Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Gingrich vs. the Right on Apartheid: 'What Would You Have Done?'

    A message about Nelson Mandela that conservatives sorely need to hear

    Representative Dick Gephardt, Speaker Newt Gingrich, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Clinton at a 1998 ceremony where Mandela received the Congressional Gold Medal. (Ruth Fremson/Associated Press)

    I think this is a fairly noteworthy statement from Newt Gingrich on Mandela's passing that should get some airing. Gingrich is addressing the rather disgraceful response to Mandela's passing that we've seen in some quarters:

    Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
    After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

    As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.

    Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

    Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

    Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.

    Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.

    I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

    I think it's important to note that Gingrich's position here is not particularly new. This is not an attempt to rewrite history, or claim someone in death whom Gingrich opposed in life. Newt Gingrich was among a cadre of conservatives who opposed the mainstream conservative stance on apartheid and ultimately helped override Reagan's unconscionable veto of sanctions. At the time, Gingrich was allied with a group of young conservatives including Vin Weber looking to challenge Republican orthodoxy on South Africa. "South Africa has been able to depend on conservatives to treat them with benign neglect," said Weber. "We served notice that, with the emerging generation of conservative leadership, that is not going to be the case."

    Something else: There's a video attached to the post in which Gingrich gives his thoughts on Mandela's passing. When Gingrich compliments Mandela on his presidency he doesn't do so within the context of alleged African pathologies, but within the context of countries throughout the world. It's a textbook lessons in "How not to be racist," which is to say it is a textbook lesson in how to talk about Nelson Mandela as though he were a human being. 

    More soon.

  • Apartheid's Useful Idiots

    For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. 

    Gettysburg Times, July 17, 1995

    Nelson Mandela died yesterday, and all around the world, much-deserved hosannas are coming in, praising the life of one of the most important figures in modern Western history. That last bit reflects my own bias. What's become clear in all my studies of our history of World War II, of the Civil War, of Tocqueville, of Rousseau, of Zionism, of black nationalism, is that understanding Enlightenment ideals requires understanding those places where ideals and humanity meet. If you call yourself a lover of democracy, but have not studied the black diaspora, your deeds mock your claims. Understanding requires more than sloganeering, and parroting—it requires confronting our failures.

    For many years, a large swath of this country failed Nelson Mandela, failed its own alleged morality, and failed the majority of people living in South Africa. We have some experience with this. Still, it's easy to forget William F. Buckley—intellectual founder of the modern right—effectively worked as a press agent for apartheid:

    Buckley was actively courted by Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan, Franco's Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal's African colonies, and went on expenses-paid trips trips to some of these countries.

    When he returned from Mozambique in 1962, Buckley wrote a column describing the backwardness of the African population over which Portugal ruled, "The more serene element in Africa tends to believe that rampant African nationalism is self-discrediting, and that therefore the time is bound to come when America, and the West ... will depart from our dogmatic anti-Colonialism and realize what is the nature of the beast."

    In the fall of 1962, during a visit to South Africa, arranged by the Information Ministry, Buckley wrote that South African apartheid "has evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa."

    Buckley's racket as an American paid propagandist for white supremacy would be repeated over the years in conservative circles. As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America's most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake. Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a "phony" and led a "reinvestment" campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, "I know we don't like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don't have it all that bad."

    Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—"I think he is wrong ... We have waited long enough for him to come on board." When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.

    But the overall failure of American conservatives to forthrightly deal with South Africa's white-supremacist regime, coming so soon after their failure to deal with the white-supremacist regime in their own country, is part of their heritage, and thus part of our heritage. When you see a Tea Party protestor waving the flag of slavery in front of the home of the first black president, understand that this instinct has been cultivated. It is still, at this very hour, being cultivated: 

    He won the country's first free presidential elections in 1994 and worked to unite a scarred and anxious nation. He opened up the economy to the world, and a black middle class came to life. After a single term, he voluntarily left power at the height of his popularity. Most African rulers didn't do that, but Mandela said, "I don't want a country like ours to be led by an octogenarian. I must step down while there are one or two people who admire me."

    That is the Wall Street Journal, offering a shameful, condescending "tribute" to one of the great figures of our time. Understand the racism here. It is certainly true that "most African rulers" do not willingly hand over power. That is because most human leaders do not hand over power. What racism does is take a basic human tendency and make it it the property of ancestry. As though Franco never happened. As though Hitler and Stalin never happened. As though Pinochet never happened. As though we did not prop up Mobutu. As though South Carolina was not, for most of its history, ruled by Big Men as nefarious and vicious as any "African ruler."

    To not see this requires a special disposition, a special blindness, a special shamelessness, a special idiocy.

  • The Invincible Jessie Ware

    This a woman who knows something about missing people, about being marooned in other cities.

    One of the cool things about teaching is that you're always around young people, who actually have the time to dig through new music and tell you what's good and what's crap. I don't have the time to dig through music like I used to. Moreover, it's gratifying to know that, though I'm 38, I'm not actually aging out of music. At least not yet.

