The Two Triumphs of Simone Manuel

Gentle Readers, I live by Lake Huron; my whole town does. I can be at the lake in five minutes by car or half an hour as the podcast-listening blogger in no particular hurry walks. Back in my mother’s day, to graduate high school here you had to be able to swim and prove it. By the time I graduated, that requirement had long gone. Now you know how I got out of high school; as a child I enjoyed being in the water but never quite learned how to swim. I did not know until today that I shared that with 68.9% of black children in the United States.

I don’t know from sports, but I found out that Simone Manuel won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. No other black woman from the United states had done so. This makes her another first black American for us to celebrate come February and forget promptly, as we usually do. The firsts matter, but our conventional focus on them risks two costly mistakes. We can take a first person as the end of a story, the victory lap in a story of progress. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Barack Obama broke through the color line, so we have triumphed over white power. Everyone applauds as the curtain falls. Pay no attention to the rabid white supremacy still raging almost undisturbed behind it. It would not do to demean the achievements of talented individuals in breaking down social barriers, but I think it makes far more sense to consider them as beginnings of stories than ends.

I did not see Manuel win her gold. I have seen other events where the reporter comes immediately to the American who wins second place for an interview. You expect that when you watch an American network. Maybe the person from Tuvalu or Belarus actually won, but the home country’s network will focus on the home country athletes even if language barriers didn’t very often argue for it. Not so for Manuel, who had to make do with a still photo on Twitter while the American news discussed an Australian swimmer. Priorities, you know? Maybe the law made her an American, but white Americans have never quite made our peace with that.

The other peril of focusing on first arises from that. In taking a first achievement as a kind of trivia point, we easily miss just why it mattered. Maybe it would have taken until Manuel hit the water for a black American woman to win a swimming gold, but we can’t know because white Americans have long insisted that black people have no place in our swimming pools. We have dumped acid into them to keep our waters white. We have drained the pools and filled them with dirt or concrete. More often, we’ve abandoned public pools that must accept swimmers of all colors in favor of private pools we can keep whites-only. We don’t much care for black people getting their blackness into our pools. Take it from Strom Thurmond himself:

Thurmond had a seat in the United States Senate into the twenty-first century. South Carolina kept voting for him and he ended his career as a revered and exceptionally elder statesman. Why wouldn’t he? His name made for a good trivia question and everybody knew his checkered past, but that kind of thing rarely disqualifies any white man from much of anything in the United States.

All the black children who don’t learn how to swim, and so die from drowning at five times the rate of white children. But if we poison them to cut costs then you can’t expect white America to care much about mere accidental deaths. I say accidental because so far as I can tell the statistics omit suicides; the people who drowned did not mean to do so. But in another sense, they don’t qualify at all. You can’t learn to swim without some dependable water nearby and for a great many people, particularly in cities, that means a pool. White Americans left those behind to die from lack of funds, where we didn’t destroy them, rather than let black Americans enjoy the water with us. We chose that policy and we have kept right on choosing it. We know the consequences and we, as we almost always do, took the deaths of black Americans as at least an acceptable loss. Some of us surely go so far as to prefer it.

I can’t know what went through the minds of the directors, film crew, and reporters who ignored Manuel’s achievement, but flag-waving enthusiasm didn’t enter into it or she would have gotten far more coverage than she did. We are all trained to believe black Americans just don’t count, even beyond how we’re trained to think women don’t count. But meaner things lurk in the national consciousness. She didn’t win her races for an America that we’ve been trained all our lives to see as our own: the white male land playground build on stolen land and lives. She represented an America that that country has fought for centuries. For her to win, it had to lose. We do not celebrate our losses.

Simone Manuel beat her opponents in the pool. She beat Strom Thurmond and all his modern doppelgangers too.

