrival to the first week of March, 1951, in Memphis, Tennessee. There, in the studio run by record producer, label chief, and talent scout Sam Phillips, the rhythm-and-blues bandleader Ike Turner cut a jump-blues inspired paean to “oozin and cruisin’” in a sleek black convertible called “Rocket 88.” Phillips, of course, would later discover Elvis Presley, son of Tupelo, Mississippi, whose hip-shaking synthesis of blues, gospel, hillbilly, and country music changed American popular culture forever (although Chuck Berry and Little Richard both would argue for their likewise seminal roles in that story).

Given that history, it’s hard to argue with Gregg Allman, who once asserted that the phrase “Southern Rock” was redundant. He would have known. Along with brother Duane and the rest of the Allman Brothers Band, the Nashville-born and Florida-raised performer conjured up the peculiarly regional beast two

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The South spawned rock ’n’ roll. Some scholars pin its arrival to the first week of March, 1951, in Memphis, Tennessee. There, in the studio run by record producer, label chief, and talent scout Sam Phillips, the rhythm-and-blues bandleader Ike Turner cut a jump-blues inspired paean to “oozin and cruisin’” in a sleek black convertible called “Rocket 88.” Phillips, of course, would later discover Elvis Presley, son of Tupelo, Mississippi, whose hip-shaking synthesis of blues, gospel, hillbilly, and country music changed American popular culture forever (although Chuck Berry and Little Richard both would argue for their likewise seminal roles in that story).

Given that history, it’s hard to argue with Gregg Allman, who once asserted that the phrase “Southern Rock” was redundant. He would have known. Along with brother Duane and the rest of the Allman Brothers Band, the Nashville-born and Florida-raised performer conjured up the peculiarly regional beast two decades after Turner and his band visited Memphis. Formed in Jacksonville, Florida and based in Macon, Georgia, birthplace of Little Richard and Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band crosswired blues and country sources with longform guitar improvisations that waxed ecstatic and sublime, sharing the quests of jazz visionaries like John Coltrane and Bay Area jug-band-gone-psychonauts the Grateful Dead. (Duane Allman wasn’t called “Sky Dog” for nothing.)

Gregg Allman’s death in May, at age 69, which followed by a few months the suicide of founding drummer Butch Trucks, marked the definitive end of a band that had officially called it quits in 2014. Its career had been troubled from early on, shadowed by the separate motorcycle-accident deaths of Duane and bassist Berry Oakley just a year apart in 1971 and ’72. Yet the Allman Brothers Band enjoyed a stunning resurgence in its latter years and went out on top with a climactic string of shows in 2014 at New York’s Beacon Theatre.

At once the alpha and the omega of what people thought of as “Southern Rock,” the Allmans seeded generations of bands from their essential DNA. They also shared status as Jacksonville’s greatest rock band with some scruffy fellow travelers: Lynyrd Skynyrd. The group was named in reference to a disliked high school gym teacher, and quickly established itself as something much more than a soulful boogie outfit, led by frontman Ronnie Van Zant.

Lynyrd Skynyrd passed into legend when a 1977 plane crash claimed the lives of the singer and two other musicians, among others. The band’s most pointed song on Southern identity, not to mention its most quoted, was “Sweet Home Alabama,” which amid verses that long for the state’s blue skies and celebrate its musical heritage, punched back at folk-singer diatribes—such as Neil Young’s sardonic “Southern Man”—and patronizing Northern hypocrites. “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember,” Van Zant sang, “A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”

Gregg Allman, who passed away earlier this year, and his brother Duane were namesakes of the band that seeded generations Southern rockers from their essential DNA. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In another verse that took a swipe at what we’d now call coastal elites, the song criticized those passing judgment on the South when they had problems of their own. But Van Zant also acknowledges the troubling popularity of Alabama governor George Wallace, a white supremacist who swore during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, “segregation today … segregation tomorrow … segregation forever.”

Although the song’s greasy guitar licks and strutting rhythm can make it sound ready for a bumper sticker, its perspective is nuanced. It doesn’t endorse Wallace, but it also doesn’t brook unsolicited blue-state judgement:

In Birmingham they love the Gov’nor, boo-boo-boo
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you, tell the truth

Like the Allman camp, Van Zant supported former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential race. He also sang songs that endorsed gun control (“Saturday Night Special”) and reached across the Deep South’s racial divide (“The Ballad of Curtis Loew’). The performer happened to be a huge Neil Young fan, and vice-versa—it’s said that the Canadian penned the smoldering ballad “Powderfinger” for the band—although Skynyrd nonetheless unfurled the Confederate flag as a concert prop.

Van Zant’s defiant, prideful stance was readily adopted—without the political complexities—by a new wave of country acts that took over Nashville in the 1980s. At the same time, Southern college bands, liberated by punk and post-punk, championed a choppier, anti-virtuosic, and art-infected aesthetic that spread like kudzu in places like Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Athens, Georgia, led by groups like the dBs and R.E.M—and even, heck, the palliative, tailgate-party pop of Hootie and the Blowfish.

R.E.M.’s liberal activism is well-known, but its songs were usually too slippery for political interpretation, its regional perspective more abstract and allusive, evidenced by album covers that pictured old railway trestles or the Biblical hallucinations of folk-art savant Rev. Howard Finster, or a nod to history in titles like “Fables of the Reconstruction,” the band’s third studio album, released in 1985.

… Southern college bands, liberated by punk and post-punk, championed a choppier, anti-virtuosic, and art-infected aesthetic that spread like kudzu in places like Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Athens, Georgia.

Contemporary country music, heralded by strapping suburban cowboys like Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt, more than compensated for the abdication of six-string pyrotechnics and Dixie-fried attitude, pumping up the volume as they stormed the arena circuit, where so-called “Bro Country” continues to rule today.

Those separate strains weren’t as polarized as they seemed, though. When I lived in Atlanta, from the late 1980s through the ’90s, something new was incubating in the music bars around Little Five Points and in the low-rent shotgun shacks of Cabbagetown (a raw-edged neighborhood cast into decline by the closing of the mammoth Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill in 1977). A loosely connected music scene emerged that had generous elbow room for honky-tonkers, punk-rockers, drag performers, and avant-garde noisemakers.

My friend and fellow Atlanta journalist Bob Townsend coined a name for it: The Redneck Underground. The label stuck best to brash performance artist Deacon Lunchbox, a burly poet who somehow crossed Charles Bukowski’s scabrous candor with New South progressive politics as he verbally assaulted icons of the old order—all while sporting a bra, brandishing a chainsaw and, for self-accompaniment, whacking a hammer on a torpedo shell.

In his song “Lewis Grizzard I’m Calling You Out,” Deacon (AKA Timothy Tyson Ruttenber), took on Grizzard, the popular Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and author of such unreconstructed Southern humor collections as Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. “You’re a knee-jerk, myopic, supercilious, half-baked, neo-closet-white-supremist [sic], mixed-drink-swilling, country club Reaganite, petit-bourgeois, woman-bashing, beach-music-listening, pork-barrel, good ol’ boy, homophobic [expletive].”

That Deacon hollered such epithets in any number of venues only a few minutes’ drive from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, is a detail that underscores the significance of a message delivered as over-the-top humor.

Deacon died tragically young, at age 41, in a 1992 car accident. But his subversive, cantankerous spirit abided. His way of being a working class white man in the contemporary South embraced a history and sense of place while also acknowledging its social ills and racist past (and present). As an artist, he was scarcely alone in this. It was an important evolutionary moment in the music, one that would take up the legacy of bands like the Allmans and Skynyrd as a mythic wellspring.

Elvis Presley, son of Tupelo, Mississippi, “whose hip-shaking synthesis of blues, gospel, hillbilly, and country music changed American popular culture forever.” Photo courtesy of Ian Burt/Flickr.

The Drive-By Truckers were right there with Deacon. Part of an Athens scene that included jam bands (Widespread Panic) and idiosyncratic songwriters (Vic Chesnutt), the group would have been distinctive for the juxtaposition in its name alone—but it also had three guitarists and as many songwriters.

The band was co-founded by Alabama college pals Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, whose father David Hood is the bassist in the fabled Muscle Shoals studio band The Swampers—celebrated by name by none other than Ronnie Van Zant in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Hood and his bandmates brought it all back home in their 2001 album “Southern Rock Opera,” whose 20 songs explored the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd, while also tangling with the contradictions of Southern history.

Amid swaggering guitars, his voice hoarse and impassioned, Hood identifies a fundamental principle on “The Southern Thing.”

You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the southern thing.

Eight albums later, the Truckers continue to roll, avatars of a recombinant, critically aware kind of Southern Rock whose leading artists include the former Trucker Jason Isbell and Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, as well as gritty, bluesy, powerhouse African-American artists like guitarist-vocalist Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes and guitarist Benjamin Booker.

