kottke.org posts about racism
I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.
Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.
The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”
You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.
Not going to say much about this one. Just watch it…especially if somehow, as a curious, thoughtful person who reads this site regularly, you are unaware of how many in the black community feel about the police and that they have conversations like this with their children about those who are supposed to protect and serve people.
Last night, during the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III1 for Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter that Coretta Scott King had written to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship (which he did not get).
The first page of the letter appears above and the entire contents may be read here. King pretty plainly states that Sessions abused his position in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters:
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.
Under Senate Rule XIX and after two votes by the full Senate, Warren was barred from speaking and finishing the letter.
When Warren first spoke against Sessions Tuesday night, Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, warned her that she was breaking the rules. When she continued anyway, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retaliated by finding her in violation of Senate Rule XIX — which prevents any senator from using “any form of words [to] impute to another Senator… any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Warren later read the letter outside of the Senate chambers. How the Senate is supposed to debate the appointment of a Cabinet member without being able to criticize the actions, words, and beliefs of that candidate is left as an exercise to the reader. (Ok, I’ll answer anyway: it’s not supposed to debate. That’s the entire point of the Republicans’ actions w/r/t Trump’s political nominees thus far.)
King’s letter, which Buzzfeed called “a key part of the case against Sessions [in 1986]” was only published earlier this week in part because Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond never officially entered it into the congressional record. Thurmond, you may remember, vehemently opposed the civil rights reforms of the 50s and 60s, even going so far as filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for more than 24 hours and switching political parties because of the Democrats’ support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
And Senate Rule XIX? Cornell Law School professor James Grimmelmann notes the precedent:
Let’s be clear on the precedent here: it’s the 1836-44 gag rule that forbade any consideration of abolition in the House.
Racist southern representatives were so frustrated by abolitionist petitions to Congress, that they adopted a series of rules.
All abolitionist petitions would immediately be tabled, and any attempt to introduce them would be prohibited.
From pro-slavery members of the House to Davis to Beauregard to Thurmond to Trump (and Bannon) to Sessions to McConnell (and the nearly all-white Republican majority). Paraphrasing Stephen Hawking, it’s white supremacy all the way down. Gosh, if you’re a black person in America, you might even think the system is tilted against you!
P.S. I like this part of Senate Rule XIX, right at the bottom:
8. Former Presidents of the United States shall be entitled to address the Senate upon appropriate notice to the Presiding Officer who shall thereupon make the necessary arrangements.
I’m not sure what it would accomplish, but seeing a former President address this Senate, after an appropriate period spent kiteboarding, would be pretty fun to watch.
P.P.S. In silencing Warren, McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Not a bad explanation of the feminist movement in America there, Mitch. Folks on Twitter are having fun with the #shepersisted hashtag.
Update: While the precedent for Senate Rule XIX dates back to the abolition debates in the 1830s and 1840s, the actual rule was made after a fight broke out in the Senate in 1902. From a book called The American Senate: An Insider’s Story:
South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman accused his South Carolina colleague, John McLaurin, of selling his vote for federal patronage. McLaurin called Tillman a malicious liar. Tillman lunged at him, striking him above the left eye. McLaurin hit Tillman back with an upper-cut to the nose.
Given the history of this rule and how it was recently applied, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Tillman was an outspoken advocate of lynching, once remarking in a speech:
“[We] agreed on on the policy of terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” (Tillman boasted during the same speech that his pistol had been used to execute seven black men in 1876.)
So we can squeeze Tillman in-between Beauregard and Thurmond in the abbreviated narrative of how it came to be that a white majority Senate silenced a white woman for reading a letter written by a black woman.
This is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, a film that “finishes” a book that writer James Baldwin was working on when he died.
In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.
Now, in his incendiary new documentary, master filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material. I Am Not Your Negro is a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of these three leaders, Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.
The reviews so far are uniformly positive.
