Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Good riddance

August 14th, 2017

“We will not be replaced,” the white racists chanted, and they’re right. They won’t be replaced. Smallpox wasn’t replaced. The dinosaurs weren’t replaced. We’ll just watch them die off. They will make a lot of noise as they go and of course they will kill some people because that’s what they do, and then they will be gone, and they’ll leave a hole that nobody wants to fill. The artifacts of their delusions, the confederate battle flags and nazi memorabilia and statues of slaveholder tools and dupes like Lee and Jackson, will gather dust in the corners and basements of museums that nobody visits. It’s long past time for white people in general to get over themselves, and white racists in particular. They’re poorly adapted to live in this world. The world doesn’t need them and it’s not going to care when they’re gone, which will be sooner than they think if not as soon as they fear. Good riddance.

A Lament

July 15th, 2013


That is how a friend of mine greeted the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin.  All caps.  This is a very level-headed, intelligent, thoughtful man.  And if I, like him, were black, I think I would feel the same way, too.  His cri de coeur expresses the boundless, ever-renewed sense of betrayal to which black citizens of this country are exposed.  Langston Hughes’ poem A Raisin in the Sun is forever relevant.  150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years after the March on Selma, 48 years after the Watts Riots, 45 years after cities burned following the assassination of Dr. King, 21 years after the beating of Rodney King and the destruction consequent upon that, 16 years after they tortured Abner Louima with a broomstick in that New York City police station, and so on, and so on – what happens after all these explosions?  What is left, but mortal weariness?

I suppose one way to answer my friend could be that criminal law is only incidentally about justice.  When they teach you about the purposes of criminal law in your first year of law school, they don’t spend a lot of time on “justice” as such.  They talk about deterrence, punishment, retribution. Mainly, then, from the point of view of those who train its practitioners, criminal law is about keeping the lid on.  “Keeping the lid on black people,” my friend would say.  I have no answer to that.  Anyone who knows something about the differential incarceration rates for blacks and for whites in this country, in this state (ANY state), knows there is no answer to that.

But I had to say something.  So, when my friend posted his banner on Facebook, I commented, “It makes me so sad,” without knowing why that seemed to be the most salient thing.  The next evening I talked with my son about it.  He is 21 years old, formidably bright and perceptive, and his thoughts are not blinkered by any form of conventionality.  I said, what do you think of this George Zimmerman thing?  He said, it’s ridiculous.  Kid walks through neighborhood.  Guy with a gun follows kid.  One of them winds up dead.  It’s not the guy with the gun.  Shouldn’t the guy with the gun be held responsible?  The kid didn’t need to die.  Is there any doubt that the guy with the gun caused his death?

I played devil’s advocate.  I said, but Zimmerman’s story, supported by the physical evidence, was that Martin bashed him in the nose hard enough to break it, and then jumped on him and banged his head on the ground.  His busted nose and banged-up head were real.  What about self-defense?  My son stuck to his figurative guns.  Guy beats you up, doesn’t mean you have to  kill him.  Anyway, who was following whom?  Who created this situation?  Who, after all is said and done, wound up dead?

My son said, obviously race has something to do with it, but I don’t think it’s all about race:  Zimmerman’s hispanic.  I said, still playing devil’s advocate, stand them up next to each other and tell me who’s the black guy.  To emphasize my point, I used a different word.  My son granted the point, but I could tell he wasn’t entirely convinced.  There was a different narrative running in his mind.  I can imagine it this way.  Zimmerman is perturbed to see this young black guy in the neighborhood.  He follows him.  It scares Martin.  Out of some combination of anger and fear, he attacks Zimmerman. He busts his stalker in the snoot and bangs his head on the ground.  He’s seventeen years old, he’s seen someone do that in a movie.  Zimmerman, who is basically a coward, thinks he is fighting for his life and shoots him.  The jury that has to digest all this is a group of modern white Americans; people deeply insulated from brutality, who fear it in direct proportion to the distance of their removal.  They all too easily understand that if someone is beating you up, you make him stop by blowing a hole in his chest, if you can.  In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we understand the coward’s way of thinking pretty well.  We have lost the personal, gut-level knowledge that violence – personal violence – comes in degrees, and that you can and should respond proportionately.

