Tag Archives: race

The Call-to-Whiteness

The Call-to-Whiteness: The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response

Note: This essay is not meant to present a unified theory of or definition of whiteness, but to point out that white identity is both a critical pivot point in American politics that remains understudied; and that we are undergoing a crisis of white identity that affects people of all races and ethnicities. As someone who reports on and engages online with white nationalists to this day, I am speaking with as much perspective as my decades of attention to these issues can offer. If you have different perspectives, I would welcome them but ask you reveal how much attention you have paid to the issues at hand.

Secondly: this is very long and somewhat discursive – definitely a draft and not a finished document. I welcome your thoughts and comments and will continue to refine it. Get a cup of tea and sit down with me. I hope you’ll find it worth the time.


Did I/We Hear the Call to Whiteness?

There are many moments from my covering the American electorate this season that, in retrospect, I realize were more significant than I perceived.

One of them was when I interviewed a woman in Las Vegas about the election and she said she had more than once been told that part of the reason to vote for Donald Trump was to avoid the dilution of the white race. As the white mother of a mixed-race (black, white, Latino) child, she reacted with anger and horror. Though I recounted her position, a section was struck from the interview where she talked about how her daughter was studying World War II and the rise of Hitler. Her daughter asked, “How could anybody ever elect somebody who feels like this?” and the mother replied that they had a “front row seat to see how history is repeating itself.”

My editor struck that section from the short liveblog post when voicing concern about how we’d look mounting such a head-on critique of Trump without a passionate Trump supporter, a voice I later found. I don’t blame him for his choice since I didn’t challenge it, and especially since I often write overly-long. I’m not sure if the World War II analogy crossed the line for him because it seemed histrionic.

That said, I now view both her statement and my quick acquiescence to our deletion of it as significant. In retrospect, I realize how deeply this woman’s perception of her own whiteness had been challenged by the conversations she was having; and how unwilling I and we were as journalists to foreground this clash over the nationalist call-to-whiteness as part of the political narrative. This horrified mother was staring white nationalism in the face, and it was staring back at her. We as journalists, myself included, did not foreground in our reporting the struggles of white voters who heard and rejected the call.

Holding this minor anecdote in mind, know that I will mount an argument below that this election represents a call-to-whiteness to activate white nationalist sentiment; plus a suppression of the importance of this call in discussing our current politics, and a troubling inability to disaggregate the call-to-whiteness from other motivations for voting for Donald Trump. I do not believe all Trump voters are racially motivated or primarily racially motivated, but white Americans, regardless of who they voted for, are now being asked to make an implicit choice in endorsing or rejecting white nationalist agendas and their integration into the body politic. There’s a good argument using a “Cinemax”/cable analogy for the “bundling” of racial animus into every Trump vote, whether or not individual voters explicitly endorsed that.

As a reporter with 25 years of field experience in covering both politics and white nationalist movements, I see the two converging in ways we are woefully unprepared to cover or respond to because we as Americans have avoided the topic out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion. I would argue we can avoid it no longer.

If you need to understand why the elevation of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, among others, as players in American democracy signals a rise of white nationalism – implicitly and explicitly – then you probably need to do a bit more research on your own before reading the rest of this article.

There has been a concerted effort — covert, overt, or both — to keep the narrative of white nationalism, including its violence and extralegal workings — out of the American eye. Much of it, I believe, comes from the inability of media and of many individuals to ascribe racial/group characteristics to whiteness in the way blackness is grouped and tracked, or, in the context of terrorism, Muslim beliefs. If blacks are a group and Muslims are a group judged on the violent behavior of some, then white nationalist violence and terrorism is much more organized and overt but gets less mainstream coverage.

The majority of the domestic terrorism before and after 9/11 was by white nationalists and white supremacists, including the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist who helped bomb and murder 168 people including 19 children in daycare, and was subsequently put to death. And then there are smaller but no less heartbreaking attacks like white supremacist Dylan Roof’s killing of nine people including Pastor Clementa Pinkney at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

The alt-right is also known to use swatting and doxxing as techniques against people they dislike, disagree with, or turn on. Swatting in particular, used in online gaming feuds as well, can result in violence or threats of violence administered in person by the unwitting first responders who fail to realize this is a deliberate provocation by an unseen hand.

In other words, these are, as president-elect Donald Trump might put it, some “bad hombres.”

And now, their ideological cousins are moving into government, quite likely with an agenda to use the law to increase America’s divides rather than bridge them. This is a hostile takeover of the U.S. government by forces including people cozy with white nationalists. It is profoundly un-American — at least I think so.

The dialogues in our civic space should let us know how far the debate has gone. Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who drives an Uber in his spare time, has been engaging online with journalists and also challenging people who apparently hold white nationalist views. He responded on Twitter to one person who apparently argued that the 13th-15th amendments granting full citizenship and the franchise to black men was because “limited government failed.” (And here I was thinking it was because slavery failed — failed to live up to the unrealized promise in the first version of the U.S. Constitution.)


