To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History – Black World Media Network (BWMN)

To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History

There is a long tradition of Black educators fighting attempts to keep America’s true history out of the classroom—one we can all learn from
Forten
African American abolitionist, poet, and educator Charlotte Forten (1837–1914), circa 1865.

 

By Keisha N. Blain

thenation.com

February 18, 2022

This week, South Dakota’s House of Representatives passed two bills, one targeting the teaching of “divisive concepts” and the other aimed at “protecting” kids from “political indoctrination.” While neither bill mentioned the words “critical race theory,” it was clear what they meant. They followed just a few weeks after the Mississippi Senate passed Senate Bill 2113—another “critical race theory” bill authored by Michael McLendon (R-Hernando)—over the objection of Black lawmakers, who walked out of the chamber in protest. Both of these efforts, along with many others, are part of a nationwide campaign led by conservatives to supposedly rid classrooms of “critical race theory”—a term for a high-level legal discipline that has been used as a cover to ban books by Black and brown authors.

While the obsession over “ critical race theory” is a new manifestation, it represents long-standing efforts to keep Black history—and the perspectives of Black writers—out of the classroom. For many conservatives, the attack on “critical race theory” is rooted in a desire to shield their children from the uncomfortable aspects of history and evade “sensitive” topics such as racism, white supremacy, and inequality. As this wave of anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism grows, Black educators and their allies must be prepared to oppose these forces, building on a long tradition of Black protest.

For as long as white politicians have employed these tactics, Black educators in the United States have vigorously resisted. Through a myriad of strategies—including creative lesson plans and the production of anti-racist books and articles—Black educators have worked to counter the spread of misinformation and ensure that students have access to texts and perspectives that represent the diversity of the nation—and the world.

During the antebellum era, Black teachers in the North led the charge to ensure that Black students would receive a quality education—despite having limited access to resources. These efforts often required “conscious, vigorous, and sustained acts of defiance and protest,” as historian Kabria Baumgartner recounts in her groundbreaking book In Pursuit of Knowledge, but Black educators were willing to take such risks.

In 1830s Boston, for example, Susan Paul taught at a primary school for Black children where she intentionally included lessons on the evils of slavery and the significance of abolition. Paul brought her students to meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society—an interracial abolitionist organization founded in 1832. She also encouraged her students in the Boston Juvenile Choir to perform songs that extolled abolitionist ideas. Her inclusion of abolitionist materials and her focus on her students’ public comportment represented a direct challenge to the era’s racist propaganda on the capabilities and qualities of Black people—a mission she followed even as she faced threats of violence from white Bostonians at the time.

Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson in 1835 to honor a student of hers who had passed away from tuberculosis. In telling the story of Jackson’s short life, the book also revealed Paul’s pedagogical emphasis on Christian empathy as an opposing force to racial prejudice.

Similarly, Charlotte Forten, a Black educator from Philadelphia, passionately resisted the spread of miseducation in the classroom—and introduced an array of diverse materials to broaden her students’ perspectives. One of the first Black women teachers to be hired to teach in the integrated schools of Salem, Mass., Forten joined the staff of the Epes Grammar School in 1856. Though she only taught in Salem for a few years, she was unwavering in her commitment to nurturing Black students, and in 1862, traveled to the Sea Islands in South Carolina to teach Black children who were recently emancipated by Union forces.

Forten used this opportunity to instruct her students about the life of revolutionary Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. “I told them about Toussaint,” she explained in an 1864 Atlantic Monthly article, “thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race.” This determination to center Black perspectives in the classroom as a counter to stereotypical representations of mainstream accounts guided Black educators in the decades to follow.

In February 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black history, devised a strategy to address the failure to teach Black history in classrooms across the nation. By first establishing “ Negro History Week,” Woodson provided an avenue for educators to recognize and celebrate the history of people of African descent in the United States. In so doing, he disrupted educational norms shaped by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Woodson and members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—the organization he had established several years earlier—created and distributed books, lesson plans, and other curriculum materials to aid teachers across the nation.

Within five years of the program’s creation, 80 percent of Black high schools in the United States were celebrating Negro History Week. According to Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Woodson’s mission as a scholar “was influenced and made possible by the pedagogical work of black schoolteachers.” These educators had instructed and prepared Woodson’s generation after the end of legal slavery, and a new generation now risked their own personal safety to defy the accepted curriculum by implementing Negro History Week lessons, influencing generations of scholars and activists to follow.

It is in this spirit that the famed scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. The pioneering book, which would go on to shape future writing and research on Reconstruction, was a direct refutation of the false narratives emerging from leading white scholars. Black Reconstruction in America unequivocally challenged the racist Dunning School of historians—named after William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. In their portrayal of Reconstruction (1865–77), the Dunning School scholars, as Du Bois explained, had portrayed the South as victims and the North as having committed a “grievous wrong.” Their writings on the subject treated the free and enslaved Black population with “ ridicule, contempt or silence.”

This framing of the ideals motivating Reconstruction—and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—as a mistake was further propagated in popular media, most notably in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction offered an important counterargument that not only reaffirmed the evils of slavery but also demonstrated the active role enslaved people took in liberating themselves. They were, as Du Bois powerfully demonstrated, not simply the passive recipients of white actions but agents in shaping their own destiny.

This tradition coalesced into the dynamic field of Black Studies during the 1960s and 1970s. As Abdul Alkalimat, one of the founders of Black Studies, points out in The History of Black Studies, the field’s growth is directly tied to the pioneering work of scholars like Woodson and Du Bois. The work of Black educators—combined with other forces, including the civil rights and Black Power movements as well as the vital intellectual space created by historically black colleges and universities—provided the catalyst for the establishment of Black Studies programs and departments.

Freedom Schools, such as those established by organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the rise of Black Power ideology, fundamentally shaped Black college students and challenged mainstream (anti-Black) university curriculums on college campuses and beyond.

Today, we are witnessing an effort to return to an era when Black voices and experiences—along with those of other marginalized groups—were excluded from classrooms. The recent legislative and executive bans on “critical race theory” are designed to intimidate teachers and school districts from teaching accurate representations of American history. As the historical record reminds us, these attempts are not new. But we can draw inspiration from the long line of Black educators and their allies who vigorously worked to overcome these forces in the past.

Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2022 National Fellow at New America. Along with Ibram X. Kendi, she is the editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019. Her latest book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Twitter: @KeishaBlain

Source: To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History – Black World Media Network (BWMN)

Beyond Racism and Misogyny | Boston Review

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in Boston Review in December 1991.


In June 1990, the members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested and charged under a Florida obscenity statute for their performance in an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida. The arrests came just two days after a federal court judge had ruled that the sexually explicit lyrics in 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, were obscene. Although the members of 2 Live Crew were eventually acquitted of charges stemming from the live performance, the federal court determination that As Nasty As They Wanna Be is obscene still stands. This obscenity judgment, along with the arrests and the subsequent trial, prompted an intense public controversy about rap music, a controversy that merged with a broader debate about the representation of sex and violence in popular music, about cultural diversity, and about the meaning of freedom of expression.

Two positions dominated the debate about 2 Live Crew. Writing in Newsweek, political columnist George Will staked out a case against the Crew, arguing that Nasty was misogynistic filth and characterizing their lyrics as a profoundly repugnant “combination of extreme infantilism and menace” that objectified black women and represented them as legitimate targets for sexual violence.

The most prominent defense of 2 Live Crew was advanced by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an expert on African-American literature. In a New York Times op-ed piece, and in testimony at the criminal trial, Gates portrayed 2 Live Crew as brilliant artists who were inventively elaborating distinctively African-American forms of cultural expression. Furthermore, Gates argued, the characteristic exaggeration featured in their lyrics served a political end: to explode popular racist stereotypes about black sexuality precisely by presenting those stereotypes in a comically extreme form. Where Will saw a misogynistic assault on black women by social degenerates, Gates found a form of ‘sexual carnivalesque’ freighted with the promise to free us from the pathologies of racism.

As a black feminist, I felt the pull of each of these poles, but not the compelling attractions of’ either. My immediate response to the criminal charges against 2 Live Crew was ambivalence: I wanted to stand together with the brothers against a racist attack, but I wanted to stand against a frightening explosion of’ violent imagery directed at women like me. My sharp internal division-my dissatisfaction with the idea that the “real issue” is race or that the “real issue” is gender– is characteristic of my experience as a black woman living at the intersection of racial and sexual subordination. To that experience black feminism offers an intellectual and political response: aiming to bring together the different aspects of an otherwise divided sensibility, it argues that black women are commonly marginalized by a politics of race alone or gender alone, and that a political response to either form of subordination must be a political response to both. When the controversy over 2 Live Crew is approached in light of such black feminist sensibilities, an alternative to the dominant poles of the public debate emerges.

At the legal “bottom line” I agree with the supporters of 2 Live Crew that the obscenity prosecution was wrongheaded. But the reasons for my conclusion are not the same as the reasons generally offered in support of 2 Live Crew. I will come to those reasons shortly, but first I should emphasize that after listening to 2 Live Crew’s lyrics, along with those of other rap artists, my defense of 2 Live Crew, (qualified though it is) did not come easy.

The first time I listened to 2 Live Crew, I was stunned. The issue had been distorted by descriptions of “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” as simply “sexually explicit.” “Nasty” is much more: it is virulently misogynist, sometimes violently so. Black women are cunts, “‘ho’s,” and all-purpose bitches: raggedy bitches, sorry-ass bitches, lowdown slimy-ass bitches. Good sex is often portrayed as painful and humiliating for women. Take, for example, “The Buck.”

That’s the only way to give her more than she wants,
Like a doggie-style, you get all that cunt.
Cause all men try real hard to do it,
To have her walking funny so we try to abuse it.
Bitches think a pussy can do it all,
So we try real hard just to bust the wall.