I don’t know about you, but those clips of Baldwin speaking in the trailer piqued my interest, so I’m going to make some time tonight to watch some Baldwin talks, speeches, and debates on YouTube: a 1969 talk in London, a 1963 debate with Malcolm X (audio only), a 1963 panel on civil rights w/ Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Charlton Heston, and his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley on the question “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
In November, shortly after the election, Vann Newkirk wrote an article for The Atlantic called This Is Who We Are, a reflection on racism in America.
At a gas station just outside of Rockingham, serendipity found us. As we pulled up to the pump, just there in front of our car was Mr. Confederate Plate, leaning like all villains do against the side of his car. I’m not sure who recognized whom first, but I remember the shouting match, and Mr. Confederate Flag calling my father the one name he would never answer to, looking at me and saying the same, and then pantomiming that he had a gun in the car. I remember looking around at similar flags on another truck and inside the gas station, and knowing instinctively that we were not in friendly territory. I also remember my father shaking with rage and that same hot shame as my own when he climbed back in the truck.
After another cussing fit, Vann Newkirk Sr. looked at me and said the thing that’s always stuck with me since. “This is who we are,” he told me. “Don’t forget.” And we went back down the road.
The piece was adapted into the short video above. Both are worth your time.
The Equal Justice Initiative is filling jars with soil from the sites of lynchings to honor the victims and to create a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States. Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. EJI has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950 — several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.
Lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans in ways that are still evident today. Terror lynchings fueled the mass migration of millions of black people from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West in the first half of the 20th century. Lynching created a fearful environment in which racial subordination and segregation were maintained with limited resistance for decades. Most critically, lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.
Rob Holmes recently visited and took some photos of the jars…just row after row of them. “Stunning,” he said.
Update: See also this map of lynchings in the US.
In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.
Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.
[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”
The five steps are:
“us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
“stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)
To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).
The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:
But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.
Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.
But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.
Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:
For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.
Post-Brexit, people in the UK started wearing safety pins to show their stance against racism and their solidarity with immigrants.
In response to the open environment of hatred, people across the U.K. are now wearing safety pins — and tweeting pictures of themselves wearing them — in an act of solidarity with immigrants.
In the wake of the election and reports of racism incidents across the nation, some are advocating using the safety pin strategy here too.
We need a symbol like that in the United States now. These are vicious days in America. The deplorables are emboldened. The Washington Post reports that there have already been two attacks on Muslim women on college campuses. At San Diego State University, two men ranting about Trump and Muslims robbed a student wearing hijab.
I like this idea, that a subtle marker can denote a social safe space of sorts, a signal to someone who might feel uncomfortable that an ally is nearby. That’s not to say you can put a pin on your coat and *dust off your hands, job well done* but it may help. I’m going to try it.
Update: During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians took to wearing paperclips to signal their rejection of Nazi ideology.
The people of Norway also had to deal with German soldiers day in and day out for five years. By 1945, some 400,000 German troops were operating in Norway, controlling the population of about 4 million people.
It was in the autumn of 1940 when students at Oslo University started wearing paperclips on their lapels as a non-violent symbol of resistance, unity, and national pride.
Symbols related to the royal family and state had already been banned, and they wanted a clever way of displaying their rejection of the Nazi ideology. In addition to wearing a single paperclip, paperclip bracelets and other types of jewellery were fashioned as well, symbolically binding Norwegians together in the face of such adversity.
Of course, once the Nazis got wind of this, wearing paperclips became a crime. (via @ckrub)
Update: That co-opting thing I warned against above? Seems like it’s happening.
wear safety pin to fool people into thinking you’re a safe space, trigger them
If I had to guess however, this behavior will be short lived and they’ll move on to some other genius scheme. I’m not taking my pin off. (via @_McFIy & @pattersar)
Update: There’s no safety pin emoji, but some people are adding the paperclip emoji to their Twitter usernames as a virtual world counterpart to the safety pin.
