Tuesday, September 16, 2014

We Are Our Choices

I’m teaching a course on the 1960s. The racist normality of the early 1960s is difficult for my students to comprehend. None of them have attended a segregated school, they don’t routinely hear racist slurs, and they can’t quite believe that white people commonly assumed African Americans were mentally inferior.

In hindsight, history appears inevitable. Historians contribute to this appearance by trying to explain everything. No matter how unexpected a past event was, we describe its antecedents, its causes, contributing to the easy assumption that things could not have turned out any differently. It had to be that way.

But it didn’t. The tortured history of the civil rights era is filled with moments when white people in power made fateful choices to continue discrimination, to ignore protests or attack protesters, to maintain a system based on hatred and lies. These choices are the real history of the 1960s.

When Jackie Robinson refused to sit in the back of a US Army bus in 1944, a superior officer chose to try to court martial him for public drunkenness, even though he didn’t drink.

When the Supreme Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional, 19 Senators and 82 Representatives, all from the South, chose to sign the Southern Manifesto in opposition. White elected officials across the South chose to obstruct and delay integration of their schools, while white parents chose to remove their students from integrated public schools.

When Alva Earley attended an NAACP picnic in an informally segregated public park in Galesburg, IL, in 1959, school officials there chose to ban him from graduating. When four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 in Greensboro, NC, and asked to be served, the owners chose to refuse them service. At a similar sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, a mob of white citizens chose to assault these potential customers, and the police and FBI chose to watch.

When some courageous white and black Americans rode the public busses in 1961 into the South, police chose to arrest them in North and South Carolina, and white mobs in Alabama and Mississippi chose to attack and beat them, and burn their bus, while the police and highway patrolmen chose to watch. Attorney General Robert Kennedy chose to let the local police arrest the Freedom Riders. Local hospital administrators chose not to treat injured white Freedom Riders. When a group of white and black citizens marched peacefully from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, the police and the Alabama state troopers chose to attack them with tear gas and billy clubs.

In every case, the choices that were made were against the law, even if they were made by officials who had sworn to uphold the law. In every case, those white people with ultimate power chose to look the other way, to allow the real criminals to flout our Constitution, to use illegal violence against other Americans, and then to continue to hold the offices they had dishonored. In every case, reasonable voices close to these situations, white and black, urged different choices. There really were choices to be made.

Eventually things changed. The American public got disgusted with these choices. Leaders like Lyndon Johnson decided to use their power in a different way. Even segregationists like George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, disavowed their earlier choices.

But it had taken a long time. Schools were still segregated 15 years after the Supreme Court decision. African Americans were still prevented from voting 100 years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Discrimination in housing and employment still happens.

Our history could have been different, if some people in power had made different choices. More peaceful, more just, more legal. Those choices are harder to understand now. It’s easier to abstract these events from the alternatives that existed, to assume that it just was that way. It might have been a different way, though, had those people made other choices.

“We are our choices.” Jean-Paul Sartre

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 16, 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Two Sides of Political Correctness

The charge of “political correctness” is a powerful weapon in the conservative arsenal. Whenever anyone criticizes conservatives for sexist, homophobic, or racist comments, you hear shouts of “political correctness” from their defenders.

If political correctness means anything at all, it is about coercing people to say things they don’t really believe. If I say that disparaging terms for African Americans, homosexuals, women or Jews should not be spoken, and I really believe that, I am not being politically correct, I am being truthful. If someone who thinks blacks are inferior to whites or women who dress provocatively are inviting rape, but doesn’t say so because he is concerned about what people may think, then he is being politically correct.

I would say that’s still a good thing. The fewer ignorant derogatory remarks that are made about people, the better off we all are. But conservatives argue differently.

In my lifetime, our publicly acceptable speech has shifted away from open and frequent use of nasty words about nearly everyone except white Anglo-Saxon men. Naturally, this shift has in some cases gone too far. In the hands of certain bureaucracies, the policing of speech is exaggerated and intrusive. This is not simply a liberal vs. conservative issue. The organization FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was founded by libertarian Prof. Alan Charles Kors and civil liberties lawyer Harvey A. Silverglate. Its mission is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities”, and FIRE has represented groups from every political persuasion, who feel their right to free speech is being obstructed by higher education administrations.

Political correction of common language is often simply silly. During the Cold War 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to Redlegs. When France refused to join the US in our attack on Iraq in 2003, the Republican-controlled House decided to rename the French fries on the cafeteria menu to “freedom fries”. The Congressman who initiated this idea soon turned against the war and disavowed the name change.

Conservatives don’t like to talk about their own enforcement of political correctness. This is nothing new. Segregationists used violence to enforce certain types of speech on African Americans. Whistling at white women, done all across America by white men, could lead to lynching in the South if done by a black man. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, conservatives punish politicians who dare to utter the word “taxes”, except in certain acceptable phrases, like “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Today Republican politicians who favor policies of compromise, who support women’s right to choose reproductive control, or who support gay marriage are considered apostates or RINOs by conservatives and challenged in primaries.