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The Long Reach of American Fascism

I’ve written before that Donald Trump has a past. He has brought back to the forefront of American politics essentially open advocacy for white supremacy, after decades of white Americans pretending they didn’t have any real problem with black Americans. He has undone, at least for this moment, the work of Lee Atwater and his generation of PR men:

That distinction, and some others, do make the Trump campaign unique. We’ve known for decades that when fascism came to the United States it would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. They didn’t tell us it would come in orange with a dodgy comb-over, but then fascists have a history of not living up to their own aesthetic standards; the rules apply to other people. Saying fascism would come also implies that we didn’t have it already. It appears, in fact, that Americans invented the ideology, attitude, aesthetic, or whatever thing one considers fascism best called. Before Mussolini’s train ran on time, the Ku Klux Klan crossed the finish line so early we didn’t have a name for it.

Just as we risk missing the forest for the tree in taking Trump as entirely sui generis, so we do the same in taking fascism in isolation. Fascist movements have never, so far as I know, come to power without cooperation from the mainstream right of their countries. That cooperation came come eagerly or with a general sense of disdain, but it does come. Never Trump never came to much. Nor will the ritual denunciations. We can’t know what goes on between an individual and their ballot, but even if all the famous people declaring they’ve changed parties follow through, they have shifted perhaps hundreds of votes. Had enough of them existed to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination of the mainstream American conservative party, we would have seen it by now.

Trumpism, for all its thuggish bullying, open white supremacy, and admiration of street violence, has precious little but style to distinguish it from past runs for the presidency. I don’t need to dig back into the nineteenth century or root about in the dustbin of history for fringe candidates everybody has agreed, safely after the fact, to hate. If you want bellicose white supremacy in the vein of the murder victim getting what he had coming, take these remarks on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

King, you must understand, brought this on himself. By breaking the law to protest segregation, he produced the violent backlash that claimed his life. He ought to have known his place. The author of that statement then occupied no more exalted an office than that of governor, but he would go on to greater things.

Philadelphia, Mississippi has two claims to national fame. In 1964, the Klan, with help from the county sheriff and local police, murdered three civil rights activists there. I imagine that one doesn’t go on the tourist brochures, but it happened all the same. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, and Michael Schwermer helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. These laws abridged the power of state governments, particularly in the South, to behave abominably toward African-Americans.

Sixteen years later, a presidential campaign rolled into town. The candidate came fresh off his convention win, inaugurating his general election campaign in Philadelphia. I have no doubt that the people of Philadelphia, then and now, run the gamut just like people everywhere else. They deserve a presidential visit as much as anybody. But towns that even today boast only seven thousand or so people don’t have for national office candidates just drop by; I live in a town of ten thousand and we don’t get that. The campaign chose Philadelphia for a reason, and the man behind the podium made it clear just what they had in mind:

I believe in state’s rights.

I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.

And if I do get the job I’m looking for… (Cheers and applause)

I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

You don’t give a speech like this in a place like Philadelphia by accident. You do it because you want everyone to know that state’s rights means white power. The speaker didn’t wear a white hood and chant about the Klan getting bigger, but he didn’t need to. When you go to Philadephia, Mississippi and tell the town that murdered civil rights workers and so convinced the nation to pass laws curbing state power to abridge civil rights that you believe in state’s rights, you tell them that you’ve taken their side. You are no partisan for the victims, nor their cause, but the declared ally of their murderers. If elected, you will do all in your power to roll back civil rights and restore white supremacy’s untrammeled rule to its most murderous extent.

The speaker in question? Revered conservative statesman Ronald Reagan. I don’t see many conservatives, or many white Americans in general, willing to denounce him.

Reading William Dunning

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Reconstruction scholarship had hit the news this week, with Hillary Clinton giving her questionable take on the matter. Others have written well on her poor understanding of the era and her decision that, finding herself in a hole, she had best try for China. I don’t propose to retread that ground. The customary recitation of the historiography of Reconstruction might do in its stead; it must lurk in any discussion of the topic just as the historiography of every subject does. I will probably indulge eventually, but today I have in mind something off to one side of that.

