Thursday, June 25, 2015

On the Confederate Flag

Troy D. Smith

This was not intended to be a blog post, but was actually a (VERY long) Facebook comment. It is one part history of the Confederate Flag and one part my take on the present controversy. I will just post it as I wrote it on Facebook, along with this image (culled from my American History I power point lecture.)

In all the discussion of the Confederate flag lately, there has been some confusion... in particular, even news anchors keep referring to what we today consider the "Rebel Flag" as the "Stars and Bars," which is inaccurate. What flies at the SC capitol grounds (but no longer from the capitol building, having been moved to a -more visible- Confederate memorial a few years ago) is the Confederate Battle Flag, which was the official flag of the Army of Northern Virgina (Lee's army); it also served as the Confederate Navy Jack for the second half of the war. The Army version was square, the navy one the more familiar rectangle. In other words, it was a military flag and not the flag of the Confederate States of America, though it was incorporated into later designs of that flag. 

The CSA went through four national flags, all shown in the image attached: The Bonnie Blue Flag (the first, and unofficial, flag- this is the one that South Carolinians were flying when they attacked Fort Sumter); The Stars and Bars (the ACTUAL Stars and Bars- which was very similar to the American flag, and the reason they needed a separate "battle flag", since U.S. and C.S national flags looked so similar it was confusing on the battlefield when you were trying to figure out who to shoot at). This was the official CSA flag for roughly the first half of the war; The Stainless Banner, which was the national flag for most of the second half of the war, and did in fact incorporate the battle flag; and The Blood-stained Banner, used in the final weeks of the war, which was basically the Stainless Banner with a red stripe added.

Someone asked me recently if I thought the Stars and Bars should be treated the same as the battle flag, so far as public outcry. Here's my take on that... on the one hand, the Stars and Bars represents the Confederate government, the one with the constitution that promoted slavery and white supremacy, which policy Confederate VP Alexander lauded as "the corner-stone of the Confederacy," whereas the battle flag, it could more effectively be argued, stood for, yes, the military arm of that government, but also the common soldiers who served. So from that perspective, the Civil War-centric arguments pro-and-con about the Rebel flag, one COULD argue, could shake out as the anti-flag folks' arguments pertaining MORE to the Stars and Bars than to the Battle Flag, since it officially represented the Confederacy, and latter-day defenders' arguments about the heritage of their ancestors' military service might have some bearing. 

BUT. All that is rendered moot by the fact that the Battle Flag did NOT just represent the common soldier, then or afterward. After all, the symbol caught on so well it became PART OF the national CSA flag. And afterward? We all know how the Rebel flag has been used by white supremacists, from right after the end of the war until the present. This is especially true since 1948, when it was used as a symbol by the segregationist Dixiecrat Party and caught on with white Southerners in that context. People have pointed out that the KKK was just as likely, in fact more likely, to use the U.S. flag as the Rebel one -but fail to take into account that this was in the 1920s, when anti-immigrant prejudice was at a fever pitch and when the Klan was truly national, not just Southern (in the 1920s, it has been estimated, one out of every seven white men in America was in the KKK.) 

But this was not the case in the 1950s and 60s, when the Battle Flag was used as an emblem of racist Southerners fighting against federally imposed desegregation. And THIS was the period during which most of the Rebel flags and neo-Confederate symbolism started being used bigtime, and started being flown over Southern state capitols or incorporated into Southern state flags (except Mississippi, who started using it in the 1890s at the dawn of the Jim Crow era.) The Confederate flag became part of the Georgia state flag in the late 1950s, at around the same time a lot of stuff in Tennessee started being named after Confederate general -and KKK founder -Nathan Bedford Forrest. During the Civil Rights era. To illustrate opposition to civil rights for black people. The Confederate Battle Flag was no doubt one of the last things a lot of black lynching victims saw down through the decades. 

So here's my take: both the Stars and Bars and the Battle Flag represent (1) the Confederacy, founded on the principles of slavery and white supremacy and (2) the Battle Flag especially went from being a military emblem of that government to being a symbol of racial terrorism, and it was actually in that capacity it was enshrined in Southern political venues, not in the 1860s but the 1960s. Not to mention, it was the flag of an illegally formed nation that treasonously attacked the United States (all these people who claim Lincoln and the Union "started" the Civil War somehow miss the fact that the Confederates fired on the U.S. outpost at Fort Sumter, thereby initiating hostilities.) For all these reasons, I believe any version of the Confederate flag has no business flying or being displayed at any federal, state, or local government site (unless it is a historically designated Civil War battlefield.) If you are a black citizen in South Carolina, YOUR GOVERNMENT and YOUR TAX DOLLARS support the flag of the Confederacy that tried to keep your ancestors enslaved- how fair is that? 

On the other hand, this is America; I believe that if you want to fly a Rebel flag at your house, or on your car, or any other private property (including your belt buckle or your T-shirt), that is your business and your right. Of course, Wal-mart and Amazon have the right to protect their business interests by staying away from controversy. But if you can want Confederate merchandise, and can find a place to buy it, that is your right. And others have the right to criticize you for it, and you have the right to criticize them right back. If your ancestor was in the Confederate military and you want to put Battle Flags on his grave, well, that is the flag he served. But it doesn't belong on anything government-sponsored, especially state flags and capitol buildings. And -as a region and as a nation- we all need to acknowledge just what the Confederacy was and quit romanticizing it, and let it be our past instead of our present (you don't have to glamorize the Confederacy to be a proud Southerner.) Finally, as a professional historian, I have not only the right but the duty and obligation to keep telling you the historical meaning of it all. (P.S.- yes, Virginia, the Civil War was primarily about slavery.)

Troy D. Smith
Assistant Professor of History
Tennessee Tech University

Author of Bound for the Promise-Land, Good Rebel Soil, and "Legacy of Blood: The Legend of Champ Ferguson" in People of the Upper Cumberland.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Tragedy in Charleston: What Should We Do?

I am tired.