And:

I’ll break you down and dick you long.
Bust your pussy and break your backbone.

Elsewhere:

I’m gonna slay you, rough and painful,
You innocent bitch! Don’t be shameful!

And for added measure:

That dick will make a bitch act cute,
Suck my dick until you make it puke
…
Lick my ass up and down,
Lick it till your tongue turns doodoo brown.

This is no mere braggadocio. Those of us who are concerned about the high rates of gender violence in our communities must be troubled by the possible connections between these images and tolerance for violence against women. Children and teenagers are listening to this music, and I am concerned that the range of acceptable behavior is being broadened by the constant propagation of anti-women imagery. I’m concerned, too, about young black women who, like young men, are learning that their value lies between their legs. Unlike men, however, their sexual value is a depletable commodity; by expending it, girls become whores and boys become men.

Nasty is misogynist, and a black feminist response to the case against 2 Live Crew must start from a full acknowledgment of that misogyny. But such a response must also consider whether an exclusive focus on issues of gender risks overlooking aspects of the prosecution of 2 Live Crew that raise serious questions of racism. And here is where the roots of my opposition to the obscenity prosecution lie.

An initial problem concerning the prosecution was its apparent selectivity. A comparison between 2 Live Crew and other mass-marketed sexual representations suggests that race played some role in distinguishing 2 Live Crew as the first group ever to be prosecuted for obscenity in connection with a musical recording, and one of only a handful of recording artists to be prosecuted for a live performance. Recent controversies about sexism, racism, and violence in popular culture point to a vast range of expression that might well provide targets for censorship, but that have not been targeted. Madonna has acted out masturbation, portrayed the seduction of a priest, and depicted group sex on stage, yet she has never been prosecuted for obscenity. While 2 Live Crew was performing in an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida, Andrew Dice Clay was performing nationwide on HBO. Well-known for his racist “humor,” Clay is also comparable to 2 Live Crew in sexual explicitness and misogyny. In his show, for example, Clay offers: “Eenie, meenie, minee, mo, suck my [expletive] and swallow slow,” or “Lose the bra bitch.” Moreover, graphic sexual images–many of them violent–were widely available in Broward County where the performance and trial took place. According to the trial testimony of Vice Detective McCloud, “nude dance shows and adult bookstores are scattered throughout the county where 2 Live Crew performed.” But again, no obscenity charges were leveled against the performers or producers of these representations.

In response to this charge of selectivity, it might be argued that the prosecution of 2 Live Crew demonstrates that its lyrics were uniquely obscene. In a sense, this argument runs, the proof is in the condemnation–if their music was not uniquely obscene, it would not have been deemed so by the Court. However, the elements of 2 Live Crew’s representation that contributed to their selective arrest continued to play out as the court applied the obscenity standard to the recording.

To clarify this argument, we need to consider the technical use of’ “obscenity” as a legal term of art. For the purposes of legal argument, the Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Miller v. California held that a work is obscene if and only if it meets each of three conditions: (1) “the average person, applying community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest”; (2) “the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law”; and (3) “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The Court held that it is consistent with First Amendment guarantees of freedom of expression for states to subject work that meets all three parts of the Miller test to very restrictive regulations.

Focusing first on the “prurient interest” prong of the Miller test, we might wonder how 2 Live Crew could have been seen as uniquely obscene by the lights of the “community standards” of Brossard County. After all, as Detective McCloud put it, “patrons [of clubs in Broward] can see women dancing with at least their breasts exposed” and bookstore patrons can “view and purchase films and magazines that depict vaginal, oral and anal sex, homosexual sex and group sex.” In arriving at its finding of obscenity, the court placed little weight on the available range of films, magazines, and live shows as evidence of the community’s sensibilities. Instead, the court apparently accepted the Sheriff’s testimony that the decision to single out Nastywas based on the number of complaints against 2 Live Crew, “communicated by telephone calls, anonymous messages, or letters to the police.”

Evidence of this popular outcry was never substantiated. But even if it were, the case for selectivity would remain. The history of social repression of black male sexuality is long, often-violent, and all-too-familiar. Negative reactions against the sexual conduct of black males have traditionally had racist overtones, especially where that conduct threatens to “cross over” into the mainstream community. So even if the decision to prosecute did reflect a widespread community perception of the purely prurient character of 2 Live Crew’s music, that perception itself might reflect an established pattern of vigilante attitudes directed toward the sexual expression of black males. In short, the appeal to community standards does not undercut a concern about racism; rather, it underscores that concern.

A second troubling dimension of the case against 2 Live Crew was the court’s apparent disregard for the culturally rooted aspects of 2 Live Crew’s music. Such disregard was essential to a finding of obscenity, given the third prong of the Miller test requiring that obscene material lack any literary, artistic, or political value. 2 Live Crew argued that this test was not met since the recording exemplified such African-American cultural modes as “playing the dozens,” “call and response,” and “signifying.” As a storehouse of such cultural modes, it could not be said that Nasty was completely devoid of literary or artistic value. Yet the court denied the group’s clause of cultural specificity by re-characterizing those modes claimed to be African-American in more generic terms. For example, the court reasoned that “playing the dozens” is “commonly seen in adolescents, especially boys, of all ages.” “Boasting,” the court observed, appears to be “part of the universal human condition.” And the court noted that the cultural origins of one song featuring “call and response”–a song about oral sex in which competing groups chanted “less filling” and “tastes great”–were to be found in a Miller beer commercial, and thus not derived from any African-American cultural tradition. The possibility that the Miller beer commercial may have itself evolved from an African-American cultural tradition was lost on the court.

In disregarding testimony about cultural specificity, the court denied the artistic value in the form and style of Nasty and, by implication, rap music more generally. This disturbing dismissal of the cultural attributes of rap, and this effort to universalize African-American modes of expression, flattens cultural differences. The court’s analysis here manifests in legal terms a frequently encountered strategy of cultural appropriation. African-American contributions that have been accepted by the mainstream culture are eventually absorbed as simply “American” or found to be “universal.” Other modes associated with African-American culture that resist absorption remain distinctive and are either ignored, or dismissed as “deviant.”

An additional concern has as much to do with the obscenity doctrine itself as with the court’s application of it to 2 Live Crew. The case illustrates the ways that obscenity doctrine invites racially selective enforcement while at the same time pressing into focus the wrong questions about sexual expression.

As I mentioned earlier, obscenity requires a determination that the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. Although the prurient interest requirement eludes precise definition it seems clear that prurient material must appeal in some immediate way to sexual desire. While it is difficult to say definitively what constitutes such an appeal, one might surmise that the twenty-five cent peep shows that are standard fare in Broward County rank considerably higher on this scale than the sexual tall tales of 2 Live Crew. But the obscenity doctrine is, as justice Stevens said, “intolerably vague,” and the result is that “grossly disparate treatment of similar offenders is a characteristic of the criminal enforcement of obscenity law.” More precisely, as the case of 2 Live Crew suggests, the vagueness of the doctrine operating in a world of racial subordination represents an invitation to racially selective enforcement.

While 2 Live Crew should be one of the lesser candidates in the prurient interests sweepstakes mandated by the obscenity doctrine, it is also a lesser contender by another measure that lies entirely outside of obscenity: violence. Compared to such groups as N.W.A., Too Short, Ice Cube, and the Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew’s misogynistic hyperbole sounds minor league. Sometimes called “gangsta’ rap,” the lyrics offered by these other groups celebrate violent assault, rape, rape-murder, and mutilation. Nevertheless, had these other groups been targeted rather than the comparatively less offensive 2 Live Crew, they may have been more successful in defeating the prosecution. The graphic violence in their representations militates against a finding of obscenity by suggesting an appeal not to prurient interests but instead to the fantasy of the social outlaw. Against an historical backdrop that prominently features the image of the black male as social outlaw, gangsta’ rap might be read as a subversive form of opposition that aims to challenge social convention precisely by becoming the very social outlaw that society has proscribed. For this reason, their lyrics might even be read as political, and if they are political they are not obscene. So long, then, as prurience remains an obsession of First Amendment argument, and violent imagery is seen as distinct from sexuality, rap artists may actually be able to strengthen their legal shield by heightening the level of violence in their lyrics.

I do not mean to suggest here that the distinction between sex and violence ought to be maintained in obscenity, nor, more specifically, that the violent rappers ought to be protected. To the contrary, these groups trouble me much more than 2 Live Crew does. My point instead is to emphasize that the obscenity doctrine itself does nothing to protect the interests of those who are most directly implicated in such rap–black women. Because the doctrine is vague, it opens the door to selecting offenders on the basis of race, Because it separates out sexuality and violence, it shields the most violently misogynistic rappers from prosecution. For black women who are hurt by both racism and misogyny, it does no good at all.

Although black women’s interests were quite obviously irrelevant in this obscenity judgment, their bodies figured prominently in the public case supporting the targeting of 2 Live Crew. This brings me to my final concern: George Will’s Newsweek essay provides a striking example of how black women were appropriated and deployed in the broader attack against 2 Live Grew. Commenting on “America’s Slide into the Sewers,” Will tells us that “America today is capable of terrific intolerance about smoking, or toxic waste that threatens trout. But only a deeply confused society is more concerned about protecting lungs than minds, trout than black women. We legislate against smoking in restaurants; singing “Me So Horny” is a constitutional right. Secondary smoke is carcinogenic; celebration of torn vaginas is “mere words.”