Back in fifth grade, during the fall of 1991, I read an American history textbook cover to cover. My teacher suggested it. (Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.) Between its pale blue covers I learned a great deal of history for the first time, Reconstruction included. I still remember the sepia-toned drawing of three men with bags over their heads, members of the Ku Klux Klan. My textbook told me that they used costumes to frighten freedmen away from the polls. The book might have mentioned violence as well, but if so I don’t recall it appearing to any prominent extent. I read about scalawags and carpetbaggers. These had something to do with a thing called Reconstruction, which radical republicans launched to punish the South for the Civil War. My book didn’t tell me that in as many words that Reconstruction deserved opposition and we should cheer its failure, but did make it very clear that black Americans lacked the education and character to participate in government. We had it hard in the Bush years; you had to put things together yourself. I didn’t know then and would not know for more than a decade thereafter that I’d just gotten a dose of the Dunning School. Most everyone still gets plenty of them, hence the ritual condemnations whenever Reconstruction comes up.

I make it my habit, partly as a prophylactic, to read good history before bad. As I’ve yet to undertake a serious study of Reconstruction, until now I’ve opted out of reading anything by William Archibald Dunning, his students, and fellow travelers. Today I made an exception when a lengthy article by the man himself came across my twitter feed. Why not let Dunning speak for himself? I can only scratch the surface of even the article without making this post tediously long or once again making an extended departure from Kansas, but it deserves a look all the same.

Dunning makes no bones about his position, laying it out in the opening paragraphs:

the completion of the reconstruction showed the following situation: (1) the negroes were in the enjoyment of equal political rights with the whites; (2) the Republican party was in vigorous life in all the Southern states, and in firm control of many of them; and (3) the negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property, and, since so many of the whites were disfranchised, excessive even in proportion to their numbers. At the present day, in the same states, the negroes enjoy practically no political rights; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.

You could hand this list to Eric Foner or any other modern historian of Reconstruction and see them nod along with the facts, save the highlighted portion. From that axiom, all the rest that makes the Dunning School so notorious follows.

Dunning concerns himself often with the political interests of the Republican party in sustaining Reconstruction. He avoids calling partisan interest the chief objective of the undertaking by so narrow a margin as to almost say the opposite in plain terms:

by the time the process was complete, a very important, if not the most important part had been played by the desire and the purpose to secure to the Republican party the permanent control of several Southern states in which hitherto such a political organization had been unknown. This last motive had a plausible and widely accepted justification in the view that the rights of the negro and the “results of the war” in general would be secure only if the national government should remain indefinitely in Republican hands, and that therefore the strengthening of the party was a primary dictate of patriotism.

One can’t quite argue with the facts here either. A Republican government would hardly seek to redeem the cause of the movement which it just defeated. As most southern whites understood Republicans and freedom for black Americans as both utterly inimical to their interests, they would hardly vote the party of Lincoln handy majorities. They just spent four years engaged in a tremendous war where they spent blood, much of it their own, and treasure to save slavery, save white supremacy, and prevent so much as the possibility of a southern wing of the Republican Party. Consequently, any Republican party in the South must depend on black votes for its support.

If this makes the Republicans less than disinterested, altruistic paragons of virtue then we might as well ask if the majority of white Southerners did better. Dunning takes white supremacy for granted, to the point of understanding it as an interest which whites pursued out of conscious partisanship. This would leave him, at best, declaring a plague on both houses. It turns out that human beings don’t comport themselves with perfect virtue. Who knew?

Dunning makes it clear that white supremacy decided things. He considered black Americans too stupid and ignorant to competently manage politics. He doesn’t quite say that they couldn’t manage even basic freedom, but Dunning clearly had some doubts on the subject. However, he argues that Southern whites had more than racial animus informing them. They tried, if at gunpoint, black governance:

The extravagance and corruption of the state administration had become so intolerable to the whites that questionable means of terminating it were admitted by even the most honorable without question.

Dunning spends page after page on the precise mechanics of how to disenfranchise, most of them clearly amused by the ingenuity they involved. Yet he offers only this single line on the famous corruption that helped justify rolling back black freedom. We must take his word for it.