Sasse battled back, Tweeting, “The Civil War & its 3 amendmts are not a rejection of the Amer’n Founding. Rather…a living UP to our universal/colorblind vision of rights”. The fact that Sasse, much to his credit for doing so, needs to say this at all speaks volumes about the depths of disregard for universal human and American rights right now.


The Surge of the Pack-Mentality

Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with white nationalism, and everything to do with survival.

One time, when I was in Guatemala for three weeks doing an immersion program in Spanish, I was walking home alone after a night drinking with other students. It was a safe town near Lake Atitlan, and all of us were doing homestudies with different families. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by a human.

The road to my host family’s house ran parallel to the lake, which was about 300 yards away. As I walked down the road, with its shuttered and gated houses, I saw out of the corner of my eye two dogs way down by the river. They scented or saw me and I saw them break into a fierce run, the equivalent of a horse’s full gallop.

I had no possibility of outrunning them and no obvious place to hide. So knowing what I do of dog behavior, I kept walking slowly and steadily. Sooner than I would have liked, but just as expected, the dogs were around me, snapping and snarling. I did not make eye contact. I kept walking slowly and intently toward the side street that would take me home, with my eyes fixed on a streetlight. And after a time – how long, I will never be sure – the dogs stopped snarling and went away.

I did not act like prey. I did not act like a threat or challenge their dominance. I got home with nothing more than a bad scare.

But I can still remember that night vividly – the lake to my left, with scrub and rushes leading the way to the waterfront; the dark pierced by the street lights and the moon; the vector of the road that the animals sprinted down, and how I could not even afford to keep my eyes on it directly but had to peer out of the corner of my eye as I prepared to react to the threat. I remember because my life literally depended on my perception of and reaction to the threat.

Sometimes it seems like the call to American whiteness we’ve seen during this election is like the attack of those dogs: a sudden onrushing of power and energy and threat. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best first action to take is often to remain very calm and still.

No, I am not comparing white Americans to dogs. That should be obvious but in our heightened times is not. I am comparing the pack mentality of the nationalist call-to-whiteness to the ferocity of these animals. We are seeing that pack mentality in operation right now. Better late than never we must examine the pack mentality; emphasize why white Americans must awake to what’s being invoked in their names; and also why the reactions of the broader white community to “extremist” constructions of whiteness will help determine the future of our nation.

I’ve been covering white nationalists and supremacists in person for more than two decades. I once met Klanspeople in a blizzard to get part of a larger story about women in the white supremacist movement. The Klan is, perhaps, the ceremonial figurehead of white supremacy but hardly the most powerful influence and considered quite outdated by today’s digitally sophisticated nationalist alt-right. At the time I did that investigation of female white supremacists in the 1990s, I spoke by phone with a woman from a dysfunctional wealthy family who had run off to join the violent Aryan Nation, a group that was later bankrupted by civil lawsuits for violent assault. The woman described how her family, which was part of the Social Register, so turned her off with their lack of regard for nurturing their own children that she sought out a new family in white supremacy.

The woman from the Aryan nation also explained something that would stick with me throughout my reporting career. I asked why she would grant me an interview, and she said that a fraction of the people who read the article would be persuaded to her cause, and that was reason enough for her to grant an interview to someone she perceived as hostile to her white supremacist mission. While depressing in some ways, the knowledge of her beliefs – which I have come to believe as well, as an inevitable cost of doing the reporting I do – was enlightening. After that point, I rarely feared whether people who perceived me as hostile to their racial separatist, nationalist, or supremacist interests would grant me an interview, and I have found that to be the case.



Can You Be Objective If You Can’t See Whiteness?

Since then, I have continued to study whiteness as part of my reporting on American politics and culture. It has seemed a particularly important part of my work, and frankly, one that is sometimes viewed with suspicion by my own journalistic peers, as if studying something makes me unqualified to understand it rather than particularly qualified to do so.

It also gets to an ongoing debate in journalism over objectivity. I admit I am not neutral about race, racism, or white supremacy. I do not believe that disqualifies me from reporting on it as long as I am fair to those I report on. I have always found a common human bond with white supremacists I have reported on. I do not view them as demons; more as lost, confused, and sometimes dangerous cousins. I see whiteness in ways that my white colleagues often seem to ignore, as if it cannot be seen at all.

In my experience the white people I’ve met that seem most attuned to the power struggle over American whiteness are immigrants and people who grew up as working-class white Americans and moved into other circles where they were judged as different from established or powerful white norms. One friend had grown up largely in France but partly in central Florida, and he understood and acknowledged the layers of meaning people ascribed to him was different in both places. I also found common cause with people who moved to big cities and found themselves thrust into new American cultures, often Americans from rural or exurban areas. I found their “double consciousness” familiar and comforting, as it was an analogue to my own.