I think my son is right.  We’ll never really know what happened in the final minutes of Trayvon Martin’s life, and perhaps those moments of obscurity create enough doubt to prevent a conviction of guilt in the narrow sense of the criminal law.  Clearly the defense did a very skillful job of focusing the trial on that.  I didn’t sit on the jury, and I don’t know enough to judge them.  One thing I learned when I worked as a prosecutor was that it is next to impossible to understand what is really going on inside the courtroom, from outside the courtroom.  Human reality is that dense, and a courtroom with a criminal trial under way is just about the most densely human place on earth, once you dig through all the rules and procedural niceties.  But I know in my heart of hearts that the verdict in this case was ignorant of its context, and without context there is no meaning.  Big guy with gun chases skinny teen through neighborhood.  Teen winds up dead.  What more do you need to know?  It makes me so sad.


December 4th, 2012

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I had after watching Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln last night.  It assumes you’ve seen the movie or have some idea what it’s about.  Warning: there may be some spoilers here.  My son disclaimed interest in seeing this movie, saying he already knows how it turns out.  But there are many surprises along the way…

Shabbiness.  This is not a clean and sparkly costume drama like Anna Karenina.  They’re going for gritty period authenticity here, not fairyland.  Lincoln visits Grant’s field HQ, a nice white house in the country with a pillared porch, and there’s mud all over everything.  The rooms in the Capitol and the White House are smoky and dingy. No vacuumed wall-to-wall synthetic carpet, no gleaming linoleum, no sterile cubbies.  No sterile anything.  At a hospital, they dispose of amputated limbs by trundling them in a wooden wheelbarrow covered with a dirty sheet to dump them in a shallow pit out back.  The wheelbarrow drips puddles of blood all along the way you wouldn’t want to step in.  At the movie’s closing scene, Lincoln’s second inauguration, he is surrounded by a crowd of people standing in front of the Capitol, listening.  They all look unkempt, their clothes ill fitting and probably not too clean.  Nobody looks too well washed.  The rich and powerful don’t look a whole lot better dressed than the hoi polloi.  No orange tans and pink scrubbed faces and sleek suits like you see nowadays – not on the floor of the House of Representatives, not in the President’s offices, nowhere.  Almost the only exception is Rep. Atkins, the dapper floor manager in the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment on the House floor.  He stands out for his dapperness, meaning his cheeks look scrubbed, his clothes reasonably well tailored and well fitting.  This was a time when there was no shampoo as we know it – getting your hair really clean was next to impossible.  Lincoln’s hair takes on an almost independent life, practically deserves its own place in the credits.

Unadventurous old-fashioned film-making and story-telling.  Straightforward narrative, for the most part in simple chronological order, from a single detached point of view, the omniscient observer.  Not much fancy camera work or framing of scenes.  Score reasonably restrained, but still – at times obtrusively – constantly commenting, telling us what to feel.  Sense after about half way through that a LOT of scenes are set pieces for Lincoln’s oratory, for him to expound his agonized or eloquent or homey or whatever thoughts while other characters sit around and listen with varying degrees of appreciation.  From these standard, hoary Hollywood materials, Spielberg has fashioned a masterpiece. There’s life in the old girl yet!  Movie rides on the intelligence of the screenplay, the quality of the acting, and the scrupulous craftsmanship of the director.

