President Brown Caves in to Anti-Black Political Correctness

Before she had a chance to begin her first day as a professor at Boston University, Saida Grundy found herself accused of racism in the court of public opinion and under the scrutiny of her soon-to-be boss, President Robert A. Brown. Attempting to explain gender and race in 140 character bursts led to provocative statements that raised the ire of some whites, including alumni. In an open letter, the president held that the university stood for free speech but not racism or bigotry. To his mind, her use of stereotypes fit the bill, and her words were hurtful to other people. Welcome to the Northeast, Professor Grundy, where black people can be found guilty of ill-defined and dubiously applied brands of racism.

When one carefully reads President Brown’s letter, his case for racism rests on two grounds. In the first, Grundy is accused of stereotyping. For decades, scholars have associated stereotyping with racism, but only when the generalization—and that is the nature of the phenomenon– is placed on an individual. If it is true that bluebirds typically spread disease, the generalization or stereotype is not problematic unless it is placed on an individual bluebird—who may very well not be diseased. This usage is racist only when a negative stereotype about a group is being used to discriminate against a person with prejudice rather than fact. In other words, stereotyping is racism only when it involves actual racial discrimination against an actual person. No one has adduced any evidence that she has accused any particular male or white person with anything. However, distasteful—or even inaccurate—her generalization or stereotype, it was not racist.

Given the weakness of this claim, it is no small wonder that President Brown deftly shifts ground and claims that Professor Grundy used condemnatory, hurtful language. Here we are accustomed to seeing discussion of slurs hurled at members of a group being called racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. Yet, there is nothing in his letter that even attempts to substantiate this. This is the racism that we associate with hatred, and yet none is offered in evidence though it is everywhere insinuated.

Hate-based racism is the leading brand espied by whites against blacks, and for many it is the only type that really matters. How ironic, since it has little to do with classic definitions of racism. Until I moved to New York City in 1993, my study of racism had led me to definitions that emphasized the importance of the construction of social hierarchies based on supposed biological differences, and the use of them as a basis of discrimination by individuals and institutions. In my mind, racial hatred was neither a sufficient or necessary condition of racism. Indeed, some of the greatest racists in American history had never seemed to hate anyone. For many racists, especially planters, black inferiority justified slavery but also sympathy for creatures who were “naturally” suited to serve others. A number of scientific racists were actually antislavery.

I quickly discovered I had moved to a city in which you could hold that all the races were equal and should not be discriminated against, but you could be considered a racist. In fact, everywhere I turned black people were being considered racist as a matter of course, despite their claim to lacking the power to act on their beliefs. If you were black, you only had to demonstrate what appeared to be a generalized attitude about white people, and you could be considered a racist. Whereas whites casually displayed anti-black attitudes, blacks had to appear to like white people of face being called racist. Indeed, indignant blacks were presumed racists.

With racism reduced to hatred, lots of things are suddenly possible. While black racists could appear everywhere, a white racists could disappear from plain sight. A Southern plantation could conceivably have three hundred black racists and zero white ones. A serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer could cannibalize persons of color only, deny being considered a racist, and rarely be remembered as one. Feign racial indifference and anything becomes acceptable–no matter what you think or do.

How could this special definition of racism exist? What accounted for its rise?

Well, it all crystalized for me when I was asked to write a review of Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, which advanced the view that races and ethnic groups could be placed in a hierarchy based on I.Q. In debates with people around the book two things became clear: First, many folks among New York City intellectuals did not consider Murray and Herrnstein racists despite their ranking of humanity. A number of Jewish intellectuals had no problem being placed in group rankings when the basis was intelligence. In fact, when I explained to one of the editors of the publication that the authors of the book had singled out Jews as intellectually superior, he said he was not surprised with that outcome. Secondly, the people who agreed with Murray and Herrnstein were not considered racists either. When I asked the editor how could he sign on to racism, he said Jews were not a race but an ethnic group, so that was different. When I asked whether he believed the “racial” part of the hierarchy was racist, he said maybe. When I asked him whether the authors were racists for writing the book, I was told no. These matters could all be separated. Then he solved the whole problem by adding that the authors do not seem to hate anyone. So there it was: Racism for him was about racial hierarchies combined with hatred–or hatred alone. After this experience, I noticed that my NYC editor had views that were fairly common.