As context for how I do the work I do, know my childhood shaped my journalistic pursuits. First, there’s the fact that my parents were both journalists at different times and met at the graduate school of communications at Syracuse University before moving to Zambia to start a newspaper. In that sense, reporting is in my blood; but the way I perceive race was also seared into my consciousness by a childhood dis- and re-location both physical and metaphorical in nature.

The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish; my extended friend circle included Cuban-American girls who were clearly Afro-Cuban, but who were not asked to choose a side in the black/white dichotomies of American racial taxonomy. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.

When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s and 1930s wood houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war. My sister and I were suddenly chided or rewarded by other black people for “speaking proper” and viewed as small Martians by white Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, was confused as to how I could have an African father – a real actual African man with an accent and a PhD! I’ll spare you an endless string of anecdotes about moments when I understood how much and how differently I was being observed by others in my new city.

This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.

  • First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
  • Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
  • Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.


Disaggregating White Nationalism from the Trump Vote

I have spent this election observing politics, race, and the rise of a particularly passionate, disruptive, and dangerous form of white nationalism.

As people look at the outcome of the election, we are left with questions about disaggregating political behavior like voting from intent. Given the rise of white nationalism and its integration into our government, was Ted Cruz simply not Anglo enough to be a viable candidate for president? Was Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican woman part of the reason he was viewed so tepidly by Republican voters? These are questions we probably didn’t measure for at the time – and if there is research on the matter, please let me know – but in retrospect I really wish we had.

I have also not been afraid to see Trump voters for who they are, in their many forms, and realize that what I know so far, despite my reporting, is simply not enough. In some ways, the real work of understanding motivations and disaggregating voter intent and how the message hit the target is just beginning.

The other day I sat across from a woman on a crowded Amtrak train at one of their four-tops. She was black, or appeared so to me, though she later emphasized on an exceedingly loud and profanity-filled phone call that she was Brazilian (which I mention simply because she seemed to be distancing herself from American blackness in the remarks). She was wearing clubwear (kitten ears; revealing hyper-sexualized gear in more of an electronica/post-punk mode than anything vaguely hip hop); mentioned she was a bartender; and when she wasn’t on the phone spent the ride hitting on a baffled Asian-American businessman next to her and generally being an enlightening (to a reporter like me) nuisance on the train. Before I moved away to get some ear-space from her aggressive monologue on the phone, I learned that she was a Trump voter; she and the friend on the other line were mocking non-Trump voters; and she saw her vote as a flag planted squarely in the center of her identity.

What I learned from her conversation made me think: maybe this woman thought of Donald Trump as representing freedom. And what’s more American than that?

She didn’t want to be put in a box, and as she and her friend apparently mocked non-Trump voters, her rhetorical emphasis was on what a maverick her vote for Trump made her.

Hillary Clinton, for all else you do or don’t think of her, was committed to an establishment path to power. Donald Trump, vulgar by his and his family’s own admission, clearly spoke to this woman on a personal level. On some semiotic levels, Trump functions as an American antihero, someone who gives people permission to imagine themselves as just as vulgar and just as powerful, and winning not despite their vulgarity but because of it.

Listening to this young voter put together one more puzzle piece of the many reasons people, including some people of color, voted for Trump.

And I have to confess, Donald Trump has been liberating to me too, in one sense.

If a man who has settled out of court on charges of educational fraud and racially discriminating in housing can be our next white male President, I double down on my rejection of the conceit of exceptional blackness, aka “better than” syndrome.

The demanded performance of exceptional blackness is a pernicious part of the construct of American meritocracy. By “exceptional blackness” I mean the idea that blacks not only have to work twice as hard as whites, but specifically that doing so means we will be liberated from discrimination and transcend race. I may be better than white peers sometimes; and I at other times I will not be; but that alone will not change the construct of race in America. But if Donald Trump can be president, then I can at least be black and free.

Be clear that what I am rejecting is not the urge for excellence or self-improvement, but the idea that my excellence and self-improvement is a blood price I must pay to prove black Americans’ worthiness of a true meritocracy. You either believe in working toward a true meritocracy or you do not, and I will not bribe you into belief by my individual performance. Are you for equality, or are you not?


White Nationalists Challenge the Fiction of American Meritocracy

In many ways, the white nationalist crowd is calling out the lie of American meritocracy from its own admittedly ideologically bent perch. In my conversations online and off with white nationalists, they admit a reliance on the law to enforce a dominance that they then also claim a birthright to.