I had planned to be in bed by now, and I am so far behind on so many things people are depending on me to do. But I can’t rest just yet, not until I’ve articulated the thoughts swirling in my mind today while they are still fresh (and before the world has begun, as it always does, to move on.)

I managed to avoid making any comment whatsoever on social media about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has passed for years as black, because her story itself makes me tired. But today, with all the media attention to the horrible racist attack on the AME church in Charleston, SC (the church of Denmark Vesey, as it turns out), and especially the responses to it I’ve been seeing from conservatives (especially on Fox News, quelle surprise), I keep thinking about what Dolezal’s story says about white liberals, and what Fox’s responses (and many Republican politicians’) say about white conservatives. And how it all ties together.

Most white Americans don’t want to face racism, and the legacy of slavery. Understandable; it’s a hell of a thing to face. Being members of the dominant end of the racial hierarchy, of course, gives white folks the freedom (aka privilege) NOT to face such things, a freedom those victimized by the hierarchy have never had. This deliberate blindness takes different faces, though. One way to avoid facing race is to deny that it exists, or that you personally benefit from it –to say that it is over, it was the bad old days before you were born, and it has all been fixed so just get over it. This denial becomes intrinsic to certain political views, hence you have –not just politicians but “journalists” –saying it is impossible to know the shooter’s motives, or even to deduce them, unless maybe he was motivated by a hatred of Christmas or something.

That’s one way.

Another way is the route chosen by Rachel Dolezal, and by some other white folks in less dramatic ways. It is embarrassing to be part of the oppressive end of that hierarchy. We want to identify with the underdog. There is more honor to be had by playing the part of the oppressed than the oppressor. Dolezal went full-tilt with this approach, claiming not just affinity or empathy with the black experience but… the actual black experience. Which is patently ridiculous, like the prince dressing as a pauper and claiming a full understanding of pauperism… when all he has to do is put his crown back on and he is back on the ruling side, an option denied the myriad paupers. A similar, but less dramatic, example was recently when Ben Affleck –the subject of one of those “discover your ancestry” TV shows –tried to hide the fact that one of his ancestors was a slave trader. That does not fit in with his personal identity as a New England liberal “good guy.” It was embarrassing.

There are a couple of huge problems with this approach (beyond the dissembling.)

Number one. As white Americans, it is absolutely essential that we FACE THE TRUTH ABOUT RACE. It is what this country was built on, and continues to echo into the present. It is the foundation, the chassis, of our society, and simply ignoring that will never change anything. We have to recognize our privilege, and yes, our communal culpability. We weren’t around back then, true, but we’re around now and we are benefiting from the accrued advantages of whiteness whether we recognize or admit it or not. Even if, like me, you grew up poor and disadvantaged in other ways. Dolezal and Affleck did not want to do this. They didn’t want to be associated with the “bad guys.” Again, who could blame them.  My point is: we have to face up to our cultural (and family) pasts, all of us.

Number two. Now, I know Dolezal did a lot of good things (as has Mr. Affleck). But she missed a chance to do it in a much more appropriate way. Rather than culturally appropriating blackness, she could have worked just as hard without fudging on her background. What this would have done: given her the opportunity to take advantage of her privilege… to combat privilege. To deconstruct it, to work against it from the inside. To work in a supporting role at some times, and to step to the fore at others.  Many people of color that I know grow weary of being expected to explain the most fundamental things about race over and over again to a white audience; white folks who get it have a responsibility to keep trying to explain it to those who don’t, but without pushing people of color out of the spotlight when they are talking about their own lived experiences.

What this approach would NOT have done for Ms. Dolezal: allow her to be the victim. What it would not have done for Ben Affleck: allow him to be the scion of a spotlessly heroic family. Well… too bad.

Most American Indian tribes in North America believed (and still believe) in community responsibility, more than individual responsibility. If your group collectively did something to disrupt the spiritual balance of the universe, it was your responsibility to do what you could to fix it, whether you personally had performed the actions or not. I believe in this philosophy. It is not white guilt: it is white culpability and responsibility. Not responsibility in a “White Man’s Burden / Nobless Oblige” sense, tied to saviorism; responsibility in the American Indian sense, the acknowledgement that your people have messed up and it is the duty of all of you to do something about it. It must have been very tempting to Dolezal to immerse herself so deeply into black culture, and into fighting injustice, that she came to view and promote herself as black –but in a very real way, in doing so she was shirking her duty in that fight. That duty: to recognize and acknowledge her privilege, and to renounce the system that privileged her.

What does that look like? On a day like this…. When an acknowledged racist has slain nine black people at a historic black church, and many white people refuse to see race in it all, just as they refuse to see race in the spate of killings of unarmed black men (and children)… what does it look like?

It means raising your voice, fellow Caucasoid individuals. It means saying “No, this IS about race, it IS about privilege. I am benefited by it, but I condemn it, and I am calling for an end to it.” It means standing in support of our brothers and sisters of color- without having what I think of as a “Tarzan moment” when we swoop in and tell them how they should feel and react, and show them the “right way” to do it. And “lead” them (cough cough, Rachel Dolezal.) But most of all, it means admitting, and explaining to our fellow white folks. Especially at times like this.

Again I say: I am so tired. Many of you are, as well. But we have miles to go before we sleep.

God bless the members of the Emanuel AME Church, and God strengthen us all.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day Musings: Why Unions Still Matter

Sometimes students complain to me that my American History survey classes are an endless refrain of “race, race, race,” or “labor, labor, labor,” or a combination of the two. And they are right, to an extent, though I do cover other things as well… but those two topics have been huge factors in American history, and they do often intersect.

I teach at Tennessee Tech University, my undergrad alma mater, located a few miles from my home town (which is Sparta –TTU is in nearby Cookeville.) I did my graduate work at the University of Illinois, at Champaign-Urbana; the two regions are very different, in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the communities’ viewpoints on organized labor. There is plenty of anti-union sentiment in “Chambana” –we learned that when our graduate employees’ organization went on strike (successfully) in 2009. But there was also plenty of pro-union sentiment, and people from a wide range of backgrounds who refused to cross picket lines. In the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, on the other hand, there seems to be an almost universal feeling among the populace that unions are ineffective, corrupt, and even evil. And that Tennessee is just not a union place, and never has been.