We must also take his word that violence played only a small part. Dunning admits to lynchings, and wrote in their heyday, but paints violence as the exception rather than the rule:

There was relatively little “Ku-Kluxing” or open violence, but in countless ways the negroes were impressed with the idea that there would be peril for them in voting. […] But if a party of white men, with ropes conspicuous on their saddlebows, rode up to a polling place and announced that hanging would begin in fifteen minutes, though without any more definite reference to anybody, and a group of blacks who had assembled to vote heard the remark and promptly disappeared […] Or if an untraceable rumor that trouble was impending over the blacks was followed by the mysterious appearance of bodies of horsemen on the roads at midnight, firing guns and yelling at nobody in particular, votes again were lost

If we bend over backwards on Dunning’s behalf, we might allow him a technical point. We ought to distinguish between intimidation and violence. We should not go further and treat intimidation as innocuous or, as Dunning might like us to, pretend that black Americans heard only empty threats. They could count the lives lost, the scars left, and see who hung from trees just as well as any white person. A threat might very well remain a threat only when they complied. While some whites might have made idle threats, the record argues very strongly that most spoke in deadly earnest. No one could know with confidence until hazarding it at peril of one’s life whether one had a band of blowhards or the local Klavern just looking for an excuse. The distinction between violence carried out and violence merely threatened thus, at the point when one would have to make the decision, proves fleeting.

All of this led to what Dunning considered the natural conclusion:

The negroes, though numerically much in excess of the whites, were very definitely demoralized by the aggressiveness and unanimity of the latter, and in the ultimate test of race strength the weaker gave way.

The corruption might matter, though Dunning could as well have looked at his own New Jersey or Tammany Hall just across the Hudson for examples of that, but ultimately the whites won. Thus we know for a fact that the superior race prevailed. Winners win and losers lose. Had blacks really deserved equality, they would have raped and murdered their way to it just as the whites did. The fact that whites imagined black men as rapists and murderers nearly by definition and arrayed themselves to combat these simultaneously inferior and remarkably puissant foes brings us to one of the inevitable paradoxes of white supremacy: an inferior race which requires such heroic measures to keep in its place hardly seems very inferior.

Dunning goes on, charting the restoration of white supremacy up to the time of writing. Toward the end he expresses his relief that at last, politics have advanced to the point where white Southerners need not apologize or make excuses for their actions. They can cheerfully state their business honestly and in the open:

the stronger faction, headed by Mr. Tillman, promptly took the ground that South Carolina must have a “white man’s government,” and put into effect the new Mississippi plan. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1895 which applied the “understanding clause” for two years, and after that required of every elector either the ability to read and write or the ownership of property to the amount of three hundred dollars. In the convention which framed this amendment, the sentiment of the whites revealed very clearly, not only through its content, but especially through the frank and emphatic form in which it was expressed, that the aspirations of the negro to equality in political rights would never again receive the faintest recognition.

I don’t know that I can do Dunning’s enthusiasm for the trend the justice it deserves. Dunning never makes his disinterested academic act entirely convincing, but one can almost hear the fanfare sounding in his mind when reading this. He spends paragraph on paragraph, page after page, detailing how white Americans took back from black Americans almost everything they briefly gained. Though Dunning denied the violence, he proudly recounts the trickery, fraud, and legal sophistry deployed over the course of a generation and change to reduce black Americans from at least within sight of political equality to a state near to slavery.

In the end, Dunning unites the past and present:

the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible; that slavery had been a models vivendi through which social life was possible; and that, after its disappearance, its place must be taken by some set of conditions which, if more humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express the same fact of racial inequality. The progress in the acceptance of this idea in the North has measured the progress in the South of the undoing of reconstruction. In view of the questions which have been raised by our lately established relations with other races, it seems most improbable that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal of the conditions which this process has established.

We have come far, if not near so far as we like to tell ourselves. I needn’t delve further back than a few days to find arguments that would make Dunning smile.

Jim Crow Restored in Florida

The Warren Court in 1953

The Warren Court in 1953

If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.

I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.

Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.

The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

[…]

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.

The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:

“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”

“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”

It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:

All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.

This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:

“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC

She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:

Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.

Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:

In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.

The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.

Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.

At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.

In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.

[…]

There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:

“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”

In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.

This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.

As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.

I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.

We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.