When a self-described white nationalist and other members of the alt-right I was in conversation with on Twitter claimed America was a white nation, I pointed out that blacks have been in Virginia since the first half of the 1600s, and that the founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, the nation’s oldest capital city in 1610, indicates that the oldest Americans in our current geographic configuration were Latino (Spanish; indigenous, and mixed) and not Anglo Saxon white. They then admitted that America was not truly founded as a white nation, but that laws made it so. Their claim to a white homeland is better understood, then, as a claim to their right to use the law to protect their dominance when neither history nor meritocracy is on their side. This is similar in result to European white nationalism, but with an origin story more like the claim of South African Boers to lands, which provoked the clash of power known as the end of apartheid. White Afrikaaner nationalist calls for a volkstaat, or white homeland, persist to this day.

Their admission that the law must be leveraged to protect white dominance in America also indicates a profound fear of erasure – returning to the idea of the dilution of the white race cited by the woman in Las Vegas – and a fear of a true meritocracy. For all the criticisms of welfare and entitlement programs, whiteness has been the biggest wealth-building and land-grabbing entitlement program in America.

The white nationalist stance on American meritocracy should be extremely troubling to what I call “establishment whiteness,” a construct that believes that evocations of whiteness by and large do not challenge the access to advancement of other people. These white nationalist claims explicitly reject the “post-racial” and “color-blind” putative politics of establishment whiteness.

As a journalist, after all these years of reading headlines about the crisis of American blackness, I must ask when are we going to see an equal number of journalistic explorations about the crises of both American whiteness and global whiteness? (The far-right National Front party in France has taken a once-unthinkable polling lead in the upcoming elections, and I have written about the rise of Europe’s far right parties here.) Isn’t it about time for a serious and sustained inquiry?


It is Up to White Americans to Hear and Fight the Call-to-Whiteness Being Raised in Their Name

I have learned as much about whiteness as I have because it was critical to my survival and my personal, intellectual, and professional development. The question I have now is whether white Americans feel they have a stake in understanding whiteness as well. For this call is being made in all white Americans’ names, and to claim you are a bystander is a dangerous thing to do. This is a culture war, and as in all wars, bystanders are likely to be bloodied in the melee.

American whiteness, when activated in this particularly aggressive nationalistic way, will be worse for me and my family than it will be for many white Americans. On the other hand, I am well prepared for this moment in time. Based on my upbringing and my field studies on the world, I never presumed America was a safe place for me, although I love this nation dearly.

I have studied the geography and culture of America as intently as I have studied whiteness. I am going in December to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and on that trip I intend to visit both North and South Dakota, which will complete me having visited all 50 of the U.S. states. I have family by marriage in South Dakota, and if the fates are willing I will see them on this trip. As I remain in the adoption pipeline, and my life will change dramatically once I have a child, I hear the everything-ness of America calling me to an adventure, perhaps the last one of its kind for a while.

This is my land, and no white nationalist will tell me otherwise. However, I do believe in their ability to harm me and my nation. If establishment white Americans do not recognize the challenge that the call-to-whiteness presents to their lives as well as to mine, my struggles and our nation’s struggles will be materially more difficult. But I can’t determine anyone else’s actions, only my own.

It thus remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness. You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you. The call-to-whiteness is being invoked in your name. Can you hear it now? And how will you respond? The world is waiting to know.


Black Issues Connected: Why Race Is Never Just Race

Even for a country where racial commentary is an amateur sport and racial incidents come in waves, we’ve had a strange run of racial news about black Americans, people who think they’re black Americans, and justice.

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey


There’s Kalief Browder, pushed to suicide by years of abuse in the New York jails for a crime he arguably should never have been arrested for and did not commit, juxtaposed with what is variously described as the trans-racialism or minstrelsy of Rachel Dolezal. (See Ta’Nehisi Coates’ juxtaposition of the two cases…and note which one got more media attention.) Then there’s there’s a white man murdering churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina. The church had been burnt down in the early 1800s in retaliation for a planned uprising of enslaved people organized by Denmark Vesey. That Emmanuel re-organized, re-built, and played a crucial role in the community and civil rights is its own testament to the human spirit.

Vesey was executed for daring to take action against the system of treating humans as chattel. Browder, nearly two centuries later, was treated like chattel or worse. Dolezal’s story is many things, but in light of the murders at Emmanuel, in particular, it strikes me as a man-bites-dog story that’s easy to consume when we have bigger things to think about.

For example, take the recent court ruling that says (for now) that one single Uber driver must be treated as an employee. That could up-end the company’s model, arguably undermining a financially productive, disruptive, technology-based company; or providing more security to workers displaced by disruption. How does this relate to race? In many cities across America, non-white Americans and immigrants are more likely to be drivers than white native-born Americans, in part because these hard jobs provide an economic point of entry into a society where opportunity is still linked deeply to race, class, and national origin. A ruling that stands up to legal challenges and puts more impetus on the parent company to, say, provide corporate insurance for its drivers could provide more economic leverage not only for Uber drivers but also, as market forces balance, for drivers of traditional cabs and cars.

