White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream ::: The Boston Reivew

White Supremacy Has Always Been Mainstream

STEPHEN KANTROWITZ

Image: Library of Congress

The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition
Linda Gordon
Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy
Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
Kathleen Belew

 

White supremacy is a language of unease. It does not describe racial domination so much as worry about it.

White supremacy connotes many grim and terrifying things, including inequality, exclusion, injustice, and state and vigilante violence. Like whiteness itself, white supremacy arose from the world of Atlantic slavery but survived its demise. Yet while the structures are old, the term “white supremacy” is not. Although it first appeared in British abolitionist critiques and U.S. proslavery defenses in the first half of the nineteenth century, it only became commonplace—and notably not as a pejorative—in U.S. whites’ post-emancipation calls for a racial order that would reinstitute slavery’s political and economic guarantees.

White supremacy has always been hard work. Because of this, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor.

White supremacy’s opponents evoke it to condemn. Its proponents use it to summon up a vision of a racially ordered society, to rally political forces behind that vision, to establish laws and institutions that affirm it, and finally to render it natural and normal. But the very fact that the phrase requires speaking means that something has gone awry. If the hierarchy of races were real, it would easily have survived slave emancipation. Instead, that hierarchy must be constantly asserted and enforced, lest the white race be overwhelmed, overcome, and extinguished. White supremacy is organized around a dread of its own demise, and with it the white race.

This inherent instability has produced a welter of fears, fantasies, and imperatives, from racial purity to race war. It has also made “white supremacy” a call to action. Indeed, the effort to transform the phrase from a slogan into a fact has been a massive social and political project, involving the witting and unwitting labor of many millions of people. White supremacy has always been hard work.

But because it is work, it is possible to imagine that someday there will be no one willing to perform the labor. And sometime between the march from Selma to Montgomery and the election of Barack Obama, many Americans allowed themselves to believe something of the kind: that white supremacy’s advocates, having lost their long war, were giving up.

The violent manifestations of white supremacy over the past several years—from Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston, through Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency—unwound that hope. No better illustration exists for white supremacy’s return to the cultural center than Charlottesville’s 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, in which emblems of the Klan, the Third Reich, and the Confederacy jostled with more esoteric banners and names, together representing a century’s worth of white supremacist politicking. By the time the sirens died out, it should have been clear that Dylann Roof was no “lone wolf,” but the legitimate offspring of a reemergent social movement.

Yet even as white supremacy appeared suddenly to be everywhere in U.S. life, many—and not just on the right—denied its existence. Trump’s refusal to criticize even neo-Nazis was treated as a uniquely craven act of “norm-breaking,” not as a predictable extension of decades of coded and not-so-coded racist appeals. In the rush to catch Trump out, what has been omitted from media reporting is the long history of indulging white supremacist ideology and expression. Consider how long Pat “Blood and Soil” Buchanan served as a respectable voice of the political and journalistic right, winning four states in the 1996 Republican primaries and later playing Rachel Maddow’s curmudgeonly uncle on MSNBC—all in spite of his longstanding support for white ethnonationalism. Or remember the PBS NewsHour profile of Trump supporter Grace Tilly that failed to note her neo-Nazi tattoos. The network’s post-backlash editor’s note treated Tilly’s claim that her tattoos were religious, not racist, as worthy of debate, as though an enormous “88”—code for “Heil Hitler”—paired with a bullseye cross, another white supremacy symbol, left room for uncertainty. The myth that white supremacy is a marginal political phenomenon has proved so durable that many people find it easier to deny its overt expression than confront a more troubling reality: “very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of advancing white supremacist causes.

“Very fine people”—and not just fathers, husbands, and sons, but mothers, wives, and daughters as well—have always been central to the work of white supremacy.

Three recent books explore the twentieth-century history of this political project. In Linda Gordon’s thoughtful reconsideration of the 1920s Klan, we watch shameless grifters deploy racial hierarchy and exclusion to forge the largest social movement of the early twentieth century. In Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s revelatory exploration of mid-century white women’s segregationist work, we see how the inheritors of that vision learned to speak in new languages, muted enough to pass in a society increasingly hostile to white supremacy but unmistakable to partisans as a continuation of the long struggle against racial equality. In Kathleen Belew’s groundbreaking account of the White Power movement from the mid-1970s to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, it becomes clear how a post–civil rights generation of white supremacist organizers positioned themselves as victims of an overbearing state, even as they nurtured Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof, and the dream of race war.

These works do not claim to provide a comprehensive account of twentieth-century white supremacy; such a project would also have to probe (as other scholars have) the forces of labor and capital, and—as only Belew does here—the relationship of domestic ideologies and practices to their imperial histories. But read together and through one another, these works provide a sobering crash course in the power, diversity, and persistence of white supremacist ideas and politics.

Across the long twentieth century, white supremacist activists nurtured an exclusionary racial nationalism. They envisioned a nation safely in the hands of its “rightful” owners, redeemed from misrule by “unfit” peoples, and made great again. Although their work relied extensively on white women’s organizational and ideological labors, they posited a world of white patriarchal families in which men spoke and fought while women sustained and reproduced. Responding to successive challenges, these activists developed new languages and new coalitions, but they remained consistently suspicious (at a minimum) of political authority that they could not directly control. Partly for this reason, they usually saw electoral politics as a critical arena of struggle, and they rarely abandoned it. Across the century, this ideological and organizational landscape has been home to hustlers, activists, and insurgents playing distinct but often complementary roles. White supremacy has always been at once a political movement, an armed struggle, and a long con.

Gordon’s Second Coming of the KKK shows how a white supremacist and nativist movement reset the boundaries of political discourse, clarified that the nation existed in the image and service of a particular kind of American, and took control of governments from school boards to Congress to give those imperatives life. Klansmen nurtured a politics of resentment against both “elites” who looked down on them and the immigrants, blacks, and radicals who seemed to challenge their world.

