Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Like so many others, I am absolutely psyched for December 18th, 2015.  If you need to ask why, then you probably are not going to understand my excitement. On that day, the new Star Wars is released, and like many within my generation, I will be star-wars-episode-7-the-force-awakens-trailers-poster-640x330lined up at a local theater with bated breath waiting to experience the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. However, I will NOT be dressing up. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll tell you who is crazy though…

Last week after the third and final trailer for Episode VII was released, a strange Twitter trend began.  Evidently, a small group of fools have decided that they should boycott this new Star Wars film because it is ‘promoting a multi-cultural agenda’ and, hence is evidently ‘anti-white.’  A few extremist internet trolls have even argued that the film supports ‘white genocide’.  White genocide…….white genocide.  Lord.

When I first read this my immediate thought was, ‘what is wrong with people?’  Perhaps it was simply a ridiculous hoax? Nope. No such luck. There are obviously people out there who truly believe this garbage.

But, when I started to look into this ridiculous story, I grasped a larger more worrying trend.  As movies begin to slowly get more diverse (far too slowly for the most part), racist responses to film casting are becoming more common.  Star Wars is just the latest, and most extreme example.  In 2012, the first Hunger Games film faced a similar racially charged response.

Amandla Stenberg is 'Rue' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Amandla Stenberg is ‘Rue’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The futuristic, dystopian film had many white fans upset that a character who they assumed was white was played by an African-American actress.  Similar online anger was spewed in 2014 because of the remake of Annie.

So, what to take from this? Why does this bother so many people? I believe the Twitter reactions in these cases point to the heart of modern racism, and why it is still a huge problem within our society.

On an individual level, racism is a system of thought that breeds dehumanization of whatever group is identified as the Other.  Of course, we can look at innumerable examples of racism in American history for illustrations of such beliefs and practices. But perhaps the most obvious example, and most extreme example of dehumanization of the racial Other took place in Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state based upon the ideology of ‘Aryan’ supremacy.  For the Nazi state, this supremacy was constantly attacked by the supposed racial degeneracy of the Aryan’s immortal enemy,

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

the Jew.  Ad nauseum, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jew not only as dirty, slovenly and treacherous, but also as a dangerous, even deadly, non-human.  Jews were vermin, they were bugs, they were bacterium. The ‘bacillus of Judaism’ was to be destroyed.

Such dehumanization attempts to destroy humanity’s natural desire to empathize.  All humans empathize with others. We can literally feel the physical and emotional pain of others by putting ourselves in their situation,  It doesn’t even need to be a loved one. Humans can empathize with any random stranger.  It comes absolutely naturally.

Empathy helps explain why we love film as much as we do.  Most people want films with action, adventure and a great story.  Those things are great, but without the human element, without characters we can empathize with, action and adventure falls on it’s face. If you want proof, just think about how people responded to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes I, II, III). George Lucas’ telling of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and eventually, into Darth Vadar. These unbelievably anticipated films should have been classics. Instead, they were critical and popular flops. Why?  Many felt that Lucas depended upon ‘cool’ computer graphics too much, ruining the magic feel of the original trilogy. That had something to do with it. But, what ruined those films was the fact that the human beings in the

We should care, but we don't.

We should care, but we don’t.

audience were not able to care about any of the characters.  We couldn’t empathize with them.  Bad acting, bad story development and bad scripts ruined the films.  When Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala dies in childbirth, most of the audience yawned. When Anakin/Vadar finds out about the death of his wife (Portman), and reacts with a guttural bellow of pain, the audience laughed. There was absolutely no empathy, and it was understandable.

