Archive for July, 2020

Sundown Towns and the Great Retreat – posted 7/26/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2020

July 26, 2020 5 comments

One positive by-product of the Black Lives Matter movement is a new willingness to honestly explore our national history. I think this has been reflected in efforts like the New York Times 1619 Project. American history, as conventionally told, has big gap areas. Much about America’s racial history is left out or misunderstood.

I have been interested in the question of how we got to be so racially segregated as a nation. Residential segregation receives surprisingly little attention as a subject.

Until recently, I had never heard the term “sundown town”. In his book “Sundown Towns”, the writer James Loewen defines sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose”.

Loewen argues that sundown towns exist almost everywhere in America although almost no literature exists on the subject. He says sundown towns are a bigger issue in the North than the South. His argument flies in the face of the usual good North/bad South racial narrative. The North has its own horrible racist story.

I must say I immediately wondered about New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Has northern New England always been so white? Was there ever a time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when more African Americans did live in a wider range of locations in the area? I know Portsmouth and the Seacoast have had some black history but it is hard to find information about other places in Northern New England.

Loewen offers some provocative ideas about our racial history. He points to the years 1890 to 1940 as being decisive. That period is often considered the low point of American race relations. Support for civil rights generally and particularly the rights of African Americans seriously deteriorated. The Republican Party stopped being an anti-racist force. The Democrats were known as “the white man’s party”. No political party supported African American rights.

It was the era when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v Ferguson, justifying segregation. Jim Crow laws proliferated and Presidents like Woodrow Wilson were openly white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth and its membership grew dramatically. Rather than racism being seen as a problem, white Americans generally blamed black Americans for their inferior status. A racist culture demonized black people.

From the perspective of 2020, it is hard to appreciate how racist the United States became in this earlier period. Many have probably heard of the Great Migration when black people left the South in droves to stake out a new life in the North. The story is beautifully told in Isabel Wilkerson’s book “The Warmth of Other Suns”.

Much less well known is a movement Loewen calls the Great Retreat. White people started forcing African Americans out of towns, suburbs and rural areas across the North and Midwest into ghettos in the large cities. The forced withdrawal happened by multiple means. Violent expulsions, lynchings, the use of threats and legal ordinances, freeze-outs by creating a hostile atmosphere, buy-outs and the use of devices like restrictive covenants were all part of the picture.

Loewen shows the Great Retreat by examining the population of African Americans by county. Between 1890 and 1930, the absolute number of African Americans in many northern counties and towns plummeted. Many northern counties that previously had African American residents in 1890 no longer had them by 1930.

While we are just learning about historical events like the massacre against the Black community in Tulsa in 1921, it would appear that ethnic cleansing against African Americans was widespread across the United States. Little race riots broke out in many places during the 1890 to 1940 period but historians have not written about it.

The typical scenario was a supposed act of violence committed against a white person that led to a white riot. Sometimes it was an alleged rape featuring a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

In Springfield Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861, white rioters destroyed the black business district in 1908 following what turned out to be a false accusation of rape. The mob wanted a lynching but when they were foiled by the sheriff they went on a two-day rampage. The rampage ultimately did end in two innocent black men being lynched.

The goal of the riot was to drive black people out of Springfield. Out of a total black population of 3,100 in a city of 48,000, over 2,000 black people fled Springfield. No one was ever convicted for murder, arson, or any other crimes committed against African Americans in Springfield.

Loewen wrote that Springfield was a prototype for small race riots that happened in many other communities that wanted to become all-white. This ethnic cleansing has become hidden history in America. We have buried it and pretend there is no relationship between this past and our still largely segregated present.

Americans do like to show the sunny side. Whether the reason for this historical suppression is shame, embarrassment, adverse business consequences or straight up racism, we are late in the day for silence.

If we are ever going to address the structures of institutional racism, we need to understand history and how exclusion worked. Sundown towns are a national issue. Understanding the truth about exclusion is an ongoing project that has barely begun.

Residential segregation remains an overwhelming fact of life in America. Secrecy about our history helps the racism endure. A renewed commitment to racial integration in all neighborhoods must become part of 21st century politics.