I have come to conclude that definitions of racism that can strip away biology but not hatred were born of the struggle against Nazism. Few whites, especially Jews, took seriously the Nazi’s case for innate superiority, but no one could mistake their hatred. Moreover, European Americans seeking to accommodate ethnic differences in cities like New York and Boston embraced definitions that suit their intellectual and social needs—harmony between ethnoracial groups. Indeed, racism as a concept did not enter the American social science discourse to explain slavery or colonization—it rose in opposition white-on-white violence and war. Now, it is hauled out in service of controlling the behavior of a black woman who dared to challenge racism and patriarchy.

Increasingly we live in a society in which people who believe that racial inequality is natural rather than social and none dare affix a label of racist to them. Moreover, a double standard is rising in the application of the lesser hatred-based definition of racism. Indeed, when the palpable hatred is expressed among whites at the President of the United States few are willing in such instances to label either the discourse or the person racist, but many whites are willing to call generalizations they find distasteful racist. This hatred-as-racism usage seems decidedly anti-black, and this is what the President Brown has bought into to please his alumni.

As the president of a major research university, I imagine President Brown might have to confront a researcher who delves into the study of race and biology and concludes that hierarchies exist in morals, intelligence, and perhaps criminality. As a good university president, would he defend the scholar’s right to academic freedom, or would he accuse the scholar of racism on the basis of stereotyping? Would he accuse the scholar of engaging in condemnatory and hurtful discourse? I wager that he would discover the distinction between a stereotype and a racist stereotype, and scholarly or scientific generalization and a slur. To do otherwise would be to undermine academic freedom, and, worse still, deny a human the right seek valid generalizations as all sentient beings do.

In coming out and accusing this young scholar of racism, President Brown has caved into an anti-black brand of political correctness. Worse still he has lent his academic credibility to the most spurious form of racism and erroneously affixed the label on the reputation of a scholar as she begins her career. Not a good day for the academy.

No Justice for Tony Robinson: Liberalism, Political Ambition and the Long Slog

The struggle to end police killings will be longer and more difficult than that against lynching, which waned rather than being legislated out of existence. Not only are the federal courts likely to rule in favor of the police, the most important laws governing police behavior emanate from the states and are enforced by the more than 3000 local jurisdictions, which have wide discretion because of the prosecutorial and jury systems. Winning these local fights requires winning the hearts and minds of a majority overwhelmed by the fear of black folks.

While many like to pose it as a matter of black and white, the majority for the current way the system works is multiracial, and includes many self-defined liberals and, yes, progressives. The fear of the police reflects the general fear. Few folks are for black death, but they view it as the price we must pay for their own security. It is a shame that Anthony Robinson, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, Aura Rosser, Walter Scott, Darren Hunt, Erroll Garner and whoever else got killed, but, so the thinking goes, better those black folks than me. This is the price that black folks must bear to move about freely without restrictions.

In the case of Anthony Robinson, there was room for Attorney General Ismael Ozanne to send the case against Matthew Kenny to trial. After all, despite being assaulted inside the structure where Robinson was housed, the police officer was outside of the structure and away from harm when he fired all of his shots. Moreover, his story deviated from the evidence on the video.

Even though Wisconsin’s image as a progressive state has been tarnished by Scott Walker, Madison, Wisconsin, has long been seen as a progressive city, a place where liberalism is a deep as it gets in the mid-west. Moreover, the city’s history with violence against students in the 1960s led to reforms that made it a beacon for policing reform nationwide in the aftermath. If #blacklivesmatter cannot take white liberal Madison by storm, this speaks volumes to the depth of the struggle. Must our victories only come from places where there are decidedly black majorities? Can we only win in cities like Baltimore where a courageous prosecutor such as Marilyn Mosby can at least garner the political support of a sizeable black community?

Even then much depends on one’s larger political ambitions. No state has a black majority, so black politicians from liberal political units must consider their next rung up the ladder. Perhaps this explains why the prosecutor, the interracial son of a SNCC activist in a very liberal city decided to use his discretion to favor the policeman. Perhaps it is not because of Madison, but because of Ozanne’s statewide ambitions, and his understanding of liberalism beyond Madison. Ozanne aspires for higher office, and he will not win it appearing as a soft-on-crime liberal. He has been burned by that already.