Bains and his group, based in Atlanta and Birmingham, foreground their concerns in their 2014 sophomore release, a punning, landmark album called “Dereconstructed.” Its music combines the protest-anthem fury of The Clash with an unflinching narrative focus, as Bains struggles to reclaim Southern identity on his own terms, facing down old ghosts still holding fast to daylight. “Down here, we still hoist that old flag, watch it twist and flap in the wind,” he sings; “the way it did over the smacking lips and cracking whips of white men selling black men.” The song “Flags,” as does much of Bains’s music, reckons with the nightmare of Southern history in ways at once intimate and sweeping. He’s bound by blood to a place, but he doesn’t have to sit pretty:

Senior year, you could go deaf from all the talk of terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists
And I thought it strange in a town where so-called believers blew up women’s clinics we had the gall to act so offended.

When Bains played at the Word of South festival in my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, last year, he used the occasion to partner with the writer and Southern culture scholar John T. Edge. Together, they presented a blazing historical work called “Lester and Donald,” with Edge reading and Bains singing-speaking-shouting about Lester Maddox, Georgia governor from 1967 to 1971, and pickaxe-wielding segregationist, and parallels with the rhetoric and agenda of then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. The performance was at once spellbinding and so crackling with garage-rock energy you could mosh to it.

Far from becoming a cliché, or a pop culture footnote, Southern Rock has right now found its surest voice—and it isn’t about to shut up.

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What Grandaddy Taught Me About Race in Americahttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/13/grandaddy-taught-race-america/chronicles/who-we-were/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/07/13/grandaddy-taught-race-america/chronicles/who-we-were/#comments Thu, 13 Jul 2017 07:01:53 +0000 By Myah Genung http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=86754 I lived most of my childhood convinced that my grandfather, Calvin Muldrow, was Superman. On summer evenings, I’d perch atop his knee as we sat on the creaky back porch of his red brick house in North Little Rock. He’d weave elaborate tall tales about his magical excursions gliding over the jungle canopies of Sierra Leone, or wrestling boa constrictors, or floating aloft past my bedroom window at night to check up on me.

Grandaddy had a way of blending the fact and fiction of his past into a magic realism that left me curious and amazed. Among many things, he taught me that Superman’s powers could open stubborn pickle jars, that you could pick a decent watermelon by thumping it, that golf was a dumb but fascinating sport, how to solve crossword puzzles, how to drive a car, and that it would suffice in life to have all of

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What It Means to Be American I lived most of my childhood convinced that my grandfather, Calvin Muldrow, was Superman. On summer evenings, I’d perch atop his knee as we sat on the creaky back porch of his red brick house in North Little Rock. He’d weave elaborate tall tales about his magical excursions gliding over the jungle canopies of Sierra Leone, or wrestling boa constrictors, or floating aloft past my bedroom window at night to check up on me.

Grandaddy had a way of blending the fact and fiction of his past into a magic realism that left me curious and amazed. Among many things, he taught me that Superman’s powers could open stubborn pickle jars, that you could pick a decent watermelon by thumping it, that golf was a dumb but fascinating sport, how to solve crossword puzzles, how to drive a car, and that it would suffice in life to have all of what you need and most of what you want.

On one topic, however, he could frustrate me to no end. As a child, I had a defiant desire to live my life optimistically colorblind. Grandaddy, however, seemed determined to judge the world based on black and white. I didn’t see it then, but I’ve begun to think that maybe we both were right.

When you’re a black person born and raised in the American South, navigating whiteness is an acquired life skill. In school you might watch movies about the assassination of Medgar Evers at the hands of a white supremacist, read chapters in your books about white mobs throwing Molotov cocktails into buses filled with Freedom Riders, or hear about the carnage on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But even before this formal education begins, you can feel the weight of the South’s Jim Crow past. It envelops you like a hot wet blanket on a humid Arkansas summer night.

I was four years old when I first felt the urge to gasp for air under that heavy load. The initial burn came from a preschool classmate, a little white boy who called me a “nigger” for taking too long to go down the slide at recess. The second came from three little white girls in the same class who wouldn’t let me join their pretend game of “Let’s Be Kittens” because they didn’t want “any black cats in the sandbox.”

The author’s grandfather, Calvin, and grandmother, Lucy. Photo courtesy of Myah Genung.

I felt ashamed, those nights, when my mother asked if I made any friends at school. I only reluctantly recounted my experiences. She would tell me that the girls and boys treated me this way because their parents taught them to. White hostility toward blackness was a symptom of a hereditary disease, passed down through generations. My mother wasn’t angry with the world, but rather sorry to see her daughter experience the only slightly faded shadows of the same darkness she grew up with.

In the ’60s my mother had been one of a few black students to integrate an all-white middle school in Arkansas. She was 12 years old and determined to make a good impression. She would defy the preconceived notions harbored by racist whites that black kids from the “other side of the tracks” were unlearned, uncouth, and unworthy of friendship. Still, her lunches were spent at a table alone. When she wasn’t entirely ignored, she was met with cruel pranks and sneering looks.

I can only imagine that watching his daughter endure this treatment colored my grandfather’s approach to raising me. Grandaddy was born in North Little Rock, Arkansas in 1924 in a house near the train tracks. His skin was the color of coffee with no cream, and he had three sisters of the same hue. In his old age my sister Faith and I were the apples of his eye—and over the course of 88 years his eyes saw a lot.

At 19, Grandaddy was drafted into the segregated U.S. Army and shipped overseas to serve in Wales, France, and Germany. His all-black regiment’s shoes and socks were secondhand. When their train passed through town, French locals jeered at the soldiers and called them “monkeys.” Eventually, Grandaddy said, he and his friends would just lower the train-car window curtains. Out of sight, out of mind. After three years abroad in service he returned home to more of the same. He had to pick up prescriptions at the local pharmacy’s back door. He had to sit at the rear of the bus.

Thanks to the GI Bill, Grandaddy enrolled at Philander Smith College, a historically black school in the area, where he met my grandmother. They married in 1949 and moved to Glenview, one of the few subdivisions of North Little Rock where blacks could purchase property. My grandfather taught English and became the principal of the elementary school I later attended. He and Grammy never left their little red brick house on Glenview Boulevard.

My family and I followed a different path. When I was eight years old we moved to Los Angeles, and I saw colors beyond black and white for the first time. There I met kids with last names like Mohamed and Cheng, who worshipped on prayer mats or not at all. My fourth grade classroom resembled an ad for United Colors of Benetton. I felt at home in a Technicolor world where my skin didn’t determine who could be my friend.

So when we moved back to Arkansas two years later, I had a renewed sense of the world that didn’t quite jibe with my grandfather’s views. Arkansas boosters used to call their state the “Land of Opportunity.”

The author’s grandmother, Lucy, and two of her granddaddy’s sisters, Rio and Minnie. Photo courtesy of Myah Genung.

“The opportunity to get your hat and run,” Grandaddy liked to add, with a chuckle.

I scoffed at his sense of resignation to the way things had always been. One night during the first week of sixth grade I came home from school excited to tell him about my new friends. “Are they black or white?” he asked. My heart sank. I was angry, and told him that he was stuck in the past. My white friends didn’t see color, and neither did I. “You’ll learn,” he’d say. “Most white people in life think you’re beneath them because it’s all they’ve known. There are only a few good exceptions.”

It didn’t occur to me, back then, that this was a coping mechanism he’d crystallized over time: Assume you will be greeted with prejudice and the inevitable outcome will sting less. It also didn’t occur to me that he was not entirely wrong. Decades of legal discrimination and indoctrinated prejudice manifest in myriad forms and to varying degrees, and they don’t disappear overnight.

When I was six years old, I represented my class during a live press conference with President Bill Clinton, the Arkansas native after whom my school, William Jefferson Clinton Elementary, had been named. I wasn’t called on during the press conference but had prepared a question just in case. I’d taken to painting and wanted to ask him if he knew the primary colors—red, blue, and yellow.

I have a vivid memory of walking alone through the double doors of my elementary school that day, hoisting my backpack onto a conveyor belt and watching it glide through the silver screening machine. The Secret Service waved the scanning wand across my red pleated dress and down to my brand new black patent Mary Janes. Meeting the President is a daunting occasion for any American, let alone a kindergartener. But in our family, little girls who meet the President had to look the part—and my mother made sure I did.

Today I see this as an extension of the lessons that my grandparents taught my mother when she was set to integrate that hostile all-white school. Speak well. Dress well. Ask intelligent questions. Prove them wrong. It didn’t matter so much that it was 1994 and segregation was a thing of the past. The tension lingered on.

I scoffed at his sense of resignation to the way things had always been. One night during the first week of sixth grade I came home from school excited to tell him about my new friends. “Are they black or white?” he asked.