    My son keeps playing the new Drake around the crib. I think I might actually like it. One of my kids in my "Voice and Meaning" class put me on to How To Dress Well. They are in heavy rotation right not. A friend of mine who is not my son, and who is not in my class, put me on to Jessie Ware. She still qualifies as a kid, though. Basically anyone not having to cope with the moods of a 13-year old boy is, in my eyes, a kid. Just putting that out there.

    Anyway, this Devotion joint is my new hotness. Yes, music nerd-boy, I know that I'm a year late and no one says "new hotness" anymore. Sit down and listen to your elders. And listen to Jessie Ware. This a woman who knows something about missing people, about being marooned in other cities, far from family, and far from home.

    As an aside, I was talking about this Jessie Ware song in class the other day. Ware basically repeats the line "Who says 'No' to love?" making subtle changes each time. I was trying to explain how musicians pick out phrases and repeat them, adding new twists each time, and how that evokes emotion and movement. My point is that great writers often do the same thing. Is there a name for this? Is there a more concise way I can explain this? Writing is the only art I've actually studied, I'm approaching my limits.

  • Bigotry and the English Language

    Language does not exist encased in glass and formaldehyde.

    George Lincoln Rockwell (center) attending Nation of Islam rally in 1961. Photo credit: Eve Arnold

    Wes Alwan reaches for the dictionary in his effort to defend Alec Baldwin against the charge of being a bigot:

    The problem with these responses is that they redefine “bigot” away from its well-established common usage. In fact, the primary function of a word like “bigot” is to very precisely exclude more conflicted, doubtful states of mind, as in: a bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance” (Merriam-Webster). The obstinate devotion to certain avowed, intolerant beliefs is critical to the way that “bigot” traditionally has been used. The word has its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness: the idea is that a bigot is someone who is un-persuadable, who cannot be argued out of their beliefs. But accusing someone of being close-minded and un-persuadable requires that they adamantly hold the beliefs in question in the first place: it cannot be the case that they’re conflicted or akratic – that for example they sincerely favor gay rights as a matter of principle yet betray this principle during bouts of homophobic rage. Having unsavory impulses and poor impulse control is simply not the same thing as being closed minded and systematically intolerant. To extend the word “bigot” to someone like Baldwin is just to pervert it in order for the sake of exploiting its toxicity to his reputation.

    The notion that bigot has "its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness" would be news to etymologists. The origins of the word "bigot" are unknown, but the current theory holds that it is an import from Middle French denoting someone who was sanctimonious or hypocritically religious. Alwan is concerned about the word bigot becoming "perverted,"  to exploit "its toxicity." But this happened long before Alec Baldwin. As late as the 1700s, the word was brought to English with its French meaning. That it was perverted into other meanings is unremarkable. Language does not exist encased in glass and formaldehyde. And the perversion of words is not a cosmic felony, it is how language actually works. 

    The word "bigot" has been perverted into many related, similar, meanings. One meaning is Alwan's.  Here is another:

    a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially : a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)."

    And another:

    One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.

    Another definition holds that bigot is "a person who is bigoted" as in "intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself." 

    My argument is simple: I hold that if you attempt to intimidate and threaten a man by calling him "a little girl" who "probably got raped by a priest," and then you call a gay man a "queen" and threaten to rape him, and justify this by claiming your threat "had absolutely nothing to do with issues of anyone's sexual orientation," and then you threaten someone else by calling them  a "cock-sucking fag" and you attempt to excuse yourself by claiming you didn't know "cock-sucking" was a slur and that you didn't say "fag," and you blame your subsequent misfortune on "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy, that you are very likely a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people; that you are someone who is refusing to accept another group of people as humans; that you are strongly partial to your own group; that you are a bigot.

    Bigots come in all shapes and forms. Strom Thurmond tried to raise an entire political party on the basis of segregation, daring the federal government to intervene in the South's domestic affairs."There's not enough troops in the army, " charged Thurmond. "To force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres into our swimming pools into our homes and into our churches."

    But Thurmond was not without conflict. He had a black daughter whom he gave financial support, sired the career of black conservative Armstrong Williams, supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And Thurmond was not "unpersuadable." He later voted for the Voting Rights Bill, the Martin Luther King holiday, and in the 70s, became first Southern Senator to hire a black staffer. This a man who once claimed that segregation, left "our niggers...better off than most anybody's niggers."

    Thurmond's racist views were defended by Senator Trent Lott, who argued that had his hero prevailed, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years." Later reporting discovered that this wa the second time Lott had made this comment. As a young man interested in politics, Lott worked for segregationist politicians, eschewing more moderate candidates. As a politician in his own right he frequently addressed the racist White Citizens Council. Lott's endorsements of segregation, some of which were louder than others, spanned some forty years. But as the fight over his more recentendorsement of Thurmond caught fire Lott came out in support of Affirmative Action. 

    George Rockwell was a virulent racist, and a commander of the American Nazi Party. His embrace of White Power was total, and yet he was a fan of the Nation of Islam and praised them for having... 

    gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people sneeringly called ‘niggers’ and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard working, dignified, dedicated and admirable human beings in spite of their color.