To many of its white contemporaries, the KKK of the 1920s was a respectable organization that promised to restore white Protestants to their proper place of authority.

The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in the 1860s by former Confederate soldiers and for a few years became the spear and symbol of the war against Reconstruction. This first Klan was actively suppressed by legal and military action in the early 1870s, and the campaigns of racial terror and political intimidation that finally overthrew Reconstruction were largely conducted under other names. The second Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons in response to that year’s blockbuster film, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which reworked memories of the Reconstruction-era KKK into a mythos of white male chivalry combatting black sexual barbarism. Beginning in 1919, the Klan exploded in size and power as organizers channeled the era’s powerful currents of nativism and violent white supremacy through the heroic image and visual style of the film’s Klansmen. They coupled the anti-black rhetoric of the Reconstruction-era Klan with a pervasive hostility toward non-Protestant immigrants and what Simmons derided as their anti-American propensities for “Bolshevism, Socialism, Syndicalism, I.W.W.ism.” Gordon encourages us to understand that, to many of its white American contemporaries, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an “ordinary and respectable” organization that promised to restore white Protestants, mainly of the lower middle and skilled working classes, to their proper place of authority in U.S. cultural and political life. She reminds us that many of the Klan’s hobbyhorses—anti-black racism, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and nativism; censoriousness about sex and alcohol; support for eugenics; and narrow-minded nationalism—reflected broad and sometimes hegemonic aspects of 1920s U.S. culture.

Gordon also asks us to understand the movement as producing, not just reflecting, social concerns. The Klan channeled preexisting hatred of racial inferiors and haughty elites, but it also ginned up those expressions and provided new outlets for them. Conspiracy thinking was central to Klan rhetoric and ideology. Everywhere lurked sinister forces that sought to take over the U.S. government and subvert the country’s way of life. Indeed, those forces might already have taken power. Jews, Catholics, Bolsheviks, and African Americans were always about to swamp “true Americans” with rising birthrates; take control of U.S. police forces and public schools; undermine cherished values with sex, alcohol, or pornography; and oppress real Americans from the safety of powerful, distant institutions.

Such conspiracy talk effectively transformed grievances and insecurities into well-defined targets that local Klans could then organize against. In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, the Klan took up the cause of fighting illegal liquor trafficking in a neighborhood populated by Italians, blacks, and Jews. There and elsewhere, the Klan infiltrated or worked alongside police departments. Beatings, whippings, cross-burning, death threats, and fatal shootings marked the outer edge of the Klan’s activities, but in some locales—Dayton, Ohio; Williamson County, Illinois; large swaths of Oklahoma—assaults were common and condoned.

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Prosecutors as the Most Powerful Actor in the Criminal Justice System φ Race, Racism and the Law

 

The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are extraordinary and well-documented. In 1995, nearly one in three African American men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were under the supervision of the criminal justice system–either in jail, prison, on probation, or on parole. Today, one in every ten black Angela J Davismales in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. Over 60% of all prisoners in 2010 were Black or Latino. The disparities exist at every step of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing.

Much has been written about why the American criminal justice system is so fraught with racial disparity. Some point to discriminatory *823 decision-making by criminal justice officials at each step of the process while others suggest that disproportionate offending is the cause. In fact, there are many complex reasons for this unfortunate phenomenon. Criminal justice officials–including police officers, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials–make discretionary decisions that often have a racial impact. In addition, the socioeconomic causes of crime disproportionately affect people of color. The impact of the War on Drugs cannot be overstated, and there are undoubtedly many other factors that have contributed to the startling statistics and overwhelming evidence of racial disparity. Not surprisingly, as the causes of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system stem from many sources, so must the solutions.
* * *

Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system. They make the decisions that control the system, and they exercise almost boundless discretion in making those decisions.  Many argue that police officers are the most important officials in their role as the gatekeepers who bring individuals into the system. There is no doubt that police officers exercise broad discretion in deciding whether to stop and/or arrest individuals for criminal behavior. However, police officers only have the power to bring individuals to the courthouse door. It is the prosecutors whose decisions keep them there and firmly entrench them in the system–decisions that have life-changing consequences.

The most important prosecutorial decisions are the charging and plea bargaining decisions. Prosecutors control and almost predetermine the outcome of criminal cases through these two critical decisions. They decide whether to charge an individual with a crime and what the charge or charges should be, and they enjoy vast discretion in making this decision. Even if a prosecutor believes she can prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, she is not required to charge that individual. If she does decide to charge, she often has discretion to charge either a misdemeanor or felony. For example, if an individual is arrested with a large quantity of cocaine, the police officer might recommend that the person be charged with Possession with Intent to Distribute Cocaine–a felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence. The prosecutor has a number of choices. She may decide to charge the person with the felony, but she also has the discretion to charge him with simple possession–a misdemeanor that may result in a probationary sentence with fewer collateral consequences. The prosecutor may also choose not to charge the person at *833 all. The charging decision is totally within the discretion of the prosecutor.

Prosecutors enjoy the same discretion in the plea-bargaining process. They are not required to offer the defendant a plea to a lesser offense, but if they do, they decide what that offer will be. Certainly a defendant may agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense if the prosecutor dismisses all other offenses, but the decision is up to the prosecutor. And with the existence of so many offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, the plea bargaining power has become even more important. Since going to trial always carries the risk of conviction, the only way a defendant can be assured that he will not be convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence is to plead guilty to a lesser offense. Ninety-five percent of all criminal cases are resolved by way of a plea. Prosecutors’ control of the charging and plea-bargaining decisions almost permits them to predetermine the outcome of most criminal cases.

Charging and plea-bargaining decisions have a tremendous impact on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. If a prosecutor charges an African American with a crime but chooses not to charge his similarly situated white counterpart, or chooses to charge the white counterpart with a less serious offense, she will create an unwarranted disparity. But the problem is a complex one. A prosecutor is rarely presented with two cases–one white defendant, one black–with exactly the same circumstances (same prior record, same facts, etc.) where she consciously chooses to treat the black defendant more harshly. She may unconsciously empathize with a white defendant and give him preferable treatment, or she may offer a white defendant better treatment for legitimate reasons that produce a racial impact.