It’s kind of funny that President Clinton, who’s clearly white, was honored as the “first black president” at a dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus in 2008. Clinton took kindly to it. It was a recognition of a mutual affinity he seemed to develop with the black community. He, too, had grown up in the South and had struggled to make ends meet. He had befriended Vernon Jordan, played the saxophone, and loved Southern barbecue. He enlisted Maya Angelou to recite her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” before he was sworn in on the National Mall. He was a powerful white man who seemed at ease with black America.

History has rightfully trained a more critical eye on Bill Clinton’s policies and their effects on black society. But back then older Southern blacks, like my grandfather, accepted him as openly as he embraced them. He was “The Man from Hope,” one of the “few exceptions” Grandaddy had told me about. Bill Clinton wasn’t a black President, but in my grandfather’s eyes, he was likely the closest we’d get.

At age 18 I left Arkansas still defiantly optimistic that more was possible. This was around the time a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination to be President. Grandaddy didn’t expect Obama to win even the nomination, much less the presidency.

On Election Night 2008 I called Grandaddy from a jubilant and chaotic Times Square in New York City. By this time, I was a sophomore at New York University. Barack Obama had just been elected. With tears in my eyes and tightness in my throat, I shouted into my flip phone, “Grandaddy, can you believe he won?” I couldn’t make out all of his words but from the sound of his voice I knew he was smiling and that his deep set eyes, made blue with age, were beaming. America had elected its first actual black president, against all the perceived odds.

Grandaddy died in 2012. I’ll never forget something my great-aunt Rio told me after his funeral: “You know he loved you, fiercely and with all of his heart.” I did know this—and it explains the lengths he went to prepare me for the world’s bitter surprises, even when it meant we butted heads on politics and race. I also have the comforting memory that, for one fleeting moment, I felt my grandfather see the world through my defiantly optimistic eyes.

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Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Act of Infamy Against Japanese Americanshttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/01/18/franklin-d-roosevelts-act-infamy-japanese-americans/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2017/01/18/franklin-d-roosevelts-act-infamy-japanese-americans/ideas/nexus/#respond Wed, 18 Jan 2017 08:01:22 +0000 By Matthew Dallek http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=82935 In recent months, president-elect Donald Trump has said he is considering setting up a registry to track Muslim Americans and foil jihadist plots from being hatched in the United States. This registry, he and his aides have claimed, is grounded in precedent: Franklin Roosevelt’s administration detained approximately 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans in response to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Coincidentally, this February 19 marks the 75th anniversary of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 setting up the camps. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in upstate New York is devoting an entire exhibit to FDR’s internment decision and its impact on the lives of internees for the first time in the library’s illustrious history.

The exhibit, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans In World War II,” will be ready for public viewing February 19, and will run through Dec. 31, 2017. In the meantime, it is worth reflecting

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In recent months, president-elect Donald Trump has said he is considering setting up a registry to track Muslim Americans and foil jihadist plots from being hatched in the United States. This registry, he and his aides have claimed, is grounded in precedent: Franklin Roosevelt’s administration detained approximately 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans in response to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Coincidentally, this February 19 marks the 75th anniversary of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 setting up the camps. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in upstate New York is devoting an entire exhibit to FDR’s internment decision and its impact on the lives of internees for the first time in the library’s illustrious history.

The exhibit, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans In World War II,” will be ready for public viewing February 19, and will run through Dec. 31, 2017. In the meantime, it is worth reflecting on President Roosevelt’s role in and his reasons for setting up the internment camps. Trump, after all, described Roosevelt as a revered leader who was nonetheless responsible for setting up the internment camps. The then-presidential candidate suggested that if one of America’s greatest presidents could take such a step to defend lives, then Trump reasonably could crack down on Muslim Americans for the sake of security if he were to win the White House.

The internment decision represents one of the great paradoxes of FDR’s three-plus terms as president. Roosevelt was not just an architect of the New Deal but also a champion of human rights and individual liberties here at home and around the world as the crisis of World War II encroached on the United States.

Faced with the growing power of fascist militarism, Roosevelt declared in his 1941 Four Freedoms address that “the mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all the things worth fighting for.” Indeed, he then cited “the preservation of civil liberties for all” as one of these fundamental democratic values that was worthy of national sacrifice.

The puzzle of his presidency is how a man so responsible for defending freedom against the totalitarian menace—whose wartime addresses stirred millions of people to defend the cause of liberty—could simultaneously authorize and implement one of the greatest civil liberties abuses in American history.

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the political pressures on Roosevelt to take drastic action against Japanese Americans on the West Coast metastasized. Popular fears of imminent air raids, widespread espionage and land invasion combined with entrenched anti-Japanese racism, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington state, into a combustible mix in the uncertainty that defined the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Railing against any American officials who had the temerity to defend Japanese Americans as loyal citizens, the Los Angeles Times denounced all people of Japanese origin as “snakes” who posed imminent dangers to communities on the Pacific coast. Anti-Japanese voices grew louder as concerns soared that cities—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle—would come under enemy attack. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron warned residents that, “Right here in our own city are those who may spring to action at an appointed time in accordance with a prearranged plan wherein each of our little Japanese friends will know his part in the event of any possible attempted invasion or air raid … We cannot run the risk of another Pearl Harbor episode in Southern California.”

The puzzle of FDR’s presidency is how a man so responsible for defending freedom against the totalitarian menace could simultaneously authorize and implement one of the greatest civil liberties abuses in American history.

A group of Army officers, fearing that invasion was imminent and under pressure from nativists in the Western United States, pressed the White House to remove and incarcerate Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Roosevelt was kept abreast of the fast-moving debate about the fate of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, and the voices in support of internment proved far louder and politically and militarily more potent than the arguments made by interment’s opponents.

A member of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Harley Kilgore (D-WV), sent Roosevelt letters from Americans protesting the ongoing presence of Japanese people within the United States as a grave threat. “I am enclosing herewith a few samples of the types of protests which I am receiving from persons very distant from the Pacific Coast with reference to the dangers of Japanese and other inhabitants of that vicinity,” Kilgore wrote the president. “It is my sincere belief that the Pacific coast should be declared a military area which will give authority to put [residents] … under military law, permitting their removal, regardless of their citizenship rights, to internal and less dangerous areas.”

The most vigorous dissent to incarcerating Japanese Americans came from Attorney General Francis Biddle and Assistant to the Attorney General, James H. Rowe, Jr. But even as they argued admirably against evacuation and incarceration, the Justice Department’s leaders conveyed to the president some sense of the popular racism, war hysteria, and economic motivations that would ultimately overwhelm the debate and set in motion FDR’s executive order. Biddle wrote Roosevelt:

“A great many of the West Coast people distrust the Japanese, various special interests would welcome their removal from good farm land and the elimination of their competition, some of the local California radio and press have demanded evacuation, the West Coast congressional delegation are asking the same thing and finally Walter Lippman and Westbrook Pegler recently have taken up the evacuation cry on the ground that attack on the West Coast and widespread sabotage is imminent.”

When Biddle and other Justice Department officials were assured by the Army that the military and not Justice would be responsible for implementing and running the camps, they withdrew their opposition to Roosevelt’s executive order. That order, numbered 9066 and signed on February 19, 1942, did not explicitly mention the Japanese, but there was no question that it targeted people of Japanese ancestry for removal rather than people of German and Italian origins.

The decision was hardly motivated by legitimate threats to the national security of the United States. Almost all historians have concluded that there was no evidence in the early 1940s—and that no evidence has emerged in the seven-plus decades since—showing that Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans were acting as spies or that they were part of a larger plot aiding the Emperor’s war effort. The notion that national security considerations justified the camps is simply contradicted by the voluminous historical evidence to the contrary..

“There is no evidence that [the Japanese government] had any success” recruiting spies in the United States to advance its war aims, historian Greg Robinson, author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, has pointed out. “The American occupation authorities in Japan after the war who studied captured Japanese documents found no evidence of any giant spy rings among American citizens of Japanese ancestry.”

Roosevelt, a product of his times, regarded the Japanese with the racist suspicion shared by countless of his fellow Americans. A close student of public opinion, and attuned to the military, political, and popular pressures to incarcerate Japanese Americans and suspend their rights as citizens, he issued the executive order without much apparent forethought or agonizing about the fraught moral questions and human costs of his action. Roosevelt subscribed to decades of anti-Japanese racism that pervaded early 20th century American culture. Just as the nation’s 19th century political leaders could speak eloquently for democracy and sing the praises of individual freedom while also defending the institution of slavery, Roosevelt gave hope to the world’s victims of fascist militarism and rallied millions of Americans to defend democracy while simultaneously authorizing the complete suspension of rights of an entire group of people based on their race. One historian has rightly called the internment camps “the most tragic act of his administration.”