This SNL Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks is as good as everyone says it is. And it’s not just funny either…it’s the rare SNL skit that works brilliantly as cultural commentary. Kudos to the writers on this one.
Update: Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie details why the Black Jeopardy sketch was so good; the title of the piece asks, “The Most Astute Analysis of American Politics in 2016?”
When Thompson reads a second clue for that category — “They out here saying that every vote counts” — Doug answers again, and again correctly: “What is, come on, they already decided who wins even ‘fore it happens.’” With each correct answer, Doug gets cheers and applause from Thompson, the black contestants, and the black audience. They all seem to understand the world in similar ways. “I really appreciate you saying that,” says Thompson after Doug praises Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, leading to an awkward moment where Hanks’ character recoils in fear as Thompson tries to shake his hand, but then relaxes and accepts the gesture.
By this point, the message is clear. On this episode of “Black Jeopardy!”, the questions are rooted in feelings of disempowerment, suspicion of authority, and working-class identity-experiences that cut across racial lines. Thompson and the guests are black, but they can appreciate the things they share with Doug, and in turn, Doug grows more and more comfortable in their presence, such that he gets a “pass” from the group after he refers to them as “you people.”
In the late 1980s, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a woman jogging in Central Park. The Central Park Five is a documentary film directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon which tells the story from the perspective of the those five teens. I’ve seen the film, it’s excellent, and it’s currently available to watch for free on the PBS website.
The five men and this terrific miscarriage of justice are back in the news because of Donald Trump. In 1989, just a few weeks after the attack in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in the Daily News denouncing the crime and the teens in which he calls for bringing back the death penalty.
Perhaps he thought it gave him gravitas, that spring, to weigh in on the character of the teen-agers in the park: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
When NYC finally settled with the wrongly convicted men in 2014, Trump denounced the settlement, joining a police detective in calling it “the heist of the century.” And just before Trump’s crowing about sexual assault of women broke over the weekend, Trump reaffirmed that despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes that the five men are still guilty.
When the story about Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women broke, the NY Times took the unusual step of publishing exactly what the presidential candidate said.
In the three-minute recording, which was obtained by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump recounts to the television personality Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” how he once pursued a married woman and “moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” expressing regret that they did not have sex. But he brags of a special status with women: Because he was “a star,” he says, he could “grab them by the pussy” whenever he wanted.
“You can do anything,” Mr. Trump says.
He also said he was compulsively drawn to kissing beautiful women “like a magnet” — “I don’t even wait” — and talked about plotting to seduce the married woman by taking her furniture shopping. Mr. Trump, who was 59 at the time he made the remarks, went on to disparage the woman, whom he did not name, saying, “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” and saying, “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”
It was unusual because of the Times’ policy of not printing profanity, even if the profane words themselves are newsworthy. In this case, the editors felt they had no choice but to print the actual words spoken by Trump.
In piece published earlier the same day the Trump story broke, Blake Eskin, who has been tracking the Times’ non-use of profanity at Fit to Print, highlights the racial and classist implications of the policy.
As I’ve noticed over the years while documenting how the Times writes around profanity, a lot of the expletives the Times avoids come up around race: in stories about hip-hop, professional sports, and police shootings. (I’m getting all the data into a spreadsheet so I can back up this assertion.)
The Times seems compelled both to tell readers that people curse in these contexts and to frown upon it.
It’s as if profanity is like a sack dance or a bat flip, a classless flourish that the archetypal Times reader, who is presumably white, can take vicarious pleasure in without having to perform it himself.
You cannot tell authentic stories about people who are systematically discriminated against in our society without using their actual words and the actual words spoken against them related to that discrimination. Full stop.
Update: Eskin wrote a follow-up about his data analysis of the NY Times profanity avoidance for Quartz.