Consider the case of a white defendant who is arrested for selling cocaine in his dorm room. The arresting officer recommends that he *834 be charged with distribution of cocaine–a felony offense with a five year mandatory minimum sentence. The defendant’s parents hire an attorney who tells the prosecutor that the defendant is suffering from a debilitating drug addiction and was selling drugs only to support his own addiction. The attorney indicates that the defendant has been accepted to a six-month program at a residential drug treatment facility. He also informs the prosecutor that the defendant is an honor student who planned to apply to law school, that he has never been arrested in his life, and that a felony conviction would ruin his career and his life. A prosecutor might legitimately offer such a defendant a plea to a misdemeanor offense, or even dismiss the case all together. One could see how a prosecutor might empathize with such a defendant, subconsciously seeing himself and perhaps remembering his own “youthful indiscretions.”

That same prosecutor might handle the case of a similarly situated black defendant quite differently. Consider the black defendant arrested for selling cocaine on the street corner in his neighborhood. The arresting office recommends the same charge–distribution of cocaine. This defendant is poor and represented by an overworked public defender. The public defender discovers that his client is addicted to cocaine and was selling the drug only to support his habit. The family cannot afford to pay for residential treatment and there are no free programs available. The defendant does not have a prior criminal record but is a high school dropout with no employment prospects. The public defender asks the prosecutor to consider dismissing the case, and the prosecutor declines.

The prosecutor’s decisions in these cases would produce a racial disparity, but were her decisions unfair or unjustified? Shouldn’t a prosecutor pursue an outcome that results in an alternative to incarceration, thereby saving scarce government resources, especially if she does not believe that the defendant poses a danger to the community? Is it the prosecutor’s fault that the black defendant could not afford to pay for a drug program and was neither employed nor in school? Yet the black defendant did not appear to be any more deserving of a prison term than the white defendant. The prosecutor may have had an unconscious bias towards the white defendant and against the black defendant, but how could that be proven? And even if it were true, would it matter, considering all the other factors?

If prosecutors charge African American and Latino defendants with crimes while neglecting to charge their similarly situated white counterparts, they may be engaging in race-based selective prosecution. *835 Race-based selective prosecution violates the Constitution, but proving it is difficult. As with racial profiling, the victim of selective prosecution must prove that the prosecutor intended to discriminate against him because of his race. The Court practically closed the door on all claims of race-based selective prosecution when it decided United States v. Armstrong. In Armstrong, the Court held that in order to get discovery to prove selective prosecution, the defendant must show that similarly situated whites could have been charged, but were not –an impossible showing for almost anyone.

The Supreme Court has consistently required proof of intentional discrimination in criminal cases, and the amount and type of proof necessary have made successful challenges extremely difficult, if not impossible. In McCleskey v. Kemp, Mr. McCleskey presented a sophisticated study of how the death penalty was implemented in the state of Georgia. The study, conducted by Professors David Baldus, Charles Pulaski, and George Woodworth (known as “the Baldus Study”) produced startling racial disparities in the implementation of the death penalty and concluded that black defendants who kill whites were more likely to receive a death sentence. The Court accepted the validity of the study and its findings, but nonetheless declined to reverse Mr. McCleskey’s death sentence. Because the study did not prove that the prosecutors in Mr. McCleskey’s case intended to discriminate against him because of his race, the Court rejected his claim.

The difficulty of proving intentional discrimination does not pose the most difficult challenge, since intentional discrimination is rarely the cause of racial disparity in today’s criminal justice system. Most racial disparities are caused and/or exacerbated by prosecutors’ race-neutral decisions which may be influenced by unconscious racism. *836 These race neutral decisions, even though unintentional, may have a racial impact.

Whether or not prosecutors intentionally or unconsciously discriminate against defendants of color in the charging and plea-bargaining processes, their decisions–even the race-neutral ones–may cause or exacerbate racial disparities. Their tremendous power and discretion is often exercised in ways that produce unintended and undesirable consequences. However, that same power and discretion can be used to remedy the problem. The next section will examine one possible solution.

* * *

Racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a complex problem with many disparate causes. Its elimination will require change within and outside of the criminal justice system. The socio-economic causes of crime may never be totally eliminated. However, individuals in the criminal justice system can have an impact on the problem. Prosecutors are particularly suited to help eliminate racial disparities because of their power and discretion.

Prosecutors must not only be willing to replicate the Prosecution and Racial Justice Program, they must be willing to change their practices and policies in ways that will have a real impact. Sometimes these changes will involve abandoning traditional methods of decision-making to achieve fairness. For example, even though considering *851 a defendant’s prior record as a factor in the decision to charge is appropriate, if the existence of prior records is the main reason why otherwise similarly situated black defendants are being charged while whites are not, prosecutors should consider abandoning that factor. Public safety must remain the priority, but there are many defendants arrested for nonviolent offenses with criminal records of nonviolent offenses. Even if prosecutors focused on nonviolent offenses alone and abandoned or reduced reliance on traditional charging considerations in those cases, they could make a difference.

The Prosecution and Racial Justice Program is not a panacea, but it is one remedy that can make a difference. However, it can only work with the participation of chief prosecutors who are willing to make racial justice a priority. The prosecutors who have worked with PRJ have demonstrated that commitment. They took a chance that produced positive results in their offices and serve as examples for other prosecutors who seek to fulfill their duty to assure a fair and effective criminal justice system.