And it’s no wonder they feel that way. Since I’m a historian, here’s where I start throwing dates at you. In 1946 Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the beginning of the Depression –in other words, they were out of power for all four of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terms (his fourth one mostly filled by his VP, Harry Truman, as FDR died not far into it.) Now that they were back in the game, the GOP wanted to undo as many of FDR’s liberal accomplishments as possible, starting with labor unions –which had grown considerably in the 1930s and 1940s, helped by the Wagner Act (officially, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935), which had legally secured many of the rights unions had been fighting to achieve for decades. Organized labor stood at a high point at the end of WWII, with one quarter of the American workforce unionized. During the Roosevelt years, in fact, the general public perception of unions had shifted from “they’re all a bunch of communist socialist foreign-influenced troublemakers” (the 1920s, in some ways the most conservative decade in American history) to “Look for the union label –made in America! Unions help preserve freedom!” (WWII.)

In 1947 Congress passed an amendment to the 1935 Wagner Act, the Taft-Hartley Act (or, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947.) President Truman vetoed it, but there were enough votes to override his veto. The new law tilted the balance significantly away from labor and toward management, in sundry ways –but one of the most significant was that it gave individual states the right to pass “right-to-work” laws. The Wagner Act had protected the “closed shop” –employers had to agree to hire only union workers. Taft-Hartley made this illegal, but there was still the option to have “union shops”, in which you didn’t have to be a union member to get a job, but you had to join the union within a specified time period. “Right-to-work” laws outlawed that system as well; in essence, you have the “right to work” without having to join a union.

And on the surface, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The very name has positive connotations –heck, everyone should have the right to work, right?

Here is a little exercise I use in class to explain the effects of late 19th century Taylorization, or scientific management, on factory work (it took a lot of power away from specialized craftsmen –the approach was nicknamed after its principal architect, Frederick Winslow Taylor) as well as to demonstrate the practical effects of “right-to-work.”


All right, students- this classroom is now a paper airplane factory, and I am the owner. Under the old craftsman-and-apprentice way of doing things –in place till the late 19th century –I would rely on a small number of skilled craftsmen to supervise the building of my paper airplanes. They would serve as gang bosses, and have a crew of apprentices. [at this point, I ask who knows how to make a paper airplane –nowadays, a minority of students.] As owner, I don’t have to know anything about how the process works, I just need to supply the funds.

Okay… all you folks who have the specialized knowledge of how to make a paper airplane, you are gang bosses; I’m going to pay you a dollar a day. The rest of the students are your helpers, they get fifty cents a day. And good news, I’ve decided to give one lucky gang boss a ten dollar bonus! We’re going to have a contest to see who gets the prize. The first person to successfully make and launch a paper airplane is the winner. I have helpers assigned to carefully monitor each of you, to see how you do it. Now –go!

We have a winner –one minute, forty-five seconds. Congratulations, you get the ten dollar prize!

Now- all you gang bosses are fired. I have carefully observed and recorded your paper airplane building technique, and I don’t need you anymore –now I have the manufacturing knowledge. Plus, I now know it is humanly possible to make a paper airplane in exactly one minute and forty-five seconds –so now that is what I expect from all the rest of you, all day long. And I am cutting your wages to 35 cents a day.

At this point I ask the students if there is anything they could have done to prevent me from taking those actions. The answer: they could have organized. If they had all stood together, there is at least a chance they could have prevented the scenario from working out so much to their detriment. How many of you wish you had organized? [Just about everyone raises their hand.]

Now- how many of you would have been willing, out of your fifty cents a day pay, to give ten cents of it into a common fund to support your organizing actions? [Almost no one raises their hand.]

Under a closed or union shop, you’d all make the same investment in dues, and you’d have a common fund to draw from to support any action you chose to take. Under right-to-work, or an open shop, only those who volunteered to contribute would have to –and only a small fraction would do so, maybe 10% at most. Let’s say there are a hundred workers; in this scenario, you’d have a union, but it would only have ten members –and it would not be strong enough to accomplish anything. Let’s say you went on strike –ten percent of a workforce can be easily replaced. If you did get any concessions, it would probably apply to the whole workforce –meaning even less incentive for anyone to join, as they could get any potential benefits (if there were any) with no personal risk. Plus, all of the workers would have less security because they would have no powerful union to protect their interests; it is no accident that right-to-work states are also fire-at-will states. As President Obama put it, it is actually “the right to work for less money.” It is also no accident that the decline in power (and public prestige) of unions has been paralleled by decreasing power for workers.

Back to Taft-Hartley. The law was passed in 1947, and states were allowed to pass right-to-work laws if they wished. Guess which states did? States in the South, and parts of the West:

Note that Iowa is among the blue states; their right-to-work law was passed in the 1980s. Here is a more recent map, reflecting the recent laws passed in the Industrial Midwest: Indiana and Michigan have both joined the right-to-work column in 2013, thanks to Republican-dominated legislatures. There have been similar efforts, so far thwarted, in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Incidentally, here is a map of the poorest states as of 2000, pre-Great Recession:

And here is a map showing the poverty levels in 2009, POST Great Recession:

Looking at all those maps shows us that the economic downturn has hit the “Rust Belt” of the Industrial Midwest pretty hard, and hasn’t spared the West Coast, either, as a lot of states have moved into poverty since the recession hit.

But notice something else. As of 2000, of the twelve states with the highest poverty rates, 8 had been right-to-work states for half a century. That’s 2/3. Of the 12 states with the LOWEST poverty rate, only ONE had a right-to-work law. Looking at the 12 NEXT-highest poverty states in 2000, the “3rd Quartile,” 9 of them had right-to-work laws.