The “other” category includes faux-folksy formulations such as “a word more pungent than ‘slop,’” and “a stronger version of the phrase ‘gol darn,’” as well as the straightforward, “He swore.” When I began the Fit to Print project, I could enjoy the cleverness of some of these contortions. But after reading through hundreds of examples over several years, expletive avoidance no longer strikes me as an interesting puzzle for a writer to solve. The policy just seems prissy, arbitrary, and delusional.
The more I think about the Times’ policy, the more absurd it becomes. There seems to be a relatively simple solution: if the profanity does work in the service of journalism — particularly if the entire article is about the profanity in question — print it. It is doesn’t, don’t. I mean, are Times editors afraid their reporters will start handing in articles with ledes like “Well, this fucking election is finally winding down, thank Christ.”?
In 1946, Albert Einstein, who had come to the US in 1933 and stayed to become a citizen due to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, wrote a magazine article titled The Negro Question. In it, he called the prejudice against black Americans a “deeply entrenched evil”.
What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.
In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.
There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.
Recognizing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930s with blacks in the US, Einstein put his efforts and his money where his mouth was. He was a member of the NAACP. In 1946, the same year that letter was published, he received an honorary degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the historically black school that was the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In a speech at the school that was not covered by a mainstream American press that otherwise couldn’t get enough of him, Einstein called racism “a disease of white people”:
My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.
When singer Marian Anderson was denied a hotel room in Princeton for being black, Einstein hosted the singer at his home for this and several subsequent trips. He also came to the aid of W.E.B. Du Bois in his case against the US government:
Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.
These and his other activities in this arena are documented in a 2006 book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.
During the medals ceremony for the 200 meter race the 1968 Olympics, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both standing shoeless on the podium, each raised one black-gloved fist in the air during the playing of the US national anthem as a gesture in support of the fight of better treatment of African Americans in the US. It was an historic moment immortalized in photos like the one above.
The white man in the photo, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia, could be considered a sort of symbolic visual foil against which Smith and Carlos were protesting, but in fact Norman was a willing participant in the gesture and suffered the consequences.
Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.
The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you” — remembers John Carlos — “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
Update: In 2011, Democracy Now! interviewed Carlos about the salute and the aftermath. He was joined by sportwriter Dave Zirin and the pair told a story about why Norman didn’t want to be represented alongside Carlos and Smith with a statue on the San Jose State campus:
DAVE ZIRIN: OK, just checking. Well, they made the decision to make this amazing work of art, these statues on campus. And they were just going to have Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with a blank space where Peter Norman stood. And when John heard about that, he said, “Oh, no, no. I don’t want to be a part of this. And I don’t even want this statue if Peter Norman’s not going to be on it.” And the people at San Jose State said, “Well, Peter said he didn’t want to be on it.” And John said, “OK, let’s go to the president’s office and get him on the phone.” So they called Peter Norman from the president’s office at San Jose State, and sure enough, they got Peter on the phone. I believe Peter said-what did he say? “Blimey, John”? What did he say?
JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, “Blimey, John. You’re calling me with these blimey questions here?” And I said to him, I said, “Pete, I have a concern, man. What’s this about you don’t want to have your statue there? What, are you backing away from me? Are you ashamed of us?” And he laughed, and he said, “No, John.” He said-you know, the deep thing is, he said, “Man, I didn’t do what you guys did.” He said, “But I was there in heart and soul to support what you did. I feel it’s only fair that you guys go on and have your statues built there, and I would like to have a blank spot there and have a commemorative plaque stating that I was in that spot. But anyone that comes thereafter from around the world and going to San Jose State that support the movement, what you guys had in ‘68, they could stand in my spot and take the picture.” And I think that’s the largest thing any man would ever do. And as I said, I don’t think that my co-partner, my co-heart, Tommie Smith, would have done what Peter Norman done in that regards. He was just a tremendous individual.