Angela J. Davis is a Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and the former director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

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KineticsLive.com | When and Where I Grieve‏

When and Where I Grieve

By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,

The tears started while I was sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore and they refused to stop. I gathered my laptop and purse, hurried back to the car, and sat quietly – expecting the flow to cease. But it would not. Tears were in my eyes on the way back home and tears stayed with me throughout the day. I wept while folding the laundry and while trying to decide what to cook for dinner. There is a moment when you grieve that you can no longer make tears – instead, your silent cries are felt in the pit of your stomach or in the wordless moans that escape your mouth.

It is difficult to put into words what triggered this particular moment of grief. All I can explain is that the weight of being black in a world that hates black existence came rushing forward and I could no longer contain my anger, rage, or grief in a series of polite conversations and academic panels. I could no longer form the right words to describe how it feels to wake up in a world where a police officer can brutally assault and rape black women, violate the terms of his bail, and yet again be released from jail a second time since the courts have determined that he poses “no significant threat” while he awaits trial. I no longer had the means for polite discourse when trying to describe how police leaving the dead body of a murdered teen uncovered on the street for over four hours paralleled the worse of the American tradition for lynching. I did not have the right language to express my horror at the multiple deaths of black women whose only “crime” had been to say no to sexual advances. I had no language in response to the horrors of racism and misogyny that greeted me each morning.

Our culture privileges words and texts. If you want to be taken seriously and considered intelligent and rational, you are asked to respond to horrific events with sustained textual or oral analysis. I had been doing my best…writing, when I was asked to write, and speaking and preaching, when asked to do so. I’ve lectured and written on the historical, theological, racial, and societal implications of several recent events. But while sitting in Barnes and Nobles, my words failed because my words were no longer adequate. Living with terror requires more than just words. Dealing with the realities of the terrorized black body in America requires my entire soul…and my soul wept. The horrors had simply surpassed the ability of my pen to write and so my tears took up where my pen left off.

On that particular morning, my tears were triggered by a rendition of “There is Room at the Cross,” playing on my headphones. I thought about all the various meanings of the cross for Christians: a place of atonement and redemption; a place of suffering and shame; a place of lynching and execution; even a place of promise and resurrection. But on that particular morning, the cross represented a place where I was encouraged to grieve. Whatever the cross means in a person’s own theology, we know that the family of Jesus and his disciples grieved the death of one whom they loved. We know that tears were shed at the death of a beloved child, a cherished teacher, a dear friend, and a valued leader whose entire existence confounded Roman authority. The cross is a place where there is always more room for the grieving.

The foot of the cross is a place where I can grieve for all the deaths and for all the people that are “ungrievable.” And so I grieve for the women whose claims of rape aren’t taken seriously because they are sex workers. I grieve for those whose only crime is walking while black or driving while black. I grieve for the mothers and fathers burying their children much too soon. I grieve for women who stay home rather than face street harassment. I grieve for those triggered by the sight of blue lights in their rearview windows. I grieve for parents who have to teach racial life lessons while their children are still toddlers. I grieve for black women whose murdered bodies barely rate a mention during the evening’s news. And I grieve for those who do not have a community to support them while they grieve.

At the foot of the cross, or at the site of any of these lynchings, state executions, murders, or injustices, there must be a place to allow the tears to flow and the moans to escape. There must be a place – beyond words or sermons or essays – which allows the body to grieve. Before we can heal the land, repair the breach, or right the wrongs, our souls are crying for a moment to mourn. The grief is both personal and collective as we grieve for our own losses and for the losses of others.  But when and where I grieve, my heart, body, and soul insist that this space, this moment, and this loss must be acknowledged. I grieve because it matters. I grieve because even when my voice is silenced, my tears will tell their own story.

Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar 

 

 

KineticsLive.com | When and Where I Grieve‏.

BlueBlack – Red-Bone – Yallah : Colorism and the Black Community” >> March 22, 2014 >>> LIVE 10 pm ET

BlueBlack – Red-Bone – Yallah : Colorism and the Black Community”

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March 22, 2014 LIVE 10 pm ET

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“If you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re yellow, you’re mellow; if you’re white, you’re all right.”

In sum, colorism refers to discrimination based on skin color. Colorism disadvantages dark-skinned people, while privileging those with lighter skin. Research has linked colorism to smaller incomes, lower marriage rates, longer prison terms and fewer job prospects for darker-skinned people. What’s more, colorism has existed for centuries both in and outside of black America. That makes it a persistent form of discrimination that should be fought with the same urgency that racism is.

Starts LIVE in One Hour . . . Join us, with updates on Marissa Alexander’s persecution and my favorite Colored Governor, Bobby Jindahl’s “Greatest Country in the world” fantasy.

 

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Black Rage, Gender, and Allyship

Black Rage, Gender, and Allyship

Aya de Leon

Black people are angry.  Anyone who is going to be our ally in the fight against racism needs to understand that. Not every black person walks around angry, or is aware of their anger.  Fury looks and sounds and hangs differently on people of African heritage shutterstock_146783792with differences of class, ethnicity, generation, geography, gender, sexuality, and trauma history.  But for many of us, we’re angry, and we have good reason after hundreds of years of slavery, racism, colonization, jim crow, neo-colonialism, exploitation, and degradation.  This is not an abstract, academic, intellectual racism; this is about hundreds of years of our ancestors bringing racist violence home.  In the US, slave masters beat us with whips and we beat our children with belts.  Slave masters raped and incested African women, and sexual abuse became epidemic in black families.  Slave masters worked us to death and now we work ourselves to death, and we are furious.  For hundreds of years, we have had to swallow the rage or risk getting killed by white people.  And we swallowed it, and killed each other and ourselves.  Men take the rage out on each other, on women and children, women take the rage out on each other and on children, and children take the rage out on each other, particularly those younger.  Shit rolls down hill.  We have a hard time loving ourselves and a hard time building loving, lasting relationships with each other.

In order to heal from racism, black people need hardcore healing spaces with a big, safe, container to do rage work, to get it out of our bodies.  It’s not about sitting and talking about it in a nice middle class therapist’s office, or going for a jog, it’s about finding a safe place to scream our voices raw, kick and flail, and let that beast out.  One black woman who does this work is Ruth King, author of Healing Rage – Women Making Inner Peace Possible.