During the 1980s, a committee established by the U.S. Congress to investigate the history of the internment camps concluded that they amounted to “a grave injustice” born out of “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.” The most glaring abdication was the failure of Franklin Roosevelt to defend the rights and liberties of tens of thousands of his fellow citizens as he was pulled along by the tides of hysteria and racism 75 years ago this February.

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How Alpine Yodeling Mutated Into American Blackface Minstrelryhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/12/27/alpine-yodeling-mutated-american-blackface-minstrelry/chronicles/who-we-were/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/12/27/alpine-yodeling-mutated-american-blackface-minstrelry/chronicles/who-we-were/#respond Tue, 27 Dec 2016 08:01:55 +0000 By Daniel H. Foster and Anne Bramley http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=82409 In 1822 the Austrian emperor Franz I and his ally Tsar Alexander I of Russia held a meeting in a remote valley of the war-torn Tyrolese Alps. They were entertained by the Rainers, a locally renowned family of singing farmers. When the visiting dignitaries heard the improvisational simplicity of the family’s performance of native Alpine songs, they encouraged the four Rainer brothers and their sister to leave the war behind and take their homegrown mountain show on the road.

The Rainers performed their rustic harmonies across Europe and eventually America, inspiring many imitators in their wake. But no one could have foreseen how these Alpine yodelers would help transform the racist entertainment of blackface into a respectable middle-class pastime in a way that still persists in American art and politics.

In 1827, when the Rainers reached Britain, minstrels were all the rage. (Think zombies today, from Jane Austen parodies to

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In 1822 the Austrian emperor Franz I and his ally Tsar Alexander I of Russia held a meeting in a remote valley of the war-torn Tyrolese Alps. They were entertained by the Rainers, a locally renowned family of singing farmers. When the visiting dignitaries heard the improvisational simplicity of the family’s performance of native Alpine songs, they encouraged the four Rainer brothers and their sister to leave the war behind and take their homegrown mountain show on the road.

What It Means to Be AmericanThe Rainers performed their rustic harmonies across Europe and eventually America, inspiring many imitators in their wake. But no one could have foreseen how these Alpine yodelers would help transform the racist entertainment of blackface into a respectable middle-class pastime in a way that still persists in American art and politics.

In 1827, when the Rainers reached Britain, minstrels were all the rage. (Think zombies today, from Jane Austen parodies to The Walking Dead, iZombie, and Z Nation.) Such poet-musicians, who glorified famous heroes and told chilling folk tales, who piped troops into battle and sang at firesides, had all but died out after Queen Elizabeth outlawed them as “sturdy beggars” in 1597. But 150 years later British poets revived the idea of the minstrel. Thomas Gray is credited with kicking it all off in his 1757 poem, “The Bard,” about a medieval Welsh minstrel who single-handedly stares down the entire English army, foretells the glory of the Tudor dynasty, and then leaps to his death from atop Mount Snowdon. Other poets soon followed suit with a new kind of minstrel who reminded Britons of their natural and heroic roots.

In their folk costumes and feathered caps, the Rainers were an overnight success in London, where they were seen as the living embodiment of the minstrel craze, and immediately dubbed the “Tyrolese Minstrels.” Using everything from spoons and kazoos to guitars, fiddles, and bugles, they played waltzes, Ländler, and other traditional Austrian and Swiss folk dances. And just like the minstrels fashioned by Gray and others, they were informal, unaffected, and moving, the voice of refugees seeking freedom while preserving the culture of their homeland.

As they brought the minstrel back to life, the Rainers changed that solitary Romantic figure into an ensemble. They were famous for the way they seamlessly blended their harmonies. Ear-witnesses often commented on the “unity” with which these siblings wound their vocal lines into a single, finely spun thread of sound. We usually think of harmony as organized vertically, a stratified sonic society where each voice has its role to play and never gets above itself. But the Rainers seemed to make harmony horizontal.

This pure and simple sound proved irresistible to American ears when the Rainers arrived here in 1834. Attendance at their imported folk concerts became not just a matter of musical taste but morality. At the time, Americans were caught up in a middle-class fashion for self-improvement. The Rainers, and the many European “minstrel” family singers who followed them, morphed from symbols of lost culture into cultural capital. Being seen at concerts and knowing the songs marked one as au courant.

The Granite State Minstrels.

Figure 2: The Granite State Minstrels. Courtesy Library of Congress, Music Division.

Soon Yankee audiences, invigorated by a new spirit of nationalism and a desire to find a uniquely American identity, longed to hear from minstrels native to their own shores. A domestic minstrel market opened up. Enter the Hutchinsons.

Like the Rainers, the Hutchinsons were farmers and their New Hampshire roots became their identity when they began touring in 1840 as the Granite State Minstrels. And like the Rainers they sung simple, close harmonies with well-blended voices. (Consider the sound that became the barbershop quartet.) But by joining that sound to hot topics like temperance and abolition, the Hutchinsons made such harmonies seem particularly American. Weaving one voice out of many, they created the musical equivalent of E pluribus unum. They sang the body politic. And the sound was democracy, the dream that every note, like every vote, counted.

This new democratic sound thrived as more American minstrel groups adopted it, but the politics of race and the economics of entertainment quickly intruded. These family-friendly folk minstrels packed the respectable concert halls of northern cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. But across town, in the poorer, mixed-race, immigrant neighborhoods of these same cities, districts like New York’s Bowery, another kind of entertainment had become popular.

Thomas Dartmouth Rice as Jim Crow.

Figure 3: Thomas Dartmouth Rice as Jim Crow. Courtesy Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Special Collections, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

In the 1830s early blackface performers, known mostly as “Ethiopian delineators,” created raucous theatrical extravaganzas that parodied middle-class dress, manners, and desire for upward mobility. Ridiculous farces and what were then known as “Ethiopian operas,” with names like The Virginia Mummy and Bone Squash Diavolo, made fun of both white authority at the top and poor blacks (free and slave) at the bottom. As historian Eric Lott describes in his book Love and Theft, audiences for these performances were mostly working-class young men, both white and black, and this theater encouraged a kind of class solidarity among a disenfranchised audience eager to make itself feel better by watching African-American stereotypes hoist the middle classes on their own petard.

With the exception of a few superstars (like Thomas Dartmouth Rice, pictured above as his most famous character, Jim Crow), blackface was neither socially acceptable nor particularly lucrative.

That all changed when blackface delineators saw the potential for cash and cultural cache in imitating folk-singing families like the Rainers and the Hutchinsons. In 1843 Dan Emmett, former circus clown and future composer of the Confederate national anthem “Dixie,” cobbled together some cronies in his Bowery boarding house to create the Virginia Minstrels, the first blackface band in history to use the moniker “minstrel.”

The Virginia Minstrels.

Figure 4: The Virginia Minstrels. Courtesy John Hay Library, African American Sheet Music Collection, Brown University.

To suit their newer, more cultured title, blackface minstrels changed not only in form but formality. They promised performances purged of the “vulgarities” that had previously characterized blackface. By the 1840s, playbills and advertisements pledged “chaste” entertainments to attract their target audiences of white women and children as well as respectable family men.

In this context “chaste” meant whitewashing the more risqué, sexually explicit content that previously defined blackface performance. But it also meant a change in singing style. The newly renamed minstrels adopted the same horizontal harmonizing the Hutchinsons and other American minstrels had borrowed from European minstrels. In harmonized versions of songs like “The Fine Old Color’d Gentleman” and “Old Uncle Ned,” musical simplicity was made to sound like moral chastity in spite of the overt racism that characterized the whole genre.

This rebranding of vulgar delineator as chaste minstrel was a resounding success. The blackface minstrel show became the most popular entertainment in 19th-century America.

And yet, as the middle classes shifted from being the object of blackface mockery to blackface’s target audience, minstrel humor turned explicitly hateful and malevolent. In short, blackface minstrels used what Frederick Douglass called the Hutchinsons’ “soul-enlarging and heart-melting melody” to “pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

Today, blackface’s bid for respectability is mostly forgotten, but the ghost of the minstrel still stalks the American stage. Alison Kinney has written about the only recently discontinued practice of blackface in the Metropolitan Opera’s performances of Verdi’s Otello.

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When Bigoted Humor Isn’t Just a Jokehttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/09/19/bigoted-humor-isnt-just-joke/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/09/19/bigoted-humor-isnt-just-joke/ideas/nexus/#comments Mon, 19 Sep 2016 07:01:09 +0000 By Raúl Pérez http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=78585 Over the last decade, I’ve studied the changing nature of race-talk among comedians, from the civil rights era to the present. Specifically, I’ve been interested in examining the use of racial insults, stereotypes, and slurs by white comics. Take the following jokes by comedian Lisa Lampanelli from her 2007 comedy special Dirty Girl:

“What do you call a black woman who’s had seven abortions? A crime fighter! … Now I’ve gotta do a Hispanic [sic] joke to even things out … How many Hispanics [sic] does it take to clean a bathroom? None! That’s a nigger’s job!” [Audience members groan, laugh, cheer, applaud.]