Last night, I finished OJ: Made in America, ESPN’s 8-hour documentary series about OJ Simpson. Prior to starting the series, I would rather have poked an eye out than spend another second of my life thinking about OJ Simpson; I’d gotten my fill back in the 90s. But I’d heard so many good things about it that I gave it a shot. Pretty quickly, you realize this is not just the biography of a man or the story of a trial but is a deep look at racism, policing, and celebrity in the US. OJ: Made in America is excellent and I recommend it unreservedly. From Brian Tallerico’s review:
Ezra Edelman’s stunningly ambitious, eight-hour documentary is a masterpiece, a refined piece of investigative journalism that places the subject it illuminates into the broader context of the end of the 20th century. You may think you know everything about The Trial of the Century, especially if you watched FX’s excellent “The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” but “OJ: Made in America” not only fills in details about the case but offers background and commentary that you’ve never heard before. It is an examination of race, domestic abuse, celebrity, civil rights, the LAPD, the legal process and murder over the last fifty years, using the OJ Simpson story as a way to refract society. Its length may seem daunting, but I would have watched it for another eight hours and will almost certainly watch it again before the summer is over. It’s that good.
The only real criticism I have of the series is that the treatment of women in America should have been explored more, on the same level as racism and celebrity. A.O. Scott picked up on this in his NY Times review:
It is hard not to notice the predominance of male voices among the interview subjects, and the narrowness of the film’s discussion of domestic violence. This is not to say that the issue is ignored: Mr. Simpson’s history of abusing Nicole is extensively and graphically documented, as is the fact that most of his friends ignored what was going on at their Rockingham estate. But the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.
A fuller discussion of domestic violence in the US and misogyny in sports would have provided another powerful, reinforcing aspect of the story.
In 1974, Studs Terkel published a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. One of the people he talked to for the book was Chicago police officer Renault Robinson. Robinson is African American and offered up his views to Terkel on how blacks are policed differently…here are the relevant bits of the interview. On traffic stops:
“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. It’s easier to stop a person on the pretext of a traffic violation than to stop him on the street. It’s a lot easier to say, “Your tail light’s out.” “Your plate is dented.” “You didn’t make that turn right.” You can then search his automobile, hoping you can find some contraband or a weapon. If he becomes irritated, with very little pushing on your part, you can make an arrest for disorderly conduct. These are all statistics which help your records.
Certain units in the task force have developed a science around stopping your automobile. These men know it’s impossible to drive three blocks without committing a traffic violation. We’ve got so many rules on the books. These police officers use these things to get points and also hustle for money. The traffic law is a fat book. He knows if you don’t have two lights on your license plate, that’s a violation. If you have a crack in your windshield, that’s a violation. If your muffler’s dragging, that’s a violation. He knows all these little things….
So if they stop the average black driver, in their mind the likelihood of finding five or six violations out of a hundred cars is highly possible…. After you’ve stopped a thousand, you’ve got 950 people who are very pissed off, 950 who might have been just average citizens, not doing anything wrong - teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people. The police don’t care. Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree.”
And on the type of young white male that the job was attracting at the time:
A large amount of young white officers are gung ho. It’s an opportunity to make a lot of arrests, make money, and do a lot of other things. In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty. So the black people don’t cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they’re begging for more police service. They’re over-patrolled and under-protected.
The young white guys turn out to be actually worse than their predecessors. They’re more vicious. The average young white policeman comes from a working-class family, sometimes with less than a high-school education. He comes with built-in prejudices. The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate niggers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. So what? They could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work.”
Reading about this stuff, I keep going back to the 9 principles of policing drawn up by London’s Metropolitan Police in the 1820s in which the power of the police comes from the people, force is to be used minimally, and the efficacy of policing is judged on the absence of crime, not on the number of arrests or people sent to jail.
Redditt Hudson served as a police officer in St. Louis during the 1990s. He shared his perspective on race and policing with Vox last year: I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing.
It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.
