All posts tagged Racism

How Could an Old Column Be So Rousingly Pertinent?

Published January 15, 2023 by Nan Mykel

I’ve been impressed recently by what I’ve learned about the Boston Review. I just read an excellent article about MLK and thought it right-on, today. Surprised to see a 2015 date on it, I thought such longstanding truth should not go unshared. It is even more TIMELY than then!

The celebration of King’s official legacy as a cuddly figure of unity and tolerance serves to erase his politics from public memory. by Simon Waxman


Each year, the Martin Luther King holiday brings with it a barrage of citations and encomia. Yesterday was no exception. His least controversial words were quoted and contorted to suit every political whim. His legacy was again burnished by all. We were reminded that by now he is not a man but a civic saint.

All this agreement should give us pause. King was a divisive figure. Though his dreams—what we mostly remember today, because we like to pretend we’ve achieved them—bent toward harmony, his actions evoked tension and won the ire even of many who considered themselves civil rights supporters.

If Americans knew what King stood for, there would be no day named in his honor. It would be impossible to capitalize on his legacy by, say, selling cosmetics, as the Mary Kay Foundation attempted. Indeed, the celebration of King’s official legacy as a cuddly figure of unity and tolerance serves to erase his politics from public memory.

Rather than sup on anodyne statements endlessly recalled, consider what King wrote, in context. Don’t celebrate “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We don’t live in that nation. Instead, read the 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.
His least controversial words are quoted and contorted to suit every political whim.

In the letter King elegantly and without compromise rejects the moderation of white liberals who counsel patience and deference even to unjust law: “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

This is what the protestors who recently blocked Interstate 93 in Boston sought to do, to a dismissive response. In the Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen called the demonstrators “zealots” who “alienated” supporters by trying to foreclose what he is willing to admit is at least an important “conversation” (our endless “conversation” about racial justice). Twitter was similarly unmoved.

The reaction suggests we have had too many dreams, believed too many of them fulfilled, and generally failed to understand King’s message. Those complaining of delay, piously condemning protestors for estranging allies, are reprising the role of the fainthearted clergymen to whom King addressed his letter. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner,” he wrote, “but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

The obstacle to equality, King knew, was not limited to racist ideology. It included the timidity of moderates.

It is not surprising that some wonder at the I-93 protest and similar events throughout the country, which don’t seem obviously related to abusive policing, the racist challenge most present to our minds. How, the moderate asks, is a highway stoppage supposed to combat racism? How can it be a good thing if people miss appointments or are late for work?

These questions make sense if your life is generally free of significant inconvenience, but if you’re black in America, that is probably not your life. Not for nothing are the words “stop” and “arrest” synonymous. In fact the roads are especially important sites of racist policing. Police stops on highways and city streets are essential tools for the surveillance of black men. To experience this sudden inconvenience, and be open to the meaning of it, is to recognize in small measure what it is like to be unaided by the comforts and accelerators money can buy. This is some of what poverty—a status most prevalent among nonwhites—means. It means struggling against impediments that those of privilege cannot identify until we are forced to face them.

But the protest, read beside King, also shows how much has changed since the Civil Rights movement. Here I refer not to real and superficial improvements in the behavior of whites toward nonwhites and in the achievements of the latter but to the workings of racism. Today’s racism is different from that of the Jim Crow era, and the methods of direct action that the Civil Rights Movement pioneered are, in our time, hard to implement successfully.

King urged direct action against unjust laws. But laws barring people from disrupting traffic are not unjust. They are not like the laws of segregation and disenfranchisement. It was wrong to ban blacks from restaurants, public transit, hotels, voting, and other goods that whites enjoyed, so it was necessary for civil rights agitators to oppose those bans by flouting them.

Today’s civil rights action is necessarily more symbolic than yesterday’s because today’s racism is not a function of unjust laws so much as unjust implementation and institutions. No one need spout racist rhetoric or pass legislation to divide and demean. As legal scholar Richard Thompson Ford argues in a forthcoming essay in Boston Review, we live amid a tacit agreement whereby whites are still largely segregated from nonwhites in work, school, and residence. Poor people live in ghettoes and prisons, under surveillance as provided by the war on drugs, policing of lifestyle infractions, and patrol strategies predicated on fear of nonwhite men. All of these follow political decisions. Officers are doing what citizens ask of them, while the private choices of those citizens help to ensure that vast economic and educational disparities persist in spite of formal equality of opportunity.

So while there is good reason to locate a protest on a highway, it is easy to appreciate why a lot of observers will not grasp the civil rights message in it. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s eliminated most of the legal sources of oppression, revealing informal foundations of racism so deep they are hard to fathom.

Therefore the civil rights action of our time must protest not just obviously unjust laws, but also the subtle means by which white supremacy is maintained. That it is so maintained is undeniable. The median net worth of whites is thirteen times that of blacks, ten times that of Latinos. Though too many white Americans are in prison, there is still a far greater chance you’ll wind up jailed if you’re black. Nationally, felon disenfranchisement laws ensure that one in eight black men can’t vote; in some states, the rate is much higher. Blacks are half as likely as whites to have earned bachelors degrees, and those blacks who do graduate college get less in return. Being black means you have fewer years to live. These are markers of a society riven by unfairness.

As the recent focus on police violence has clarified, that unfairness is accompanied by tension. Today’s civil rights protestors are not the source of tension, but they are, like their predecessors, fostering it so that it can be turned in productive directions. This involves sacrifices by some, but they don’t have to be in vain. It might be easier to see why that is—to see the value of this protest—if we celebrated the actual King and his radicalism rather than the inoffensive persona created to serve the status quo.

Americans Love King Because They Don’t Understand Him

Do Their Lives Matter, Too? Or Just Ours?