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July day with Shady and Blue – posted 7/26/2020

July 26, 2020 5 comments
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DeSean Jackson and Taking Anti-Semitism Seriously – posted 7/18/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/27/2020

July 19, 2020 5 comments

Probably like most NFL fans, I have my favorite players. As a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan, I admit DeSean Jackson is a favorite of mine. For speed, hands, and athleticism, there are not many players who can match DeSean. I could not believe it when Chip Kelly let him walk in 2014. His return to the Eagles was a very happy event.

I bet most Eagles fans remember DeSean’s game-winning punt return for a touchdown on the last play of the game against the Giants in 2010. The play has been called the Miracle of the Meadowlands II. In 2013, readers voted Jackson’s punt return the greatest play of all time.

So I have to say that reading about DeSean Jackson’s anti-semitic post was distressing to me. Not just am I an Eagles fan, I am Jewish.

Jackson posted a fake quote incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler saying that white Jews “will blackmail America. They will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they are”.

Jackson later apologized in an Instagram video saying he “knows Hitler is a bad person”. He went on to say:

“I do not have hatred towards anyone. I really didn’t realize what that passage was saying. Hitler has caused terrible pain to Jewish people like the pain African-Americans have suffered. We should be together fighting anti-semitism and racism. This was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it and sorry for any hurt I have caused.”

The reaction to Jackson’s post was underwhelming. There were few posts in response by other NFL players. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson defended DeSean’s comments as speaking the truth as did DeSean’s teammate, Malik Jackson.

The best response to Jackson’s post was from New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is the NFL’s most prominent Jewish player. While acknowledging Jackson said ugly things, he looked at the anti-semitic post as a teaching moment. He suggested they go together to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the National Museum of African American History.

Edelman is a mensch. The usual tenor of social media response is vicious. I liked that Edelman did not get up on any high horse. He was not exiling DeSean from the human race over his comments. He noted that he respected DeSean Jackson and his game at the same time as he criticized the post. An engaged response like that is so rare and so positive.

Usually people are immediately thrown under the bus. The way people typically relate on social media is dehumanized. Denunciation and demonization precede disposal. If someone says something dumb, they are removed to an ideological trash heap. There is a denial that people can learn and change from their mistakes.

I find it disheartening though to see denial of anti-semitism. Jackson’s Hitler post smacked of conspiracy theory of the “Jews control the world” variety. There are no shortage of these nutty theories. Let me name some of them: “George Soros is behind everything”, “Jews are ruthless capitalists”, “Jews are communist”, “Jews have an international conspiracy to control the world” and “the Jews killed Jesus and their descendants should be punished for that crime”.

As someone from the 1960’s-1970’s generation of progressives, I think there has been a failure of understanding around anti-semitism. Many more people in my generation took up the struggle against racism and sexism than against anti-semitism. While it is good that millions of people self-consciously looked at their understanding of race and sex, the same cannot be said for anti-semitism.

We are 75 years past the Holocaust and anti-semitism has aggressively re-emerged.. I think we need to ask why. And why is it back in force? I would suggest we have not looked at anti-semitism seriously enough and there are reasons for that. Many Jews have been very successful financially. That fact has probably short-circuited exploration of oppression against Jewish people. The success of some likely stopped this inquiry.

If Jews were so all-powerful as suggested by anti-semitic conspiracy theorists, how come they could not intervene to stop or lessen the Holocaust? And how come President Trump still defended white supremacists snd neo-nazis at Charlottesville?

The rabbi and activist Michael Lerner provides the best explanation I have seen. Lerner says Jews have been set up in intermediate positions between those with real power and those without. Jews can be a convenient locus of anger when the pain caused by capitalism becomes acute for people on the lower rungs. To quote Lerner:

“Because Jews are placed in positions where they can serve as the focus for anger that might otherwise be directed at ruling elites, no matter how much economic security or political influence individual Jews may achieve, they can never be sure that they will not once again become the targets of popular attack should the society in which they live enter periods of severe economic stress or political conflict.”

Lerner wrote those words almost 30 years ago and they ring true now. Anti-semitism is rooted in peoples’ resentment of their oppression in daily life but the resentment is misdirected against Jews rather than against the economic elite who do hold the levers of power.

As for DeSean Jackson, people can learn and change their views. Nobody is perfect and I think DeSean’s apology was sincere. Hopefully he and Julian Edelman can collaborate in the struggle for social justice.

With the growth of the white supremacist movement and with the increasing trend of authoritarianism, more scapegoating of Jews is a safe bet. Taking anti-semitism seriously is a moral and political necessity.