And no matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism, risk, and sacrifice that is available to a uniformed police officer by virtue of simply reporting for duty.
I posted a short video earlier today featuring Jane Elliott. She’s a noted anti-racism activist famous for her blue eyes/brown eyes exercise, featured in the video above.
White people’s number one freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white. And our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant.
In the exercise, Elliott divides the class into two groups based on their eye color: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. The brown eyed group is instructed to treat the blue eyed group as inferior because of their eye color — they are to be called “bluey” or “boy” or “honey” but not by their names.
At the beginning of the session (which starts at about 1:30 (but don’t skip the intro!)), Elliott calls herself “the resident bitch for the day” and does she mean it…she does not let up because, as she says in the video, society doesn’t let up on people of color either. (via @dunstan)
Jane Elliott asks an audience a very simple question about being black in America. (via @carltonspeight who says “No BS, I wish every white person on Twitter could see this. Maybe it’ll help”)
In 1942, the US government hired Dorothea Lange (of Migrant Mother fame) to take photos of the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although Lange quit after a few months because government censors wouldn’t let her shoot images of barbed wire and the bayonets on guards’ guns, she took hundreds of photos documenting this shameful moment in American history.
Famous for her forlorn images of Dust Bowl America, this pioneering female photographer was hired by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Although her skill at candid portraiture was unparalleled, “Lange was an odd choice, given her leftist politics and strong sympathy for victims of racial discrimination,” writes scholar Megan Asaka. The position was a challenging one for Lange as well. “Appalled by the forced exile, she confided to a Quaker protestor that she was guilt stricken to be working for a federal government that could treat its citizens so unjustly.”
The WRA initially gave Lange little instruction about where and what to shoot, but controlled and censored her while she was at work. When documenting life inside the assembly centers and concentration camps, she was prohibited from taking shots of barbed wire and bayonets. Unable to tolerate this censorship and her own conflicted feelings about the work, Lange quit after just a few months of employment with the WRA.
Less ashamed at what they’d done and more worried about PR backlash, the government embargoed Lange’s photos until 1972.
If this all makes you think of some recent comments about Muslims from a certain Republican presidential candidate, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.
Update: Ansel Adams also took dozens of photos of the Japanese American interment camp at Manzanar.
So did photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was among the prisoners at Manzanar.
The exclusion order forced Miyatake, his wife and four children, to the concentration camp at Manzanar. He was able to store his photographic equipment but managed to smuggle a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp against government orders. Miyatake told his son Archie that he felt it was his duty to document camp life. An Issei carpenter in camp constructed a box to house the lens, and Miyatake was able to get film into camp by way of a hardware salesman and former client. The photographer eventually asked camp director Ralph Merritt if he could set up a photo studio, and Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and Miyatake was designated official camp photographer, and granted the freedom to take photos of everyday life at Manzanar.
Miyatake and Adams met at the camp and began a collaboration. Lange and Adams were friends — he printed Migrant Mother for her — and she was instrumental in convincing Adams to document Manzanar. But she was also critical of his detached approach:
In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.”
(thx, @gen and samuel)
Update: Anchor Editions made a page with dozens of Lange’s photos paired with quotes from contemporary sources about the camps.
Written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is a film about Nat Turner, the man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The movie won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and will be out in theaters in October.
P.S. If the name of the movie sounds familiar, it was deliberately given the same name as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, which dramatized the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In an interview, Parker said:
When I endeavored to make this film, I did so with the specific intent of exploring America through the context of identity. So much of the racial injustices we endure today in America are symptomatic of a greater sickness - one we have been systematically conditioned to ignore. From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.
I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.
(via trailer town)
From Fusion, a 45-minute documentary about the making of Zootopia.
Fusion spent two years with the production team of Disney’s smash hit film. In ‘Imagining Zootopia,’ you will travel with the team to Africa to explore the animals in their natural habitat and find out how the storytellers and animators dealt with the very real themes of prejudice and bias.