The jokes baffled me—how does Lampanelli, who is white, get away with performing these in front of a national audience without being booed off stage and being forced to enter the witness protection program? Lampanelli claims she’s not really a racist and has “good intentions.” But

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Over the last decade, I’ve studied the changing nature of race-talk among comedians, from the civil rights era to the present. Specifically, I’ve been interested in examining the use of racial insults, stereotypes, and slurs by white comics. Take the following jokes by comedian Lisa Lampanelli from her 2007 comedy special Dirty Girl:

“What do you call a black woman who’s had seven abortions? A crime fighter! … Now I’ve gotta do a Hispanic [sic] joke to even things out … How many Hispanics [sic] does it take to clean a bathroom? None! That’s a nigger’s job!” [Audience members groan, laugh, cheer, applaud.]

The jokes baffled me—how does Lampanelli, who is white, get away with performing these in front of a national audience without being booed off stage and being forced to enter the witness protection program? Lampanelli claims she’s not really a racist and has “good intentions.” But was that all there was to it?

Lampanelli’s routine aired only a few months after Michael Richards’ infamous Laugh Factory disaster, in which the former Seinfeld star unleashed a torrent of racial slurs and insults at a black audience member that lightly heckled his performance. His comments were recorded and soon broadcast around the world. Following his viral blunder, Richards swiftly apologized, noted he was “not a racist,” and also emphasized his “good intentions.”

At the time I watched these performances, I had recently decided to apply to graduate school to research the relationship between race and comedy. As a young man, I had heard the racist jokes told by fellow undergrads and was fascinated by the way they forged and broke social relations. Major public spectacles like these only confirmed my suspicion that this humor was part of a wider public problem. I took the Richards’ incident as a godsend. Well, not really. But examining these types of controversies, and comparing them to performances that didn’t draw as much ire, provided a revealing look into the changing nature of race-talk in American comedy.

Overall, there has been a significant shift in the acceptability of racist speech in public, including under the guise of humor, since the civil rights movement. Take, for instance, the roast of Whoopi Goldberg at the Friars Club in 1993 in which Ted Danson appeared in blackface, performed a series of black stereotypes, and made liberal use of the “n-word.” The performance horrified many in attendance, and the private club famous for its no-holds-barred celebrity roasts issued its first-ever public apology in response. It’s worth remembering that only a few decades earlier, blackface was one of the most popular forms of comedy in the country. The shift from “funny” to “racist” didn’t occur on its own. It took years of opposition and protest from the targets of such racial ridicule.

But in studying the evolution of race in humor, I’m seeing an increasing number of white comics “successfully” making use of racial stereotypes and slurs, despite complaints by some comics and critics who suggest that we’ve all become censoriously hypersensitive and have gone “too far” with all the “PC nonsense.” Think Lisa Lampanelli, Louis C. K., Neal Brennan, Nick Kroll, Amy Schumer, and Jeff Dunham. Sure, there are certain jokes that don’t fly and apologies sometimes follow, but there’s something that’s happening that is allowing these comics to get away with telling these jokes.

To better explore these new bounds in modern comedy, I decided to get my answers from the ground: I enrolled in comedy school. What I learned was incredibly revealing. Over the period of several months in 2008 and 2009, instructors at a reputable L.A.-based comedy school taught my classmates and I not only about the mechanics of comedy writing, but also the social rules that govern its practice.

The shift from “funny” to “racist” didn’t occur on its own. It took years of opposition and protest from the targets of such racial ridicule.

One of the first things I noticed were the differences between how teachers coached white versus non-white comedy students on the subject of race. Unlike students of color, who were encouraged to use racial stereotypes frequently, uncritically, and unapologetically (at least as applied to their own groups), white students were taught to tread racial matters carefully and strategically. Since the Richards incident was fresh in our collective memory, our instructor—a white male—reminded white students not to make racial slurs and stereotypes central to their acts. But he also noted that the biggest payoffs in the industry often come from provoking the taboo without crossing the line, and didn’t steer students away from approaching controversial topics.

To do that, the teacher taught students to employ tricks like creating characters—a friend, a family member, a stranger—who would “tell” the joke with racial stereotypes or slurs for them. The character would serve as a buffer between the performer and the ownership of the statement. He also advised students to ridicule themselves and expose some of their own vulnerabilities before pivoting to material about those outside their own identity groups. For white students, this self-deprecation allowed them to become “equal opportunity offenders,” a common ploy used in comedy that relies on the defense that if you’re ridiculing everyone, you’re not really bigoted.

Pay close attention to any “successful” race-based comedy routine over the last five decades and you’ll see these strategies in action. From Don Rickles to Louis C.K., approaches like those taught in my comedy school act as a magician’s sleight of hand that go unseen by the untrained eye.

But does it really matter that comics can still get a laugh from some racist jokes? Sure, delivery and intent are mitigating factors, but the inescapable question is whether the jokes are pointing out the absurdity of their racist content, or in fact perpetuating it.

Take, for example, that Lampanelli quip where she “jokingly” equates black abortions with crime fighting. The joke told on stage isn’t one that simply remained in the comedy club. This laugh line, and variations of it, have turned up on multiple white supremacist websites, where it reinforces their racist ideas that African-Americans are naturally more prone to criminality. It also turned up in a 2015 Department of Justice probe, where it was one of several racist jokes found in emails circulating among police officers and court officials in Ferguson, Missouri.

The DOJ reported that this and other forms of racist humor served as evidence of “impermissible bias” among members of the city’s municipal courts and police force—an atmosphere that contributed to a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the community. Similar investigations of police departments across the country reveal a pattern of racist (as well as sexist and homophobic) humor circulating among officers. Though the jokes themselves don’t cause the bigotry, they certainly help justify and perpetuate these prejudiced belief systems. It is rather revealing that those who suggest we grow “thicker skins” and learn to “take a joke” tend to ignore such occurrences.

Not all comics are clamoring for a pushback to political correctness; some comedians are leading the charge against racist jokes. Reflecting on her own past reliance on racial humor, Sarah Silverman recently noted that some “racial jokes that were just trying to be absurd” have “less charm” given the current environment where our nation is confronting issues of police brutality against minorities.

The times continue to change, and comedy will continue to adapt. Those who challenge racist jokes aren’t waging a war against comedy. They are just recognizing that in a society still struggling to achieve basic justice and equality for racial and ethnic minorities, such jokes only add insult to injury.

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American Segregation Started Long Before the Civil Warhttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/09/12/american-segregation-started-long-civil-war/chronicles/who-we-were/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/09/12/american-segregation-started-long-civil-war/chronicles/who-we-were/#respond Mon, 12 Sep 2016 07:01:17 +0000 By Nicholas Guyatt http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=78265 Segregation remains an intractable force in American life, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial separation in America’s schools. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that more than 20 million students of color attend public schools that are racially or socioeconomically isolated. This figure has increased in recent decades, despite a raft of federal and state initiatives.

Major cities like New York and Chicago struggle with high levels of residential segregation, especially at the neighborhood level. The entrenched correlation between race and poverty is partly to blame, but segregation catches even affluent people of color. A recent study found that, while only 9 percent of white Americans earning $100,000 or more lived in poor areas, 37 percent of African-Americans on the same income level lived in poorer neighborhoods.

If we want to understand why racial segregation still exists in America, we

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What It Means to Be American Segregation remains an intractable force in American life, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial separation in America’s schools. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that more than 20 million students of color attend public schools that are racially or socioeconomically isolated. This figure has increased in recent decades, despite a raft of federal and state initiatives.

Major cities like New York and Chicago struggle with high levels of residential segregation, especially at the neighborhood level. The entrenched correlation between race and poverty is partly to blame, but segregation catches even affluent people of color. A recent study found that, while only 9 percent of white Americans earning $100,000 or more lived in poor areas, 37 percent of African-Americans on the same income level lived in poorer neighborhoods.

If we want to understand why racial segregation still exists in America, we should start by understanding its origins.

The most widely accepted account puts the blame for creating segregation on white Southerners. According to this version, defeated Confederates regrouped after the Civil War to prevent the federal government from making African-Americans equal citizens. If slavery could no longer be sustained, racist Southerners would use other weapons to intimidate and disenfranchise their black neighbors. By the 1880s, Southern whites had created the Jim Crow system, which enforced racial segregation throughout the South. Only with the advent of the civil rights movement would African-Americans succeed in dismantling this system of local oppression—with the help of Northern supporters and, crucially, a newly engaged federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

This account creates two false narratives: it presents institutionalized segregation as a Southern-only problem, and it sets American history on an upward trajectory from oppression to freedom. We miss the national roots of America’s segregation problem because we assume that the battle over slavery predated the fight for black citizenship, and that segregation struggles were a re-run of North versus South. On the contrary, the obstacles to integration in America were an offshoot of the nation’s revolutionary ideology as well as its long history of racial exploitation.