The twit tweeters who want to boycott the new Star Wars, or who were angry at the Hunger Games or disturbed by the new Annie illustrate their lack of empathy.  However, this lack of empathy does not come from bad acting, or a trite script. This lack of empathy is a sign of the pernicious horror of racism. For those who complain when a character is ‘not white’, or not the correct race, they are truly illustrating that they can’t, or they consciously don’t want to see these characters as human.  For the twitter trolls, the actor and the character he or she plays can only ever be a racial category: An Other.   Finn, Poe Dameron, Rue or Annie become only ‘black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

This is the heart of racism, and why we should take such Twitter trolls seriously.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day, I made a commitment. Since I will be teaching a Civil War history course in the Fall, I wanted to take a look at the over 4 hour, seriously mini-series-esqe 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With Wind. Yep. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, gone_with_the_wind_smTara Plantation and all that jazz.  It may seem strange, but I had never seen the film.  Since Gone With Wind is probably the most famous, and most watched Civil War film ever made, I figured I better spend some time viewing it to see what all the fuss is about, and to see if the movie had any classroom usage.

I must admit, I came into this experience with some prejudices.  Though I had never seen it, I knew that Gone falls between the poles of beloved pop-culture icon, and disturbing Hollywood racism.  On the icon side, lines such as ‘Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn,’ and ‘As God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again’ are part of movie lore.  However, you can only romanticize so much. Gone is now famous, or perhaps infamous is a better term, for it’s racism. Racial caricatures are central to the film.

I knew this going in. Coming out the other side, I was even more disturbed than I thought I might be.

First, I want to say that I am no movie critic.  However, I thought the film was really

pretty atrocious.  I have watched films from ‘Hollywood’s Golden Age’ and I would have to say Gone is not one that really holds up well to the modern viewer. I will be honest, I got through about 3 hours, and I had had enough.

But, perhaps the early turn off had to do with the level of offensiveness in the film? Even though I realized the film was racially insensitive, I had no idea just how obscene it really was.

Obscenity may seem like a strange word to use when talking about Gone. The word itself is usually still regarded as a descriptive term of sex or smut, and Gone is lacking in those regards. However, as French historian Joan DeJean pointed out in 2002, the word ‘obscene’ has begun to take on a different connotation in our society.

Of late, obscene seems to be moving beyond the meaning it slowly acquired in early modern French — ‘immodest’, ‘indecent’ — and to be taking on two new meanings: first, any subject that we find hard to look at and therefore do not want to see represented….; second, as a semantic catchall for actions we consider morally indecent.’

And, just like all words, ‘swear words’ change over time.  As Melissa Mohr illustrated in her extremely interesting book, Holygone-with-the-wind-shouldnt-be-romanticized Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, the most taboo words in our society are no longer words to describe sexual acts, or bodily functions. Instead, over the last twenty years, racial epitaphs have become the unholy of unholies. Racialized attack language has the power to disgust, anger and enrage. It has the ability to destroy friendships, get people fired, or ruin political careers. The obscene of today is open outspoken racism.

By this definition, Gone With the Wind is incredibly obscene.  As mentioned, caricatures of African-Americans abound in the film. Black men and women are depicted as fools, cowards and buffoons. Related, and just as disturbing is the historical mythology the film furthers using such stereotypes. The bold-faced lie that African-Americans were happy-go-lucky simpletons who stayed with their masters gladly after emancipation, or gullible tools of aggressive white northerners has a long sordid history. Gone reinforced these harmful, hateful myths for American film goers in the 1930’s. Even more disturbingly, many historically illiterate Americans still undoubtedly accept the film’s depictions of race-relations as truth. With this in mind, you can understand why Chuck D would sing ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’.

And, if it’s obscene racism is not enough, the outright sexism in the film is nearly as disturbing.  The women in Gone are depicted as foolish children who need to be told what to do. They sit at home waiting for their men to come home from war, twiddling their thumbs and crying into their pillows. Once their men return, all life has meaning again. Of course, if they get too uppity, such as Scarlett, they need to be knocked down. Rhett will take care of that.