Men need spaces to work on rage, as well.  My partner is an African heritage man who doeshealing work with black men. When I asked him to talk to me about black men’s rage, he said that black men are filled with sorrow.  But they are culturally prohibited from expressing sorrow, because such displays of vulnerability make them targets of violence and homophobia.  So the society has shown them that rage is their best option for pushing back against racism—the only option other than acquiescence.  So many of them take the only option that is offered.  He said that men need to work with other men to face these feelings.  Men have the breakthroughs when other men let them know it’s okay to be vulnerable and they can actually show and get in touch with the sorrow.  Women can be allies to this process, but the key is for men to be emotionally vulnerable with each other, not for women to be vulnerable.

Black rage is a response to racism.  White guilt is a response that many white people have to racism, and the two have a dynamic interaction.  White guilt doesn’t reflect a principled stance against racism, and a commitment to end it and undo its effects.  White guilt is more of a childlike uh-oh, we’re in trouble, where the white person goes around feeling bad and expecting/projecting some sort of anger or punishment from people of African heritage.  This can lead to fawning and accommodating behaviors in communities and relationships.  Again, this is not about a principled stance against racism, this is about an anxious wish to avoid conflict with an individual person of African heritage.  At other times, part of the racist gaze is to project anger onto black people regardless of their emotional reality at any given moment.

If you plan to be an ally to people of African heritage, you need to be able to handle black rage.  Big, heaping truckloads of it.  And by handle, I mean be able to keep thinking clearly and act decisively in the presence of rage.

This is precisely what did not happen last week at the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn at a panel titled “What Do We Mean When We Say Privilege, Ally & Comrade?  Exploring the Difficulty of Difference & Movement Building.”  I first read the account of one black woman panelist, Dr. Brittney Cooper, who challenged a black male panelist, Kazembe Balagun about his sexism.  He yelled at her, menaced her, and threw a glass of water on her.  An entire room full of people sat silent in the face of this gendered violence.

Here’s Cooper, in her own words:

Left to sit there, splashes of water, mingling with the tears that I was embarrassed to let run, because you know sisters don’t cry in public, imploring him to “back up,” to “stop yelling,” to stop using his body to intimidate me, while he continued to approach my chair menacingly,  wondering what he was going to do next, anticipating my next move, anticipating his, being transported back to past sites of my own trauma, traumas that have been especially fresh and difficult this Domestic Violence Awareness Month…

I waited for anyone to stand up, to sense that I felt afraid, to stop him, to let him know his actions were unacceptable…

I learned a lesson: everybody wants to have an ally, but no one wants to stand up for anybody.

Eventually three men held him back, restrained him, but not with ease. He left. I breathed. I let those tears that had been threatening fall.

One black man further berated Professor Cooper, and the biggest gesture of solidarity was when the third panelist, a white woman, silently inched her chair closer to Cooper.

Many others have expressed solidarity with Cooper after the fact.

By way of compassion, I suspect that the entire crowd was completely triggered and regressed to some childhood state in the face of black male rage unleashed.  White allies need to work on whatever childhood baggage they bring to the table.  Perhaps it is the terrified memories of their own parents’ rage.  Or maybe they are still stifled by the frequent middle/upper class prohibitions against strong feelings that meant their own childhood rage got shut down.  While I have compassion for anyone who is triggered, I hope that everyone in that room who can see clearly in hindsight that they should have said/done something decisive to intervene.  I hope they can tell that because they were far too scared to act in integrity with their values, they need to go seek some kind of emotional help.

But beyond the emotional shortcomings of the community, I want to challenge some of the underlying thinking that often allows this kind of thing to go unchecked.  White people feel guilty, and will refuse to take principled stands against expressions of black rage.  It’s one thing for black people to take responsibility for our rage and find an appropriate therapeutic or healing context (could be counseling, could be ritual, could be somatics, could be any number of things).  This is a situation where the person or group of people have agreed to be witness and container to the rage you are prepared to express in an attempt to heal yourself, that is rage with consent.  It is, however, a completely different proposition for black people to go around leaking and firing their rage at anyone in range, anyone who challenges them, anyone who is vulnerable, or anyone who unwittingly pushes the wrong button.  As Audre Lorde said, “use without the consent of the used is abuse.”

Starting with the Black Power Movement, some black men have had a narrative that black liberation is about their freedom to express rage.  So-called allies have co-signed this, from former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver writing about going around raping white women as a revolutionary act (he “practiced” on black women first, to get it right) to the Brecht forum allowing a black man with a history of verbal and physical raging to be on a challenging panel about allyship.  Our allies need to take a principled stand that rage is understandable, but rage needs to be healed and patterns of venting rage without consent need to be interrupted.  There is no noble political principle being served by allowing people to abuse others.  This doesn’t mean that all displays of anger need to be shut down.  It’s important to allow emotional space outside of white, middle class cultural norms (sometimes people get angry, and that can be a good thing) but it’s different for people to have a pattern of raging as part of how they work in community.  Our allies need to be able to tell the difference, offer resources, set limits, and hold lines against abusive behavior.

There is a particular historical dynamic that can happen sometimes with black men’s rage and white women’s guilt.  In this particular dynamic, black men express rage about racism and white women feel guilty, and offer themselves (sexual access, emotional caretaking, free labor) to black men in some sort of private reparations campaign.  Clearly there is no larger agenda being served about ending racism, but it’s easy for women’s training as caretakers and fear of violence to get ignited in these situations.  In reality, I have seen this dynamic happen in relationships between black and white women, and even occasionally between black women and white men, as long as the white person has strong childhood socialization to respond to rage by feeling responsible and offering caretaking.