My problem with the discussions on race we’re having today is that they’re so limited. We’re talking about race as a thing-in-itself when it’s never been just that. Slavery was about commerce and nation-building. Jim Crow was about labor economics. The inequality in the current education and prison systems set up deeper divides tracking people into futures of potential security or insecurity. Race was never just about race, but often our conversations about it are.

In my experience, being black means strangers feel free to tell you what they think about black people. I’ve had strangers in airports and newly-met attendees at business conferences quickly move from pleasantries to a discourse on why black people (sometimes Americans; sometimes globally) are incompetent, lazy, violent, etc etc. My reactions used to be shocked silence or quiet intellectual anger, followed by rebuttals of their points. Now, if I respond at all (and often I don’t), I simply respond with my own historical knowledge of how we got to where we are today — whether that includes current employment statistics on hiring bias and educational inequality, to historical analysis of wealth-building and legal justice from the colonial era through Jim Crow.

I was raised to be an information warrior — to help speak on behalf of black people to the white mainstream I was trained to go to school and work with. And while I have succeeded in some small part I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the mission. I can’t convince anyone (including black people and people who are neither white nor black) that black people are equal to white people, or immigrants to American-born. Your belief in equality is something you chose from your core. What I can do, and often do, is provide information that can inform our understanding of structures that support or deny equality-in-fact. Whether we want to know the lessons history has to share with us is completely our own choice.

Is This Joke About Police Killing Black Men Racist, Funny or Both?

So today I retweeted this joke, with a line at the top about the bitter humor that arises from the news.:

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 7.57.38 AM

Then, I deleted my tweet. I was scrolling through the (many offended) responses to the joke, and I thought this was a chance for a bigger conversation.

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This is in response to the latest police killing of a black man, Walter Scott, shot five times in the back as he was running away. (I hate the term “unarmed” — although accurate, how many times do we have to use it to make the point?) There is a distinct set of moral and ethical lessons that are positive to come out of this grim story. A bystander who didn’t want to get involved turned over video despite his own fears. The police department reacted by firing the officer. An anomaly? A sign of progress? A police department scared of a Ferguson-style backlash? Whatever the reason, this was a situation where the shooting was treated as a serious breach of moral and ethical behavior as well as of good police procedure.

I think knowing the context of the case is important to evaluating the joke, but YMMV. More broadly, I think about the old saw that when a bear is chasing you and your friends, you don’t have to outrun the bear, just your friends. And in a time of fear, you could react by thinking your job is to just outrun someone else dealing with the race/class/income dramas of our nation. I believe part of the reason race is surfacing so often these days is economic anxiety, just as some of the xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-semitism in Europe is emerging for the same reason. The economy, though slowly recovering, has been a bear 90 percent of families haven’t outrun in the past decade. More specifically, inflation-adjusted wages dipped and are just returning to the levels they were ten years ago. Does a joke like this dive into the rampant fear that so many people feel, not necessarily about race but about the future? Some people take fear as a chance to tend and befriend. Others take fear about the future as a chance to shove someone else under the bus.

I first heard about comedian Rob Delaney not on Twitter, where he has a huge following, but on the tragicomic, well-produced podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Once you listen to Delaney talk about how he ended up slipping out of a wheelchair in prison after wretchedly injuring himself passing out driving drunk, somehow deriving both sobriety and humor from the situation, you can understand how his humor runs a little dark.

Oh, you wanted me to answer the question of whether this joke is racist, funny or both? Nah, I’ll leave it up to you.

Living History, Exploring Nature: An Interview with Betty Reid Soskin on One with Farai

Betty Reid Soskin

Betty Reid Soskin

At 92, Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest full-time National Parks service ranger, teaching about racial and gender equality as well as nature.

National Parks ranger Betty Reid Soskin has worked for women’s and civil rights; run a “race record” music store; and now helps tell the history of gender and industry at the Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park in northern California. With sharp honesty, she details how America has changed — and failed to — during her lifetime.

Equality — A Survivor’s Guide: An Interview with Urvashi Vaid on One with Farai

Urvashi Vaid and Farai Chideya

Urvashi Vaid and Farai Chideya

Activist Urvashi Vaid talks about how LGBT politics relate to other rights struggles, plus her journey surviving two rounds of cancer.

Farai Chideya speaks with Urvashi Vaid, author of books including “Virtual Equality” and a professor at Columbia Law School. Born in India, raised in America, she details how LGBT issues connect with race, gender, economic, and criminal justice issues. She also explores being a two-time cancer survivor, and how a passion for life and justice has shaped and sustained her.

Post-Post Racial

Another post-racial America moment: small-town law enforcement called the President the N word; refuses to apologize. I am noodling over the idea of doing a 20th anniversary edition of my book Don’t Believe the Hype, on race/politics/culture/media. I am not depressed about race relations today; rather, I think we have another chance to turn the lens on ourselves and examine our incredible capacity for perpetuating stereotypes. What the past 20 years have taught me, among many things, is that no legal equality alone produces societal equality. We as humans have to change. How? For one, we better get over the concept of being post-racial, posthaste.