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July swim – posted 7/11/2020

July 11, 2020 4 comments
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Why the Confederacy should not be honored – posted 7/5/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/10/2020

July 5, 2020 1 comment

President Trump has complained loudly about the attacks on Confederate statues. He has also criticized the idea that military bases named after Confederate generals should be renamed.

Trump has said that this is “a battle to save the Heritage, History and Greatness of our country”. At Mt. Rushmore he described a merciless campaign to defame our heroes and erase our values. He vowed to veto a defense bill if it stripped Confederate officer names from military bases.

I do think it is valuable to revisit this history. We are now 155 years after the Civil War but too many Americans suffer from misremembering or lack any historical awareness.

The Confederacy was not a noble cause and its leaders were not heroes. It was a treasonous, secessionist movement dedicated to the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy.

Confederate sympathizers have tried for generations to spin a narrative of the poor victimized South facing a war of Northern aggression. They present a picture of Southern pride and rebellion with supposedly saintly leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Their army of Johnny Rebs was the bravest. In this narrative, Black folks were incapable of freedom and were better off back on the plantation under benevolent paternalistic care.

This story was sold by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy who fought to put up statues honoring Confederates. They also fought to get Southern military bases named after Confederate generals. Their story hides the moral horror of slavery and evinces a total disregard for the humanity of Black people.

We should take a close look at who the Confederate leaders were who Trump believes we are supposed to celebrate. It is a safe bet Trump has never looked at any specifics about who these men were. Trump thought Frederick Douglass was still alive and he thought Andrew Jackson lived during the Civil War. Intellectual investigation would be entirely out of character.

A good place to begin is with Nathan Bedford Forrest, a much celebrated Confederate. Tennessee alone has 32 historical markers dedicated to Forrest. A current battle is going on over whether his bust should be removed from the Tennessee state capitol building.

Forrest was a Confederate general. His bust has been in the state capitol for 42 years. Supporters have praised him as a daring military tactician and as representing the heritage of the Old South.

Left out is Forrest’s role in the April 1864 massacre of 300 Black Union troops in the battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee. Troops under Forrest’s command slaughtered the Union troops after they had surrendered. Forrest, who was a slaveholder, joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1867 and was elected its first Grand Dragon.

Then there are the Confederates who have had military bases named after them. Henry L. Benning, a lawyer and slaveowner, had his name bestowed on Georgia’s Fort Benning.

Benning played an important role in the secessionist movement. In 1849, twelve years before the Civil War, he advocated Southern secession as the only way to protect slavery. He led a walk-out of pro-slavery Southern delegates from the 1860 Democratic Party Convention after Northern Democrats refused to explicitly support slavery in the party platform. He called Blacks “savages who would exterminate the white race”.

Fort Bragg in North Carolina is another military base named after a Confederate leader. Braxton Bragg served as a general in the Confederate Army. A sugar plantation owner, Bragg used 105 enslaved Africans for his personal profit. He was widely considered one of the worst generals of the Civil War.

Leonidas Polk, a major general in the Confederate Army, was the military leader who provided the name for Fort Polk in Louisiana. Polk had an unusual resume. He was Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. He was also a very large slaveholder, owning between 215 to 400 slaves. Union forces killed Polk in 1864. Although he had a poor record as a field commander, the South greatly mourned his loss.

The Army still has 10 bases named after Confederate leaders. There is a failure of reckoning here. Celebrating Confederate generals would be akin to Germans now celebrating Nazi General Erwin Rommel. You do not see it happening there. Being a skilled military tactician cannot be celebrated outside the context of the horrible cause served.

Confederate generals represent a heritage of treason against the United States. That is true for all the Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Even worse, the naming of military bases after Confederate leaders covers up the betrayal of Black Americans since Reconstruction.

There is a cluelessness about Jim Crow laws, lynching and segregation that amounts to disrespect about the struggle for Black equality. The army is made up of people from all races. You simply cannot have bases named after oppressors.

It also must be noted that we live in a time when the white supremacist movement is a clear and present danger. Under Trump, that movement has surged, including in our armed forces. Part of rooting out racism is rooting out the insidious Confederate legacy that exists inside all branches of the military. It is past time to remove all memorials, statues and bases named after Confederates.

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