Moral complexity.  The movie has been criticized for the way that blacks are mostly in the background.  I don’t think these criticisms are justified.  The movie’s very first scene is an ugly, hand-to-hand melee in which black soldiers fighting on the Union side gradually overcome and kill all of their Confederate adversaries.  Men are stuck with bayonets, strangled, held under water, stomped on the head into the mud.  The next scene is an interview between Lincoln and some of the victors/survivors.  A black soldier takes him to task for not going far enough in the cause of racial equality.  It is almost the only scene in which Lincoln seems ill at ease and inadequate to the task; a magnificent framing device, at once powerful and subtle.   For the rest of the movie, blacks are mostly in the background of the film’s action, because, with regard to the actual events depicted, that’s where they were.  Much later, Lincoln rides through a battlefield, picking his way through heaps of dead, grotesque piles of corpses from a battle that he knows did not need to take place except that he –Lincoln – has made ending slavery a priority over ending the war.  At the end of the movie, when we hear him speak those amazing words from the Second Inaugural Address about requiting with blood for every stroke of the lash from the bondsman’s two hundred years of toil, we know what personal pain those words carried for him, and it elevates them from the realm of mere oratory, however magnificent, to a cri de coeur.  Meanwhile, Lincoln struggles against his eldest surviving son’s desire to join the army, allowing him to do so at last but making sure he has a relatively safe job, and knowing that another father’s son may die for that decision.  And at the same time Lincoln is fighting to preserve the Republic, which in his mind stands for preserving democracy and the rule of law, he plays fast and loose with the Constitution and engages in the flimsiest forms of legal pettifoggery to bamboozle Congress into ending slavery.  If he is a hero, it is not because he was pure as Galahad.  Far from it.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist from Pennsylvania, sleeping with his  housekeeper.  I will admit to a small frisson of unmerited pride in my chosen home state when I learned that Mr. Stevens was born in Vermont, although he represented a Pennsylvania district in the House.  After the antislavery amendment is passed, and the day of celebration is over, Stevens goes to bed.  The camera pans across his creaky old body releasing itself into the mattress, to his bedmate, a black woman.  It’s played a little for shock effect, and for the effect of adding to Stevens’ heroism.  Whereas Lincoln, asked by his wife’s maid what he thinks will happen after the war when all blacks are free, says we’ll have to learn how to get along, which makes him seem a man thoroughly of his time,  by contrast Stevens’ loving interracial relationship makes him seem a man way way ahead of his time.  But even he keeps it a secret so as not to create scandal; and it inevitably echoes of less laudable sexual relationships between powerful white men and the domestic help.

Level of personal vituperation in politics.  Our latter-day politicians are virtuosos of euphemism, innuendo, dog-whistles, code-words; but these guys reveled in name-calling.  They indulge exuberantly in verbal mud-wrestling.  There’s a scene where Stevens, goaded almost beyond his limited endurance, borders on the scatological in describing in detail the lower orders of life to which he claims his contemptible interlocutor belongs, ending by observing that the fellow should be smashed underfoot.  It would be even funnier if we hadn’t seen somebody doing just that in the movie’s opening sequence.  There are many such examples of high fluency and verbal inventiveness used as assault weapons.  Part of that is probably just the playwright, Tony Kushner, having fun with language.  Some of the glee with which Thaddeus Stevens describes an opponent on the floor of the House to his face as disgusting slime is probably due to the fact that it’s Tommy Lee Jones who is playing him.  But it’s also true to the times. It was a period when educated people deployed spoken language with more potency and sophistication and in some ways – despite our freedom with fuck and shit and so on – with less inhibition than we do now.  Anyway, those who decry the lack of civility in modern political discourse should take note.

Lincoln outsized compared to the other characters, literally and figuratively.  In every dimension, physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, he is simply larger.  Only the volcanic Thaddeus Stevens comes close.  Of all the many vividly drawn characters in the movie, Lincoln’s wife Mary alone is depicted as fully in the round as he, a woman of surprising resilience and combative intelligence, but even she is a much smaller personality.  This is partly a function of the film’s focus – it’s entitled Lincoln after all – and partly a (probably) accurate vision of what it is like to be around a truly great man.  Great means big.  He dwarfs us.  So when a room full of ego-driven, aggressive, powerful men falls silent while he spins out one of his befuddling parables, it’s psychologically plausible.  It’s not that he sucks all the oxygen out of the room the way a histrionic narcissist does, it’s that when he takes action there’s simply nothing else to watch.  Sometimes they rebel – Sec. of War Stanton fulminates I can’t stand another one of your stories and hustles away – but the rest stay and listen.  There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s him.