Soul Train and Pain: Don Cornelius Deconstructed in New Book

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 3.08.52 PMIn her new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show, Soul Train, author Ericka Blount Danois does more than a pop-chronology or even a look behind the scenes. She gets deeply into the history and sociology of a man and a media movement that reshaped how America looked at race, self-expression, and culture.

Soul Train’s impresario Don Cornelius committed suicide in 2012. Today (September 27th, 2013) would have been his 77th birthday.

I got a chance to ask author Ericka Blount Danois how and why she so deeply explored Soul Train and Cornelius’ life.

Q: Your book includes vivid and visual detail of Don Cornelius’ early days in Chicago; his heyday; and his decline. How did you as a writer go about capturing the spirit and scenes of the book? What was your research process, and what did you choose to achieve with this book?

A:  I actually physically went to a lot of the scenes that I mentioned to get a feel for them (though many places have changed), I interviewed over 100 people—people who worked on the show in Chicago, people who went to school with Don, partied with him, family, old friends, dancers, artists on the show, etc. I had people with great memories to re-create scenes. I read everything about Soul Train and Don and books about the time period. I read books about the artists. I watched episodes, many that are not licensed to air as re-runs, (but I wish they would get them on-air because they are fantastic!). A few months after I got the contract, Don committed suicide and I covered the funeral and interviewed people there. I interviewed the detective that covered the suicide. I just became immersed in the world of Soul Train for a little over two years. Soul Train has such a rich, nearly 40-year history that the learning process is ongoing. After gathering all of the information, I then reconstructed the story using a narrative, non-fiction approach.

I wanted to begin to uncover the reasons why Soul Train had this lasting cultural impact around the world. What was it about the show that allows it to continue to resonate for so many different kinds of people? And what was Don’s personal story—how did he persevere as a black pioneer in television? Who was he behind the cool pose we witnessed on television? How did these two things—Don’s personality and the phenomenon of Soul Train–come together to create the longest running first-run syndicated show in television history? And how did it come together to create a lasting cultural phenomenon?

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Q:   There are many pivotal moments, but one is where Cornelius’ trusted secretary turns out to be embezzling. Much later in his life, and in the book, the scene where Don Cornelius won’t pay towards Lil Joe Chism’s headstone is heartbreaking. What do you think he owed his dancers? Do you think his trust issues (and generosity issues) extended past business travails into something more internal?

A: Great question. On the one hand I believe spiritually that to whom much is given, much is expected and a few hundred dollars to pay for the headstone for a loyal dancer that helped to build the success of the show would have been easy to do. The dancers, most of whom came from the same circumstances that he did, also looked up to him and many just wanted recognition from him that they were a huge part of what made the show tremendously popular.

Dick Clark didn’t have the same kind of expectations in terms of helping people– particularly the dancers– that Don did. But Don was a pioneer. A black pioneer in a television industry that was not very welcoming. So I think there is definitely a different set of responsibilities that comes with that. There is the responsibility in giving back in more ways than are just financial. The debate with Belafonte and Jay Z speaks to this—can collective advancement come from one’s own personal advancement? I personally don’t think we’ve arrived at that point yet.

I think for Don personally the burden of celebrity may have eventually affected his psyche. Maybe he thought the only time that people turned to him was for money. Maybe he started feeling used.

Don Cornelius, with the persona he created for the show, seemed to try to create this distance between him and the world. I think that persona prevented him from making a lot of personal connections. Maybe that’s the way he wanted it. Maybe personally, he felt imprisoned, as many celebrities do, because he had to constantly be on. It’s possible, from a purely business perspective, that he felt that he gave dancers an opportunity, a platform, to showcase their talents and that exposure was its own reward. Personally, maybe the price of taking on the persona of Don Cornelius was that he became indifferent.

He was very complicated. You mentioned his generosity at the same time as his refusal to pay for a headstone for a few hundred dollars. When he believed in someone there was no price he wouldn’t pay to have them succeed as I detail in the book about some of the artists he managed. Maybe he didn’t want to lose money on people he didn’t bet on—a very narcissistic way of thinking. But no one that I talked to made the claim that he was a nice, warm person—it was quite the opposite. Most talked about him as a private person with this Dr. Jeckyll, Mr. Hyde personality. He kept a lot close to his chest, including the Soul Train brand. He refused to name one of the theme songs for the show, MFSB and the Three Degree’s hit, “TSOP”, after the Soul Train brand. He regretted it after the song became a huge hit, but that’s how protective he was of the brand and that translated to his personal life as well.

Q: The show gave life to an era. What is your favorite on-air moment, and why?

A:    I have many! But there are two that stand out.