As I watched this horror-show, all I could think was, ‘my goodness, I don’t want to let my girls see this.’  My daughters are 8 and 6 respectively, and this is the type of obscenity I want them to avoid until they are older.  But, oh, the irony!  Gone With The Wind is a ‘classic’. It’s not late night TV for mature audiences only.  Heck, I am sure a great deal of Americans would think the film wholesome.

But, it is not. Not at all. It is marked with an obscenity that I don’t want my children to see.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Perhaps you have heard the name Cliven Bundy lately? Three weeks ago, the Nevada rancher made news because of a stand-off he was having against Federal Bureau of Land Management agents. The BLM had tried for 20 years to stop Bundy from grazing his cattle on federal land. Bundy repeatedly refused, and when the BLM attempted to enforce the law, Bundy took up arms in defiance and was quickly joined by hundreds of proto-militia

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy

members. Or, perhaps two weeks ago you heard about Bundy when Fox News host Sean Hannity repeatedly, and loudly portrayed the Nevada native as an American hero fighting government oppression.  No? Well, if not, then I bet you heard his name last week.  On Wednesday, Bundy gave a press conference that, strangely, led the rancher to pontificate on ‘the Negro’.  Bundy proclaimed:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro”…. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Not surprisingly, Bundy supporters in Washington and New York fled for the hills.  Senators Rand Paul (R -Kentucky), Dean Heller (R -Nevada) and Hannity went from 29234calling Bundy a patriot two weeks ago, to condemning the rancher’s ‘appalling statements’.  Within a few hours, Bundy transformed from the poster child for rugged small-government American individualism, to a disturbing representation of America’s continuing race issues.

Bundy’s words have led to an avalanche of media analysis.  Much of it is directed towards who Bundy speaks for.  Does he represent a larger portion of America that agrees with his racial ideas, but has too much tact, or duplicity to state them quite so loudly? Such questions are important, no doubt.  But, most such stories are often reticent about Bundy’s actual ideas, and their provenance; their history.

Look at Bundy’s most offensive statement (arguably): African-Americans may be “better off as slaves” than living free in 21st century America.  I assume to many, this portion of Bundy’s little speech is absolutely dumbfounding. The man must be off his rocker.  After all, who in the world would believe that anyone would be ‘better off’ in a state of chattel slavery?

Well, during the last 150 years of American history, a lot of people believed such bunk.  Said bunk was so accepted that it was taught as history to American schoolchildren. Bundy’s words are a reincarnation of a past ideology, and a deplorable myth of the ‘happy slave’ that poisoned post-Civil War race relations.

In the decades after the Civil War (and into the mid-twentieth century), notions about ‘happy slaves’ in the Old South held a great deal of sway.  During these years, American culture popularized the happy slave

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

Aunt Jemima: The happy mammy.

 historical narrative through films, textbooks and even children’s cartoons.  Though invented during the days of slavery, this notion of the goodness of slaveowners, and the happiness of slaves was part of a larger romanticization of the antebellum South that swept the nation during the decades of postwar national reconciliation. This narrative painted the ol’ plantation system of slave and slaveowner as one built upon social contentment and order.  Destroyed by the Civil War, the epoch of Southern slavery was memorialized as a golden age of social harmony.

Historian David Blight has illustrated that popular books  in the immediate after years of the war played a large role in revivifying this idea.  These books published in the 1880s-90s portrayed an:

….idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it’s even good — the stories would say — that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants…. new ideologies…., and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn’t grasp and couldn’t understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in.

Let me remind you that Blight wrote these words a decade ago; he was analyzing responses to modernity in post-Civil War America.  The idea of the ‘happy slave’ was useful for those who feared the real world in the 1880’s. 130 years on, Bundy obviously took this old wine, and put it into a new bottle, finding some perverted sense in this ‘happy slave’ narrative.