Guyatt on race INTERIOR 1

In 1776, the Founders declared that “all men are created equal.” While Thomas Jefferson and John Adams weren’t thinking about people of color when they made this bold claim, blacks and Indians, encouraged by white missionaries and social reformers, insisted that slavery and oppression were incompatible with the nation’s new creed. The Founding Fathers struggled to deny these claims.

Racial oppression, whether rooted in slavery or the theft of Indian land, had always been driven by white economic gain. But immediately after the Revolution, the Founders glimpsed a different vision of America’s future. The plantation crops that had sustained the Southern slave system were not as profitable as they had once been, and politicians in every slaveholding state agreed to ban new imports of slaves. (The cotton boom, which made American slavery more profitable than it had ever been, was still decades away.)

After 1789, officials of the new federal government believed that they could expand westward in partnership with Native people, rather than through terror and conquest. The first secretary of defense (or secretary of war, as he was known back then) was Henry Knox, a general in the Revolutionary War who’d been a bookseller before he became a soldier and politician. It was “more convenient than just” to assume that Indians could not be “civilized,” Knox told Washington in 1791. The United States could pay Native people for their “surplus” land, plant white settlers alongside them, and erase the distinction between the races.

In the case of both blacks and Indians, then, the early United States witnessed what we might call an integration moment after the Revolution. The Founders, along with a host of clergymen, politicians, newspaper editors, and moral reformers, grappled with the prospect of a multi-racial republic under the banner of “all men are created equal.” At the 18th century’s end, the prevailing thinking in science and religion held that human beings were a single species, and that “race” was a product of environment rather than biology.

But the work of promoting integration quickly ran aground. In the first place, these liberal whites—men and women who paid lip service to human equality—couldn’t quite escape their own prejudices.

African-Americans had been “degraded” by slavery, insisted white reformers, and would need to be made fit for citizenship before they could be safely emancipated. While this emphasis on black “degradation” drew attention to the need for material and educational support to African-Americans, it also created a dangerous stereotype—reinforcing the view among white “moderates” that black freedom might produce “convulsions” (as Thomas Jefferson put it) that would “end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” The language of degradation offered a problem rather than a solution. If African Americans needed schooling and support to make the transition to freedom and equality, would they receive this from federal, state, or city government? From charities? From their former enslavers? While liberal whites argued over how best to overcome degradation, many white Americans concluded that abolition would be more difficult than they had initially imagined.

Racial oppression, whether rooted in slavery or the theft of Indian land, [has] always been driven by white economic gain.

The first integration moment in American history was also undone by the chauvinism of even the most forward-thinking white Americans. For government officials like Henry Knox, or educators like Princeton president Samuel Stanhope Smith, people of color had the potential to be equal to whites if they changed their culture and behavior—or even their appearance. Smith, the most influential race theorist of his day, insisted that blacks and Indians would literally come to resemble Europeans—losing their “African peculiarities”—as they gained freedom or “civilization.” When people of color failed to somehow “turn white,” or to abandon their assumptions and ways of life, liberal whites reacted with exasperation and disdain.

And then there was the prospect of racial amalgamation, which scrambled the moral compasses of even the most progressive whites. Of all the European empires in the New World, British North America was the most squeamish on the question of amalgamation. But while the science and religion of the European Enlightenment suggested no barrier to intermarriage, even white Americans who embraced “all men are created equal” struggled with the practical application of that phrase. The preacher David Rice, who tried valiantly to outlaw slavery in the Kentucky constitutional convention of 1792, admitted that his own prejudices against intermarriage were hard to shake; but he was determined, he told his fellow delegates, not to allow irrational feelings to “influence my judgment, nor affect my conscience.”

Alas, many others who spoke in the abstract against slavery failed to follow Rice’s example; or, like Thomas Jefferson, they compartmentalized their private and public lives. It’s now widely accepted that in the 1790s and 1800s, Jefferson secretly fathered six children with Sally Hemings, a multi-racial slave in his household, while insisting in public on his “great aversion” to “the mixture of color.”

It soon became apparent that the realization of “all men are created equal” required more than an abstract recognition of black or Native humanity; it required the surrender of what we now call white privilege. When even the most liberal whites struggled to meet this challenge, they developed an alternative plan that might deliver the United States from the guilt of slavery and oppression without obliging white people to live alongside people of color: perhaps blacks and Indians could be persuaded to move elsewhere.

Exchanging citizens for horses, 1834.

As antislavery initiatives in the South stalled on the question of integration, and Native Americans went to war with white settlers in the Midwest, an influential group of politicians, philanthropists, and reformers proposed the same solution for both problems. Native Americans would be moved beyond the Mississippi, where they could be “civilized” by the federal government without the immediate pressure of the settlers who were rushing into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. African-Americans, meanwhile, could be freed from slavery on condition that they agree to leave the United States for a land of their own: in the far West, perhaps, or in the Caribbean or Africa. At precisely the same moment in American history— the first 30 years of the 19th century—many of the most influential figures in the United States proposed segregation as a solution to the nation’s first racial crisis.

The idea that Native people could be colonized in the West was endorsed by Presidents James Monroe and John Quincy Adams before it was taken up by Andrew Jackson, whose determination to force Native people to leave the Southeast culminated in the notorious Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838-39. This appalling outcome, though, was merely the final stage in a process of promoting racial separation that had begun with Northern missionaries and politicians. Similarly, the proposal that African-Americans be colonized outside the United States was warmly accepted by white politicians and reformers from North Carolina to Massachusetts. If slavery had become mostly a Southern institution by the 1820s, segregation appealed to whites across the nation.

It was no surprise that Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party endorsed black colonization in the 1850s, or that Lincoln affirmed his commitment to a black exodus from the United States during the first 18 months of the Civil War. What separated Lincoln from Jackson was that the former had neither the means nor the inclination to compel black people to leave the United States. Through their vast numbers and their usefulness to the Union war effort, African-Americans managed to reject the future that had long been marked out for them by “liberal” whites. By 1863, the Lincoln administration had largely abandoned the notion that black people would agree to live somewhere else after emancipation.

But white Americans had been assured by politicians for half a century that slavery would end in racial separation rather than coexistence. The logic of segregation wasn’t the offshoot of the Civil War, nor was it the preserve of Southerners who had fought to the death to maintain slavery. America’s integration problem may have looked Southern and reactionary at the end of the 19th century, but it began as a national—and liberal—predicament.

The Founding generation spoke about racial integration in ways that may seem disconcertingly familiar to us. White reformers frequently insisted on racial equality or potential, while finding ways to postpone or derail forms of integration that required the surrender of prejudice and advantage. By acknowledging this forgotten history of segregation, we’re in a better position to interrogate our own boasts about racial “progress”—and to see that, in the long American conversation about race, moral evasion has always been a central theme.

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Where Do Racism and Sexism Intersect at the Office?http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/07/06/where-do-racism-and-sexism-intersect-at-the-office/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/07/06/where-do-racism-and-sexism-intersect-at-the-office/ideas/nexus/#respond Wed, 06 Jul 2016 07:01:24 +0000 By Serena Does and Margaret Shih http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=74975 While the U.S. currently has a black president and a woman just made history by clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, both racial minorities and women still face significant barriers in professional settings.

Considering the parallels and differences in the biases that women and racial minorities face is an important way to increase our understanding of workplace discrimination and equality. By reviewing some recent work by cross-disciplinary researchers from across the world, we attempted to shed light and theorize on some ways in which racial minorities might suffer from similar biases as those identified for women. For the sake of comprehension, we narrowed our scope to research on Asian Americans.

As our starting point, we took four patterns of workplace bias that women face as identified by a 2014 study by a research team based out of UC Hastings College of the Law’s Center for WorkLife Law. Joan C. Williams, Kathrine

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While the U.S. currently has a black president and a woman just made history by clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, both racial minorities and women still face significant barriers in professional settings.

Considering the parallels and differences in the biases that women and racial minorities face is an important way to increase our understanding of workplace discrimination and equality. By reviewing some recent work by cross-disciplinary researchers from across the world, we attempted to shed light and theorize on some ways in which racial minorities might suffer from similar biases as those identified for women. For the sake of comprehension, we narrowed our scope to research on Asian Americans.

As our starting point, we took four patterns of workplace bias that women face as identified by a 2014 study by a research team based out of UC Hastings College of the Law’s Center for WorkLife Law. Joan C. Williams, Kathrine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall interviewed 60 women who work in the sciences and found that 100 percent reported experiencing one or more of four gender bias patterns.

Although these biases were identified as specific to women, by comparing them to findings from research on biases that Asian Americans face in the workplace, it becomes clear that they can also apply to racial minorities.