The Economist Strikes Again #Economistbookreviews

BaptistweetLast fall, The Economist published a review of Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told which one could fairly summarize as, in its own words, as follows:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

The publication, under what must have been a bewildering assault from the foreign forces of sound historical practice, intractable facts, and basic human decency, later withdrew that review and published a begrudging apology. Slavery, the anonymous author told us with his feet to the fire, did not amount to a good time had by all. The magazine’s review sparked an interest in its record on such matters. Greg Grandin, the victim of a very similar review earlier on 2014, dug all the way back to 1860. The long dead writers of the time deemed a high tariff a greater evil than slavery. The Economist could have used the occasion of fifteen decades’ remove to reflect upon its history and consider how it had come to publish such a blinkered, blatantly racist piece. I harbored a small hope that it might.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a book coming out, its publication moved up to this month for, I imagine, the obvious reasons. His book takes the form of a series of letters to his son offering advise and insight on the struggle inherent in living in America while black. Given the content, it would provide a wonderful opportunity for The Economist to show that it had learned something, even if only that the one anonymous reviewer who laid into Grandin and Baptist ought not receive further assignments. I don’t know who wrote the review of Between the World and Me. Given its different content, it might have gone to another staff writer. Whoever wrote it chose instead to follow the magazine’s hallowed tradition of white supremacy. One supposes the same person as last time signs the checks, but what one does for pay often comports well enough with what one thinks right in these things.

Thus The Economist informs its readers that the fear that pervades Coates’ inner life

is the product of 250 years of whipping, burning, shooting and locking up black people. “In America,” writes Mr Coates, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This is all necessary, he says, to maintain “the Dream”, which is capitalised throughout the book and, along with “the body” (usually Mr Coates’s own), appears on every other page. The Dream is not defined so much as described: it smells of peppermint and tastes of strawberry shortcake; it lives in suburban streets with tree houses in the gardens. This all makes some poetic sense but, shorn of ornament, its implication is that in order to have dreamy Greenwich, Connecticut, Chicago’s housing projects must also exist. Racial mixing in the suburbs over the past two decades suggests otherwise: real life is not so Manichean.

I suspect Coates would say that Greenwich Connecticut was built on the back of the nearer housing projects. This claim comes burdened with facts of how advantages compound themselves down the generations, to say nothing of how housing policy precisely did just that on racial lines. I presume that such proletarian accoutrements clash far too badly with a business suit for The Economist to tolerate. Nor have the writers sullied themselves with knowledge of the workings of comparative advantage. But I am unfair to so indict them, as one cannot expect the writers or editors of The Economist to be familiar with work done on the subject by a discipline so foreign to their experience and interests as economics.

The anonymous author, his answer to the white sheet hanging in his closet, would have us know that the fact of small increases of diversity in the suburbs prove the injustice has ended. It also, I imagine, ended with the election of a black president. It ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, or the Fourteenth. It ended with the Voting Rights Act. It doesn’t matter when any more than facts matter, it simply must have ended so we need not discomfit ourselves. We can only mention past injustice in order to declare ourselves perfected.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The disdain drips off the screen. I can’t read this and not see this subtext: Upper-middle class whites tolerate miscegenation, so what more can Coates possibly ask? Have they not sacrificed enough for his people? Nineteenth century authors would have included reference to how blacks learned the arts of civilization and Christianity from their kindly white tutors. If The Economist doesn’t care to include those claims, though it did in its review of The Half Has Never Been Told, then it doubles down with irony:

Mr Coates does not spare well-intentioned individuals for their part in maiming black bodies, however indirect that may be. In a passage that is sure to bring him some notoriety, he describes how he looked on the plumes of smoke over Manhattan on 9/11, shortly after an unarmed college acquaintance had been murdered by an undercover policeman. “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [him] and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature…which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” The honesty deserves some praise, but what it reveals does not.

Mr Coates urges his son to remember that slavery was not an indefinable mass of flesh but “a particular, specific enslaved woman…who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favourite cousin.” The same can be said of those who did the enslaving. By spreading blame so widely, Mr Coates eases the consciences of those who fastened the chains, tightened the noose, wielded the billy club and the people who told them to do it.

We must now believe that a realistic fear of white authority figures charged with the use of violence by the state, who often execute that charge with pride and to great celebration within white America, comes back around and justifies the brutality. Eric Garner feared the police, so when they strangled him to death he had it coming. He could have also smiled at a white woman. Do we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not? The Economist would have us believe that he helps create the problem and, indeed, the magazine can’t be asked to recognize any present problem except to blame black Americans.