Notwithstanding these expressions of concern about black women, Will’s real worry is suggested by his repeated references to the Central Park jogger. He writes that “Her face was so disfigured a friend took fifteen minutes to identify her. ‘I recognized her ring’. Do you recognize the relevance of 2 Live Crew?” (Emphasis added.) While the connection between the threat of 2 Live Crew and the specter of the black male rapist was suggested subtly in the public debate, it is manifest throughout Will’s discussion and in fact bids fair to be its central theme. “Fact: Some members of a particular age and societal cohort–the one making 2 Live Crew rich–stomped and raped the jogger to the razor edge of death, for the fun of it.” Will directly indicts 2 Live Crew in the Central Park jogger rape through a fictional dialogue between himself and the defendants. Responding to one defendant’s alleged comment that the rape was fun, Will asks: “Where can you get the idea that sexual violence against women is fun? From a music store, through Walkman earphones, from boom boxes blaring forth the rap lyrics of 2 Live Crew.” Since the rapists were young black males and Nasty presents black men celebrating sexual violence, surely 2 Live Crew was responsible. Apparently, the vast American industry that markets every conceivable form of misogynistic representation is irrelevant to understanding this particular incident of sexual violence.

Will invokes black women twice–as victims of this music. But if he were really concerned with the threat to black women, why does the Central Park jogger figure so prominently in his argument? Why not the black woman in Brooklyn who was gang-raped and then thrown down an airshaft? For that matter, what about the twenty-five other women–mostly women of color–who were raped in New York City during the same week the Central Park jogger was raped? In Will’s display of concern, black women appear to function as a stand-in for white women. The focus on sexual violence played out on black women’s bodies seems to reflect concerns about the threat of black male violence against the security of the white community. In this, Will’s use of the black female body to press the case against 2 Live Crew recalls the strategy of the prosecutor in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. Bigger Thomas, the black male protagonist, is on trial for killing Mary Dalton, a white woman. Because Bigger burned her body, however, it cannot be established whether Mary was raped. So the prosecutor brings in the body of Bessie, a black woman raped by Bigger and left to die, in order to establish that Bigger had raped Mary.

These considerations about selectivity, about the denial of cultural specificity, and about the manipulation of black women’s bodies convince me that race played a significant if not determinative role in the shaping of the case against 2 Live Crew. While using anti-sexist rhetoric to suggest a concern for women, the attack simultaneously endorsed traditional readings of black male sexuality. The fact that most perpetrators and victims are of the same race is overshadowed by the mythical image of the black male as the agent of sexual violence and the white community as his victim. The subtext of the 2 Live Crew prosecution thus becomes a re-reading of the sexualized racial politics of the past.

While concerns about racism fuel my opposition to the obscenity prosecution, I am also troubled by the uncritical support for, and indeed celebration of, 2 Live Crew by other opponents of that prosecution. If the rhetoric of anti-sexism provided an occasion for racism, so, too, the rhetoric of anti-racism provided an occasion for defending the misogyny of black male rappers.

The defense of 2 Live Crew took two forms, one political and one cultural, both of which were advanced most prominently by Henry Louis Gates. The political argument was that 2 Live Crew represents an attack on black sexual stereotypes. The strategy of the attack is, in Gates’s words, to “exaggerate [the] stereotypes” and thereby “to show how ridiculous the portrayals are.” Thus, Gates concludes, 2 Live Crew and other rap groups are simply pushing white society’s buttons to ridicule its dominant sexual images.
I agree with Gates that the reactions by Will and others to 2 Live Crew confirm that the stereotypes still exist and still evoke basic fears. But even if I were to agree that 2 Live Crew intended to explode these mythic fears, I still would argue that their strategy was wholly misguided. These fears are too active, and African-Americans are too closely associated with them, not to be burned when the myths are exploded. More fundamentally, however, I am deeply skeptical about the claim that the Crew was engaged–either in intent or effect–in pursuing a postmodern guerilla war against racist stereotypes.

Gates argues that when one listens to 2 Live Crew the ridiculous stories and the hyperbole make the listener “bust out laughing.” Apparently the fact that Gates and many other people react with laughter confirms and satisfies the Crew’s objective of ridiculing the stereotypes. But the fact that the Crew are often successful in prompting laughter neither substantiates Gates’s reading nor forecloses serious critique of its subordinating dimensions.

In disagreeing with Gates, I do not mean to suggest that 2 Live Crew’s lyrics are to be taken literally. But rather than exploding stereotypes as Gates suggests, I believe that they were simply using readily available sexual images in trying to be funny. Trading in racial stereotypes and sexual hyperbole are well-rehearsed strategies for getting some laughs. 2 Live Crew departs from this tradition only in its attempt to up the ante through more outrageous boasts and more explicit manifestations of misogyny. Neither the intent to be funny, nor Gates’s loftier explanations, negate the subordinating qualities of such humor. Examining parallel arguments in the context of racist humor suggests why neither claim functions as a persuasive defense for 2 Live Crew.

Gates’s use of laughter as a defensive maneuver in the attack on 2 Live Crew recalls similar strategies in defense of racist humor. Racist humor has sometimes been defended as an effort to poke fun at, or to ridicule racism. More simply, racist humor has often been excused as just joking; even racially motivated assaults are often defended as simple pranks. Thus, the racism and sexism of Andrew Dice Clay could be defended in either mode as an attempt to explode the stereotypes of white racists, or simply as humor not meant to be taken seriously. Implicit in these defenses is the assumption that racist representations are injurious only if they are devoid of any other objective or are meant to be taken literally.

Although these arguments are familiar within the black community, I think it is unlikely that they would be viewed as a persuasive defense of Andrew Dice Clay. African-Americans have frequently protested such humor, suggesting a general recognition within the black community that “mere humor” is not inconsistent with subordination. The question of what people find humorous is of course a complicated one, sometimes involving aggression, in-group boundary policing, projection, and other issues. The claim that a representation is meant “simply as a joke” may be true, but it functions as humor within a specific social context and frequently reinforces patterns of social power. Moreover, even though racial humor may sometimes be intended to ridicule racism, the close relationship between the stereotypes and the prevailing images of marginalized people complicates this strategy. Clearly, racial humor does not always distance the audience from the racist subject, nor does it indict the wider society in which the jokes have meaning. The endearment of Archie Bunker suggests at least this much. Thus, in the context of racist humor, neither the fact that people actually laughed at racist humor nor the usual disclaimer of intent has functioned to preclude incisive and often quite angry criticism of such humor within the African-American community.

Although a similar set of arguments could be offered in the context of sexist humor, images marketed by 2 Live Crew were not condemned but, as Gates illustrates, defended, often with great commitment and skill. Clearly, the fact that the Crew and the women it objectifies are black shaped this response. Had 2 Live Crew been white in blackface, for example, all of the readings would have been different. Although the question of whether one can defend the broader license given to black comedians to market stereotypical images is an interesting one, it is not the issue here. 2 Live Crew cannot claim an in-group privilege to perpetuate misogynistic humor against black women. They are not black women, and more importantly, they enjoy a power relationship over them.Sexual humor in which women are objectified as packages of body parts to serve whatever male-bonding/male competition needs men have subordinates women in much the same way that racist humor subordinates African-Americans. That these are “just jokes” and not meant to be taken literally does little to blunt their demeaning quality–nor for that matter, does the fact that the jokes are told within a tradition of intra-group humor.

Gates advances a second, cultural defense of 2 Live Crew: the idea that Nastyis in line with distinctively African-American traditions of culture and entertainment. It is true that the “dozens” and other forms of verbal boasting have been practiced within the black community for some time. It is true as well that raunchy jokes, insinuations, and boasting of sexual prowess were not meant to be taken literally. Nor were they meant to disrupt conventional myths about black sexuality. They were meant simply to be laughed at, and perhaps to gain respect for the speaker’s word wizardry.

Ultimately, however, little turns on whether the “word play” performed by 2 Live Crew is a postmodern challenge to racist sexual mythology or simply an internal group practice that has crossed over into mainstream America. Both versions of the defense are problematic because they each call on black women to accept misogyny and its attendant disrespect in service of some broader group objective. While one version argues that accepting misogyny is necessary to anti-racist politics, the other argues that it is necessary to maintaining the cultural integrity of the community. But neither presents a sufficient reason for black women to tolerate such misogyny. The message that these arguments embrace–that patriarchy can be made to serve anti-racist ends is a familiar one with proponents ranging from Eldridge Cleaver in the sixties to Sharazad Ali in the nineties. In Gates’s variant, the position of black women is determined by the need to wield gargantuan penises in a struggle to ridicule racist images of black male sexuality. Even though black women may not be the intended targets, they are necessarily attached to these gargantuan penises and are thus made to absorb the impact. The common message of all such strategies is that black women are expected to be vehicles for notions of “liberation” that function to preserve their own subordination.

To be sure, Gates’s claims about the cultural aspects of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics do address the legal issue about the applicability of the obscenity standard. As I indicated earlier, their music does have artistic value: I believe the Court decided this issue incorrectly and Will was all-too-glib in his dismissal of it. But these criticisms do not settle the issue within the community. “Dozens” and other word plays have long been a black oral tradition, but acknowledging this fact does not eliminate the need to interrogate either the sexism within that tradition or the objectives to which that tradition has been pressed. To say that playing the dozens, for example, is rooted in a black cultural tradition or that themes represented by mythic folk heroes such as Stackalee are “black” does not settle the question of whether such practices are oppressive to women and others within the community. The same point can be made about the relentless homophobia expressed in the work of Eddie Murphy and many other comedians and rappers. Whether or not the black community has a pronounced tradition of homophobia is beside the point; the question instead is how these subordinating aspects of tradition play out in the lives of people in the community, people who otherwise share a common history, culture, and political agenda. While it may be true that the black community is more familiar with the cultural forms that have evolved into rap, that familiarity should not end the discussion of whether the misogyny within rap is acceptable. Moreover, we need to consider the possible relationships between sexism within our cultural practices and the problem of violence against women.

Violence against women of color is not presented as a critical issue in either the anti-racist or anti-violence discourses. The “different culture” defense may contribute to the disregard for women of color victimized by rape and violence, reinforcing the tendency within the broader community not to take intra-racial violence seriously. Numerous studies have suggested that black victims of crime can count on less protection from the criminal justice system than whites. This is true for rape victims as well–their rapists are less likely to be convicted and on average serve less time when they are convicted. Could it be that perpetuating the belief that “blacks are different” with respect to sexuality and violence contributes to the familiar disregard of black female rape victims like Bessie in Native Sonor the woman thrown down an airshaft in Brooklyn?