An example of conservative political correctness is their insistence that the phrase “season’s greetings” is part of a “war on Christmas”. The American Family Association publishes a list of companies which are against Christmas because they use “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” in their ads. While many conservatives decry “language police” who want ban words which offend minorities, they cry out when they think words offend Christians.

When Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, they changed the name of the Committee on Education and Labor to Committee on Education and the Workforce, because of their opposition to labor unions. The Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties was renamed Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. It’s hard to find any Republican who will correctly say the name of the other political party in Washington, the Democratic Party, not wanting to imply that Democrats are democratic.

Conservative historians have focused on the use of certain words in historical research to complain about a “liberal agenda” in history. If the word “race” or “women” is used in the title of a course or a book, then the National Association of Scholars has assumed that the author is pushing a particular interpretive agenda which only treats the faults of the American story.

The fact that ordinary language may have political connotations means that partisans will keep arguing about language, accusing their opponents of promoting political correctness, while they do the same thing. I’m glad that those words that were so common when I was young are now almost gone from public conversations. The First Amendment still governs our nation – people can say those politically incorrect words whenever they want. Only now, when they do, they will sound just like they are – ignorant bigots.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 9, 2014

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

No One Was Singing the Blues

What do conservatives think about race in America? Phil Robertson, the new conservative hero, offered an argument about the history of race relations that is popular with conservatives: “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people.’ Not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say, ‘Were they happy?’ They were godly, they were happy, no one was singing the blues.”

Robertson justified this version of race relations in Louisiana before the civil rights era by saying, “I’m with the blacks.” But he wasn’t with any blacks in school, because all the public schools in Louisiana were segregated long after the 1954 Supreme Court decision about Topeka, Kansas. In November 1960, when the first blacks were admitted to school in New Orleans, whites in Caddo Parish, where he grew up, burned crosses at the all-black high school and at the Parish School Board Office. Robertson was 14 years old. The first blacks were admitted to public schools in Caddo Parish in 1965, after he had graduated. School officials there kept delaying integration through the 1970s. So of course, he had no black teammates at his high school, where he was all-state in football, baseball, and track.

Robertson met no black people at any sporting or social event, due to the 1956 state law banning “dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests and other such activities involving personal and social contacts in which the participants or contestants are members of the white and Negro races.”

When he went to Louisiana Tech in 1965, there were no black students. That year a federal judge ruled that Louisiana Tech finally had to admit African Americans. A photo of the football team where he played ahead of Terry Bradshaw shows no black players. Across the state at Louisiana State University, the segregation laws had made national news in 1956 when the University of Wisconsin’s football team had refused an LSU demand to leave their two black players home, and LSU then refused to play. LSU had no black players until 1971.

Louisiana had a long and violent history of racism. At least 27 African Americans were lynched in Caddo Parish alone between 1878 and 1923, more than one every other year. Perhaps the last black man lynched in Louisiana was R.C. Williams in 1938 in Ruston, home of Louisiana Tech.

Charles Blow of the NY Times said this about Robertson’s claims about race: “Only a man blind and naive to the suffering of others could have existed there and not recognized that there was a rampant culture of violence against blacks. Whether he personally saw mistreatment of them is irrelevant.”

Robertson’s casual dismissal of racism in the Deep South fits well with conservative Republican mythology. His Governor, Bobby Jindal, calls himself one of Robertson’s “loudest and earliest defenders”. He said, “I’m tired of the Left, I’m tired of those that say they are for tolerance, they’re for diversity, and they are, unless you happen to disagree with them. The Left wants to silence anyone who has a different view or a different perspective.” Earlier this month, Representative Mo Brooks from Alabama said, “What is the one race that can be discriminated against? … All whites.” That echoes conservative Pat Buchanan’s comment from a year ago.

Why are conservative Republican politicians blind to the history of American racism? Why do they make absurd claims about how good things were for blacks in the Jim Crow Era? One reason is the widespread self-pity among conservative whites. A study in 2011 showed that whites believed that anti-white discrimination was stronger than anti-black discrimination. White conservatives fear that diversity brings discrimination against them: in a recent poll, nearly two-thirds of white conservatives said that “discrimination against whites will increase due to rising diversity.” A majority of white conservatives believes that “high levels of racial and ethnic inequality are a natural outcome of the economy.” Thus they oppose “new steps to reduce racial and ethnic inequality in America through investments in areas like education, job training, and infrastructure improvement.” Observing the events in Ferguson, Missouri, 61% of Republicans believe race has been getting too much attention.

In April, Rand Paul told students at Howard University that “the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.” Reince Priebus lamented at the Republican Leadership Conference that the party of Lincoln doesn’t get enough credit: “We’re the party of freedom and we’re the party of opportunity and we’re the party of equality, we’re the ones with that history.” Yes, once upon a time the Republican Party was the party of freedom for African Americans. But as long as conservative Republicans celebrate deniers of our racial history like Phil Robertson, nobody will believe that.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 2, 2014