The Economist concludes:

When talking about race, Barack Obama often says that anyone who doubts that there has been progress in America should put the question to a black man who lived in the south under Jim Crow. Then he adds that, despite this, the country is still struggling with racial troubles that did not vanish with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. This is right. Mr Coates has written a powerful book that reveals how being the parent of a black teenage boy in America is to be visited by night terrors about his survival. He is also correct to point out that there are echoes of slavery in America today. But they are echoes, rather than the thing itself, and that means there is also hope that the recent violence that spurred the book’s publication may one day be abolished too.

Ultimately I can think of no better answer to The Economist than Coates’ own. He anticipated it:

That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.

[…]

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.

When is it over?

Now and then I encounter a person who objects to any discussion of racial injustice on the grounds that we settled all of that years ago. We don’t keep slaves, so why bring it up? We got rid of segregation and so have no reason for further discussion. A black president means we have achieved racial equality. One who raises such issues despite all that, we must assume, wishes to distract from some other and more important concern. Maybe the speaker just has it in for white people. Maybe the speaker doesn’t understand just how deep the moral rot runs in black America. I wish I had to invent these examples, but any time an outbreak of white supremacy hits the news people bring them down from the attic.

The desire to close the book on past injustices requires little explanation. They shock our consciences and cause us distress. Who wants more of that? Thus we don’t want to see the same things happen again and again. But we feel our own pain most intimately and intensely. That doesn’t make us horrible people, but can distract us from the greater suffering of the victims. The sins of the American past thus become largely objects of discomfort for white Americans, a species of impoliteness rather than often grievous wrongs done to others.

Wishing things ended does not end them. Every divisive issue has its partisans. Every resolution of the same will have its share of losers. As unimportant issues rarely become divisive, one cannot reasonably expect that the side which lost one round will just go home. Instead they come back and try to reverse their past loss outright or achieving their preferred ends by other means. White southerners rushed to reinstate slavery after the Civil War. They didn’t succeed perfectly, but through Jim Crow, terrorism, and the criminal justice system they managed to reverse almost all of the gains that black Americans made during the war and Reconstruction. When the law turned against Jim Crow, American whites all over the nation answered the challenge by segregating their neighborhoods. The Supreme Court eventually decided, in a case brought by my native Michigan, that so long as local ordinances didn’t say “whites only” in a large font at the top of each page, then segregation could remain.

So it has. This has, by design, many obvious effects. White Americans fled from neighborhoods that had integrated or looked poised to. They took their greater wealth with them, leaving behind a shrinking tax base on which other Americans had to rely to educate their children. They abandoned, or privatized public spaces so they could control what race of people gained access. Across the South this involved closing down entire public school districts rather than integrate. Public pools closed down or turned private:

As African Americans fought for desegregation in the 1950s, public pools became frequent battlefields. In Marshall, Texas, for example, in 1957, a young man backed by the NAACP sued to force the integration of a brand-new swimming pool. When the judge made it clear the city would lose, citizens voted 1,758-89 to have the city sell all of its recreational facilities rather than integrate them. The pool was sold to a local Lions’ Club, which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility.

The decisions of other communities were rarely so transparent, but the trend was unmistakable. Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation.

Did that end segregation? It might in an extremely constrained, legal sense do so. A private group could segregate and white Americans demanded that they did. Jim Crow ended, so far as whites cared. Black Americans, by design, had a different experience. Some things have changed, but others have not. Take the case of McKinney, Texas, which produced the article quoted previously:

In 2009, McKinney was forced to settle a lawsuit alleging that it was blocking the development of affordable housing suitable for tenants with Section 8 vouchers in the more affluent western portion of the city. East of Highway 75, according to the lawsuit, McKinney is 49 percent white; to its west, McKinney is 86 percent white. The plaintiffs alleged that the city and its housing authority were “willing to negotiate for and provide low-income housing units in east McKinney, but not west McKinney, which amounts to illegal racial steering.”