One is the episode with Marvin Gaye on February 16, 1974. This was his first televised appearance since his hiatus from touring after Tammi Terrell died. Marvin Gaye was explaining to the Soul Train dancers that were gathered around him why he hadn’t toured in so long and how he had lost a close friend. Tammi had multiple surgeries to correct a brain tumor, and there were questions looming about royalties that Gordy had promised the family that potentially could have offset costs. Gaye was becoming wary of Motown and had become a recluse. He was struggling personally, his finances were in disarray and his marriage was crumbling. He was melancholy and consumed with the war and social issues of the day. But he seemed genuinely thrilled to be in the company of the dancers and for Soul Train to be his re-entry back to show business.

The other is one that most people only saw on its first run. It was one of the shows devoted to a national dance contest. Soul Train execs flew in dancers from all over the country—small towns in Alabama, inner-cities, country towns. It was really amazing to see the diversity of the dancers and the various regional dances. These were literally kids off the street who likely had never been on a plane before. Probably the most amazing soul train lines I have ever seen.

Q: I have danced in Soul Train-style lines at everything from weddings to the NABJ (black journalists’) conference. It endures. Why do we still want to capture that moment in time?

A: Well, before television we were dancing in soul train lines in basement parties. It’s been part of the culture for awhile. But I think that the Soul Train line has endured for so long and spread to so many different cultures because of the power of television and television’s power to form memory and ritual and legitimacy. Soul Train captured what was already going on and spread it to “people all over the world,” as the theme music reiterated.



A Graphic Error? Or the Racialization of Terror?

Gotta give it up to Gawker for this one, with their wry line being: “If the terrorists won’t do us the courtesy of being brown, no matter—we’ll just make them brown, instead.” To be fair, the caricature depicts them as more “swarthy” than brown, “swarthy” apparently being the universal color of terrorists, even if they happen to actually be pale skinned men from the Caucasus region, i.e., the origin of the term “caucasian.” Gawker also links from their article to an article on the 1994 controversy when Time Magazine hired an illustrator to darken OJ Simpson’s skin.

After writing a recent cover of the Columbia Journalism Review on race and the media featuring nearly 20 journalists, I am penning another piece, more personal, on my perspective from inside the newsroom. Stay tuned.

Disadvantage Black? Race, Politics, and Gun Reform

President Barack Obama has weathered two seasons of thinly-veiled racial attacks, apparently a standard part of what it takes to be elected President if you’re black. Before he took office in January 2009, there was a run on guns, sparked in part by the head of the NRA arguing that the President wanted a total ban. (That was factually incorrect.)

After the shooting in Connecticut that left 20 schoolchildren dead, the President said:

As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

“Meaningful action” is one of those political code words. In this case, it might mean “We know we need to reform America’s gun laws but we don’t know if we have the political capital to do it.”

President Bill Clinton triangulated the gun issue by performing political jujitsu, arguing that President George H.W. Bush was soft on crime because he refused to crack down on rogue gun sales. That helped neutralize the argument that politicians who wanted to restrict gun sales were the ones soft on crime. But President Clinton also pushed his tough-on-crime credentials by strongly advocating for the death penalty.

I don’t normally argue that his race hurts the President’s ability to lead, but I wonder if in the case of gun laws — and the related issue of criminal justice reform — it complicates matters. The level of paranoia whipped up by the NRA and some other gun advocates about President Obama’s gun policies plays into what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls “Patriot Paranoia” about gun laws. That paranoia has a racial component, not just regarding blacks but also Jews. None of this conclusively proves that racial sentiment (and fear of blowback) influences the President’s ability to push for gun reform. But living in a multiracial (certainly not post-racial) society challenges us to ask questions about how race influences politics and policy.

What do you think: is it harder for the President to launch a hard conversation on guns because of his race? And if so, how do we change move ahead with this debate anyway? What do you want to see happen?

Voter Suppression: It’s Real. Now What Do We Do About It?

Roger Simon of Politico uses interviews with GOP officials to prove that voter suppression is a real tactic. For anyone who wondered if it was imagined (as so much of the argument over widespread voter fraud is), just read this article. Weep because of the effort to subvert democracy. Rejoice because it didn’t work. And get ready for more fights.

Voting lines in Florida. AP/Alan Diaz via TheDailyBanter.com

From the piece:

Shortly after one Election Day [2000], a group of top Republican legislative aides met on Capitol Hill to discuss the future. “The whole point was, how can we stop, how can we suppress their people from voting?” a disgusted Republican staffer who was at the meeting told me. “It’s just so stupid.”

The staffer believed the future of the Republican Party should be to win over Democratic voters, especially minorities, instead of suppressing their votes. “Why don’t we give that a shot?” he asked me. “We could poll-tax them,” he added sarcastically. “And giving them sh—ty voting machines seems to be the latest tactic.”