    Was Rockwell without conflict? Was he a bigot? Who qualifies as "unpersuadable?" Do the former slaveholders who, having lost the Civil war, claimed that they'd never defended slavery make the cut? What of the neighbors of Jews who smiled at them one moment, and then looted their homes and turned them over to Nazis the next? And what are we to say of the promoters of "conversion therapy" who claim to "love the sinner" even as they deprive him of the right of family? Are they unconflicted? Are they unpersuadable?

    Alwan's definition of a bigot, as a "global" label encompassing their humanity, as someone who is wholly unpersuadable, wholly without conflict, and wholly without doubt, is not a description of humans, it is a description of myth. And it a definition to which those who live under the power of actual bigots enjoy no access.

    Alwan is unhappy that I am raising this point:

    I worried, when I published a long post defending Alec Baldwin against charges of bigotry for calling someone a “cocksucking fag,” that I ran the risk of being seen as defending the indefensible. I knew that if the post got any attention, readers who are unfamiliar with my reputation as a (hardcore) liberal might interpret it as a particularly sophisticated piece of crypto-conservatism or closeted bigotry. And I also worried that friends who know me better might wonder how it is I could possibly make such a defense: my motives would be suspect. Indeed, the point of Coates’ marking a portion of my argument as “bizarre,” “terrible,” and “telling” is to signal – without openly calling me a bigot, a ploy that would be too embarrassingly obvious – the fact that my motives are in question: I’m a white guy defending another white guy, not someone making a principled argument (no matter how wrongheaded) about what I believe to be right. I am, possibly, a closeted bigot, dressing up my bigotry in a sophisticated argument; not, as I intend to be, a self-critiquing liberal who wishes to hold liberals – for the sake of consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness – to their own liberal principles.

    If I thought Alwan were a bigot, I would call him one and then make the argument. I am not questioning his motives. I am questioning his knowledge of the world. I am happy to read that he is "self-critiquing liberal." Hopefully he will take the following critique in that spirit: Wes Alwan's understanding of the word "bigot," is ignorant of the word's origins, history and its current usage, especially its usage by those most affected by bigotry. This ignorance is a luxury afforded him by identity. People who live in the thrall of actual racists, and actual homophobes, can't employ Alwan's definition because  it would not accurately describe anyone they have ever met. 

    Very few white people in the 19th century—indeed very few slave-holders—were without conflict and without doubt when considering black people. Many of them were persuadable and akratic. (A great word, by the way.) Some manumitted the enslaved. Others taught them to read, even though it was against the law. Others bore children by them, and sometimes even loved those children. And others still argued that white people should be enslaved too. These people were conflicted, complicated and bigoted. I suspect that the same is true for many homophobic "love the sinner, hate the sin" bigots today. 

    Perhaps we are now entering a new age wherein we will do violence to our language and Osama Bin Laden will no longer be a terrorist, but "a person who enjoyed a career killing innocent people." Rush Limbaugh will not be a racist, but "a man who has made a career saying racist things." Nathan Bedford Forrest will not have been a white supremacist but "someone who seemed to believe that things would be better if white people held most of the power in our society." Louis Farrakhan will not be an anti-Semite but "someone who exhibits a pattern of making comments against people who identify themselves as Jewish."

    I am doubtful that such an age is dawning. In the meantime, I hope a self-identified "self-critiquing liberal" like Alwan--and I mean this--will see that while some people reach for labels simply to conduct a mythical witch-hunt, others reach for labels because in their world witches are very real, and are not the hunted, but the hunters. We will see whether being labeled a "bigot" is ultimately toxic to Alec Baldwin's job prospects. There is no such need to wait on the toxicity of being labeled a "cock-sucking faggot." 

  • Yeah, Alec Baldwin Really Is a Bigot

    "Bigot" isn't a "global" judgement of someone's character. It's a description of how they choose to act.

    Reuters

    Responding to Andrew Sullivan's argument, and my own, that Alec Baldwin is—in fact—kind of a bigot, Wes Alwan offers the following defense:

    For calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag” in a blowup caught on video, and another journalist a “fucking little bitch” and “toxic queen” on twitter, Baldwin has been roundly condemned as a “bigot” and “homophobe,” despite the fact that he has been a vocal supporter of gay rights. ...

    These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it....

    It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses. Freud thought that homophobia and same sex attraction (which is not the same thing as homosexuality per se) were universal and mutually implicating (a man, for instance, might be both repelled by and fascinated by homosexuality because he associates it with the both terrifying and thrilling prospect of submitting and being penetrated). Whether or not you like such associations or agree with Freud, you cannot condemn people merely for being afraid of something, or for having certain feelings or associations: what counts are their considered thoughts and behaviors. The bigot who gets on TV to tell you that homosexuality ought to be against the law does not belong in the same category as a vocal advocate of gay rights who has not purified himself entirely of negative feelings about homosexuality. Homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself...

    Before I offer a rebuttal, I think it's important that we take an account of the evidence.Two years ago, Baldwin—hounded by paparazzi—Baldwin reacted as follows

    It seems Alec finally had enough ... This time, Alec -- clutching a pink stuffed animal -- approached one of the photogs who was hanging out in front of his apartment building and lashed out, "I want you to shut the f**k up ... leave my neighbor alone ... get outta here."