We have conquered segregation. No more do we have men throw acid into pools to demonstrate what sort of welcome black swimmers deserve. Now we have the police respond to the peril of the black swimmer as though a riot erupted:

They had gone to a private pool, after all. They had it coming even if some of their parents helped pay for that pool’s upkeep and others came as guests. Their skin marked them as outsiders.

We have come a long way. Bull Connor used attack dogs and fire hoses. His police department arrested more than nine hundred children. Now we have traded down to simply drawing guns on children. For this and the elimination of the legal form of Jim Crow, we deserve all the accolades we choose to award ourselves. As we should concern ourselves with racial injustice only so far as doing so demonstrates white virtue, like good nineteenth century Americans, we have done all that we can ask ourselves. Should that leave the reality of segregation in place, in some ways more present now than in decades past, so what? We cleared our consciences and so done our job.

If one gets right down to it, none of us actually endorse the rough edges of the system. Mistakes happen. People get hurt. But we don’t set out to hurt them, except by denying them the kinds of lives we prefer. When an injustice like the police riot at McKinney hits the news today, we all contemplate our navels and feel very sorry. Or do we?

Signs appeared thanking the McKinney Police. The wrong color of people had gotten into the pool despite all their efforts to prevent it. What could they have thought? That they deserved to be treated like whites? A fourth grade teacher weighed in on the matter:

“I’m going to just go ahead and say it … the blacks are the ones causing the problems and this ‘racial tension,’” Fitzgibbons said. “I guess that’s what happens when you flunk out of school and have no education. I’m sure their parents are just as guilty for not knowing what their kids were doing; or knew it and didn’t care.”

[…]

“I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated on one side of town so they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone,” Fitzgibbons said. “Maybe the 50s and 60s were really on to something. Now, let the bashing of my true and honest opinion begin….GO!”

Posted with the hash tag #notracist. Literally. I don’t know what it would take for her to call someone a racist. Would participating in a lynching be enough or would she demand to know that the lynch mob had no “good reason”. The victim could have smiled at a white woman.

We can keep telling ourselves that we whipped racism or we could actually do so. That would mean an end to all the advantages that white Americans have over black Americans, which we stole fair and square just as we stole the land from the Indians. It would mean an America where we could look at, among other things, economic statistics and see no difference between black and white Americans.

Yet we almost always take the easier route, defining racism in narrow and antiseptic terms that have precious little to do with its actual operation. No law of nature makes us do so, but we have little trouble inventing some. Black people just behave a certain way; “everybody” knows it. This doesn’t count as racist. Where one lives can’t come from any racist sentiment. We declared as much and that settles things. We beat racism in 1865 or 1954 or 1965 or 2008. Any year will do, so long as we put it in the past and don’t trouble ourselves with more than the most superficial examination of events.

The past tense means things happened before. At least implicitly, they don’t reach up into the ever-moving present. They don’t implicate us; we remain virtuous. We take pains not to know how other Americans live and when reminded of it blame them for disturbing our tranquility. I submit that this is as racist as shooting an unarmed black man or storming a pool party as though it were an insurrection. Racism lacks a dress code: one not wear a sheet, a brown shirt, or wave a Confederate flag to join in. The callous indifference, however cloaked in lectures about character, fatherhood, or whatever trope one prefers, produces the horrors. They come not despite white America’s indifference, to say nothing of tolerance and support, but because and as natural outgrowths of it. If we really want to put racial injustice into the past, we have it in us to make the change. We still segregate. We still terrorize. The means of white supremacy have changed but largely not the practice or substance. We replace slavery with Jim Crow and convict leasing. We replaced Jim Crow with privatized space and mass incarceration. We could devote that creative energy to doing the opposite instead of proclaiming each incremental, contested, and often reversed gain as the end of it all.

Why don’t we, unless we have not closed the book on racism but rather want it kept alive? We may not close that book tomorrow, next year, or next decade. It may outlive all reading this. Few chastened for their support of white supremacy will change their minds. They will take their defeats and find in them the seeds of new victories. But that doesn’t mean that we do all we can any more than it means we should give up. They only win forever if they go unopposed. That choice falls on us. Do we want more McKinneys, Trayvon Martins, Eric Garners, and Emmett Tills or do we want something else? When can we honestly call it over and done with?