Although there are times when black feminists should fight for the integrity of the culture, this does not mean that criticism must end when a practice or form of expression is traced to a particular aspect of culture. We must determine whether the practices and forms of expression are consistent with our fundamental interests. The question of obscenity may be settled by finding roots in the culture, but obscenity is not our central issue. Performances and representations that do riot appeal principally to “prurient interests,” or that may reflect expressive patterns that are culturally specific, may still encourage self-hatred, disrespect, subordination, and other manifestations of intra-group pathology. These problems require group dialogue. While African-Americans have no plenary authority to grapple with these issues, we do need to find ways of using group formation mechanisms and other social spaces to reflect upon and reformulate our cultural and political practices.

I said earlier that the political goals of black feminism are to construct and empower a political sensibility that opposes misogyny and racism simultaneously. Converging this double vision into an analysis of the 2 Live Crew controversy, it becomes clear that despite the superficial defense of the prosecution as being concerned with the interests of women, nothing about the anti-2 Live Crew movement is about black women’s lives. The political process involved in condemning the representations that subordinate black women does not seek to empower black women; indeed, the racism of that movement is injurious to us.

But the implication of this conclusion is not that black feminists should stand in solidarity with the supporters of 2 Live Crew. The spirited defense of 2 Live Crew was no more about defending the black community than the prosecution was about defending women. After all, black women–whose very assault is the object of the representation–are part of that community. black women can hardly regard the right to be represented as bitches and whores as essential to their interests. Instead the defense of 2 Live Crew primarily functions to protect the cultural and political prerogative of male rappers to be as misogynistic and offensive as they want to be.

The debate over 2 Live Crew illustrates how race and gender politics continue to marginalize black women, rendering us virtually voiceless. black feminism endeavors to respond to this silencing by constructing a political identity for black women that will facilitate a simultaneous struggle against racism and patriarchy. Fitted with a black feminist sensibility, one uncovers other issues in which the unique situation of black women renders a different formulation of the problem than the version that dominates in current debate. Ready examples include rape, domestic violence, and welfare dependency. A black feminist sensibility might also provide a more direct link between the women’s movement and traditional civil rights movements, helping them both to shed conceptual blinders that limit the efficacy of each.

The development of a black feminist sensibility is no guarantee that black women’s interests will be taken seriously. In order for that sensibility to develop into empowerment, black women will have to make it clear that patriarchy is a critical issue that negatively impacts the lives not only of African-American women, but men as well. Within the African-American political community, this recognition might reshape traditional practices so that evidence of racism would not constitute justification for uncritical rallying around misogynistic politics and patriarchal values. Although collective opposition to racist practice has been and continues to be crucially important in protecting black interests, an empowered black feminist sensibility would require that the terms of unity no longer reflect priorities premised upon the continued subordination of black women.

I Hope Everyone Is Prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to Go Free | The Nation

Wisconsin state judge Bruce Schroeder has presided over the Rittenhouse case from the beginning and has done nearly everything he can to tilt the scales of justice in Rittenhouse’s favor.

The trial of teenage gunman Kyle Rittenhouse begins next week, but the fix is already in. Rittenhouse, who is being tried as an adult, shot two people dead in the street in Kenosha, Wis., during the protests that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020. That he killed two people is undisputed, but Rittenhouse claims the homicides were justified acts of self-defense.

Rittenhouse is not from Kenosha. He went there, with other armed men, allegedly to defend a place called “Car Source,” which I point out just to emphasize that he wasn’t even trying to protect his own property in his own town. Once there, he began patrolling the streets with an assault rifle illegally gifted him by an older friend. I find the claim that Rittenhouse subsequently murdered two unarmed people in self-defense to be unconscionable. In a just world, Rittenhouse would go to jail for a double homicide and illegal gun possession.

But we do not live in a just world; we live in a white one. Rittenhouse has become a cause célèbre among white supremacists and their media sympathizers, who have proudly defended Rittenhouse’s decisions to kill. Rittenhouse is the very definition of an “outside agitator” who came into somebody else’s community armed to do violence, but because he murdered-while-white, he will probably walk free.

That reality is almost assured because, even if Rittenhouse somehow draws an impartial jury, he has already won the white people’s lottery and landed a very partial white judge.

Wisconsin state judge Bruce Schroeder has presided over the Rittenhouse case from the beginning and has done nearly everything he can to tilt the scales of justice in Rittenhouse’s favor. This week, in the last pretrial conference, Schroeder declared that prosecutors are not allowed to refer to the people Rittenhouse murdered as “victims” during the trial. He said “victims” is too “loaded” a term, as if there were some other word we should use for unarmed people who were shot to death.

Now, there is a progressive argument for not calling victims of homicide “victims” at trial. I can absolutely see the argument that using the term in a case where the defendant claims self-defense lacks neutrality. It’s a choice other judges have made, though I doubt that this kind of neutrality would be given to a Black teen who gunned down people at a MAGA rally. Still, I wouldn’t call Judge Schroeder biased for this ruling alone. I call Schroeder biased because at the same conference at which he decided to prohibit the prosecution from using the word “victims” to describe the people Rittenhouse shot, he said he would allow the defense to use words like “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists” to describe those same people.

That’s bullshit. The (ahem) victims are not on trial. Rittenhouse is. Refusing to allow prosecutors to use linguistically accurate terms for people who did not voluntarily attempt to catch a bullet with their face at the same time as allowing the defense to use prejudicial language to characterize what those people were doing at the time is the very definition of bias. There is and never will be a trial to determine whether Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum were arsonists, looters, or rioters, because Rittenhouse killed them in the street. Indeed, the sole surviving victim of Rittenhouse’s gunfire, Gaige Grosskreutz, has not been charged with rioting, looting, arson, or any crime whatsoever arising out of the protests in Kenosha. (The judge did say that the prosecutors could call Rittenhouse a “cold-blooded killer” if they could “back it up with evidence”—as if the presence of two unarmed dead people at Rittenhouse’s feet didn’t make the fact that he was a killer self-evident.)

At the same time, Schroeder announced that he will not allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of Rittenhouse’s prior disposition to shoot people to death. There is video of Rittenhouse watching from a car as people leave a CVS: He calls them “looters” and says that he wishes he had a gun to shoot them. The video was taken in August 2020, about two and a half weeks before Rittenhouse shot up the streets of Kenosha. There are also photos from January 2020 of Rittenhouse posing with members of the Proud Boys. Both the video and the photos will be excluded, but the police patting Rittenhouse on the head like a good little white supremacist will be included.

And these are just the biased decisions Schroeder has made before the trial starts. Once it gets going, once he gets to rule on objections and jury instructions, there’s no telling how much worse he’ll get. Schroeder’s actions suggest he has predetermined the case in favor of Rittenhouse, and at trial the prosecution will be fighting against that as well as against Rittenhouse’s actual defense lawyers.

All of this suggests that Rittenhouse will walk free. Schroeder appears to believe that the shooting of “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists” by a white teenager is a “victimless” crime. All the defense has to do is find one juror who agrees with the judge.

Accelerationism: the idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world – Vox

Accelerationism is the obscure idea that’s inspiring white supremacist killers around the world.

Accelerationists reject any effort to seize political power through the ballot box, dismissing the alt-right’s attempts to engage in mass politics as pointless. If one votes, one should vote for the most extreme candidate, left or right, to intensify points of political and social conflict within Western societies. Their preferred tactic for heightening these contradictions, however, is not voting, but violence — attacking racial minorities and Jews as a way of bringing us closer to a race war, and using firearms to spark divisive fights over gun control. The ultimate goal is to collapse the government itself; they hope for a white-dominated future after that.

Accelerationism has bizarre roots in academia. But as strange as the racist movement’s intellectual history may be, experts believe it has played a significant and under-appreciated role in the current wave of extremist violence.

“It’s not an ideology that exists in a theoretical sense,” says Joanna Mendelson, a senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s an ideology that has actually manifested in real-world violence.”

Source: Accelerationism: the idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world – Vox

A Tribute to Black Truth Warrior, Glen Ford ::: OCG Honors His Work

“Remembering Glen Ford”

This Week on OUR COMMON GROUND we remember Glen Ford. Glen who made his transition on Thursday, July 28, 2021.

Glen Ford was the Founder, Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, an important publication, blog, and radio station.

Glen Ford, Founer and Executive Editor, Pioneering Black Truth Teller

Ford co-founded BlackCommentator.com (BC) in 2002. The weekly journal quickly became the most influential Black political site on the Net. In October 2006, Ford and the entire writing team left BC to launch BlackAgendaReport.com (BAR).

He created his first radio syndication, a half-hour weekly news magazine called “Black World Report” – and Washington, DC. In 1974, Ford joined the Mutual Black Network (88 stations), where he served as Capitol Hill, State Department and White House correspondent, and Washington Bureau Chief, while also producing a daily radio commentary. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced, and hosted “America’s Black Forum” (ABF), the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television.

In addition to his broadcast and Internet experience, Glen Ford was national political columnist for Encore American & Worldwide News magazine; founded The Black Commentator and Africana Policies magazines; authored The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion (IOJ, 1985); voiced over 1000 radio commercials (half of which he also produced) and scores of television commercials; and served as reporter and editor for three newspapers (two daily, one weekly).

We have lost a brilliant, insightful strong voice, his persistence, his sacrifice, his passion, and the spirit of an INFORMED, LIBERATED, and FREE Black nation. His service and work will resonate for many Black generations and years to come.

Always a Truth Warrior, now a Beloved Ancestor.

The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is. | McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is.