So while the pattern is primarily one of black men, it is not exclusive to black men.  I have seen this same pattern run with powerful black women in white dominated organizations, as well.  Confused white leaders have been liberal with abusive patterns, convinced that it was somehow good for white people to be targeted with this rage.  Those same white leaders were somehow unconvinced that there was a problem with the raging, when the black women targeted black people, as well.

I have also seen black rage, particularly African American rage (from the people whose ancestors were enslaved in the US South) target other people of color or of African heritage, whom they deemed as somehow not black enough, not really of color, somehow closer to white people, deserving of being targeted with rage, disdain, dismissal, or disregard.  This rage has undermined or destroyed many coalitions with other people of color, not to mention destroying untold numbers of black organizations.

It is not allyship if white people think we can’t possibly control ourselves; white racism holds that this is the best we are capable of.  There’s a particular way that this liberalism and confusion works with regard to black women and men, that white people/organizations generally can’t manage to be allies to both black women and men.  Starting in the 70s, feminist organizations notoriously would ally with black women’s mistreatment at the hands of black men in a way that was a little too gleeful about black men’s monstrosity.  Or, like the Brecht forum, would tolerate black men’s rage in ways that left black women targeted and alone.

I have also been part of community organizations that are predominantly white and have trouble hanging on to black men.  Instead of addressing systemic racism in the organization, they use a strategy of placating and lowering their standards to keep black men involved.  No matter how unaccountable African heritage men in the community or organization may be (missing meetings, not communicating, thoughtlessly inconveniencing leaders), it seemed the bar could always be lowered, the expectations could always be revised, so no one expressed displeasure at this lack of accountability.  The black men meet a wall of complacent white compassion.  Leaving the black women in the community to be the bad cops, the ones who actually have some expectations.

In my personal life, I remember when my partner and I went to couples’ counseling.  We had a white, middle class, gentile therapist.  He and I are both physically big people and were quite emotionally angry.  I used to joke that we were 500 lbs of angry blackness on that poor white woman’s couch.  The therapist was completely frozen in the face of our black rage.  The two of us would sit in the sessions and fight, and she had very little to say.  We didn’t progress much until we started seeing a Jewish therapist, the child of Holocaust survivors.  She wasn’t even remotely scared of us.  She could think and act decisively in the face of black rage.  I celebrate her work with us, not only because it saved our marriage, but also because it helped us through our common trauma so that we could both become people capable of being loving to each other.

Coming out of these and other experiences, I have high standards for white allies.  In both of these spaces, I have met white people who can stand up to black rage, to black hopelessness, and to black sorrow.  If we aim to end racism, white allies need to start getting themselves in better shape.  Do the emotional work; never leave a sister unsupported in the face of such violence.  Interventions don’t have to be perfect, but they do need to happen.  Speak the truth.  Even if your voice shakes.

About the Author:

Aya de Leon
Aya de Leon is director of the Poetry for the People program, teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley. In the early 1980s, she was a teen leader in the anti-nuclear movement in Northern California. In the late 80s, she was a college feminist activist. In the early 90s, she was a young adult leader community organizing for racial justice in Roxbury, MA. Since then she has been a cultural worker, receiving critical acclaim from her politically charged performance work in the Village Voice, Washington Post, American Theatre Magazine, the SF Chronicle, SF Bay Guardian, and East Bay Express. Her work has been featured on Def Poetry, in Essence Magazine, and she blogs for Bitch Magazine. In 2004, she put in her bid for the White House in her solo show “Aya de Leon is Running for President.” She has participated in and supported many different movements with her own blend of arts, activism, community organizing, facilitation of healing from trauma, youth work, and leadership development. She is currently working on a sexy feminist heist novel about redistribution of wealth. She blogs at ayadeleon.wordpress.com and is on twitter @AyadeLeon. More work by Aya de Leon on anti-racist allies: We Need to Raise the Bar on Being an Ally , and On Being Friends With White People

Photo: betto rodrigues /Shutterstock.com

OCG Book November, 2013 – “Faces At the Bottom of the Well”, Professor Derrick Bell

ABOUT

During each month, the broadcast will feature a recommended book to the audience.  The last Saturday of the month will provide a live segment to be focused on getting impressions and thoughts from listener readers. We will attempt to feature a relevant guest for each book.

 

OCG Book November, 2013

“Faces At the Bottom of the Well”, Professor Derrick Bell

Discussion Date: November 30, 2013

Your comments as you read are welcomed here.

The noted civil rights activist uses allegory and historical example to present a radical vision of the persistence of racism in America. These essays shed light on some of the most perplexing and vexing issues of our day: affirmative action, the disparity between civil rights law and reality, the “racist outbursts” of some black leaders, the temptation toward violent retaliation, and much more.

 

ABOUT Derrick Bell

 

Derrick Albert Bell, Jr. was born on November 6, 1930 in Pittsburgh, the eldest of four children. At an early age, Derrick’s parents, Ada Elizabeth Childress Bell, a homemaker, and Derrick A. Bell, Sr., a millworker and department store porter, instilled in him a serious work ethic and the drive to confront authority.

Derrick was the first person in his family to go to college. He attended Duquesne University, where he earned an undergraduate degree and served in the school ROTC. He then served as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, where he was stationed in Korea and Louisiana.

In 1969, Derrick joined the faculty of Harvard Law School; in 1971, he became the first black tenured professor on the faculty of the law school. In 1973, Derrick published the casebook that would help define the focus of his scholarship for the next 38 years: Race, Racism and American Law. The publication of Race, Racism and American Law, now in its sixth edition, heralded an emerging era in American legal studies, the academic study of race and the law.

In 1980, Derrick became the Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law, becoming one of the first African Americans to serve as dean. That same year, he published a seminal work Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma, 93 Harv. L. Rev. 518 (1980), in which he argued that white Americans would only support racial and social justice to the extent that it benefits them. His argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown was driven, not by concerns over genuine equality and progress for black Americans, but rather by concerns over the nation’s emerging role as an anti-Communist military superpower, sent tremors through the legal academy.