    At one point, at the beginning of the confrontation, It sounds like Alec says to the photog, "I know you got raped by a priest or something."

    Then, in an effort to assert his dominance, Alec got right in the pap's face ... and in a menacing tone said, "You little girl."

    You should watch the video in the hyperlink to get the full effect of this.

    A few months ago, offended by something a reporter—who is gay—had written, Baldwin said the following:

    George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck….you….up.

    Then two weeks ago Baldwin, again hounded by paparazzi, pursued the cameraman and once they'd back off called one a "cock-sucking fag." Baldwin claimed that he'd actually said "cock-sucking fathead." He also added that he was unaware that "cock-sucker" was a derogatory term for gay men.

    Yesterday, it came out that Alec Baldwin will no longer have a show on MSNBC. Baldwin offered the following commentary on his cancellation:

    But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show.

    Baldwin didn't blame his own repeated use of anti-gaydare I say bigotedslurs. He blamed "the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy." 

    My way of understanding this is simple. If I were to be found to, in anger, repeatedly employ anti-Hispanic slurs, to refer to my enemies as "wetbacks" or "illegals," if I were found to address an actual Latino journalist with the term and threaten to say "kick his ass back across the border," and then having lost my job here at The Atlantic blame "the fundamentalist wing of La Raza," I think you would be justified in calling me a bigot. I don't think my support for, say, the DREAM Act, or my horror at Arizona's immigration laws would save me

    And I don't think it would save many other people, besides Alec Baldwin. I don't think if Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton, shared Baldwin's record of threatening actual gay men, and threatening people period with anti-gay slurs, that this would be a debate. I don't believe their record of support for marriage rights would save them. Alec Baldwin a rich, handsome, white guy from the liberal Mecca of the Upper West Side of New York. He enjoys the full weight of our credulity

    More »

  • From Super-Predators to the 'Knockout Game'

    Looking into a trend that isn't

    The Times looks into the latest "trend" in which young black boys try to knock a random person out with one punch. What they find is unsurprising:

    And in New York City, police officials are struggling to determine whether they should advise the public to take precautions against the Knockout Game — or whether in fact it existed.

    “We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”

    The Times looked into one of the more prominent incidents:

    Much news coverage of reported knockout attacks includes 2012 footage from a surveillance camera in Pittsburgh of James Addlespurger, a high school teacher who was 50, being swiftly struck to the ground by a young man walking down an alleyway with some friends. Yet the Pittsburgh police said the attacker insisted the assault was not part of any organized “game.”

    “This was just a random act of violence,” Police Commander Eric Holmes said in a televised interview last year. “He stated that he was just having a bad day that day.” The assailant saw Mr. Addlespurger, the commander said, “and decided this was a course of action he was going to take.”

    Telecasts have also shown teenagers in Jersey City, their faces blurred, describing knockouts, which they defined as anyone might; someone is struck and knocked out. But they did not report that it was a game.

    Bob McHugh, a police spokesman in Jersey City, said there had not been a single reported knockout incident there.

    “If there ever was an urban myth, this was it,” he said. Still community concerns spurred by the video prompted a member of the City Council there, Candice Osborne, to post on her Facebook page, “there have been NO reported instances of this type of assault.”

    This is not like finding a dime-bag in someone's pocket, or even catching someone with a vial of crack. People who assault other people for amusement should be prosecuted. Understanding this, it's also worth pointing out that, in terms of long-term trends, we are in the midst of a historic dip

    But since the days of slavery, into the days of super-predators, and now the time of the Knockout Game, there has always been a strong need to believe that hordes of young black men will overrun the country in a fit of raping and pillaging. It's how we justify ourselves. Information can't compete with national myth.

  • The Answer to the Crisis in Democracy Is More Democracy

    The filibuster has never been a friend of civil rights.

    Via Andrew Sullivan, I see Eric Posner in Slate arguing that "centrists" should be in mourning over the filibuster. I think Posner's case to progressives, liberals, and lefties deserves particular attention:

    To provide an extreme example, under a pure system of majority rule 51 percent of the population could pass a law that transferred the wealth of 49 percent of the population to the majority. If at the next election, the other side managed to win, it could expropriate the wealth back. The resulting instability, as different groups took turns expropriating each other’s wealth, would impoverish the country over time. If one group never took a turn winning, then the outcome would be inequitable as well as bad for the public at large. If all of this sounds too implausible to be of concern to you, then remember Jim Crow in the South, and the many decades disenfranchised African-Americans spent as electoral losers.

    When progressives stop cheering, they may remember that they are historical opponents of majority rule. It was “tyranny of the majority” that produced racist laws in the South or, if you want, the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Conservatives also traditionally objected to majority rule. For them the problem was the tyranny of the property-less majority that resulted in laws that repudiated debts, violated contracts, and expropriated property before the ratification of the Constitution put a stop to all of this. Along with the two-chamber structure, fear of unconstrained majorities on both sides of the political aisle explains many more features of the American political system—the presidential veto, federalism, the rise of judicial review, and, yes, the voting rules in the Senate.