UPDATED MARCH 11, 2021 10:28 AM
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Reaction to removing the Confederate Flag
South Carolina residents respond on June 21 when Governor Nikki Haley began the process of removing the Confederate Flag from the statehouse grounds. Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com 

I’ve lived 55 years in the South, and I grew up liking the Confederate flag. I haven’t flown one for many decades, but for a reason that might surprise you.

I know the South well. We lived wherever the Marine Corps stationed my father: Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas. As a child, my favorite uncle wasn’t in the military, but he did pack a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun in his trunk. He was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Despite my role models, as a kid I was an inept racist. I got in trouble once in the first grade for calling a classmate the N-word. But he was Hispanic.

As I grew up and acquired the strange sensation called empathy (strange for boys anyway), I learned that for black folks the flutter of that flag felt like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And for the most prideful flag waivers, clearly that response was the point. I mean, come on. It’s a battle flag.

What the flag symbolizes for blacks is enough reason to take it down. But there’s another reason that white southerners shouldn’t fly it. Or sport it on our state-issued license plates as some do here in North Carolina. The Confederacy – and the slavery that spawned it – was also one big con job on the Southern, white, working class. A con job funded by some of the ante-bellum one-per-centers, that continues today in a similar form.

You don’t have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks – a third of the South’s laborers – to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. And not just in agriculture. A quarter of enslaved blacks worked in the construction, manufacturing and lumbering trades; cutting wages even for skilled white workers.

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Flag Protester Talks About White Role

James Tyson was arrested with Bree Newsome in SC Confederate flag removal. 

Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-per-centers were southerners. Slavery made southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England. But that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than northern whites.

My ancestor Canna Hyman and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”

Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing that blacks had no slice at all.

How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.

Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

For example, a map of states that didn’t expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.

Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes material harm the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites that lasts even to this day.

One can love the South without flying the battle flag. But it won’t help to get rid of an old symbol if we can’t also rid ourselves of the self-destructive beliefs that go with it. Only by shedding those too, will Southern whites finally catch up to the rest of the country in wages, health and education.

Frank Hyman lives in Durham,where he has held two local elected offices. He’s a carpenter and stonemason and policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback. This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission.

Source: The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is. | McClatchy Washington Bureau

Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

RACE

Who Is Afraid of Race?

There is a cost to advancing caste as the preeminent analytic in place of race—we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of anti-Blackness. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.

PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.

A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”

In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste.

Wilkerson defines caste as an “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.” “To recalibrate how we see ourselves,” she exchanges racial terms for caste-related ones, such as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower caste.” Extensively narrating interpersonal “scenes of caste” throughout the book, Wilkerson’s “caste” discontents are mapped almost exclusively in the realm of attitudes, imaginations, ideologies, prejudices, and microaggressions—and outside the mutually constituting realms of historical, material, and geo-political power.

In our world of unclotting wounds, Caste seemingly offers its “race-as-skin-deep” analysis as a kind of Balm in Gilead. If we are all bound by caste, instead of race and anti-Blackness, then it is easier to believe in our ability to overcome caste—to create, as the epilogue’s title suggests, “a world without caste.”

What would it mean to rethink race as caste in the global context? History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

Wilkerson’s book joins a tradition, mainly from the early twentieth century, of scholarship that challenged race’s preeminence by arguing that caste was a more useful analytic. Other kinds of challenges to the sociological reliance on race—for example, by Marxist scholars such as sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox—have often critiqued the use of both race and caste, naming class instead as the central antagonism. Few, though, have set aside race as completely as Wilkerson.

The tradition of Black Marxist scholarship—an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition—also gives us tools to be skeptical of Wilkerson’s refusal to name capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism in Caste’s world-historical analysis. For example, South Africa’s apartheid economy compelled its Marxist scholars, such as Neville Alexander, to realize the centrality of race and theorize “racial capitalism” before it was popularized by Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson. To its proponents, the term “racial capitalism” itself has always been tautological: When has capitalism not been racial or racializing? What is capitalism if not a system sorting who is most fit for suffering, exploitation, and extraction?

All this points to a critical question which should lie at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

Consider this: Caste was published exactly one week before Namibia officially rejected a nearly 12 million dollar offer that Germany had made in compensation for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples over a century ago. Namibia, the former Southern African apartheid colony, was the site of Germany’s first twentieth-century holocaust during their 1904–1908 colonial war. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum was insulting, but also because Germany, Caste’s exemplar for a society that has overcome “caste” systems, has refused to apologize, having only recently even named the murder of close to 100,000 Herero and Nama people a genocide. Adding insult to injury, Germany refuses to name the offer as reparations—instead calling it “compensation” aimed at “healing the wounds.”

This, too, raises questions about Caste and its implications: If reparations by another name are not reparations, what is the cost of a name? In the long durée of “wounds,” what is the cost of the refusal to name?

The ongoing refusal of “post”-Nazi Germany—not only the book’s, but the world’s exemplar for historical reckoning and reconciliation—to name, repent for, and repair its sins against Black people within its national and imperial borders forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, and anti-Blackness: Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world.

Caste has been critiqued before in these pages for its analysis of the United States. Here I focus on what it would mean to take up Wilkerson’s project and rethink race as caste in the global context. History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

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In the book Wilkerson briefly interrogates some of the religio-mythical underpinnings of caste. However, her world-historical analysis largely frames Indian caste systems as untransformed across time and space by internal and external forces, such as the many racializing forces of Empire—trade, capital, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, indenture, and Aryan racial theory. Meanwhile, her analysis of contemporary Indian caste relations is framed by personal observations and interactions with Indian scholars of different castes at several academic conferences that she attended. Without naming global structural forces, caste appears fixed in this analysis—a timeless, ahistorical force. However, caste, like race, is both a historical and a social construct.

In Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil.

Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that a book intended to confront the modern discontents of race without naming “race” will fail to address how India’s peoples have been racialized by the same world-historical forces that “discovered” and transformed the New World. There is no New World without India and no India, as we now know it, without the New World.

Yet, in Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil. In this analysis U.S. slavery transforms over the centuries unaffected by the rupture that, following Carribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s work, we can call the New Worlding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the true genesis of our racial discontents. Whereas Wilkerson names 1619—the year when nineteen enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—as the origin of our discontents, Wynter locates 1492—the year Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his failed quest to India—as the genesis of “A New World View.” This was a new view of “new” lands demanding new dehumanizing labor regimes under Transoceanic Empire’s racial capitalism. Kenyan scholar K’eguro Macharia writes of the rupture created by these new regimes of racialized capital:

New World blackness speaks not only to the blackness forged in—and on the way to—the Americas, but also to the blackness produced through the worlding of 1492. . . . To be more explicit: Africa does not—cannot—escape this (new) worlding. Blackness names, in part, the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora.

Wilkerson ignores this Black suture between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. When a Nigerian-born playwright informs her that, “there are no black people in Africa. . . . Africans are not black. . . [t]hey don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she uncritically agrees. As a Black person born in “post”-independence Zimbabwe and raised in “post”-apartheid South Africa, I did not need the United States or the United Kingdom in order to be aware of my Blackness. Both Wilkerson and her Nigerian counterpart fail to see that, conscious of it or not, no Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

No Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

In the process of New Worlding, the advent of Blackness as bounded with slave-ness—which is to say, Blackness as unbounded from claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—began with the twinned dawn of Transatlantic Slavery and Modernity. This relationship is continually reinscribed by the “second coming[s]” of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid, and their mutations in the “post”-modern world—neo-colonialism, “the New Jim Crow,” the Mediterranean crisis, and the contemporary enslavement of Africans in North Africa.

In the rupture of New Worlding, Blackness is the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. This suture creates reverberating chambers where we are continually blackened by each other’s sufferings. Just as all of us were blackened by the Transatlantic slave trade, we were blackened again by the Scramble for Africa and with it, Germany’s Herero and Nama Holocaust.

Caste, ignoring this historic Black suture, does not include the Herero and Nama genocide in its analysis of Germany. Instead, it uses the Third Reich’s reign as an anchoring timeframe for Germany’s sins, highlighting Nuremberg, reparations, and the public attention to Holocaust history as examples of racial overcoming in “post”-Nazi GermanySilent on the resurgence of Holocaust-denying and anti-immigrant German right-wing extremism that led to the 2019 Halle Synagogue attack, the book insists that, “to imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany.”

Surely, we need more than this—“post”-Nazi Germany cannot be held as the exemplar for overcoming race or caste systems. We must instead look at the history of the world.

Anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences has consoled and cohered all nationalisms and nation states.

When we map the history of the modern world and mark time by Black lynchings—spanning from the Arab, Transatlantic, and Indian Ocean slave trades to the apartheid government sponsored intra-Black violence and massacres that marked South Africa’s “democratic transition” to the “Rainbow Nation”; from “post”-apartheid South Africa’s recurring violence against Black “foreign nationals” to the country’s 2012 Marikana massacre; from the Nigerian government’s massacre of citizens protesting the brutality of the SARS police unit to the present-day enslavement of Africans in North Africa; from the Mediterranean crisis to China’s 1988–1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests; from India’s recurrent attacks on its African students to Chinese corporations’ human rights abuses on the African continent; all the way through to Southern China’s denial of medical treatment to African migrants in the wake of the global Sinophobic COVID-19 backlash—we find that anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences consoles and coheres all nationalisms and nation states.

Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. When we mark modernity’s time by Black lynchings, there is no “historical progress.” Instead, world-historic lynch-time continually returns us to the Nadir.

If, in this Nadir, 2042 is the spectral wound of the United States, then Southern Africa is its lodestar. Southern Africa in the Nadir, at the dawn of what I call Apartheid Modernity, offers itself as a historic limit case in which Indian caste and race politics intersected with German genocidal eugenics and rising Jim Crow style “separate development” policies. Southern Africa is a world-historic limit case of race, caste, and class entanglements on which we can test the durability of Wilkerson’s caste thesis. When we shift the axis of Caste’s world-historical analysis here, to Southern Africa, it cannot hold under the weight of Apartheid Modernity.