In 1986, Derrick resigned his position as Dean of Oregon Law in protest of the faculty’s refusal to hire an Asian American female professor. He returned that same year to Harvard.

Soon after Derrick’s return to Harvard Law School, he staged a five-day sit-in in his office to protest the law school’s failure to grant tenure to two female professors of color. With student support, Derrick launched a protest movement at Harvard Law School that received national attention.

Derrick saw the parallels between his work as a civil rights lawyer and a leader for the students’ demand for increased diversity on the law school faculty. In 1990, after years of activism around the hiring and promotion of female professors of color, Derrick took an unpaid leave of absence in protest from Harvard Law School. He would never return. After refusing to end his two-year protest leave, Harvard University dismissed Derrick from his position as Weld Professor of Law.

During this tumultuous time, Derrick met Janet Dewart. As the communications director of the National Urban League, Janet called Derrick for permission to publish one of his fictional stories. This conversation was the spark of a new relationship, and they were married in June 1992.

During his long academic career, Derrick wrote prolifically, integrating legal scholarship with parables, allegories, and personal reflections that illuminated some of America’s most profound inequalities, particularly around the pervasive racism permeating and characterizing much of American law and society. Derrick is often credited as a founder of Critical Race Theory, a school of thought and scholarship that critically engages questions of race and racism in the law, investigating how even those legal institutions purporting to remedy racism can more profoundly entrench it.

After a valiant battle with cancer, Derrick Bell died on October 5, 2011. In Derrick was an incredibly spiritual man with a deep appreciation for gospel music. As such, it is only fitting that a biblical verse sums up the extraordinary life of Derrick Bell: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Matthew 25:23

And, he discusses “Faces . . .” on C-Span

 

Join our discussion of a featured book, each month.

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Chauncey DeVega “Race, Sex and BDSM . . .”

TUE AUG 14, 2012

Race, Sex, and BDSM: On “Plantation Retreats” Where Black People Go to Serve Their White “Masters”

by   chaunceydevega       Follow

plantationretreat1

Those who have loved and dated across the color line have to negotiate the realities of race in our society, and by extension, its impact on their relationships. For many, this is done through explicit conversations. For others, these dialogues come implicitly, through gestures, and taken for granted shared assumptions.

But how many folks actually talk about how race impacts their own sexuality, attraction, physicality, or notions of the erotic?

We live in a society that is structured around many different hierarchies of power, authority, and difference. As Foucault brilliantly observed, Power is not sitting out there in the ether, an abstraction that we just talk about in philosophy classes. Power acts through and upon bodies. Certain people are racialized in American society for example. Their bodies are locations of power–and yes resistance. Likewise, certain types of bodies are marked as “normal,” while others are deemed “different” or “abnormal.”

The “popular” imagination holds many assumptions about particular types of bodies. The black male body is something to be policed, controlled, and feared. It is both envied and despised. The Asian female body is “erotic” and “submissive.” The black female body alternates between being fecund, always available, and out of control, while simultaneously being marked as “masculine,” asexual, and unattractive. Latinas are “hot” and “sexy.” White bodies of a certain type are taken as the baseline for what is considered “beautiful” or “normal.”

Ironically, the bodies of black and brown people which are considered beautiful or attractive by the white gaze are judged as such either by how “different” they are from white norms (the exotic or savage) or how close these racialized bodies–almost like impostors or stand-ins–are to the normalized white body.

The very language we use to discuss race, the physical, and the sexual, is a quotidian example of Power in action. But, how are matters complicated when a significant part of a given person’s sexuality, and sense of the erotic, is centered on playing with the dynamics of dominance and submission?

Consider the following passage from the Colorlines article “Playing with Race”:

Contrary to popular notions, BDSM is not about abuse. It’s consensual and trusting and people refer to it as “play” (as in “I want to play with you”). The point of BDSM is not sexual intercourse. In fact, when Williams recalls her first experience as a masochist seven years ago, she says she met her partner, a white man, at a bar and “fell in love at first sight.” They made their way back to his hotel. “For the first time I felt someone could see who I really was.” And that was someone who found it erotic to be a submissive to her partner.In recent years, Williams has added another element to her repertoire as a masochist. She’s begun to engage in what is called “race play” or “racial play”—that is getting aroused by intentionally using racial epithets like the word “nigger” or racist scenarios like a slave auction.

Race play is being enjoyed in the privacy of bedrooms and publicly at BDSM parties, and it’s far from just black and white. It also includes “playing out” Nazi interrogations of Jews or Latino-on-black racism, and the players can be of any racial background and paired up in a number of ways (including a black man calling his black girlfriend a “nigger bitch”).

White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.

I could not engage is such types of role-playing. My personal politics would not allow it; my libido would not respond.That is my choice. I do not deny others their pleasure.

raceplay3However, as someone interested in the relationship between race, politics, and racial ideologies, I am fascinated by how individuals negotiate white supremacy and Power.

Are people like Williams or Mollena more “evolved” and “progressive” than those of us who cannot decouple the realities and burdens of race from their bodies and psyches in the present? Alternatively, could this deep sense of both owning and living in a racialized body, be turned into a location for pleasure and catharsis:

Vi Johnson, the black matriarch of BDSM, has presented on race play at kinky conferences and she believes the appeal is different for each person. “When you’re being sexually stimulated, you’re not thinking that what’s stimulating you is a racist image, ” she says. “You’re just getting turned on.”So, for some, she says, race play is about playing with authority and for others, it might be humiliation.

Well-known sexuality and SM educator Midori, who is Japanese and German, often presents her theory that humiliation in BDSM is linked to self-esteem. Take the woman who likes it when her boyfriend calls her a “slut,” Midori says. Perhaps the woman internalized the idea that “good girls don’t,” but she enjoys her sexuality. Because the boyfriend sees her in all her complexity, Midori says, when he calls her a slut, “he is freeing her of the social expectations of having to be modest.”