The right to work for less.

Of course, the 2009 map looks different…. Generally speaking, all the states that had high poverty a decade earlier still did, but several more had joined them- particularly in the Midwest, which was hit very hard by the recession. This would explain why some residents in that area have been influenced by the conservative media campaign telling them that unions have not helped them, and that all their jobs have gone to right-to-work states. But the fact is, looking at the longterm effects of right-to-work on the South in particular, the longer a state operates under that system the poorer its citizens get.

And what a media campaign it has been. For the first time in my memory, teachers, firemen, and police have been painted as bad guys –lazy, opportunistic parasites, sucking away your hard-earned tax dollars because they are unionized. Those are the most important jobs in this country, and I’ve never known anyone who filled them who was paid what that job ought to be worth. Yet in the 21st century they’re being demonized.

When I talk to people who are anti-union, or undecided, the first thing I point out to them (naturally) is the fact that there is a long list of benefits most of us have today –safety regulations, a 40-hour week, overtime for hourly employees who go over that, sick leave, vacation time, paid holidays –all of it won by unions. 

“Well, sure,” they often reply. “But that was the past. We don’t need unions anymore, we have all that stuff.”

Here’s the deal. We have that stuff because people struggled, and people died, to get it. Right here in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, there was violent suppression of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s; it was even worse in West Virginia in the ‘20s. If you haven’t seen the film Matewan, you need to –and you should read about Tennessee’s Wilder strike HERE.

If all those gains are allowed to be lost, someone else is going to have to struggle to get them back. And inaction will inevitably lead to their loss. Why has there been such a right-to-work battle in the Midwest, traditionally a strong union area? Because in the 2010 midterm elections there was a lot of apathy among progressives because President Obama’s promised change wasn’t coming fast enough, and a lot of them stayed home on the day of the midterm elections. And a conservative wave passed through the state legislatures of this country, and now we are seeing the result. They may not have crippled the power of unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, but they did so in Michigan, “home base” of the American labor movement… so they’re not going to quit trying.

But they can only succeed if we let them. The people, united, will never be defeated.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Race in Ferguson, MO... Race in America

     Troy D. Smith

I wear a lot of different hats nowadays. But my main hat is that of historian, specifically historian of race in American history (with a focus on American Indian and African American interactions.) With that particular focus, there has been a lot going on in the news the last few months that touches on my field of research. I’ve been meaning to write a blog about these things for some time –I believe that historians should be public intellectuals, and should engage with people outside academia about major issues –but I’ve been pretty busy, and the items that need to be discussed have been piling up. So I’ve decided to take some time to lay out what’s on my mind, as best I can, so I can direct people to a website instead of engage them one at a time on social media.

For all those people (and I was definitely not one of them) who believed that the election of our first black president would lead the U.S.A. into a post-racial age and make discussion of race irrelevant –well, I bet you don’t think that anymore. And if you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

There have been several instances this summer of 2014 that have brought race to the forefront of our consciousness –even when many Americans would prefer to ignore the racial component of them. A black man accused of selling individual cigarettes on the streets of New York is wrestled to the ground in an illegal chokehold, and dies. Unarmed young black men are killed by police across the country (an old story, sadly), and one incident in particular leads to two weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that see local police arresting reporters, tear-gassing crowds, and rolling in armored vehicles and machine guns. This is on top of a string of highly publicized events over the past year, from the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin to a white Florida man shooting into a van filled with black teens because they wouldn’t turn down their music (killing one), to a young black woman in Detroit breaking down and going to a stranger’s house for help and being shot in the face by a shotgun, to another Florida white man chasing down and shooting to death a 21-year-old black man who happened to be running through his neighborhood. In all the cases I mentioned, the shooters claimed that they felt threatened and acted to protect themselves; sometimes they could produce circumstances that could be interpreted as vaguely suspicious to justify their fear-fueled actions, and when they could not their lawyers or supporters produced “evidence” from the victims’ pasts that seemed to indicate they were shady characters (or, more bluntly, “thugs.”) You know, things like the fact they were wearing a hoodie, or had Facebook pictures of them flashing gang signs or repeating rap lyrics, or the fact they had at some point smoked marijuana. (As one former student of mine put it, if you shot every American male under 25 who liked rap, smoked pot, wore hoodies, and thought it was cool to flash gang signs, there would be almost no American males of any race left alive.)

All of the events I listed above saddened me greatly –especially the fact that they just keep coming, so close together –but none of them surprised me. Which is a sad statement of affairs in itself. But there was one thing that happened in recent months that did surprise me. I am speaking of the backlash against Nelson Mandela after his death last December. I was born in 1968, and for my whole life Nelson Mandela has been framed in American public discourse as the symbol of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and later of racial reconciliation. In short, as one of the big heroes of my generation. Of course, immediately after his death, there was a lot of talk along those lines. But among many conservatives –not just on Fox News but on my Facebook feed –the focus was on the actions that helped lead to Mandela’s arrest in the early 1960s, a time when the African National Congress (like a lot of groups in colonial or post-colonial African countries at mid-century) had turned to violent resistance (in some cases, allegedly, into the 1980s.) To my amazement, a huge portion of America was calling Mandela a terrorist, a violent and horrible man, conveniently ignoring his change in philosophy. And conveniently ignoring the fact that, if his name had been George Washington, they’d be calling him a freedom fighter; or that if he were part of a white group, many of these folks would be extolling his efforts to take arms against an oppressive government as a defense of liberty and, if it were in the U.S., as a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. They were also linking him to this horrible thing (at least to hear them tell it) called “Anti-Colonialism,” you know, like those people in Kenya, when they fought the British. Again, this seemed to me either hypocritical or uninformed. After all, what could be more “anti-colonialist” than colonists raiding a government arsenal to gain weapons with which to rebel against the British Army (please see “Lexington and Concord, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”)? Oh, but that was different.