I found this via Khoi Vinh, who writes:
A lot of careful thought went into how to render the emotional truth behind experiencing racism, and the documentary takes a detailed look at the filmmakers grappling with that. However, it also betrays one of the unfortunate truths of the production; the movie is commendably bold about addressing prejudice, but it’s evident from watching the documentary that of the five-hundred plus people who contributed to the film, hardly any were non-white, and even fewer were African-American.
For a criticism of Zootopia’s racial allegory, read Devin Faraci’s A Muddled Mess of Racial Messaging… And Cute Animals.
Actor and singer François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons for 30 years on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, talks about how and why Fred Rogers chose a black man to be a police officer on TV.
To say that he didn’t know what he was doing, or that he accidentally stumbled into integration or talking about racism or sexism, that’s not Mister Rogers. It was well planned and well thought-out and I think it was very impactful.
NPR also recently shared Clemmons’ story.
He says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.
Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”
“Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.”
“It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says. “That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”
Mister Rogers always hits me right in the feels.
Chris Rock opened his monologue at the Oscars last night with “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” and for the next ten minutes, talked about racism in Hollywood.
Update: As much as I enjoyed Rock’s monologue, I also agree with Stacia Brown’s piece, Chris Rock, Justice for Flint and why we still have ‘real things to protest’.
We still have real things to protest. If water contamination in a U.S. city due to alleged negligence doesn’t call for “real” protest, what does? Disinvestment in the Oscars — especially for DuVernay and Coogler — isn’t a frivolous undertaking. And black performers don’t want equal opportunity just to be considered for awards. In this country, celebrity has always afforded people the platform and the capital to push forward the issues that are important to them. There couldn’t have been a Justice for Flint fundraiser on the scale that they were able to mount without star power. Black celebrity — its acknowledgement and its compensation — is significant.
Christopher Robbins recently interviewed Robert Caro (author of The Power Broker, perhaps the best book ever written about New York) for Gothamist. The interview is interesting throughout. (I lightly edited the excerpts for clarity.)
Caro: If you’re publishing on the Internet, do you call them readers or viewers?
Robbins: Either, I think.
Caro: How do you know they’re reading it?
Robbins: There’s something called Chartbeat — it shows you how many people are reading a specific article in any given moment, and how long they spend on that article. That’s called “engagement time.” We have a giant flatscreen on the wall that displays it, a lot of publications do.
Caro: What you just said is the worst thing I ever heard. [Laughs]
That exchange makes a nice companion to Snapchat like the teens.
Caro: Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.
I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.
Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.
We used Jones Beach a lot, because I used to work the night shift for the first couple of years, so I’d sleep til 12 and then we’d go down and spend a lot of afternoons at the beach. It never occurred to me that there weren’t any black people at the beach.
So Ina and I went to the main parking lot, that huge 10,000-car lot. We stood there with steno pads, and we had three columns: Whites, Blacks, Others. And I still remember that first column — there were a few Others, and almost no Blacks. The Whites would be go on to the next page. I said, God, this is what Robert Moses did. This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations.
That’s something to remember the next time someone tries to rehabilitate Moses’ legacy. Not to mention this excerpt from The Power Broker:
Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.
The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.
And now I am filled with regret at never having read The Power Broker. I started it a couple times, but could never find the time to follow through. I wish it was available on the Kindle…a 1300-page paperback is not exactly handy to carry about and read. The unabridged audiobook is 66 hours long…and $72.
Laura June likes Bernie Sanders in many ways but is going to vote for Hillary Clinton because Clinton is a woman.
As with many issues that stem from the fact of my motherhood — breast-feeding, co-sleeping — I speak only for myself, and cannot generalize my experience from “I am” to “you should.” I only know in my heart that I simply don’t want my daughter to grow up in a world where a woman has never been president. And if not now, when?
I’m a woman, and a mother, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton for my daughter, and for her future.