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In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith remarked that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

Just as there is no India as we know it without the New World, there is no India as we know it without the Southern tip of Africa. On his “Voyage of Discovery,” Vasco da Gama opened a new route to India by circumnavigating the Southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good of Hope. The very Natal colony that transformed “Mohandas to a Mahatma” had been so christened by a reverent da Gama as his ships skirted its treacherous coast over Christmas of 1497. “The birth of Christ” coincided with the birth of Transoceanic Empire and, with it, the birth of Transatlantic Slavery.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa with Gandhi, it had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands.

Centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, imperial expansion succeeded Transatlantic Slavery. New forms of imperialism across the Black Atlantic mirrored African Americans’ post-Reconstruction suffering in what I call the the Transatlantic Nadir. Following the 1815 Paris Treaty’s prohibition of slavery, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a widespread transition from slavery to subjecthood throughout the British and French Empires. The Transatlantic Nadir began in Jamaica, where Black people were brutally massacred for revolting against post-emancipation injustice and poverty in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion. This portended a “backlash” to British imperial reconstruction. Several stunning reversals in the “post”-slavery status of Black people followed Morant Bay, including the “backlash” to U.S. Reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, the Southern African minerals revolution, the end of the civilizing mission in favor of the rule of law and order after the Indian Mutiny, the rise of eugenicist scientific racism, and the Herero and Nama genocide, the first holocaust of the twentieth century.

The advent of the Transatlantic Nadir portended the rise of Apartheid Modernity—twentieth-century “modernity’s ignoble paradox” of “progress” propelled by the “post”-slavery world’s anti-Black regimes of racial hierarchy, labor, violence, and genocide based on the “separate development” of citizen and subject races. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gilded Age”—of extractive racial capitalism, unprecedented material excess, untrammeled pursuit of profit and imperial expansion, and industrial and technological advancements symbolized by the telegram and the train—was secured by coercive labor and governing regimes. These regimes reinscribed Blackness with slave-ness: that is, they seized any claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—let alone citizenship. In other words, Apartheid Modernity’s train was mechanized by the “ignoble paradox” that Cornel West theorized and Dambudzo Marechera poeticized, writing, “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.”

During that Nadir, Mahatma Gandhi crossed the Kala Pani, the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi arrived in Durban, the South African port that would become “the largest Indian city outside of India,” as a “passenger Indian” thirty-three years after the Truro arrived from Madras in 1860 with the first 342 Indian indentured laborers. Indian people had been indentured across South Africa’s Natal colony, East Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean, and the Mascerene Islands since the early nineteenth-century abolition of slavery across the British and French Empires. Those first making the passage to the British colony of Natal were primarily Hindu, from India’s low to middle castes. However, the indentured often gave false information. Sometimes they gave a lower caste because colonial authorities did not want Brahmins and Muslims; other times, a higher caste to improve their social status.

The Kala Pani crossing molded caste along new contours. On the ship forced intimacy made it impossible to respect caste, as migrants of different castes had to eat and sleep together. Once on land the colliding approaches of the “free” and indentured migrants, and the settler colonial authorities who saw them as “all coolies,” remapped caste along regional contours. These remolded categories were reinscribed with color and physical traits; Kalkatia reflected the “fair” Aryan north of India and Madrasi, the “dark” Dravidian south.

The relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa in that Nadir, it also had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands. Since the arrival of Indian indentured laborers in a settler state increasingly bent on the “separate development” of races, the relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent. This is marked by lows, such as the conservative anti-Black racial politics of the Gandhi-led Natal Indian Congress (NIC) (the colony’s first Indian nationalist political organization) and the resurgence of the “Indian question” in post-apartheid politics. It is also marked by highs, such as the 1955 Congress of the People, the 1970s and ’80s Black Consciousness Movement’s radical solidarity politics, and the widespread rejection of the 1983–1994 Tricameral Parliament’s exclusion of the country’s Black “non-citizens.”

The Gandhian era of South African Indian politics marked a significant low point in this history, representing its own Nadir between Black and Indian people. Between 1893 and 1914, as historian Jon Soske concedes in Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa (2017), the “South African Gandhi” helped cement a conservative tradition of Indian diasporic politics reliant on a rhetoric of Indian civilizational superiority vis-à-vis African inferiority.

In 1894 Gandhi founded the NIC after being infamously discriminated against on a train in South Africa. Days into his arrival, he was thrown off a train when a white man complained about sharing his first-class compartment with a “coloured man.” This train incident, in Gandhi’s words, “sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Just days before Gandhi had discovered that, in the South African settler colony, “all Indians were called ‘coolies.’” On that train, icon of Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi, a conservative Gujurati Bania, came to see the need for a unified Indian racial nationalism that could encompass—without subvertingcaste and class, region and religion, and motherland and diaspora. Yet, even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Indeed, one of the first major political acts of Gandhi’s NIC was to press against the Durban Post Office’s two separate entrances for “Europeans” and “natives and Asiatics.” The NIC did not want “natives” and “Asiatics” grouped together—they wanted three separate entrances. In The Green Pamphlet (1895) Gandhi explained, “We felt the indignity too much and . . . petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances.” In this appeal to the Indian public, detailing the grievances of “Her Majesty’s Indian subjects” laboring in South Africa, Gandhi decried the fact that “Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa—Kaffir races.”

When caste and Gandhi traveled into the southernmost tip of Africa, they were transformed by the race-making pressures that erupted into the 1899–1902 South African War, fought between Boer and Briton over the world’s richest store of minerals. Southern Africa’s minerals revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866. The minerals revolution then accelerated twenty years later, when 40 percent of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand at a moment when gold had just recently become the foundation of the global economic system. This discovery exploded into one of the world’s most dramatic industrial and social transformations, and a crisis for British imperialism during the South African War. It was in this moment of imperial crisis that Gandhi’s struggle to obtain rights for Indians as British subjects found the perfect stage. Through service in the South African War already, Gandhi reasoned, Indian subjects had “put their shoulders to the wheel” and “drawn forth the admiration of the violent Colonials who, for the first time then, saw the good trait in the Indian.”

Gandhi was unmoved by the suffering of the 120,000 Black people who were caged in concentration camps during the South African War, and the fates of the 20,000 who died there. Rather, his racially impaired witness of the world’s first concentration camps provided the vision for his philosophy of principled suffering, Satyagraha. Gandhi’s anti-Black vision ensured that only the suffering of Afrikaner women and children was visible in his moral witness.

Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance.

In contrast, Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance. Indeed, the war became the major impetus for the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. The instigators of the Pan-African Conference were Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian barrister who became the first Black person to be called to the South African bar, and Alice Victoria Kinloch, the South African activist who was known in British circles for her impassioned protests against the Black suffering she had witnessed while living on Kimberly’s diamond fields. The Conference convened, in part, over “the compound system in vogue in the mining district of South Africa” and culminated in a petition for Queen Victoria to intervene in the suffering of her Black “subjects” in British South Africa. Attendees of the conference knew that the South African War was a crucible—Queen Victoria’s response to South Africa’s “native question” and the plight of her imperial subjects would ripple across the “post”-slavery Empire and beyond. If Britain—the vanguard of the liberal abolitionist movement, the refuge for African Americans before and after the U.S. Civil War, the purveyors of Cape’s qualified non-racial franchise, and the presumed protector and progenitor of Black freedoms—chose to betray its promise of imperial citizenship and endorse segregation in South Africa, formerly enslaved Black people would be reinscribed as non-citizens across the world.

Accordingly, despite the fact that no South Africans could attend the Pan African Conference, at least half of the presentations referred to the “South African question.” In his address on the question—“Organised Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race their Battlefield”—the Dominican lawyer George James Christian drew a Transatlantic line between Africans who “were stolen from their native shores in the 16th century and were now jostled out of their lands.” He concluded, “What was this if not the revival of slavery?”

Indeed, across Southern Africa, Black miners were referred to as chibaro, or slave labor. The Pan-Africanists understood and felt the Black suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. The “revival of slavery” at the Southern tip of Africa at the turn of the twentieth century threatened to reinscribe the status of all free Black peoples with slave-ness, denying any claim to citizenship in the “post”-emancipation world. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the notable attendees of the Conference. Du Bois and his colleagues debated the South African “native question” and the American “negro question” alongside issues such as the corvée and the Belgian Congo. The Pan-Africanists concluded by prophesying the advent of Apartheid Modernity in their “Address to the Nations of the World,” declaring that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”

Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War.

In the end, British victory in the South African War extended the global color line and plunged the world further into the Transatlantic Nadir. “Free” Black people could not be incorporated as citizens in “post”-slavery EmpireJust as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War. In the House of Commons, British Parliamentarians cited Reconstruction’s supposedly failed “negro rule” of the multiracial U.S. South as they passed the 1909 South Africa Act that offered Black citizenship as the sacrifice for a unified white laager. Just as African Americans had paid a price for white reconciliation in the United States after Reconstruction, Black South Africans paid, too.

In the post-war years, much of the Union of South Africa’s “separate development” found inspiration and assistance from the post-war U.S. South’s “seperate but equal” regime. The Union of South Africa’s 1910 constitution was based, in part, on the Jim Crow South; the “grand architect of apartheid,” Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, was widely known as an “expert in American social science” and “social welfare systems”; and the Carnegie Corporation collaborated with the Verwoerd’s Stellenbosch University and the Dutch Reformed Church on the 1932 Commission on the Poor White Problem in South Africa, which provided the blueprint for the official institution of Grand Apartheid in 1948. Across the Atlantic, apartheid was the cost of national reconciliation between warring whites.