    Scott Lemieux takes on this argument, pointing out that there was nothing whatsoever "democratic" about Jim Crow. Indeed the notion that "disenfranchised African-Americans" were "electoral losers" argues against itself. Black people could not vote. That was the central problem. To be an "electoral losers" you have to be permitted to compete. 

    A dose of history is needed here. Jim Crow was created to beat back majority rule, not to profit from it. Indeed, Jim Crow was most vicious precisely in those states where black people were a majority. As late as 1930, the majority of people living in Mississippi were black. For South Carolina, 1920. In 1890, for Louisiana. 

    In the wake of "Redemption" black voting in these states—and across the South where significant minorities of blacks lived—was nullified by a long night of domestic terrorism. 

    And domestic terrorism wasn't a quiet affair, but something to be taken to lustily, as when "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman boasted of lynching blacks from the Senate floor:

    We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got.

    As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. But I will not pursue the subject further.

    Or when Klansman and Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo said:

    White people will be justified in going to any extreme to keep the nigger from from voting. You and I know what's the best way to keep the nigger from voting. You do it the night before the election. I don't have to tell you any more than that. Red-blooded men know what I mean. 

    In the 19th and early 20th century, it is not too much to say that a despotic, terrorist faction held considerable sway in our national government, and was the law in many state governments. This faction—the Democratic Party's "Solid South"—did not rule simply be withholding the franchise from blacks, but from whites also.

    From Ira Katznelson's indispensable history of the New Deal, Fear Itself:

    ... in 1890, the planter-dominated Democratic Party ... convened a constitutional convention that established a literacy test and a four-dollar poll tax payable during the the course of the two years before the election. These measures not only eliminated black voting but radically reduced the white electorate as well ...

    More:

    Across the country as a whole, nearly 60 percent of eligible persons voted in the 1940 presidential election. In the South, no state reached a 50 percent level. In Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina turnout rates were were at or below 20 percent.

    Midterm congressional elections attracted even fewer voters. In 1938, Mississippi had a population of 2,138, 796, of whom 49 percent were African-American, yet all seven of its Democrats in the house ... ran unopposed that year .... In all voters in Mississippi cast 35,439 votes .... In California, by contrast, no member of the House from any of its twenty districts, each contested, received fewer than 52,516 votes.

    And what happened when African-Americans rose up in the early 20th century and attempted to overthrow a regime which reigned through undemocratic state-endorsed, state-sponsored, terrorism? Why, there was a filibuster, of course:

    The Senate today ended the thirty-day Southern filibuster against the Wagner-Van Nuys Anti-Lynching Bill by voting, 58 to 22, to lay it aside to take up the $250,000,000 emergency relief resolutions, on which a final vote is pending.

    The filibuster had blocked the Senate throughout the present session on all business except adoption of the Farm and Housing Bill reports.

    The vote came after nearly two hours of vigorous debate, in which Senator Wagner warned that the fight was not over. It was a ``strange'' situation, he said, in which, with seventy or more Senators assertedly in favor of the legislation, the necessary two-thirds vote could not be obtained to invoke closure.

    There's nothing "centrist" about this, unless you by "centrist" you mean a skepticism of people voting, paired with an ignorance of history. It's true that we should be suspicious of other mythologies—such as the idea that "the people" are always the font of all things good. As Lemieux points out, democracy can't devolve into straight majority rule.

    But even that skepticism deserves some context. During Reconstruction, Northern reformers opposed giving women the vote because, they argued, Southern women would simply put in power the same old unreconstructed Confederates. But that happened anyway—John B. Gordon, Alexander Stephens, Wade Hampton, Tillman, and a wave of avowed white supremacists dominated Southern politics for a century. Keeping women disenfranchised saved no one. We chose dishonor over war, to paraphrase Churchill, and got both.

    One wonders what a democratic South—with all women and all men enfranchised—would have looked like. We didn't get to see that until the late 1960s when America finally became a democracy in more that just name. And even now people are working to roll back democracy, to reserve voting rights for those who hold guns, and withhold them from those who hold books. The filibuster will not save us from this.

  • You, Me, and Every Word We Know

    I've never really understood why every other year, it seems, we need another debate over who can and can't use the word "nigger." But here we are in this time of "Whither Richie Incognito?" at it again. You can see me try to tease out some of that thinking in a column this Sunday for The Times. The logic, from my perspective, is fairly obvious and relies more on common sense than a Ph.D. in semiotics:

    A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his “white-trash cabin” in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d “make a good Jew.” My retort was not, “Yeah, I certainly am good with money.” Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as “faggots.” My wife and her friends sometimes, when having a good time, will refer to one another with the word “bitch.” I am certain that should I decide to join in, I would invite the same hard conversation that would greet me, should I ever call my father Billy.

    "Billy" is what my paternal grandmother and my Aunt Joyce (Dad's older sister) used to call him. Needless to say, I have never called my father "Billy." The idea that all language in all situations should be open to all people is preposterous, and would quickly destroy communication itself. Language depends on context and relationships. If you believe, as I do, that the relationship between black people is distinct, than it follows that their use of language would be distinct. 