The first bias, “prove-it-again,” refers to when women have to provide more evidence of competence than men in order to be seen as equally competent. As the name suggests, women can find themselves in situations where they have to prove again and again that they are professional, competent, and/or intelligent. For example, a woman might have to exhibit competency at her job for a longer period before being considered for promotion than a man doing an equivalent job.

Similarly, Asians oftentimes have to provide more evidence of competence than non-Asians. A 2013 study by Lei Lai and Linda C. Babcock found evidence that Asian Americans are evaluated as less socially skilled than whites, and are therefore less likely to be hired for a job requiring social skills (like public relations) than technical skills (like information technology). A 2013 study on the leadership theories of Asian Americans and whites found that even when Asian managers are seen as equally competent as white managers in specific metrics, on the whole whites see Asian managers as less sociable, less transformational, and less authentic compared to white managers. Like women, Asian Americans must prove their competence to a greater extent than whites, particularly in areas where stereotypes and prejudices remain.

The second bias, “tightrope,” refers to when women often find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable. This is a difficult—not to mention unfair—balance for women to have to consider, and is often very hard to attain. Hillary Clinton is only the most recent and prominent example of a woman who has been criticized for being “too masculine” or, in more coded language, “too ambitious and eager.”

… women often find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent or too masculine to be likable.

Similarly, Asians are commonly stereotyped as being more feminine and less masculine compared to whites or blacks. In 2012, Jennifer L. Berdahl and Ji-A Min examined stereotypes of East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese) and found that they are expected to be as competent and warm as whites—but also less dominant (i.e., masculine). And a 2015 study of “gender profiling” by Erika Hall, Adam Galinsky, and Katherine Phillips found that because Asians are seen as more feminine than whites and blacks, they are seen as better fits for feminine rather than masculine positions. This could pose barriers when Asians seek positions—like police officer or banker—that are historically seen as masculine.

The third bias, “maternal wall,” refers to women finding themselves confronted with the stereotype that they lose their work commitment and competence after having kids. Men who have children don’t typically face this same stereotype in the workplace.

There is evidence suggesting that Asian women are faced with particular biases and challenges around motherhood in professional contexts. In the same 2014 study of women scientists by Williams and colleagues, Asian women described more pressure from their families to have children than whites and blacks, and also felt more responsible to cover for colleagues who are mothers compared to Latina and white women. At the same time, Asian women were more frequently told by colleagues that they should work fewer hours after having children compared to black and Latina mothers. So Asian-American women face more pressure from their families to have children, while also experiencing more pressure from colleagues to work less after having children.

The fourth bias, “tug of war,” refers to when gender bias fuels conflict among women. In some instances, having a sexist work environment can lead women to want to distance themselves from their gender group in different ways, including by criticizing other women.

Based on the interviews reported by Williams and colleagues, Asian women had to compete with other women for a “woman’s spot” –i.e, a position intended to be filled by a woman—at higher levels than white and Latina women. This seems to suggest that for Asian women, there is more (or at least greater perceptions) of a “zero sum” situation when it comes to the workforce and women colleagues, where one woman’s gain is another woman’s loss.

Ultimately, what strikes us is that there are clear intergroup differences in how women experience and are exposed to these four different patterns of bias, depending on their racial background. Asian women’s experiences can be significantly different from black women’s experiences, and in order to create an equal and inclusive workplace for all, it is important to be aware of such differences.

Future research should look at the ways in which biases and prejudice against women compare to those against racial minorities, and study which type of interventions are most effective in reducing the effects of such biases. More study is also needed on the intersections of race and gender when it comes to workplace bias. A greater understanding and awareness of the parallels and differences between the biases that women and racial minorities face can result in more effective and efficient interventions in the workplace designed to promote inclusion for all.

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How Big Data Can Make Us Less Racisthttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/28/how-big-data-can-make-us-less-racist/ideas/nexus/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/28/how-big-data-can-make-us-less-racist/ideas/nexus/#respond Thu, 28 Apr 2016 07:01:54 +0000 By Bhagwan Chowdhry, Sanjiv Das, and Barney Hartman-Glaser http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=72297 Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and has called for a wall to keep out Mexicans, whom he has called rapists and criminals. Many have called Trump a racist for these views because he lumps all members of a group—good and bad—together. But whether you admit it or not, you are probably somewhat racist too. We all are, to some extent. (If you’re shaking your head, there’s a nifty online test to remind you of your implicit biases.)

It may not be your fault. You are hardwired to be biased. The reason is that you have to make decisions based on limited information. Some of these decisions may determine whether you live or die. It’s important, for example, to make a snap judgment about whether that twisted sinister shape you see is a deadly poisonous snake or merely a rope. If you’re walking late

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Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and has called for a wall to keep out Mexicans, whom he has called rapists and criminals. Many have called Trump a racist for these views because he lumps all members of a group—good and bad—together. But whether you admit it or not, you are probably somewhat racist too. We all are, to some extent. (If you’re shaking your head, there’s a nifty online test to remind you of your implicit biases.)

It may not be your fault. You are hardwired to be biased. The reason is that you have to make decisions based on limited information. Some of these decisions may determine whether you live or die. It’s important, for example, to make a snap judgment about whether that twisted sinister shape you see is a deadly poisonous snake or merely a rope. If you’re walking late one evening in a secluded, dimly lit neighborhood and you discern someone walking behind you, you need to figure out whether you might be attacked, robbed of your possessions, or molested. You must decide quickly if you should quicken your pace, change your direction, or even reach for the bottle of mace you are carrying. You are likely to make these decisions based on the stranger’s gender, race, age, or other physical characteristics. The same snap judgments must be made by policemen on the beat, often with tragic consequences, as we have witnessed in the past few years.

Such profiling scenarios raise several disturbing questions. Why do we tend to associate the color of one’s skin or other physical characteristics with the likelihood that you are in danger of being attacked? The answer is that we’ve learned to make associations using patterns and statistical data. But the underlying data available to each of us are very limited, and detectable signals we perceive quickly in making a probabilistic estimate are rather coarse. But we are trying to do the best we can. In other words, we use stereotypes—or small data. And when we act based on stereotypes and small data, we often discriminate—often unfairly, unjustly, and unkindly.

Most of us, of course, would prefer not to discriminate against people by placing them in groups and assigning average group characteristics to each individual in that large group. And so, even if we do it subconsciously, we admonish against stereotyping by telling ourselves, and anyone who will listen, that “Not all Muslims are terrorists,” “Not all Chinese drive slow,” and “Some white men can jump.”

But ignoring (small) data or statistical patterns that have predictive powers can be harmful. Sometimes it is practical to assume any snake you see on a hike is poisonous, and ascertain if you were right later on, after taking evasive action.

But our survival instincts, as well as good business practices, want us to make good predictions, not discriminate unnecessarily. If we had access to a lot of data, and could process large amounts of data quickly and efficiently, we would use all data available to us in making predictions. And we could see which data points turn out to be the most critical.

Most online retailers, such as Amazon, do not care per se what your gender or ethnicity is, how old you are, and whether or not you are rich. They merely want to predict, based on your browsing and purchasing behavior, what they can sell to you next. So, for instance, Amazon might assume that if you purchased all the books or movies in The Hunger Games series, you’ll likely enjoy the Divergent series, and it’s basing that assumption on observed behavior, regardless of your race, age, or gender. The more data Amazon has on your buying patterns and preferences, the more accurate its customer segmentation algorithms will prove, and the more the retailer can treat you like an individual, instead of as a stereotype. That is the promise of big data.

This raises the question of if and how big data can help the rest of us in other situations. For example, could we leverage big data to solve the problem of the stranger walking behind us? Will there be some sci-fi solution where our phone scans for everyone around and then your smartwatch will give you the threat assessment using a green, yellow, or red alert based on your own level of fear and paranoia? Advances in wearable sensor technology could detect patterns in the way the stranger moves to determine danger, without violating anyone’s privacy through use of personal data. For example, observing the movements of a person behind you may reveal if you are being followed closely, or if he is carrying a weapon with him, or if he is lurching at you to attack you. Such technology already exists, and is being deployed for so-called “deep learning paradigms” being developed for self-driving cars.

Of course, big data may also be used to create more stereotypes. Big data is already guilty of stereotyping people based on where they live (see this article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Schrage). For example, customers living in certain urban zip codes may be classified, often unjustly, as being more “difficult,” best avoided by national businesses choosing where to expand their reach. Further research is needed to understand whether big data will generate more stereotypes than it will eradicate.

Our conjecture—and we are currently testing it with formal research—is that once we have easy access to a large number of characteristics and variables and we can crunch all that data with greater speed and with greater accuracy, the coarse signals such as race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation will become redundant in making useful predictions about survival and well-being. Furthermore, even if the coarse signals do have marginal value in making useful predictions, a regulatory ban or societal censure discouraging use of stereotypes will not impose a significant cost. Our research will examine data on bank loans to determine if a set of borrower attributes can be used to predict defaults and delinquencies adequately, at the same time making sure that these very attributes do not correlate with race, gender, ethnicity, or other discriminatory stereotypes.