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On the train to Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi was concerned that Indian people would be classed with the “raw Kaffir.” In 1906 the Bambatha Uprising, the last armed resistance against settler rule for decades, broke out in Natal over the poll taxes press ganging Zulu people into the colonial labor market. Gandhi, who railed against taxes on Indian people, recruited his people to serve as stretcher-bearers for the British Empire’s defense, just as he had done during the South African War. Clearly his investments in Empire had not dissipated; Gandhi was still actively fighting against the interests of his fellow colonized Black people so as not to be “dragged down” to their level in Empire’s racial hierarchy.

Considered the jewel of the British Empire, India did occupy a privileged position in the hierarchy of imperial possessions. “In geopolitical terms,” historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed write in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015), “Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into.” Gandhi would have been pleased to know that, in 1903, a British Indian Civil Service official told a Natal government delegation that “the Indian is not on a level with the kafir; he belongs to a higher class. The Indian trader is almost as advanced as ourselves.”

Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste.

Gandhi and the NIC’s disavowal of Black people was not unique across the British Empire’s Indian diaspora. As Desai and Vehad demonstrate, Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste. Like many other members of South Asia’s political elite, who used British Orientalist thinking in the formation of new nationalist and Hindu identities, Gandhi marshaled an Indo-Aryan racial history. This was an attempt to forge, in his own words, an “imperial brotherhood” between the “Western and Eastern branches” of civilization to the exclusion of “lesser” Black peoples.

A few years before Gandhi’s indignation at being classed as a “coloured man” on that South African train, the British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury derided Dadabhai Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of India,” as a “black man” undeserving of the Englishman’s vote after his 1886 British parliamentary defeat. Naoroji, an early Gandhi supporter, was a Parsi scholar and trader who enjoyed the support and confidence of Indian people across the globe as the President of the Indian National Congress.

furor erupted across India and its diaspora over the Grand Old Man of India’s supposed “blackness.” The Amrita Bazar Patrika condemned Salisbury for calling “one of India’s leaders a nigger.” The Hindu Punch published a cartoon of Nairobi and Salisbury, coloring the Prime Minister black and, therefore, darker than Naoroji. The Manchester Guardian informed Salisbury: “A little inquiry into the rudiments of Indian history would show Lord Salisbury that the Aryan races who entered India from the north prided themselves on their fair complexions.”

Across the British Empire, the public scandal over “Salisbury’s Blackman” coalesced around what historian Antoinette Burton calls the “triangular relationship between Englishness-as-whiteness, Indianness-as-brownness, and Blackness-as-Africanness” where “Africa was, in other words, the unspoken Other not just of Englishness but of Indianness as well.”

In that Transatlantic Nadir, Blackness was bound with slave-ness. Long before the Bandung Conference, Black Consciousness, and Black Power, many South Asian political elites rejected political Black solidarity. As Burton writes:

As late as the 1880s, “black man” was an appellation which in no way could enhance—and indeed, could only endanger—any subject’s chances to achieve recognition as a citizen, much less as a civic representative of the people in the Mother of all Parliaments. It carried with it associations of slavery and subjugation that imperiled Naoroji’s claims about the special qualification of Indian civilisations and people to direct representation.

Suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black.

And yet, as Naoroji’s biographer R. P Masani suggests, it was this very spectacle over his “blackness” that gave him the public profile and sympathy that secured his parliamentary win later on. Prime Minister Salisbury was forced to formally apologize for having offended the Jewel of the British Empire. The Irish nationalist Freeman’s Journal declared Naoroji’s election “the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” A “reparation” for the wounds of associated Blackness.

The Nairoji scandal lays bare how anti-Blackness gave Empire its coherence and could be mobilized for political gain. According to the racial logic of Empire, suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black. More than a “scene of race,” Gandhi’s South African “train moment” was a scene of historic anti-Blackness.

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Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, the stakes in naming Gandhi’s anti-Blackness are high. The historic “Indian question” and accusations of Indian anti-Blackness have once again begun to dog political debates in “post”-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 a vigilante crowd looked “startlingly like a lynch mob” as they yelled “Victory for Mother India” and beat three African students in a New Dehli train station. This occurred as India’s prime minister visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial with President Obama. A year later a Gandhi statue was vandalized in South Africa. Then, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed its Gandhi statue.

Political Blackness, the idea that all racially marginalized groups can identify as “politically Black” to unite against racism, no longer seems viable. Members of Black Lives Matter UK recently questioned the erasure of Black women and the casting of Frieda Pinto as the lead of a British Black Panther series. There was backlash to Afro-Punk’s decision to bill M.I.A., the politically complicated and politically Black identifying British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC), “the largest organisation of Black students in Europe” representing “all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage,” launched a campaign to debate and re-think its name.

Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles.

The costs of a name are clearly high. Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles. When the divine ordinance of Empire is divide and rule, naming the anti-Blackness of your comrade-in-arms is a taboo—impolite and identitarian at best, and divisive and representative of false consciousness at worst. But, we must ask, what kind of solidarity are we building if we cannot reflect honestly on our different historical positionings in Empire’s racial order?

In this Nadir, an honest reckoning with history demands that we recognize that Gandhi refused anti-colonial solidarity and, instead, embraced anti-Blackness throughout his twenty-one years in South Africa. Though he later complicated his politics, the “South African Gandhi” navigated the dizzying nexus of Black and Indian race, and class and caste entanglements, by disavowing his fellow colonized Black people. Gandhi continually named Black South Africans with the same murderous epithet that had first been formed in the mouths of Arab slavers, who passed it on to Portuguese slavers, who in turn passed it on to warring Boer and British slaver-settlers, whose tongues imbued its inhumanity with fresh intensity when they sacrificed Black people at the altar of a unified emergent apartheid state at the turn of the twentieth century. Gandhi, like many of his caste, railed for an Indo-Aryan “imperial brotherhood” at the expense of the “raw Kaffir.”

This is not a call to “cancel Gandhi.” Instead, reflecting on his formative years in South Africa offers a chance to name and confront the kinds of historic anti-Blackness that plague our solidarity struggles today. Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, our examinations of race, caste, and political solidarity will demand more political honesty and analytic rigor. Between cynicism and sentimentality, clear-eyed solidarity can lead us out of this Nadir. Wilkerson’s world historical analysis fails to do this.

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Wilkerson’s caste thesis cannot hold under the weight of “post”-Nazi Germany, either. In Caste’s epilogue Wilkerson contends that “post”-Nazi Germany “is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled.” The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign. This speaks to the anti-Blackness of the liberal humanist post-World War world—Germany can be hailed for its supposed humility before its Nazi history while it remains unrepentant for its colonial sins, such as the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the Herero and Nama genocide, and the massacring of up to 300,000 in the Maji Maji Uprising. And what of Germany’s historic and often murderous exclusion of Afro-Germans? This is part of the obfuscating cost of using caste as the preeminent analytic. In so doing we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of race and, in particular, anti-Blackness.

The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign.

Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde was clear eyed about Germany’s historic anti-Blackness all through her eight transformative years in West-Berlin. Having arrived in Germany the year after the 1983 U.S. invasion of her ancestral Grenada, Lorde understood the quiet violence of Empire. Even as Germany’s state-subsidized bohemia gave her “a certain amount of room to be” when she arrived in 1984, the spirit of witness moved Lorde to map haunting worlds of Afro-Diasporic border crossings from Grenada, to the United States, to St. Croix, to divided Berlin in her poem, “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls” (1984).

During Lorde’s Berlin years, she sought out and collaborated with women of Germany’s Black Diaspora—including the writers May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Helga Emde, and Ika Hügel-Marshall—to birth the Afro-German movement. This was central to Lorde’s Black queer anti-imperialist praxis, her radical embodiment of what Édouard Glissant called a “poetics of relation.”

A century and a half after Hegel declared that Africa had no history, Ayim and Oguntaye published the first scholarly study of Afro-German history, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1986). Making the first written use of the term “Afro-German,” they proclaimed: “our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.” Showing Our Colors made visible a Black historical line going as far back as the Middle Ages. The line marches forward through the Berlin Conference, through imperial expansion and genocide in Africa, and through war-time interracial liaisons between white German women and Black troops from the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain to the present day.

The lives of Showing Our Colors many multi-generational Black German-born and raised authors attest to a Germany invested in “Germanness” as a distinct racial and cultural Volk heritage. Even the authors’ family members seem incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German. Spared the death camp sentences, sterilizations, and forced abortions that “half caste” people from Namibia’s Rehoboth to the Rhineland faced across Germany’s history, many of Showing Our Colors women were instead sent away to orphanages.

Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness.

“And where do you come from? And your father? And your mother?” These national questions have echoed across the lives of generations of Afro-Germans. Regardless of their complete self-identification as German—regardless of their shared biology, culture, and language—native-born Afro-Germans remain outsiders to their families and their nation. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness—their own historical estrangement and trepidation at the eruption of anti-Black violence amidst their fellow Germans’ national reunification euphoria.

Lorde heard her sisters’ cries. She heard the call to witness. At the dawn of “post”-Apartheid Modernity, in the midst of Die Wende, the triumphalist “post”-Berlin Wall “turn” heralded as the End of History, Lorde’s border-crossing poetic vision foregrounded modernity’s “ignoble paradox” of Black pain enfolded in national “progress.” A month after the Fall, Lorde’s poem, “East Berlin December 1989,” a geopolitical anachronism questioning the “progression” of national time and foregrounding world-historic lynch-time, begins unequivocally: “It feels dangerous now/ to be Black in Berlin.” Her unflinching witness continues:

Already my blood shrieks

through the East Berlin streets

misplaced hatreds

volcanic tallies rung upon cement

Afro-German woman stomped to death by skinheads in Alexanderplatz

The Black woman died under the wheels of Die Wende’s new century. In modernity’s wake, Black is forever out of time and out of place. We are all bound by our historical estrangement from the modern nation state.