I guess I have also been surprised, though I should not be, at just how many white Americans don’t see any of the things I have mentioned as racial issues. With the George Zimmerman verdict/Trayvon Martin killing, 78% of blacks surveyed thought the situation reflected major racial issues, while only 28% of white people thought so. On the other hand, 60% of white people thought too much attention was being paid to race in the case, while among blacks that number was only 13%. With the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a similar divide. 80% of blacks believed the situation was racial, while only 37% of whites did. 47% of whites surveyed thought too much attention was being paid to race; 18% of blacks agreed. On one hand, it does seem that a substantially higher number of white people see racism in Ferguson than they did in George Zimmerman; on the other hand, the difference between black and white attitudes in both cases are highly disproportional.

This difference in attitudes is usually not a matter of white people saying “black people are inferior, lazy animals who deserve what they get.” Although, sadly, there do seem to be a lot of people out there saying such outright racist things (reading the comments sections has become a very depressing thing.) I have seen slightly less outright racism (but only slightly less) on comment threads on Facebook, with people saying “this behavior (looting) is so TYPICAL of the blacks.”

No, it usually goes more like this: “We need to wait and get all the facts about fill-in-the-blank incident, and give the shooter the benefit of the doubt (innocent until proven guilty) and not immediately jump to conclusions about race. In fact, race isn’t nearly as big a problem as a lot of minorities and bleeding heart liberals claim it is; we’ve made huge strides, there is a black president, so there can’t be racism. In fact, if anyone suffers from racism it is white people, who are constantly being accused of things and having their rights curtailed and their opportunities limited by race-baiting troublemakers who want to keep stirring the pot to bring attention to themselves because most of them are lazy and looking for a handout instead of going out and working.”

Of course, everyone doesn’t say ALL those things (though some do), it is kind of a spectrum. A lot of white folks only say the first one or two clauses, they don’t run the whole gamut. And in fact, if you just look at the first half of that paragraph –ending with “so there can’t be racism” –it seems kind of reasonable, especially the part about getting all the facts. This is usually coupled with appeals to reason –stop reacting with pure emotion, just look at the facts, they’ll say. And this portion of white Americans –which seems to be somewhere around two-thirds to three-quarters of us –cannot for the life of them understand why those people so worked up on the other side don’t just understand what they’re saying.

But the fact is, most black folks see things differently, because they have a very different lived experience. If you go through life expecting to be stopped and frisked because you are, very often; if you know that you might get arrested instead of helped by the nice officer when you’re trying to get into your accidentally locked car or house; if you have to drill it into your teenaged son that if he is rude to the cops there is a good chance he will be arrested or shot (rather than “if you’re rude to the cops it will make us look bad as parents”), why, then, odds are you’re going to suspect something is going on there. If it happens frequently, sometimes to people you know, you expect it to happen and assume it to be the way things tend to work (even though they’re not supposed to.) And you’re going to get a little angrier every time it happens to you, or someone you know, or someone who looks like you, because it is not fair.

Most white people are going to say you are overreacting, being emotional and paranoid or even whiny. Often they won’t even believe you when you say it happens –because it never happens to them, and because it is not supposed to happen, therefore they assume it does not (because to assume otherwise would be to admit that racism is not only still real but still powerful, and they don’t want to believe that- the legacy of slavery and segregation makes them ashamed and uncomfortable and they wish it would just go away.) So they don’t understand, or validate, your  anger. “Be reasonable.”

However, if one were to look at the big picture reasonably, logically, and rationally, the facts would be inescapable. I’m not going to bog you down with a bunch of numbers and specifics, because recent studies show that people’s minds shut down when you throw a bunch of pure facts at them –but they are out there, and I will provide links at the end of this piece. So let’s just stick with the broader facts. A higher percentage of white youths use drugs than black youths –and since their raw numbers are much higher to begin with, this means that there are far more white people using drugs than black people. Yet black people are three times more likely to be arrested on drug charges. Of all the people in prison on drug charges in 2011, 45% were black and 30% were white. If there are far more white people using drugs than black people, how can those numbers be accurate? Because it is the black people who disproportionately get searched for drugs, so you’re a lot more likely to get caught. And the more you get caught, the more “strikes” you have on your record and the more likely you are to go to prison.

Let’s take a look at Ferguson, where the population is 68% black and 30% white. But blacks have 87% of the traffic stops, and 93% of the arrests. And here’s the kicker- about 22% of the blacks stopped have drugs on them. Of the much smaller number of whites who are stopped, 34% have drugs on them. So, statistically, white people are more likely to have drugs, yet very few are arrested because most of the stops are of black people. A lot of young black men are in and out of jail, and many have been to prison and are no longer allowed to vote. Guess what? In this town that is almost 70% black, almost all the local government and police are white.

If your eyes are starting to glaze over because we’ve been saying numbers, you need to wake the hell up. This is important.

WHY do black people get stopped, frisked, and arrested in substantially higher numbers than whites? WHY are unarmed black men more likely to be shot by the police than unarmed white men, and sometimes it seems even than armed white men? WHY do white gun owners feel threatened enough by the presence of young black men that they will shoot them for something as innocuous as running through their yard or playing loud music?

Let’s go a few steps further.

WHY do some people consider Nelson Mandela or other anti-colonialists as terrorist thugs for using the same tactics many white “freedom fighters” have used?

In the late 60s and early 70s, the American Indian Movement adopted some of the methods of the Black Power movement –and yes, the Black Panthers –arming themselves and occupying federal buildings, engaging in pitched battles with the FBI and  local police. In doing so they gained a lot of recognition for their people’s struggles for liberty, and a lot of national support for their cause. Many of the leaders of that movement have gone on to be considered public heroes, and many Americans still believe they were right in what they did (though the country was a lot more divided at the time.) Do people feel that way about the Black Panthers, or their leaders? The answer is obviously no. I once asked a student why that was, and she answered “Well, the Indians didn’t carry guns and advocate violence.”  “Yes they did,” I answered, “but, like the Panthers, they called it self-defense.” So why are they not viewed through the same lens by most white people?