Big data has immense potential to trump stereotypes derived from small data. Human intelligence, which is limited and has small computing power, will be supplanted by AI devices (we’d call them robots, but that makes some of you squeamish) with immense computing power, which will allow us to make more efficient decisions while becoming more enlightened, tolerant, and kind to our fellow human beings. In other words, big data can address the legitimate concerns underlying Donald Trump’s policies, while trumping the racism they trigger.

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The Lawyer Who Beat Back a Racist Law, One Loophole at a Timehttp://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/05/the-lawyer-who-beat-back-a-racist-law-one-loophole-at-a-time/chronicles/who-we-were/ http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/04/05/the-lawyer-who-beat-back-a-racist-law-one-loophole-at-a-time/chronicles/who-we-were/#respond Tue, 05 Apr 2016 07:01:47 +0000 By Li Wei Yang http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/?p=71774 Recent politics is full of debates about erecting walls on the U.S.-Mexican border or barring Muslims from entering the U.S. But excluding groups of immigrants based on a particular background is nothing new—though the targets may change. It was in 1882 that Congress, for the first time in the history of the United States, passed legislation to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering the country. In effect from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese residents from naturalizing as U.S. citizens and forbade Chinese “laborers” from entering the country at all.

The law was draconian and racist. It was also, often, ineffective. The Chinese population in the U.S. actually grew in total numbers during the census years of 1890, 1930, and 1940. Thousands of Chinese immigrants successfully challenged exclusion or tailored migration strategies to fit the demands and exploit the loopholes of exclusion laws.

Leading this steady

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What It Means to Be AmericanRecent politics is full of debates about erecting walls on the U.S.-Mexican border or barring Muslims from entering the U.S. But excluding groups of immigrants based on a particular background is nothing new—though the targets may change. It was in 1882 that Congress, for the first time in the history of the United States, passed legislation to prevent a specific ethnic group from entering the country. In effect from 1882 to 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese residents from naturalizing as U.S. citizens and forbade Chinese “laborers” from entering the country at all.

The law was draconian and racist. It was also, often, ineffective. The Chinese population in the U.S. actually grew in total numbers during the census years of 1890, 1930, and 1940. Thousands of Chinese immigrants successfully challenged exclusion or tailored migration strategies to fit the demands and exploit the loopholes of exclusion laws.

Leading this steady resistance to exclusion was Y.C. Hong, a largely unsung but important figure in the Los Angeles Chinese community. Hong was a government lobbyist, an immigration attorney who worked on at least 7,000 cases, and a leader in the larger cause of Chinese-American rights when they had very few.

Chinese immigrants started coming in large numbers in the mid-19th century when the gold rush increased the need for laborers in California. White union groups, believing that the Chinese were taking their jobs and depressing wages, stoked anti-Chinese sentiment, hysteria, and ignorance on the West Coast. Politicians got votes by denouncing Chinese people—who had very little political representation. These groups considered the Chinese immigrants too culturally foreign to assimilate. In an argument typical of the time, Congressman William Piper justified the anti-Chinese sentiment by saying, “[Chinese people] have monopolized menial labor and many of the lighter mechanic arts, thus depriving American boys and girls of opportunities of employment.” He described Chinese women as “nearly all slaves in conditions and prostitutes by vocation,” whereas the men were, according to him, “abandoned and dangerous criminals, opium smokers, and gamblers.”

Hong found his vocation because of this kind of rhetoric. Born in San Francisco in 1898, You Chung “Y.C.” Hong was the son of Chinese laborers who probably migrated to the U.S. before 1882. After serving as a translator at the Bureau of Immigration, Hong attended night classes at USC to study law. In 1923, he was one of the first Chinese-Americans to pass the California state bar. The combination of practical learning at the bureau and academic learning at USC steered his subsequent career. From a poor family, and standing just 4-feet-6-inches tall because of an injury he suffered as a baby, Hong had the strong-willed optimism that can come from overcoming adversity.

In addition to serving as president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, testifying before congressional committees about Chinese-American rights, and trying to sway politicians by befriending them, Hong helped immigrants fight back hard against exclusion. Some cases used a legal loophole in the Exclusion Act and subsequent legislation: Foreign-born sons and daughters of Chinese-American citizens were entitled to U.S. citizenship. As a result, Chinese immigrants challenged exclusion by claiming to be offspring of Americans. Some of them were indeed children of citizens, but others, eager to start a new life here, changed their names, identities, and family history to become “paper sons and daughters.”

Y.C. Hong with other members of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Members, which defended Chinese-American civil rights at a time when public sentiment was overwhelmingly anti-Chinese, circa 1928.

Y.C. Hong with other members of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Members, which defended Chinese-American civil rights at a time when public sentiment was overwhelmingly anti-Chinese, circa 1928.

 
Throughout the Chinese Exclusion years, immigration attorneys helped with these and other tactics (though Hong never knowingly promoted the use of a false identity). Since any strategy involved reams of paperwork and navigating a complicated situation in a language most of these immigrants did not understand, Hong’s services became indispensable.

Typically, a Chinese immigrant had to undergo grueling verbal interrogations and intrusive physical examinations. In 1940, Hong represented 27-year-old Wong Keen, who was asked 205 questions, including one that required him to describe his house in China down to the skylights in the bedrooms and a mill in the parlor. Of course, immigration inspectors didn’t really care about the mill in the parlor. The hearings were designed to be tedious and repetitive, with many detailed questions, so that inspectors could find inconsistencies in immigrants’ answers and deport them for lying. Dubious science could achieve the same objective. One of Hong’s clients was deported after a “study” of his bone structure determined that his age was different than the number he had provided.

All this took time and resources. Chinese immigrants typically brought very little with them on their perilous, cramped journeys in steerage aboard transpacific steamships. They had to endure waits of weeks or even months at immigration stations—San Pedro Immigration Office for L.A., Angel Island for San Francisco—until they could get their individual hearings. During that time, they were held, separate from other arrivals, in jail-like detention centers. The lucky and prepared ones could hire an immigration attorney (Hong provided an installment plan) or even give bribes. They might finally be allowed entry. Others were deported and sent back to China.

Y.C. Hong business card, circa 1928. The characters read: "These blessings I wish for my compatriots: businesses that flourish, fortunes smoothly sought, and once that is done, safe and speedy passage home."

Y.C. Hong business card, circa 1928. The characters read: “These blessings I wish for my compatriots: businesses that flourish, fortunes smoothly sought, and once that is done, safe and speedy passage home.”

 
There were so many immigrants coming from China—and so many of them had realized that they could make legal challenges—that immigration inspectors operated with a huge backlog, and immigration laws became more stringent and complex in response to the challenges. The Bureau of Immigration was created in 1895 in large part to deal with the enforcement of Chinese Exclusion. With Chinese plaintiffs flooding federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 barred these courts from hearing Chinese admission cases—leaving them solely in the hands of immigration officials.

Despite the difficulty of enforcing the Act, its model of immigration exclusion based on national origin was adopted and applied to other immigrants deemed undesirable by the U.S. government (other Asians, some groups from Southern and Eastern Europe)—in continued attempts to preserve a nativist “American” identity. Legislation of this sort lasted until the repeal of Exclusion in 1943 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. On June 18, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a formal resolution of “regret” for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Chinese miners work alongside miners of other ethnicities in Auburn, California, circa 1852. Fortune-seekers from around the world migrated to northern California following the discovery of gold in 1848.

Chinese miners work alongside miners of other ethnicities in Auburn, California, circa 1852. Fortune-seekers from around the world migrated to northern California following the discovery of gold in 1848.

 
Cultural effects of the Act lingered for decades. Negative stereotypes of Chinese continued to be widespread in the U.S. well into the 20th century. Many Chinese families were forced apart; others had to adopt assumed identities in order to stay in the country and even passed their assumed identities on to children and grandchildren, leaving blanks in family histories. (Some Chinese Americans trying to recover their true identities today have gone back to China to trace roots and family relations, or used the National Archives and archives at the Huntington Library—where I work—to uncover immigration history.) Professional employments outside of Chinatowns stayed closed to Chinese-Americans for a long time. And U.S. history continued to ignore the Chinese-American role in building America.

But people like Hong should be remembered—for a long, diligent record of resisting racist exclusion policies through legal and political action. This steady work now provides inspiration and example. “Those of us who have achieved acceptance through our economic or intellectual status should be the ones to lead the way in breaking down unfair barriers,” he wrote in a 1963 essay.” As long as there are some of us considered still unacceptable politically, economically, or socially, it remains a dangerous situation for all Americans, regardless of race, creed or ancestral origin. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.”

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