Lincoln’s weariness.  His gait like an exhausted plow horse plodding home after a long long day in the field. The visible effort he puts into bending and unbending that long body standing up or sitting down.  The default mode of his face – brooding exhaustion.  The horrible personal cost of being him.  He gets more stooped and hunch-shouldered as things go on, as if he is literally being dragged down by the weight of his burdens and also by the continuing need to meet his fellow beings on their level.

Lincoln’s mode of thought – narrative, analogy, metaphor.  Oh, he’s capable of powerful legal and political logic. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to do the job of ending slavery and might be legally wrong, coupled with his explanation of why the Thirteenth Amendment has to be passed through Congress now now now before the war’s end, is an almost breathtaking exhibition.  This is a guy who Thinks Things Through.  Somebody once said of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum that he was almost impossible to play with in a duet because nobody else could think that fast.  One gets the idea Lincoln was like that, as a lawyer and politician.  But: his default mode of thinking is essentially via image and metaphor; dare I say it, poetic.  Nearly every time he is called upon to make a considered response to something, whether it is a question, a situation, an interpersonal problem, the first place his mind goes is to a story, an example, a concrete reality.  It is this ability to find a bridge of resonance between one set of circumstances and another, and thus between one person or group of people and another, that is his most characteristic mode of thought.

Not just an exercise in antiquarianism.  Given our very recent history, it is jarring at first to have the party of civil rights be the Republicans, and even more jarring that the Radical Republicans are the most progressive ones, while the Democrats are the party of white racial solidarity.  But then people of my generation may remember that it was in fact more or less this way well into our childhoods, until Nixon struck his deal with the devil in 1972 and Reps and Dems switched places.  But what kept striking me over and over is how we still are repeating the same essential conversation over and over, that everything in American politics either harkens back to race or is fundamentally about race, and that all the basic attitudes we encounter today are pretty much the same as those expressed in the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.  Instead of talking about slavery, we’re talking about affirmative action and voter suppression and discrimination and minority rights and immigration and so on.  But the things we (I mean mostly white people) are saying about these subjects, although couched in radically different language, are mostly things that might have been said 147 years ago.  But there is a difference.  In the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment, the Democrats tried to force Thaddeus Stevens to say what he in fact believed, that the point of ending slavery was to promote equality of the races.  Such a bald, radical statement might have scuttled the project.  So he swallowed hard and pretended that he was only interested in equality before the law.  To the extent that he would not have to mount such a pretense today, that is the measure of our progress.

Huck and Slave Jim’s Excellent Adventure

January 15th, 2011

Professor Alan Gribben of the University of Alabama – a Mark Twain scholar, no less – is publishing an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” does not appear.  No more Nigger Jim.  “Slave” is the euphemism our professor has chosen to replace “nigger,” all 219 instances of it in the work, if “slave” can be considered a euphemism for anything.  The rationale offered for the change is to avoid offending contemporary black sensibilities and thereby to gain readers for Twain.

It is touching that such sensitivity should emanate from a bulwark of the former Confederacy. One would not think that a person makes amends for former sins by covering them up, and in any event it is a peculiar tactic to cover up the sin of racial denigration by repeatedly referring in its place to the greater sin of chattel bondage, but white guilt takes us to some strange places.  I don’t know whether guilt actually is the motivation here, but it seems implicit in the project.

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Season’s greetings from Purgatory

December 26th, 2010

On this day that marks the completion of the annual retail event which is the rock upon which modern America hath builded its church, I had planned to offer you some finely honed observations about This Special Season.  But I find that they’re not finely honed enough, and anyway today my thoughts are running in another direction.  I’m recalling an evening in my senior year at Middlebury College, when I was given the nicest compliment that anyone has ever paid me.

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