In fact, in the late 60s Black Panthers were carrying shotguns and rifles in public in California –which was perfectly legal, as long as you didn’t point them directly at anybody. And California’s conservative Republican governor, the Sainted Ronald Reagan, signed a law prohibiting the open carrying of firearms in public (there is no question about his motivations.) Even the revered Second Amendment (or, more accurately, the conservative interpretation of it) went out the window when it came to arming black men.

Why is that?

All these things are connected, and they are all part of the legacy of race and slavery that this country was founded on. You’ve probably never thought of it that way; that’s why you need to stop and think about it now.

For 250 years, the vast majority of people of African descent who lived in this country (for much of that time British colonies) were in bondage. There were slaves in the north for most of that time, but they were concentrated on the plantations of the south. Some colonies/states had more black slaves than white citizens. And those white citizens lived in fear (especially after the successful slave revolt that established the nation of Haiti.) They feared the large-scale slave revolt; they feared the smaller revolts of individuals or small groups. There were a few attempted uprisings that were suppressed, some with a lot of deaths on the white side and a lot more on the black one, but there were a lot of small acts of defiance (including escapes, sabotage, and even murder –not a small act to the victim, to be sure.) THEREFORE: hale and fit young black men needed to be controlled, and controlled tightly. With every instance of rebellion, slave laws got tighter (most people don’t realize that slavery was far stricter in the 1850s than it had been in the early 1600s.) Slave patrols –often made up of volunteers, like a militia –kept watch on the roads at night.

If you were a black man, and you were caught out on the roads without your papers, especially at night –you were going to be punished. And if you didn’t mind your manners, you might not make it home alive. Because that’s what this antebellum world was built on- a power structure, in which it was absolutely imperative that those on the bottom know their place and keep it. And this did not end with slavery- in fact, it got worse. Historians call the period from the end of Reconstruction (1877) to the 1920s as the nadir, or low point, of African American history. Now, you see, angry white people no longer even had to worry about getting in trouble for damaging some rich man’s property if they killed an uppity Negro, and lynchings became commonplace. Not the kind of lynching you used to see on Bonanza or Gunsmoke; the kind that involved torture, castration, being cut into pieces, being burned alive, and maybe all of the above. And it wasn’t confined to the South. Black life was cheaper than ever. And up until the 1920s and 1930s whole communities would turn out for these events, treating them like the county fair. They were still going on in the 1960s, just no longer in public.  

“There you go again,” you might be saying. “Bringing up slavery- in the distant past, which I had nothing to do with.” You might even be able to say that your family had nothing to do with it. Some people who don’t like this kind of conversation will say “Race will go away if people like you will just quit talking about it. Let the past stay in the past.”

Except that’s not how it works. The past, as Faulkner famously said, is never really dead –in fact it isn’t even past. You see this racialized structure I speak of –in the distant past –is what this country was founded on, and we are still in the (very gradual) process of changing it. There’s a long way to go, because all the echoes of that past still reverberate into the present. Saying we should ignore it or just get over it is like having an open wound and believing if you stop looking at it, it will be better. Or it’s like building your house on a fault line, and every time there is a tremor saying “Yeah, I know we built it on a fault line, would you for petesake quit dragging up the past and just get over it!” Instead of, you know, doing something about it.

Here’s how it works.

When my daughter was about three or four years old –this would have been circa 1994 –she was crying because she wanted to go to some shop or other with her mom.  One of my aunts happened to be over –she was probably in her early 50s –and she was trying (sincerely) to help.

“You don’t want to go to that dirty old store!” she said. “Them niggers’ll get you!”

Obviously, this required an immediate intervention, and much counter-education (with my daughter.) I am immensely proud to know that my daughter shares my beliefs and convictions where this stuff is concerned, and if anything has been more vocal about it the last couple of weeks than I have. But that doesn’t change the fact that she heard that stuff at a tender, impressionable age, and a hundred (if not hundreds) of other, more subtle ones. So did my aunt when she was little, and her parents, and their parents, and on and on. And this stuff gets passed on, it becomes the fabric of our national identity –although, depending on race, we experience it differently.

Hence we have some people looting in Ferguson, and I have friends of friends on Facebook saying “This behavior is so typical of the blacks.”

Hence we have a lot of white people desperately trying to find a way to believe (and in many cases finding it) that the young black man who was shot did something to deserve it. (“Oh, he was dressed like a thug, and may have smoked a joint in the past few days? Well, then.”)

Hence we have George Zimmerman out on his “community patrol” seeing a young black man and assuming the worst (“These assholes always get away with it!”) We have a guy in a convenience store parking lot yelling at some black kids to turn their music down, and when some of them yell back he feels threatened enough to open fire on them. We have a black man running through a neighborhood –nothing nefarious, no crime committed –and a frightened homeowner chases him down and kills him. In all those cases, I believe the shooters DID feel threatened. Who would be threatened by a guy running down the street, a teenager with a bag of Skittles, some teenaged boys listening to music?

They were young black men- and our culture has taught us, for centuries, that a young black man out after dark is up to no good. Is probably up to no good in broad daylight. Is a clear and imminent danger.
A cop sees a black youth jimmying a car-door or climbing in a window, and he doesn’t ask the kid what he’s up to- he knows in his gut what he is up to. Do you want to make some arrests? Then stop and frisk some black people, everyone knows they’re the ones who have the drugs.

It is not always conscious (although it sometimes is.) It is usually not a matter of someone who is a white supremacist looking for a chance to teach a darkey a lesson –though sometimes, under pressure, true colors do come out. As one Ferguson cop so eloquently said before a camera, “bring it on, you fucking animals.”