Published August 16, 2021 by Nan Mykel

I apologize for assuming  all readers of this blog are white, but what I want to say primarily applies to whites.

This is NOT becoming a political blog again.  Racism–both in the Black Lives Matter and at the southern border–is at a more encompassing, soul-spirit-heart-humane-brotherly love-compassion-yes, love-of-humankind  level.  Does nothing cut through to the quick of chaos?  Is a guilty conscience behind the attack on teaching honest history? Shame?

Prior to writing this brief blog I read more closely into the history of American slavery, and don’t want that to be the topic today. However, I learned that in 1789 a law was passed in the southern province to keep enslaved Africans in “submission and obedience,” by prohibiting them from writing or growing their own food.  

“Literacy among enslaved Africans was not always antithetical to slavery in the colonies.  It was once permissible for the enslaved to read Bibles, but when colonists realized the skill could be a gateway to liberation, literacy was outlawed.”   North Carolina passed a law in 1829 that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write, saying it “has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state.”  (Mother Jones, Sep-Oct, p. 9.)

 Did the law mean “other” citizens, or were the enslaved not citizens either?  They are now, for what it’s worth. –I take that back.  I know citizenship for people of color is valued. but…I’ll be quiet now.



No Re-Blog

Published March 21, 2021 by Nan Mykel

Sorry, I referred a friend to this spot for a reblog of Jerry Coyne’s post about Amanda Gorman’s poetic work but there wasn’t a reblog button, only a confusing warning about copyright, so you’ll have to find it yourself. It seems there’s some prejudice against non-black translators of her work.


Published November 26, 2020 by Nan Mykel
Ray Villafane, http://villafanestudios.com/

The following is one paragraph from a g-mail addressed to “Nicola,” evidently a mass mailing error from a worthy cause.

“Some Indigenous Peoples refer to ‘Thanksgiving’ as the ‘National Day of Mourning.’ It is a day founded in a myth about this country’s origin–one that reframes a long history of attempted genocide as a friendly feast. This year many people are mourning loved ones lost to Covid, as well as state and vigilante violence. For some of us, this will be a different ‘Thanksgiving’ – one with limited contact due to Covid precautions. This is a time to mourn, reckon, fortify.”

The following is not an excuse, just some of my thoughts about the occurrence of prejudice in the world, throughout history. People say, “No one is born prejudiced,” and that is true to some extent. Since I have a blind side like almost everyone, I have probably been racist in my thinking and behavior at some point, but not very much so. On the farm I played with a little black boy down the road until my visits were not facilitated. A black woman who ironed for us was the person who told me there was a word for “the day before today” and a different one for “the day after today.” I remember playing at the home of some black folks who I now think must have been our sharecroppers. I remember once visiting a black church with my father, and I had a black family sleepover at my house in Atlanta when the Mule Train passed through on its way to Washington in the late sixties. In college I was a member of ADA and we traveled to hear Martin Luther King speak. (We had to wait a little because there was a bomb scare). But I have learned through reading that we all have something genetic that makes us culturally prefer those who carry our own genes. It’s called kinship selection. The “us-them” dichotomy can be seen everywhere. Social experiments with school children have been done in which the children were divided into those with blue eyes versus those with brown-eyes and pitted against each other. The hostility that crept up was shocking.
You may have noticed that Trump has been riding that regrettable fact. That would have been a “Us vs. Them” tendency, which is atop or under the kinship preference process, which seems to be atop an even more basic primitive, archaic tendency which involves the ancient widespread valuing of our own genes. This tendency resurfaces when folks are asked who of several people they would save if they could save only one of their family versus five, say, unrelated. I’ll be quiet now. I was on a rant. Blame it on self-quarantine. But it does point to the fact that we as humans have a problem we need to work on if we hope to have a more just and lasting world. (I know, preachy and it’s not even Sunday).

Jill Dennison Excerpt

Published September 5, 2020 by Nan Mykel

The latest thing to send me into a fit of temper is Trump’s order to Russell Vought, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to cease the government’s racial sensitivity training. Trump calls such training “un-American propaganda”. That’s right, folks … it is un-American to try to teach people not to discriminate, to try to remove the systemic racism that exists within our government and law enforcement community. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. 🤬

A Re-post from Bryan Ens from my Life Issues page

Published May 19, 2020 by Nan Mykel

Is my value as a human merely based
on the colour of my carcass?
Is there no intrinsic value
in what lies beneath my pelt?
Is my hide all that matters?
Will you say that a coat of black
is worse or better than a coat
of white or brown or red?
Peak beneath my skin
and see who I really am
Let me see you for more
than your colour
or let me be flayed
and tanned
for if I am no more than the
tone of my flesh,
I am merely an animal
to be hunted and
turned into leather.


Suggested Pertinent Reading

Published July 23, 2018 by Nan Mykel

From 3 Quarks Daily from The Guardian:

Why Identity Politics Benefits The Right More Than The Left

Sheri Berman in The Guardian:

Over a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, commentators are still trying to understand the election and the explosion of intolerance following it. One common view is that Trump’s victory was a consequence of pervasive racism in American society.

Studies make clear, however, that racism has been decreasing over time, among Republicans and Democrats. (Views of immigration have also grown more favorable.) Moreover, since racism is deep-seated and longstanding, reference to it alone makes it difficult to understand the election of Barack Obama and Trump, the differences between Trump and the two previous Republican nominees on race and immigration, and the dramatic breakdown of social norms and civility following the elections. (Social scientists call this the “constant can’t explain a variable” problem.)

This does not mean racism is irrelevant; it matters, but social science suggests it does in more complicated ways than much commentary suggests.

Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems.

More here.

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