Black Studies, the Black Public Intellectual, and the Struggle this Time

Black Studies was founded on the premise that black intellectuals had a critical role to play in addressing and presumably solving the problems of the black community. In the 1970s, when the dream of revolution receded and the careerists moved in, one might have expected at least the possibility of grappling with problems in the tradition of liberal social scientists, but nothing came of that. Since that time, exceedingly more energy has be spent studying culture than society, and so Black Studies has little to offer policy makers or revolutionaries.

While the failure of liberalism to subdue racism accounts for our present situation between black people and the policing regime, the black intellectuals, no different from black leaders, have had two generations to make progress on this issue. Black Studies intellectuals are often recruited based on a shared distaste for leadership in the black community. Black political leaders represent the low-hanging fruit, so the literature against them is robust, a veritable subfield. And yet Black Studies specialists, despite the different camps, are exceedingly less interested in finding fault within, across, or between camps. Indeed, self-reflection typically takes the form of predicting the future directions of the field more so than taking stock of shortcomings. Perhaps this is a result of the brutal warfare between the Afrocentrics and the rising generation of universalists in the 1990s. And yet self-criticism within camps can be professionally unwholesome today if one strays beyond well-defined boundaries of criticism.

We tend to think of the retreat from looking at the shortcomings of society begins with the triumph of conservatism and would not implicate black scholars, but this is not quite true. By the mid-1970s even Vincent Harding had begun to say that part of the role of the black scholar was to give hard news to the community about its shortcomings. This was at the very moment that a young William Julius Wilson began to suggest that the poor were victimized more by their class than their race, and a full generation before Cornel West, supporter of the so-called neo-liberal Clinton Administration, introduced the notion of black nihilism into the public discourse. The problems of the black poor, not the criminal justice system or the American economy, became the focus, and when critical studies of mass incarceration did appear they often came from the culturalists, who railed against matters in the broadest of terms. Those laboring in the social sciences found a small hearing inside and outside of the community, the academy, and policy making circles. The people who should have been the focus of radical Black Studies stood on the margins as culture became king.

In our struggle this time, the public intellectual weighing in will be a mixture of paid and unpaid labor. The latter will aim to rise to prominence and obtain consultancies to augment their academic income, and write books to justify speaking engagements via their agents. The Old Heads will attempt to stay on top of the game. This phenomenon of feeding off of the struggle began in the early 1970s with the rise of black students on college campuses where they controlled speaker bureau budgets. Despite the humble origins, the black intellectuals trading off black struggle is a much bigger affair this time. The big book contracts and the consultancies for speaking to “the American public” are as new as universalist black studies and cable television. Talking to the black public pays only so well as anyone on the so-called chittlin’ circuit will tell you. With the routing of the Afrocentrics a generation ago, Black Studies crossed over and went mainstream. This new integrated public discourse on corporate platforms has brought us one-percenter black public intellectuals who vie for the public’s attention and adulation like black rappers or prize fighters before them.

The fact that this is where the action is in Black Studies means that the enterprise has been wholly coopted and of virtually of no use to anyone fighting to transform the condition of black people’s lives. Those seeking to give noble purpose to the “dust up” between Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West want to pretend that something substantive is at stake. These differences are as meaningless as the point-counter-point, left versus right format in which all of American issues appear on cable news shows. Neither is about change, both are about edutainment. Speaking for or against power pays roughly the same, and it is, after all, about the Benjamins.

On the other hand, organizing against power pays nothing, and is very risky. The #blacklivesmatters movement undoubtedly has innumerable intellectuals in their ranks. To be sure some have learned much from the local Black Studies scholars, or so I have been told. And I know there are Black Studies scholars who see themselves as public intellectuals and tied to the movement. Yet much of what those in struggle they learn will come from experience, the experience of struggle. Let the black movement intellectuals rise and speak to the people face to face and ignore as best they can the lure of the camera and the celebrity it generates.