If I had a vote to cast in the upcoming NY Democratic primary, I would also vote for Hillary Clinton and also because she is a woman. I believe the most important and longest-lasting effect of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 is that tens of millions of kids (of all racial backgrounds) got to experience an African American being President. Those kids are going to grow up knowing, and not just theoretically, that a non-white person can be elected (and even re-elected) President of the United States. Clinton’s election would send a similar message to those same kids (both girls and boys): a woman can be elected President. I think it would have a huge future effect, more than any of the policy differences between her and Sanders, especially back-to-back with an Obama presidency.
In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann writes about “the Southernization of American politics”. In 1865, the United States won the Civil War against the South, but the current US has been significantly shaped by the ideals, politics, and values of the South.
In order to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States had to include the South, and its inclusion has always come at a price. The Constitution (with its three-fifths compromise and others) awkwardly registered the contradiction between its democratic rhetoric and the foundational presence of slavery in the thirteen original states. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase-by which the U.S. acquired more slaveholding territory in the name of national expansion-set off the dynamic that led to the Civil War. The United States has declined every opportunity to let the South go its own way; in return, the South has effectively awarded itself a big say in the nation’s affairs.
I read a lot of books by and about white men, many of them dead. So when a friend enthusiastically recommended The Warmth of Other Suns, I jumped at the chance to expand my reading horizons. I’m so glad I did…this is an amazing book.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the Southern US to the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970. During that time, roughly 6 million African Americans moved north and west to escape Jim Crow laws, discrimination, low wages, the threat of physical violence & death, and everyday humiliation & lack of freedom in the South. In the North, they found freedom, new opportunities, and better lives for their families, but they had less success escaping poverty, racism, and discrimination.
Wilkerson tells the story of the entire Migration by focusing on the paths of three people leaving the South:
Ida Mae Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper pictured above with flowers in her hair, moved to Chicago with her family in 1937 and lived to cast a vote for Barack Obama.
George Starling, pictured above on the left, worked in the citrus groves of Florida before leaving for New York in 1945. He found a job as a baggage handler (and unofficial welcoming committee member) on a train, working the north/south lines that ferried millions of black Southerners to their new homes in the North.
Robert Foster, the gentleman above in the bow tie, became a surgeon and moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1953. There, he rose to the upper ranks of black society and became personal physician to Ray Charles. Foster left the South so thoroughly behind that his daughter didn’t know many of the details of his Louisiana childhood until she read it in Wilkerson’s book.
Through her compelling straight-forward prose, wonderful storytelling, and diligent journalism, Wilkerson more than convinces me that the Great Migration is the greatest untold, misunderstood, and largely unknown occurrence of the American 20th century. I don’t say this often, but The Warmth of Other Suns is a must-read, particularly if you want to begin to understand the racial issues still confronting the US today.
The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is the only US museum and memorial to slavery. The Atlantic has a video about the museum and its founder, John Cummings, who spent 16 years and $8 million of his own money on it.
Oh man, this episode of This American Life on desegregation and the Normandy School District (aka the Missouri district that Michael Brown attended) just totally wrecked me. Tears of sadness and rage.
Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.
America likes to pride itself on its focus on the importance of education and everyone getting a crack at living the American Dream, but as this story makes clear, neither of those things are actually true. See also part two of the series and Hannah-Jones’ series on segregation at ProPublica.
On his YouTube channel, Dylan Marron is cutting down films to only include dialogue spoken by persons of color. Under those conditions, Moonrise Kingdom is 10 seconds long. Her is about 40 seconds. Noah is 0 seconds.
Atop the South Carolina statehouse, both the national and state flags flew at half mast yesterday. But not the Confederate Flag. The symbolic reasons loom large. The literal reason was uncovered by a reporter.
The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed.
That actually sounds like an ideal solution. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues we should take down the Confederate Flag.
That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it.