That’s different than having some stranger (and jerk) calling you a slut. The stranger doesn’t see the full woman. It’s similar with race play, Midori says. By focusing, for example, on a black man’s body, while he’s bound as a slave, she’s bolstering his own perception of himself as strong and powerful…

Her workshop demonstrations have included full auction scenes mimicking those of the Old South. In them, she is the plantation mistress inspecting a black man for “purchase.” He’s in shackles and “I slap him on his face and push him down on the ground, make him lick my shoes,” she says, emphasizing that she only does the demonstration after the “psychological” talk.

In the interest of transparency, I am a sex positive person (at least according to the survey onyourmorals.org). In many ways, I am also a bit of a libertine and a hedonist who is comfortable in both exclusive and open relationships. I also have certain predilections and tastes that more “vanilla” folks could find “kinky” or “different.” Ultimately, I am just myself, and do not know how to pretend to be anyone else.I am also full of contradictions and complications as sexuality and the erotic are not neatly bounded constructs (for example, I do not like watching interracial porn where white men have aggressive sex with black women as chattel slavery looms too large in my mind; however, I have no problems watching black men have aggressive sex with white women). I have also dated many women from a range of racial backgrounds: I love women; I love variety.

I share those details not to titillate; rather, because while I am rendering a judgement of sorts, I would not want to sound “judgmental.” The difference is a subtle, but nonetheless, an important one.

One of the questions I will be asking Viola Johnson from the Carter Johnson Leather Librarywhen I interview her in the next few weeks (fingers crossed) is how do we separate more “healthy” types of race play from those encounters that are rooted in disdain for the Other and white supremacy. Are these just inter-personal contracts or do these types of sexual relationships gain power (and are made erotic) precisely because of how they signal to larger societal taboos?

If the website Fetlife is any indication, there is apparently a not insubstantial number ofpeople who engage in sexual roleplaying and BDSM using the motif of chattel slavery in the antebellum South. A cursory review of the member profiles suggests that many of these people are white supremacists. This is apparently not a deterrent to the black men and women who want to “serve” these white masters.

plantation2Here a white “slave owning” master offers some insight on race play and “plantation retreats”:

My major kink-interest is in chattel slave-ownership in today’s world but following the historical models of 8,000 years of historical slave-ownership tradition (from Greek-Roman through modern day)…along with everything that might relate to it (which sometimes can go pretty far into the realm of BDSM activities, depending on the partner). I’m very knowlegable in the field of historical slavery.Some of my other non-kink interests include history and philosophy, classic cars, music, science, singing and writing lyrics, architecture, comparative culture, language, reading and counseling..

I get a lot of questions about “Plantation Retreat”…so here are some basic facts:

My goal in creating and hosting Plantation Retreat is to provide a safe and welcoming, private place (and opportunity) for White Masters and plantation slaves/niggers to meet and explore their mutual fantasies. I get a lot of questions and answer many individual questions. To simplify things…here is some general basic information:

The gathering lasts for up to 2 weeks this year, with the main gathering around the 4th of July…folks can stay as long or as short a time as they want (some stay even longer). Masters can stay at the compound here or in a hotel if they want to (as can any personal slaves that they bring with them or any other slave that is ordered to do so).

Slaves arriving on their own stay here and are considered (and protected) as property of the plantation or my personal property.

Slaves sign up for a specific length of service. Slaves can specify what their limits are or that they will serve in any way the Master/guests desire. Sex is not required, but depends on individual choice (as do other activities). Most Masters desire to use slaves sexually in addition to normal domestic services. Some slaves are used only for hard labor. A slave’s assignments and duties are based on its experience and ability-level (some require whipping or punishment). Masters have their own king or queen bed (up to 5 available); slaves sleep where they are told to sleep (unless they are ordered into a Master’s bed and allowed to sleep there). Normally a slave sleeps at the foot of a Master’s bed, but some can be chained or caged elsewhere.

The minimum requirement for slaves is that they be obedient and respectful of all Masters and work to give the Masters and enjoyable time. This can be anything from preparing and serving drinks and meals, doing housework or yard work, to providing sexual relief on demand, to hard labor in the compound (depending on the slave’s previously-stated limitations). Slaves should expect Masters to be totally comfortable and free in using humiliating or degrading racist speech in referring to or speaking to mud-slaves. It’s not all punishment and misery for slaves…there is plenty of time for camaraderie and playful fun also. Some slaves even form a brotherly bond with the other slaves that serve with them. Masters also form lasting bonds and friendships based on their mutual interests and sharing slaves.

It’s just a small friendly gathering of White Masters at my house/compound….being served by mud-slaves as might have been in a modern version of slave-days. one might call it a situation of consensual non-consent/slavery. Slaves can set their limits and the time they will be in service as slaves in advance…. and also what they expect to learn and experience from the experience. The more that a slave lets me know about itself in advance, the better I can guide its growth from the experience.

Backstage racism mates with BDSM, the eroticization of the black body, and finds a place online through a variant of cyber-racism. Amazing. We do in fact live in interesting times.White supremacy is a mental illness. Western (and global) society is sick with it. All of us, across the color line, have been impacted by white supremacy and white racism. But who are we to judge how adults in a consensual relationship decide to work through its pain and ugliness?

As is per my tradition, here are some concluding questions.

Have any of you engaged in race play? For those of you in inter-racial relationships, how do you negotiate these bigger questions of race and the erotic? If our kinks and sexual predilections are in some way a function of life experience, trauma, early childhood experiences, etc. what happened in the life of a black person who is willing to play a slave for the pleasures of white racists?

WHO IS CHAUNCEY DEVEGA ?

Chauncey Devega is an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice . . . of himself, he offers

“I am the editor and founder of We Are Respectable Negroes.
I am also a race man in progress, Black pragmatist, ghetto nerd, cultural critic and essayist.
I have been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland’s Alternet Radio Hour, the Thom Hartmann radio show, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground.My essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos.

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