The Pursuit of a Common American Past and a Democratic Destiny

I belong to an intellectual tradition that believes that America is possible. My late adviser, Carl Degler, wrote a textbook entitled, Out of Our Past, and I have the honor of being the president of an association, whose founder, Carter G. Woodson, wrote a textbook on black history entitled, The Negro in Our History. Both believed history had to speak to the living–to provide us with self-knowledge–so that we can make and share a true and better democracy.

However contested the American past, the biggest error we can make is to abandon the project of finding a common past and future. However much I might differ with historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood over developments that they have seen as balkanization created by identity history, we run the risk dismantling without any intention of rebuilding, believing that something better will arise on its own. In ways that Bailyn and Wood seem unaware, there are those among professional scholars who see all histories organized around nation-states as being as problematic as “identity history.” Others would have us write histories about global trends that serve policy makers, the ultimate expression of serving power under the guise of speaking truth to it.

If we do not somehow get our neighbors and those who live in other valleys to share in our collective struggle to rebuild our nation, we will continue to be disempowered. If we cannot demonstrate to poor white men that they, too, had to fight for the right to vote, they will not understand that their political incorporation can be taken away, too. If we cannot convince other Americans that we collective responded to the Great Depression in a better way than we have to the Great Recession, the net result of the next economic downturn will be worse than the last. If we cannot convince other Americans that #blacklivesmatter, then should we not be seeking another land? The very debate suggests that a desire to convince other Americans and make ours a better country. And if we do not agree over what happened and how we got here, the more important thing is that we still care enough to debate it.

Of course, many of my Facebook and face-to-face friends will take issue with this love affair I have with American national identity. As I have always said, I consider myself an American patriot (as much as I differ with most of them). Those whose imagined community is the African diaspora live in the stateless world that I fear. Those who long for some new order beyond the nation-state are witnessing its rise and consolidation in the form of global capitalism, and it is not the promised world, to say the least. Yet somehow they believe that they can fight what they call neo-liberalism through global movements of strangers. Not possible. We must find a way to make common cause with the people in the next valley. Is this not the most fundamental lesson of human history?

The Challenges of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in 21st Century America

On February 9th, 2015, I gave an address before the American Federation of Government Workers. One of their members fell ill before my introduction, and suddenly my prepared talk did not seem adequate. I decided to talk about my thoughts of late about working people and rights in America. Had I tried to write the speech, it would not have come out as well. It’s roughly 28:30 long, so if you have the time, check it out.

Holding Up February for American History

“Do you remember when February used to be American History Month? This ‘Black History Month’ stuff is just terrible.”
from The Gods Are Bored, 2007

Yes, it’s true. Before February became the province of Black history, the turf belonged to the proponents of “American history.” The heart of winter was chosen because two of America’s greatest leaders—Washington and Lincoln—were born during the month. And if the movement had succeeded, its advocates would point out that Ronald Reagan, popularly known as one of the greatest American presidents of all times, was also born in February.

For Americans who prefer their history lily white, February was beautiful. During the 1950s and 1960s, our nation’s history was celebrated across the land, in hamlets, towns, and smaller cities. Led by women, the movement focused on patriotism: Washington and Lincoln, the glorious American Revolution, the triumph over sectionalism, and America’s preservation of freedom in Europe were the stuff of February. Businesses showered funds on America’s true history, and governors, including Nixon and Reagan, signed proclamations. America’s small newspapers were adorned their pages with the beaming, young faces of the winners of essay contests. American history lived through our youth.

In 1967 and 1968, the movement reached its height. Under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly, the proponents of American History Month succeeded in getting Congress and President Lyndon Baines Johnson to issue an official proclamation. In 1968, in the midst of setbacks in Viet Nam, the New York Times reported that the President’s proclamation “noted that understanding the past can give the nation wisdom and courage to meet its present challenges.”

Then, as quickly as it came, American History Month waned, fading from view almost completely by the mid-1970s. Indeed, by 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford joined with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History to pronounce February Black History Month, it appears that neither he nor they seemed aware that February was already American History Month.

How could America so easily forget? How had February gone from white to black? The transformation of history in February is a story of race and nation, of pride and patriotism, and of progress and American identity.