Is Cliven Bundy the only one who holds to such notions?  Hopefully he is….but, I doubt it.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Last week, the New York Times ran an amazing story.  Evidently, a team of researchers have been spending the last few years developing a ‘genetic atlas’ of the world.  What is a ‘genetic atlas’ you might ask?  Put simply, the researchers have been collecting, and comparing the genomes of people living in many parts of the world, all the while finding similarities and shared genetic markers between seemingly disparate communities. Our DNA tells the story of human history, and surprise, surprise, it is pretty messy (the history, not the DNA).  Shared genome sequences point to, in scientific lingo, ‘mixing events’, and

Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have
plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be
accounted for. For instance, many populations of the southern
Mediterranean and Middle East have segments of African origin in their
genomes that were inserted at times between A.D. 650 and 1900,
according to the geneticists’ calculations. This could reflect the activity of
the Arab slave trade, which originated in the seventh century, and the
absorption of slaves into their host populations

genetic_atlasTwo things stick out to me most with this amazing, exciting research.  First, the findings of this study, and many others of the same ilk, are continually clouding our ideas about race. This is especially so for Americans, who historically have portrayed race as absolute, and physically evident.  Historians realize that notions such as ‘white’ and ‘black’ have culturally metamorphosed over the years, and that race as a definitive genetic category is socially constructed.  But to the average American born within the twentieth century, racial categories are non-negotiable.  You are either ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘Asian’, or something else.  Hence, when last quarter one of my students who was raised in Bulgaria mentioned to the class that she does not consider herself to be ‘white’, though she fits the ‘Caucasian’ physical bill, many of my students were dumbfounded.  Since they were born in America, they believe her whiteness to be not a choice; it is a mark of her biological essence.

Studies such as the ‘genetic atlas’ throw such ideas for a loop.  As the quote above illustrates, a white-skinned Italian-American student may have a genome made up of Middle Eastern, African and European portions.  Though twenty-first century Americans would consider him/her white, how do we base such a notion?  Do we simply go upon highest percentage of DNA for racial grouping?  Well, American history has generally said no to this solution.  Race, specifically ‘blackness’, but necessarily then ‘whiteness’ as well, is not based upon majority genome markers.  As Professor F. James Davis explains:

To be considered black in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor rule,” some courts have called it the “traceable amount rule,” and anthropologists call it the “hypo-descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks. Blacks had no other choice….

As Davis points out, the ‘one drop rule’ became central to identifying power and status in the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow.  Ironically enough, such a definition of ‘hypo-descent’ was necessary for American slave-v1m2012_art10_im5_growners since they  themselves were consistently ‘mixing’ with their African-American chattel.  Though the ‘Virginian Luxuries’ sign was meant to critique the practice, it illustrates the well-known fact that slave-owners (male only) were allowed, and sometimes encouraged, to take a slave mistress.  Though never truly consensual, these interracial couplings produced thousands of ‘mulatto’ children. It was all-important to identify who was, and who was not, a slave.

Thus, I come to the second striking aspect of the ‘genetic atlas’ study.  Notice from the initial quote above what historical events caused the genetic mixing? It was usually the worst aspects of human history.  Slavery, wars, and the growth of empires caused human genomes to splice in all different directions. The history of American genetic ‘mixing’ events in the Colonial, and early Republican periods was nothing new to the human experience.  American slavery was similar to Roman wars of conquest; or Mongolian empire building; or the Arab slave trade. Each was based upon unequal power dynamics  with one people being the exploiter, and the other the exploited. Exploitation of labor, and exploitation of sex.  Our genomes display the continually violent, often horrendous tale of human historical misery.

But, let’s look for a more positive side of this research, shall we?

Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing the birth of a new, more peaceful ‘genetic atlas.’ The twenty-first century may be the first time that human-kind is mixing ‘racial’ genetic traits voluntarily and equally.  Just look at America today. What was once a taboo ‘mixing event’ is becoming something common and accepted.   Just in the last decade, there has been a 28% growth in interracial/ethnic marriages in the US.  At this point, around 10% of married couples are interracial. The number is even higher for non-married couples (18%).  As these couples have children, and their children grow up, and meet partners themselves, interracial numbers will only grow. The vast majority of Americans have no problem with this development. Is America specifically breaking racial ground? Is the genetic atlas of the 21st century going to be consensually complex?