    But accepting black peoplehood has always been something of a problem in America, if only because it says that there are limits to white power, that running everything doesn't actually mean running everything. Specifically for the word "nigger," it means accepting something profound—that a group can take a word meant to mark them as pariahs, flip it, make it their own. Try to imagine Hester Prynne rocking the scarlet letter. But try to imagine something more—it's not just that "nigger" has become our own, it's that it's become a marker which says "We are different from you, because of you, and this can never be changed."

    But again, this is not so original. I will never joke about a "white trash picnic." I like women. I will never be a woman. Because of that there's a whole range of communication which I will never partake in. (I often think about my reticence at calling myself a "feminist" in this light.) I love France and I love the French language. I will never be French. I will never be comfortable with the kind of self-deprecation and self-mockery which I heard French people employ when discussing their own country.

    Communities are not simply about warmth, hugs and nice dinners. They are also about borders. I strongly suspect that were you to interrogate the history of communities who are seen as a problem by those in power—the Jews in Europe, women everywhere, the poor in 18th-century London—you would see a similar contentiousness over the borders (and perhaps even the names) which they claim as their own.

  • More Scalias and Thomases Please

    Democrats have nothing to fear from filibuster reform.

    As Harry Reid pushes to end the ability of the minority party to filibuster judges and executive appointees, I think it's worth reconsidering this quote from Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley:

    "Many of those on the other side who are clamoring for rules change and almost falling over themselves to do it have never served a single day in the minority," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Tuesday in a floor speech. "All I can say is this—be careful what you wish for."

    "So if the Democrats are bent on changing the rules, then I say go ahead," he said. "There are a lot more Scalias and [Clarence] Thomases that we'd love to put on the bench. The nominees we'd nominate and put on the bench with 51 votes would interpret the constitution as it was written."

    I don't know. I think understanding the electoral stakes of an election in stark and clear terms is really healthy. Threatening to appoint "more Scalias and Thomases" is basically threatening to appoint more judges who would unwaveringly hew to their vision of the country. That any political party would like to do this strikes me as unsurprising. The place to decide whether we're going to have "more Scalias and Thomases" is the ballot box. That's why during debates candidates are usually asked about the kind of judges they'd appoint. The place to decide whether having "more Scalias and Thomases" actually worked out is the election following. 

    Elections don't always have consequences, but they should. You can't judge a party's agenda if they don't get a chance to actually implement. Judicial and executive appointments are indispensable to that endeavor. If you don't want to even have the experiment, if you don't like being in the minority, win the damn election—which is another way of saying, make the case to the American people. 

    There's a separate issue here about the wisdom of lifetime judicial appointments. But the filibuster needs, at the very least, reform.

  • Why Black Folks Tend to Shout

    What to make of a third violent incident involving the man who killed Trayvon Martin

    Very few black people were shocked by the lamentable return of George Zimmerman to the headlines:

    Mr. Zimmerman, 30, was charged with domestic aggravated assault, domestic battery and criminal mischief after he and his girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, had an argument at their home in Apopka, northwest of Orlando, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Dennis Lemma of Seminole County. Ms. Scheibe told investigators that she had asked Mr. Zimmerman to leave the residence, and that he had begun packing his belongings, including two firearms, before growing agitated and turning violent.

    Deputy Lemma said that Mr. Zimmerman had “broken a table and, at one point, pointed a long-barreled shotgun” at Ms. Scheibe, who said he had aimed at her for about a minute. Later in the altercation, the authorities said, Mr. Zimmerman forced Ms. Scheibe, who was uninjured, out of the home before obstructing a doorway with furniture.

    “He just pushed me out of my house and locked me out,” Ms. Scheibe told a 911 dispatcher.

    Zimmerman has a somewhat different version of events:

    In his own 911 call before the deputies entered the home, Mr. Zimmerman said that Ms. Scheibe was pregnant with his child and that he wanted “everyone to know the truth” about Monday’s episode.

    “I never pulled a firearm. I never displayed it,” he said. “When I was packing it, I’m sure she saw it. I mean, we keep it next to the bed.”

    He also said Ms. Scheibe was responsible for the broken table when she started “smashing stuff, taking stuff that belonged to me, throwing it outside, throwing it out of her room, throwing it all over the house.”

    It may well be true that, against all his strivings, trouble stalks George Zimmerman. It may be true that George Zimmerman never pointed a shotgun at his girlfriend's face. That Ms. Scheibe smashed a table, took his stuff, started throwing it and then called 911 on herself. That she was simply being poetic when she said "you pointed your gun in my freaking face and told me get the fuck out" and then added "he knows how to do this. He knows how to play this game." 

    And it may be true that in September when Zimmerman's estranged wife, Shelly Zimmerman, claimed that he had punched her father and threatened them with a gun she was embellishing*. That when she called 911 and said "I'm really afraid. I don't know what he's capable of. I'm really scared," she was suffering some form of hallucination. That Zimmerman had not smashed his wife's iPad. That it was his wife that assaulted him with it. That Shelly's father had challenged Zimmerman to a fight.