Standing at the precipice of History, amidst suffering, dislocation, and alienation, Ayim’s poem “borderless and brazen: a poem against German u-NOT-y” (1990) offers us a vision:

i will go

yet another step further

to the furthest edge

where my sisters—where my brothers stand

where

our

FREEDOM

begins

i will go

yet another step further and another step and

will return

when i want

if i want

and remain

borderless and brazen

If freedom is our vision, we must cross the border, we must go to the furthest edge. If we are to undo anti-Black violence, then we must undo our investments in the nation state. In the murderous face of Empire, Lorde’s border-crossing poetics of relation “fus[es] the best of all of our heritages.” In her introduction to Showing Our Colors, Lorde implored“We must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First we must recognize each other.”

This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to go to the furthest edge. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

Indeed, the key trouble with Caste is that it lacks what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “Black History’s Global Vision.” In “But A Local Phase of Global Problem” (1999), Kelley looked back at the lessons of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist historical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for writing beyond the U.S. nation state. In that Transatlantic Nadir, Kelley writes, Black historians understood that Jim Crow emerged in the “post”-slavery Reconstruction South as “the expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their ‘temperament,’ their destinies.”

The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

The Black Historical Tradition, an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition, resists Empire. The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. In spite of this tradition, Caste’s comparative world-historical analysis maps anti-Blackness as the sole province of the United States, without recognizing that it is, as Du Bois first described in his essay “The Color Line Belts the World” (1906), “but a local phase of a world problem.” If Caste resists racist historiography, then its downfall is that it does not resist nationalist and imperialist historiography. The Black Radical Historical Tradition is clear—there is no anti-racism without anti-imperialism.

If Germany, the world’s exemplar of historic reckoning and reconciliation, cannot be compelled to repent and pay reparations for its Herero and Nama Holocaust then what hope is there that the United States will be compelled to repent and pay reparations for African American slavery?

The question for Black people the world over isCan we unbind ourselves and our historic claims for reparations from the nation states that cage us? Can we go to the edge, to where our sisters and brothers stand, and imagine the end of world-historic lynch-time? Can we imagine the end of this world?

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As I write, generations are once again dying under the wheels of the twenty-first century. Shocked and ashamed at the horrifying, ever-mounting, ever-rotting trails of flesh and bone left on the track, we turn and look away. We run away from that which mangles us, from that which wounds us. We run away from each other. We run away from ourselves.

Perhaps “post”-Apartheid Modernity’s train—mechanized by the accelerating anti-Black forces of white supremacy, jingoistic nationalisms, late capitalism, neoliberal imperialism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism—has left us so mangled that we fail to recognize each other and ourselves.

Black suffering continues to suture the wounds of the world. Indeed, Black suffering produces the world.

How do we end this world? Contrary to Wilkerson’s thesis, ending a world produced by Black suffering cannot take place within a moral historical “progression.” It will require a rupture of world-historic lynch-time.

How do we end this world? We must accurately name that which wounds us.

How do we end lynch-time? It is a terrifying question with no easy answer. Rupturing lynch-time requires that we name that which wounds us. To name is to witness. In this surveying—in this witnessing of the world’s wounds—the costs of refusal and obfuscation are too high. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.


Author’s NoteI am grateful to art historian Dr. Zamansele Nsele’s theorization of the train as the icon of imperial and settler colonial modernity in her 2020 essay “Post-Apartheid Nostalgia and Its Images of Common Sense.” Here, she originally places Cornel West and Dambudzo Marechera in conversation.

Source: Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

Black Family Seeks Return of Its Beach Resort Land Near L.A. – The New York Times

This could also be titled, “How Imminent Domain was used as a tool to steal Black land ownership”.
Janice Graham

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a plot of land on the Southern California coast.

It was an oceanside lot in an area dotted with sunny blossoms of evening primrose and purple clusters of lupine. The land, made accessible by red trolley cars that trundled to and from the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, was ripe for development.

The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first Black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach. They built a resort where other Black families could swim, lounge, eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment.

The harassment came anyway, and the resort thrived despite it. But city officials shuttered the enterprise by condemning the land in 1924, claiming to need it for a public park. The Bruces fought the move through litigation, but failed. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.

Nearly a century later, their descendants are still seeking restitution.

“I just want justice for my family,” said Anthony Bruce, 38, a descendant of the Bruces who lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times
Visitors to Bruce’s Beach in 1920.
Credit…Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection – UCLA

“It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

“What we want is restoration of our land to us,” he said, “and restitution for the loss of revenues.”

While the city is not seriously considering the possibility of monetary restitution — officials have said public funds cannot legally be used to pay such claims — property restoration is now on the table. Last week, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the family, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported. The land has been owned by the county since the 1990s and is now the site of a training center for lifeguards.

“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property,” Ms. Hahn said in an emailed statement. She added, “I want the county to be part of righting this wrong.”

Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Shepard said that restitution was about more just than their family. They pointed to the long history of racism in the United States, and to stories of Black people being robbed of their land or the fruits of their labor.

“We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” Mr. Shepard said. “It’s happened all over the United States.”

Charles and Willa Bruce on their wedding day.
Credit…Anthony Bruce

Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with the story of the Bruces’ shuttered resort for years. A park there was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007, and the city erected a plaque to tell the family’s story.

But the plaque credits a white landowner, George Peck, with making it possible for the Bruce family to settle there. It omits reports of Mr. Peck’s attempts to obstruct Black beachgoers’ paths to the shore.

“We definitely need to change the plaque,” said Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and resident of Manhattan Beach. “But that’s not going far enough for me. We need to figure out how to get this land back to the family it was stolen from.”

Last year, amid nationwide demonstrations prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Ms. Ward, who is Black, arranged a picnic at Bruce’s Beach to celebrate Juneteenth.

“I started thinking about the generational wealth that was stripped from that family,” she said. “It happened everywhere around this nation. We keep getting up, but why do we have to keep getting kicked down? Why? For me, it was time for reparations.”

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian based in Los Angeles, wrote about the Bruces and other families in a book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”

“Many people only think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power,” Dr. Jefferson said. “They sometimes forget about the fact that recreation was a big part of the struggle.”

When Willa and Charles Bruce first opened their property to visitors in 1912, it had a small stand that sold food and fizzy drinks. By 1923, the property had a lodge and a beachside cafe, with space upstairs for dancing. Mr. Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Bruce who bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.

“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Ms. Bruce told The Los Angeles Times in 1912. “But I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

Willa Bruce, left, with her daughter-in-law and her sister in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s.
Credit…California African American Museum

Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew in Manhattan Beach in 1927.

Credit…LaVera White Collection of Arthur and Elizabeth Lewis

The Bruces made their investment in the era of Jim Crow, amid a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities across the United States and campaigns of white supremacist terror and lynchings that drove millions of African-Americans away from the South. There was less violence against Black people in California at the time, but discrimination was rampant.

Still, the resort at Bruce’s Beach appeared to prosper. Black-and-white photographs from the era captured beachgoers wearing bathing suits and bright smiles, couples lounging in the shade and families playing in the surf.

In time, a small community of Black landowners bloomed around the resort. According to Dr. Jefferson’s book, these included George Prioleau, a formerly enslaved retired Army major whose family developed a duplex along the shore; Mary Sanders, a caterer from Canada who was known as a skilled entrepreneur; and John and Bessie McCaskill, who hosted elaborate beachside breakfasts.

But some white neighbors and city officials were intent on dismantling the community. Black visitors to the beach endured harassment, slashed tires and arbitrary regulations. The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, reported that the Ku Klux Klan was active along the California shoreline during the 1920s.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

And in 1924, the city condemned the Bruces’ property, claiming eminent domain in order to use the land as a park. The couple, both of whom were in their 60s, eventually moved to Los Angeles.

The land they left behind would not be developed as a public park for more than three decades.

Tourists continued to visit Bruce’s Beach after the resort was shuttered. So did members of the N.A.A.C.P., who participated in a “swim-in” to assert their right to the sea in 1927, according to Dr. Jefferson’s book. Several Black beachgoers were arrested that year.

As the decades passed, Manhattan Beach grew to become an affluent city of about 35,000 people, a vast majority of whom are white. According to 2010 census data, less than 1 percent of the population is Black.

In October, Manhattan Beach convened a task force of 13 residents to come up with recommendations for the city to right historical wrongs. Next week, the City Council will meet to discuss those recommendations, which include changing the plaque, erecting an art installation and issuing an apology.

“That’s fine,” Ms. Ward said. “But there are things they could address if they were thinking creatively — if there really was a will to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place.” She suggested that officials consider forward-looking measures like a commitment to affordable housing.

At the county level, officials are expected to meet with Bruce family descendants next week to discuss handing over the property, which could also involve monetary restitution or an agreement to lease the land from the family.

But Mr. Shepard said the city that condemned the land should be the one to make amends.

Los Angeles County “is talking about restoring the land to us,” he said. “But the restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System

White Arkansans, fearful of what would happen if African-Americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants, Helena, Phillips County, Ark., ca. 1910, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.

At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.

Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.

Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.

Ulysses Bratton
Ulysses Simpson Bratton, attorney, Little Rock, Ark., ca. 1890 (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

During the massacre, Arkansan Leroy Johnston, who had had spent nine months recovering in a hospital from injuries he suffered in the trenches of France – was pulled from a train shortly after returning home and was shot to death alongside his three brothers. In places like Phillips County, where the economy directly depended on the predatory system of sharecropping, white residents were inclined to view the activities of Hill and others as the latest in a series of dangerous agitations.

In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”

The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience.”

To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.

The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.

“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town…if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.

The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.

Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.

Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants: S. A. Jones, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall with Scipio Jones, State Penitentiary, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Ark. ca. 1925, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”

The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would – through several years of tenacious effort – end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.

Source: What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

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