But no, it is usually not something the person in question would even recognize in themselves. It is systemic, institutional racism, that you may not even be aware you have. Sometimes the cop in question could even be black –it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been affected by stereotypes. A sociological study once famously found that when little girls were given baby dolls of various skin tones, and told to pick which ones were dumb and ugly and bad, they chose the black dolls. Even the black children. Which helped convince the Supreme Court to overturn school segregation and “separate but equal.” (read about it here)

Some white folks, when they hear charges of racism leveled in incidents like the ones this summer, think the accuser is saying the people involved actively and passionately hate black people, and the listener just finds that unlikely. But that’s not all it takes to be a racist, that’s only the most obvious kind. Many of us are unintentional racists every day, and just don’t recognize it –because we are part of a system designed to make us that way.

A black person hears of such an incident, and of course they assume it’s probably just one more in a long line of abuses. And of course it makes them angry. It makes them even angrier when clueless white people tell them they have nothing to be angry about, and they should just get over it –or at least, be reasonable and rational.

To put it in a different perspective, this would be kind of like an Indian tribe being offered a treaty by the U.S. government, and immediately assuming it was all a lie and an excuse to take their land due to past experience, and being told to “just let go of the past and trust people, for petesake. Wait and see how it turns out before you get mad.”

This brings us to a subject most white people don’t like to talk about: white privilege. Many of us get insulted by it- “how dare you say I have privilege? Do you have any idea how poor I was when I grew up, and how hard I’ve worked?” But they are not understanding the term.

If you want a detailed discussion of how race developed in this country, and how the structure works, look HERE. For our present conversation, suffice it to say that whiteness is at the top of that structure, and if you are part of that dominant group you have certain automatic advantages that others don’t have –you just don’t know they’re privileges, because they seem so normal to you that you assume everyone else has them, too. But they don’t. Here's a good discussion of that topic and how it works. 

If you are one of those people who thinks that race has been blown way out of proportion in Ferguson –who thinks that every one of those incidents I’ve mentioned was due to the individual circumstances of each one exclusively, and they would have turned out the same way regardless of race –ask two or three of your black friends what they think, and honestly listen. You’ll almost surely get a different answer from them than you would have given, based on their personal experiences. And know that they have to teach their sons very different lessons about survival than you teach yours- even if they’re a celebrity like LeVar Burton.

Wow, you may be thinking, what a depressing version of reality you offer me. Why, you’re telling me that this country was founded on racism and it seeps into practically everything we do- that the Civil War and emancipation didn’t fix it, and the Civil Rights movement didn’t completely fix it, and the election of a black president didn’t fix it. MLK’s greatest speech didn’t fix it. Heck, The Cosby Show didn’t even fix it. How pessimistic, you may think, I like my version –where racism ended somewhere around 1969 and never existed again, except among a few scattered crackpots –so much better.

Well, I guess I am saying those things –the truth hurts –but I am not being a pessimist. I’m not saying “it can’t be fixed,” I’m saying “it ain’t fixed yet, and we have to keep working on it.”

How do we fix it? By dismantling that power structure and refusing to operate within it, to the best of our ability. And the first step –just like recovering from alcoholism –is to admit you still have a problem. You. Me. Us. To recognize that there is such a thing as white privilege, and if you’re white you have it. To listen- really, really listen –to people of color, and try to stop making everything about yourself (“you saying racism exists makes me feel guilty and hurts my feelings!”) and make an earnest, sincere effort to see things from other people’s point of view. White privilege means: they’ve always had to worry about your point of view, you’ve never felt the need to worry about theirs. Change that. Stop spending so much energy defending yourself.

If you’re one of those white folks calling for black folks to be reasonable and rational, consider this: the very ability to be reasonable and rational about race is a form of white privilege. You can be rational rather than emotional because you are not the one experiencing the oppression, you do not have a personal stake. It is the height of paternalism for someone who has never experienced something to tell someone who has to be reasonable about it. Actually, I believe that those who call for reason and logic about racism are refusing to see what is right before their faces, and are therefore actually being emotional rather than logical, and those who DO look at racism rationally recognize how insidious it is, and get royally pissed off by it.

Here’s a term I hate: white guilt. Oh, you nasty liberals, always making me feel guilty, wanting to just wallow in it 24/7. I admit, a lot of liberals do that. And they need to quit it, because it is a self-absorbed effort to get people of color to grant them dispensation so they don’t have to feel bad anymore. Or else they kick against it: don’t try to make me feel guilty, I had nothing to do with any of this.

Another concept I hate: the White Savior Syndrome, wherein a noble white person is taught a valuable lesson about humanity by those minority people, gets involved, and leads them in a fight for freedom, showing them the right way to do it and winning their admiration and acceptance. And gratitude. Stuff like that is why so many people don’t like movies like The Help and Blindside. (As Chris Rock said, if you make a movie about the Civil Rights struggle and most white people feel comfortable watching it, you're doing it wrong.) 

Here’s a concept I love: white responsibility. Not white guilt. Sure, I had nothing to do with the establishment of this system; I never asked for it, I don’t think that I personally should be punished for it. But you know what? I benefit from it. I was raised very poor, and I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am –but I still benefited, and continue to benefit from, my place on the racial hierarchy. I have learned how it works –it was my responsibility to take the time and trouble to learn that –and I know it is wrong. Therefore it is now my responsibility to struggle against it, any and every way I can. Oddly enough, sometimes that means taking advantage of my white privilege for leverage to work against it from the inside. By speaking up, every chance I can. By trying to educate people –which is what I do –and get them to think about things they’ve never thought about before, and urge them to do the same with others. To work alongside people of color as a determined ally –but not to tell them how to experience their struggle. And again –not to gain the gratitude of those allies, in some condescending, narcissistic fashion, and not to expiate the sins of my forefathers or alleviate my guilty conscience.

Because it’s the right damned thing to do.

By the way, a very dear friend of mine who leans toward the conservative side (as many of my friends do) sent me a private message, asking me to step back from this subject as they were fearful I might lose my job (maybe they heard about what recently happened at the University of Illinois) I assured my friend that was not something to be worried about in this case, although I was sincerely touched by their concern. But taking on this subject IS my job, and it is why I trained for said job.

And it's your job, too.