    And it may well be true that Trayvon Martin was empowered by a heretofore unknown strain of marijuana which confers super strength. That in a fit of Negroid rage, a boy with no criminal history decided to ambush a hapless neighborhood watchman. That the boy told Zimmerman, "You gonna die tonight, motherfucker," punched him, banged his head against the concrete repeatedly and then reached for his gun. That in killing the boy, Zimmerman rid the world of a gun-runner and drug dealer

    And it may well be that George Zimmerman is yet another victim of the nefarious forces of  black privilege. That he is helpless against the hordes of hyper-violent blacks, crazed women and the machinations of Eric Holder. That George Zimmerman continuing to live armed is evidence of sane public policy and a polite society. 

    Only God knows what George Zimmerman did on that rainy night in Sanford. God is not in the habit of talking—because we are not in the habit of listening. 


    * Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Shelly Zimmerman as George Zimmerman's ex-wife. We regret the error.

  • The Case of Renisha McBride

     I believe that we live in a country that justifies killing in response to someone "banging" on your door. I hope I am wrong.

    It's been a little more than two weeks since Renisha McBride was killed in Dearborn Heights. An inebriated McBride crashed her car, and somehow, wandered on to the porch of Theodore Wafer. McBride was evidently knocking on the door. Wafer responded by killing her:

    The Dearborn Heights homeowner dialed 911, telling the dispatcher: “I just shot somebody on my front porch with a shotgun banging on my door.”

    When police arrived, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was lying on her back with her feet pointed toward the door, a shotgun wound to her face, a newly released police report says.

    On Friday, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced second-degree murder and other charges against homeowner Theodore Wafer, saying the evidence suggests he opened the front door before he fired through the closed and locked screen door, killing McBride.

    “I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams of what that man feared from her to shoot her in the face,” her mother Monica McBride said on Friday. “I would like to know why. She brought him no danger.”

    Unfortunately whether Wafer was in danger or not is irrelevant to whether he will be convicted of any crime. He has been charged with second-degree murder. The standard for self-defense in Michigan provides for the use of "deadly force or force other than deadly force honestly and reasonably believes that the individual is engaging in conduct described in subdivision (a)" (my emphasis).

    Here is a preview of what you will likely hear:

    It’s not yet clear what kind of argument Theodore Wafer, the Dearborn Heights man accused of shooting the 19-year-old McBride through his screen door on Nov. 2 and charged with 2nd-degree murder on Friday, might use in his defense. But the bar will be high.

    “The standard for self-defense is that you reasonably perceive a threat of death or serious bodily harm from the other person. You respond with equal force. You can’t use deadly force ample to defend your home or to prevent someone from stealing your property. It can only be used for self-defense or defense of others,” Henning says.

    Authorities say McBride came to Wafer’s door around 4:30 a.m. after crashing her car. A toxicology report found twice the legal limit of alcohol in her blood.

    Could there be valid argument of self-defense in this case if the defendant was behind a locked screen door? “Certainly that’s a possibility,” says Henning. “It is possible that there was shouting, or perhaps an effort to open up the door, or bang on a window or something like that could give him a basis to believe that there was a threat that someone was going to break into his home. From there, you could infer a threat of death or serious bodily harm.”

    I'm not optimistic about this case. There are no eyewitnesses. The killing happened at the man's home as opposed to out on the street. And the only direct narrative will come from the lips of a killer who has every interest to shape that narrative in a way that justifies his actions. 

    I haven't written much on this case, because I don't know what else to offer beyond my deep skepticism of the courts as a likely resolution. It is painful to keep writing this. I believe that we live in a country that justifies killing in response to someone "banging" on your door. I hope I am wrong. It is sickening to believe myself right. It is sickening to see a polite society submit to gun law.

  • Yeah, Alec Baldwin Is a Bigot

    Supporting marriage rights doesn't mean you aren't a homophobe.

    AP

    I stole that headline from Andrew Sullivan, because like Andrew, I don't really understand how there can be much debate about Alec Baldwin's tendency to insult people who have angered him with the word "faggot" ("cocksucking fag" to be specific). "Faggot," like most slurs, is a word used to remove a group from the protections of society. It is not incidental that slurs frequently accompany acts of violence—both systemic (withholding the protections of the law) and personal (beatings, torture and killings). 

    Along with that societal estrangement comes an entire series of justificationsphysical weakness and immorality being the main ones. When Baldwin calls someone who has angered him a faggot, he is invoking those justifications. He is saying, "Your behavior is like that of a gay man and you should be treated as such." It is not a mistake that this reaction accompanies a temper bordering on violence. 

    This is bigotry. And it is not complicated by the fact that Baldwin  supports marriage equality. One need not believe that LGBTQ human beings are equal to support their right to marry, any more than one needed to be an anti-racist to support abolition, or an anti-sexist to support women's suffrage. There any number of self-interested reasons to support the advancement of civil rights. "Let them niggers vote" or "let them fags marry" is actually a politically consistent position. It says, "I don't like you, but I'm not willing to put my tax dollars behind my dislike." Or even, "I don't like you, but I think I can profit from taking this position."