You may say I am being naive, and maybe I am.  You may say that America is still a racialized society, and you would be right.  You may say that American racism is alive and well, and I would sadly agree with you. Racism is thriving in America.  But, perhaps race is slowly perishing.

It’s a start.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am writing this on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  All month long, NPR has been running stories about the ‘March on Washington’ and King’s timeless speech to commemorate, and investigate what happened that week in 1963, and to ask how far we as a nation and people have come in the fifty years since.  This 7 minute radio interview that was aired a couple weeks ago is an enthralling example NPR’s coverage.  It is the tale of Robert Avery, who at 15 hitchhiked from Alabama to DC in order to be a part of the March.  Take some time, and listen to his incredible story.

Robert Avery.  Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

Robert Avery. Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/14/210470828/determined-to-reach-1963-march-teen-used-thumb-and-feet

What an experience! Two poor, country kids with big dreams and determination make their way across a rapidly changing nation, meeting on the way some wonderful Americans, all the while getting a glimpse of American racial hatred. Sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood script. But, it is a real tale; one I plan to use this week in my American History course as we are just beginning to investigate the Civil Rights movement.

march_on_washington_2

All these people were heroes.

I have a feeling that the hardest hitting moment in Avery’s story will probably be the most incomprehensible to my 18 year old students.  In actuality, as a 37 year old historian, I have a hard time grasping it as well.  My students and I live in the post-Civil Rights era; an epoch created by Americans such as Avery. We have only experienced a nation in which the vast majority of citizens, even obvious racists, distance themselves from racism as a concept.  Thus, the outspoken racism that Avery faced in 1963 takes us aback.  It is shocking that fifty years ago many Americans openly accepted racism; or that for some, racism was a worldview held with pride.  Avery illustrates this world with his recollections of 1963 Virginia.  He matter-of-factly remembered that as he and the African-American family he was riding with neared DC, and,

…drove through the mountains, they saw black effigies hanging outside service stations. “You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags … hanging from light posts and whatever,” Avery recalls. “That wasn’t sending a signal, that was sending a strong message … So they went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can’t stop here and buy gas.”

If you listen to the interview, you can hear Michele Norris stop Avery, with a bit of shock in her voice, and ask him to explain what he means by “effigies hanging outside of gas stations.”  Avery calmly answers her question, providing evidence that such symbols of hatred were normal in the days of Jim Crow.  This was a society that was staunchly racist; justice was by no means blind.  Avery’s attendance at the March on Washington fell on the wrong side of the law.  Actually, the ideas shared during the March would have been illegal in  Jim Crow Mississippi, where,

Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Racist notions that are rarely mentioned in polite private company today, were often spoken in public with no embarrassment in 1963 America. The infamous words of the Virginia trial judge that found Richard and Mildred Loving guilty of interracial marriage prove the point. In reading the verdict against the husband and wife, Judge Leon Bazile stated that,

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.

These words sound like they come from the distant past. In reality, the sentence against the Lovings was passed in 1959.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

These few examples (and there are countless more) illustrate how pernicious American racism was within recent, living memory.  Luckily for myself, and my students, this is not our personal memory. These events are a part of history books; these ideas are depicted in movies.  We are lucky for that, but we should be cautious. Many Americans today rely on self-delusion, ludicrously claiming we live in some utopian, post-racial society. They paint the March on Washington with the brushstrokes of the ancient past.  It is my job, and all of our jobs, to correct this misconception. In a blink of an eye, 50 years have passed; the memories have faded for many, but the scars of that era are still quite fresh. Luckily we have men such as Robert Avery to remind us.