Some of my own past blogs on similar subjects:

Other links related to this blog:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Western Comics Focus

For about the last year-and-a-half, I've been doing a regular monthly feature at the Western Fictioneers blog called "Western Comics Focus."  Sometimes I spotlight a particular series or character, and sometimes I conduct interviews with comics writers and artists.

I thought it might be helpful if I provided a master-guide for all the pieces I've done so far, as opposed to requiring anyone who might be interested to dig through the archives month-by-month.

At the end I have also included a link to a survey I took well before I started the blog series, under the aegis of Western Fictioneers, in which a panel of judges that included western authors and comics writers and artists chose the greatest western comics of all time.

Here's what we have done so far:

Interview with John Ostrander
Interview with Jeff Mariotte
Interview with Stan Lee
Interview with Joe R. Lansdale
Interview with Tony Isabella
Interview with Peter Brandvold
Interview with Howard Chaykin
Interview with Timothy Truman
Interview with Steve Englehart
LOBO (first black character to have his own comic)

Writing About Indians When You're Not One

For over a year now, I've been writing a semi-regular blog over at Western Fictioneers called "Writing About Indians When You're Not One." It started out to be just one blog entry, about some of the very basic cultural things that most non-Natives tend to get wrong when writing about Indians, but I quickly realized there was a lot more than that to be said on the subject.

The blog series has been very well-received, and I've gotten a lot of very complimentary feedback about it. Since it's a drag going back through the archives month by month, I thought it might be nice to post a master-guide to all the articles I've done so far. I've also been doing a series called "American Indians and the Law," and I will include links to those entries as well.

Here are the nine blog entries done so far on the main one:

Indians Are People
Space and Time
The Environment

And here are links to the entries I've done so far on "American Indians and the Law":

American Indians and the Law part 1
American Indians and the Law part 2
American Indians and the Law part 3
American Indians and the Law part 4

Finally, I've recently spotlighted some topics about Indians in comic books in my regular WF blog feature Western Comics Spotlight, so I thought I'd provide links to those as well.

Red Wolf
Of Dust and Blood

There is more to come, in all three series.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Remembering Jory Sherman

Troy D. Smith

Last Saturday evening I arrived at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, to visit my daughter and her family for a few days. Within minutes of checking into my hotel, I received some bad news- my friend Jory Sherman had passed from this mortal coil. It did not come as a surprise- Jory had been wrestling with serious health issues for years, and just a few days earlier his son had announced Jory was refusing to take anymore treatments and was just coming home to spend the time he had remaining him with his family. Nonetheless, I was struck hard by the news; I thought the world of Jory.

He was such a fascinating guy. Not only was he a novelist (and Pulitzer nominee), he was also an accomplished artist and poet. It showed in his work, too; every piece of prose he did was also a painting, also a poem, all at once. I loved his stories, it seemed that in his career he had known virtually everybody. Of particular interest was his long friendship with the poet Charles Bukowski- beginning in the 1950s at the height of the beat poetry movement in San Francisco. Jory wrote a memoir about that friendship that I highly recommend:

In the late 1990s I was just getting started as a writer in the western genre, having been at it then for four or five years. There was an online magazine edited by Taylor Fogerty called American Western that published several of my short stories and poems, and gave me some much-welcome attention when I was first nominated for a Spur in 1998. Taylor had a sort of message board, where western fans could actually interact with some of their favorite authors; I was technically in the latter category, but I was a star-struck fan when I got to actually communicate with so many people whose work I had loved for years, including Jory Sherman. The friendship between the authors who participated in that little venture outlived the online magazine itself, and morphed into an informal group of writers that we called The Campfire, who were in near-constant communication with one another about writing, the genre, and just life in general, and continued to do so for years. We started as about ten or twelve writers who'd been featured regularly at American Western, and our number gradually doubled. Eventually, in 2010, The Campfire was the nucleus for the formation of a new writers' organization, Western Fictioneers. Jory played a large role in the discussions that arose in planning that organization (which has, since then, become quite a success.) In fact, in an email on March 23, 2010, Jory recommended the name "Western Fictioneers" (and, in a reply, Bob Randisi -who had suggested forming the organization -recommended we call our award "The Peacemaker.") In the last couple of years Jory has received the lifetime achievement award from both Western Fictioneers and Western Writers of America.

That group of writers known as The Campfire has been a unique group. Many of its members knew one another personally through membership in WWA, but many did not. (We lost another original member of that group, Ellen Recknor, in February of this year.) I have met most of those original Campfiristas (as we called ourselves) "in the flesh" in the intervening years...but I never have been in Jory Sherman's physical presence. Nonetheless, he and several others I have not actually met "IRL" have for years been on my list of close personal friends. I have one story in particular about Jory that demonstrates what kind of person he was, and why he has meant so much to me (aside from the fact that I love his work.)

About ten years ago I was going through a very painful divorce. Among the various things I lost (and by no means at the top of the list) was my computer. I was struggling to provide for my then 12-yr-old daughter and myself, and times were very hard. The only way I could even check my email was at the public library. Jory asked why I had been so scarce lately, and I told him my situation. I few days later I got a package. He had sent me a laptop and a printer, and a message that said "There go your excuses, now get to work." He refused to let me pay him for the stuff when I had the money later, and refused to let me return them. He insisted that, instead, I give them to some needy writer who needed them, which is what I did. He also sent a copy of his newest book- I have several autographed and inscribed Jory Sherman books, but that one has a special place on my shelf and in my heart.

I used that laptop to write my blues mystery novel Cross Road Blues.

Only a few days before Jory passed on, I had finished editing his chapter in our most recent Wolf Creek book STAND PROUD...I wrote the final chapter, and had his character Roman Hatchett and mine, Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather, share a quiet moment after the climactic shootout to talk about courage and the importance of having a big heart and trying to make the world a better place. Because Jory had those things, and imparted them to you by the osmosis of his words, and the world is a better place for having held him.

I will close with a link to Jory's blog, and an especially evocative piece...