    This is progress. But it certainly isn't the end of bigotry. And progressives, in this enlightened age, should not be in the habit of handing out cookies to bigots who happen to be politically sophisticated. One of Andrew's commenters begins by claiming that he feels "slimy" defending Baldwin. The commenter then launches a defense of his right to use the word faggot (and nigger) when angered. But if it feels slimy, it almost always is slimy. It is slimy to want credit for recognizing someone else's humanity, while avoiding a confrontation with the standards for your own. 

    UPDATE: Sorry, but I forgot to quote this essential graff from Andrew:

    In my view, the gay rights movement is not, at its core, about enacting legislation, or merely a political struggle. It is a moral case for the equal dignity of gay people, and for mutual respect. What deeply troubles me is not so much that one hot-headed actor is a bigot, but that his public support for gay causes is effectively buying him a right to perpetuate the vilest canards and hatreds that have demeaned gay people for centuries. What disturbs me is that pro forma support for various gay organizations or causes gives this man permission to perpetuate the foulest forms of bigotry – and never take full responsibility for it, and to do it again and again, with no penalty or the faintest sense that he has really done something terribly wrong by his own alleged standards.

    Dead on. 

  • This Is How You Lose Her

    The end of the NFL begins with the young

    Hall of Famer Mike Webster. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Given Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, given Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre, and given that these men were the heroes to the kind of parents who would have once put their kids in Pop Warner, this can't be surprising:

    According to data provided to "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

    Pop Warner officials said they believe several factors played a role in the decline, including the trend of youngsters focusing on one sport. But the organization's chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, cited concerns about head injuries as "the No. 1 cause."

    "Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," said Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon whose 10-year-old son, Clint, plays Pop Warner outside Chicago. "We need to get it right."

    I think that point about truths is exactly right. The NFL has a long history of lying about head injury, its effects and its connection to football. There's really no reason for any parent to listen to anything the NFL says on the subject:

    2010-In a display of seriousness over player safety, Steelers linebacker James Harrison is fined $75,000 for his hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in an October game. Somewhat undercutting this display, the NFL sells pictures of the hit on its website.

    This includes the idea that the effects of head injury can be dealt with teaching tackling technique--as though Mike Webster did not happen.

    But the truth may not be enough, because what if the truth is that not remembering your daughter's childhood is a built-in risk of playing pro football? In my ideal world, the NFL would acknowledge that and then structure its compensation around the incredible risk each players takes when he puts on a uniform. 

  • Richard Cohen in Context

    Some people are defending his abysmal column. Their argument is not very good.

    There are a few people defending Richard Cohen's abysmal column today as though it were the victim of a giant reading-comprehension fail. I think this piece by J. Bryan Lowder offers the gist of the argument:

    But before I get to that, though, let’s break down what Cohen actually wrote. The offending paragraph is embedded in a longer segment about the mindless, reactionary social conservatism of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and how nasty their insurgence was for a more moderate Democratic Party back in the 1948 election. Cohen calls the similarities to contemporary tea-partying Iowans “ominous,” and warily eyes the trenchant, anti-modern (and politically costly) attitude that can emerge when a group of people perceive their “way of life under attack and they [fear] its loss.” Now, it’s true that he doesn’t condemn this faction as forcefully as he might, but my takeaway from the piece as a whole was that Cohen is none too pleased with what their ascendancy bodes for mainstream conservatism.

    Of course, a few highly ambiguous phrases (that probably should have been edited out) in the “gag” sentence make this reading harder, but let’s try. “Conventional” is the most unfortunate word choice, with its connotations of “common sense,” “widely shared,” or “unremarkable”; as many critics have already pointed out, studies show that disapproval of miscegenation is none of those things today. But recall that Cohen has been describing a limited, if still very much extant, mindset that (he at least wants us to believe) is not his own; in that worldview, dislike of interracial marriage is very much conventional, as is dislike of former lesbians—these are literally the conventions of that social group.

    This is not a very good defense. I read the entire column. I saw the preceding grafs where Cohen offers a rough history of the Dixiecrats and segregationists wing of America. And then I read this:

    Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

    The problem here isn't that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn't actually racist, but "conventional" or "culturally conservative." Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn't racism, then there is no racism. 

    Context can not improve this. "Context" is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to "a hostile work environment." It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The PianistAnd it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post's publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.

    Richard Cohen's unfortunate career is the proper context to understand his column today and the wide outrage that's greeted it. We are being told that Cohen finds it "hurtful" to be called racist. I am sorry that people on the Internet have hurt Richard Cohen's feelings. I find it "hurtful" that Cohen endorses the police profiling my son. I find it eternally "hurtful" that the police, following that same logic, killed one of my friends. I find it hurtful to tell my students that, even in this modern age, vending horse-shit is still an esteemed and lucrative profession.

  • Richard Cohen on Black-White Marriage

    I'm not racist. I just don't recognize my country.

    Here's a fairly amazing paragraph from Richard Cohen's latest:

    Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

    Right. I'm not racist. I just don't recognize my country. Also, the sight of you, and your used-to-be-lesbian black wife, and your brown children make me sick to my stomach. It's not like I want to lynch you or anything. 

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