Simon writes:

What is the ethical difference, you might ask, between early voting, which has favored Democrats, and voter suppression, which has favored Republicans? Simple. Early voting facilitates exactly what this nation is supposed to be about — encouraging people to exercise their right to engage in the most fundamental process of government, the process of voting. Voter suppression is the opposite: It is intended to exclude people from their constitutional right to vote.

And what about voter fraud? The Brennan Center for Justice notes in an extensive analysis that voter fraud is “extremely rare,” adding:

Many vivid anecdotes of purported voter fraud have been proven false or do not demonstrate fraud. Although there are a few scattered instances of real voter fraud, many of the vivid anecdotes cited in accounts of voter fraud have been proven false or vastly overstated. In Missouri in 2000, for example, the Secretary of State claimed that 79 voters were registered with addresses at vacant lots, but subsequent investigation revealed that the lots in question actually housed valid and legitimate residences. Similarly, a 1995 investigation into votes allegedly cast in Baltimore by deceased voters and those with disenfranchising felony convictions revealed that the voters in question were both alive and felony-free.

Nonetheless, in 2012, groups of conservative activist poll-watchers went into many black and Latino neighborhoods, in some cases getting into physical altercations with voters. In one case, however, Tea Party poll-watchers were denied a permit because they themselves falsified information on the form requesting observer status.

What does this all add up to? Another huge issue for the Obama Administration to address for the sake of voters to come.

Election 2012: Romney, Obama, and Identity

The measure of a man should be in his deeds, not the color of his skin or his religious background. That’s what enlightened people are taught to think these days, but most of us (myself included, of course) have moments of predjudicial judgment we can choose to fall prey to or overcome. Puppets and humans in the hit musical “Avenue Q” sang “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” but the issue is bigger than that. In the Presidential race, there are two icebergs looming, of unknown size: the President’s race and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s religion.

The Daily’s take on Romney’s good deeds

Could the election of President Obama actually help his challenger? One Mitt Romney supporter I met recently said that the best indication that Mormonism would not tank Romney’s chances was the election of the President. Take the now-classic 2008 article relating a story of rural Pennsylvanians saying, “We’re voting for the nigger.”) The Romney supporter thought that if the President could get elected through that haze, then Romney’s religion would not be a barrier to election.

The President still faces racial challenges in a slew of different ways, from surrealist birther movies to a group of conservative funders planning, in their own word, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama.” (The fact that they were bold enough to put this plan on paper and distribute it to someone who leaked it to the New York times shows both their ambition and clumsiness.) The deep pockets in this case are members of the Ricketts family, who own the Chicago Cubs. (One of the Ricketts, however, is a major Obama fundraiser.) The team gearing up for attack plans to re-fight the war over the President’s connection to Pastor Jeremiah Wright, which they believe Senator John McCain was stupid not to use more in 2008.

Mitt Romney faces different identity challenges. A recent report by The Daily questions whether he has avoided talking about good deeds because of the way those mesh with his Mormon faith; and an article in the Washington Post has gotten both cheers and jeers from people who perceive it depicting young Romney as a callous, bullying rich kid.

The Daily’s article begins:

One cold December day in the early 1980s, Mitt Romney loaded up his Gran Torino with firewood and brought it to the home of a single mother whose heat had been shut off just days before Christmas. Years after a business partner died unexpectedly, Romney helped the man’s surviving daughter go to medical school with loans for tuition — loans he forgave when she graduated…. Some supporters believe he isn’t touting them [i.e., these and other accounts] because it’s impossible to separate the good works he’s done from a Mormon faith that demands them — a faith that has by all accounts been a defining influence in his life, yet which the campaign has been determined to keep out of the political conversation.

The New York Times has also contributed to the conversation over the role of Romney’s faith in his life and politics in ways both substantive and stylistic. From that article:

Mormonism teaches respect for secular authorities as well as religious ones, but “politics has required him to go against form,” said Richard Bushman, a leading historian of the church who knows Mr. Romney from church.

For example, Mr. Romney had ruled out running personal attack ads against political rivals, those close to him said. When Senator Edward M. Kennedy attacked him as an uncaring capitalist in 1994, using ads that exaggerated Mr. Romney’s role in Bain-related layoffs, Mr. Romney refused to punch back and exploit Mr. Kennedy’s history of womanizing. “Winning is not important enough to put aside my ideals and principles,” Mr. Romney told aides….

Last week, Mr. Romney repudiated efforts to attack President Obama based on his past relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. But earlier this year, he suggested that Mr. Obama wanted to make the United States “a less Christian nation.”

“I have absolutely no idea how he rationalizes it,” Mr. Kimball said of Mr. Romney’s harshest statements and attacks. “It almost seems to be the ends justifying the means.”

The interplay of election politics and identity politics will help drive campaign 2012. The question is not whether the tone and allegations about race and religion will get nasty, but how nasty. And its up to us, the American people, how to respond.