The popular effort to define February began in 1926. The protagonist was Carter G. Woodson. The son of slaves, Woodson took a doctorate from Harvard and dedicated his life to using history as a weapon. He combated the idea that blacks constituted an inferior race that had contributed nothing of worth to civilization. Well aware that quite a few black Americans also needed convincing, Woodson decided to popularize the scholarly findings being uncovered by his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He conceived of Negro History Week as a means of getting the word out to the public.

Woodson selected a week in February for the celebration. A practical man, he was well aware that black Americans were already celebrating September 12th and 14th, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ respective birthdays. Republicans, black and white, had been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday since the Civil War, and the entire nation had begun to honor it as a holiday in 1909, the centennial of his birth. Not long after Douglass’ death in 1895, the black community began celebrating his life on the day he had chosen to mark his birth (for slavery had deprived him of the actual date). It began as an effort of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to save Douglass’ home, Cedar Hill. By building on the existing history days, Woodson increased the likelihood that Negro History Week would be a success.

The week also reflected Woodson’s racial and national aspirations for America. Woodson believed in racial harmony and embraced America as his nation, laboring for the day when racial democracy would be realized. Revealingly, his history of black Americans was entitled, The Negro in Our History. In 1933, he would write, “We would not learn less of George Washington, ‘First in War, First in Peace and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen’; but we would learn something also of the three thousand Negro soldiers of the American Revolution who helped to make this ‘Father of our Country’ possible.” Woodson’s vision was inclusive, not divisive.

Built around two figures admired by African Americans, Negro history week spread like wildfire. Throughout the South and the North, African Americans expanded their celebrations, and segregated black schools wrote Woodson clamoring for material to teach the children. In the heart of the Depression, Woodson’s movement grew. Branches of the Association, as it became known, sprouted up around the country, and Negro History Week became a national celebration that drew the attention of white newspapers and politicians. As blacks moved North, proclamations from mayors and governors followed. Preachers became historians of sort, and white publishers discovered black authors. So successful was Negro History Week that Woodson began to complain about quality control and commercialization. In short, it was an American success story.

When he died in 1950, Woodson would become known as the Father of Negro History. In his vision, black history was American history, and the future would be one that recognized it as such. As whites joined the movement and asked for materials to teach white children, he could sometimes make too much of it. He used to speak of a day when Negro History Week would fade away. He never, however, thought that the collective experience of black Americans would become disaggregated—groups made and had histories. In high schools and colleges, special courses would exist as they did for other groups. And in daily life, the historian dreamt a historian’s dream–Negro history week would become Negro history year.

Two years after Woodson passed away, in a small hamlet in Kentucky, one of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) put herself forth as the mother of American History Month. Charged with heading a committee on Americanism, Mrs. William H. Noel promoted the idea of buttressing American patriotism by parlaying Washington and Lincoln’s birth month into a state-wide celebration. At the heart of the effort was the Cold War, and Governor Lawrence Wetherby embraced the project. In his proclamation, he wrote, “existing trends toward Communism and Socialism called for a return to fundamentals” and “knowledge of American history is the best counter-offensive to the various ‘isms’ seeking a foothold in our country.” American History Month, he believed, would result in children who entered into civic life as “Pro-Americans.”

In subsequent years, the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored American History Month. With its national base and cadre of well-placed, patriotic mothers in virtually every locale, the DAR had no problem garnering proclamations and receiving support from local groups. Their identification with patriotism made them especially suited to promote history as a means of inoculating the public against foreign ideologies. Moreover, the Cold War itself, which placed America traditional and ideology against in competition with communism, had an appeal that attracted the support of many Americans.

In Phyllis Schlafly the movement had a figure whose star was just beginning to rise. In the heart of America’s most liberal decade, Schlafly mobilized support to have Congress and the President provide official recognition to February as American History Month. In November of 1966, she succeeded in getting Congress to adopt a measure for her movement. And in 1967, American History Month had a Presidential Proclamation.

Despite this–actually, because of all this, American History Month fizzled. The brand of American history promoted by the Daughters of the American Revolution was becoming increasingly passé. Postwar America no longer represented country led by people who traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower and the America Revolution. The vision of America as an Anglo-Saxon nation was being replaced by the view of America as a nation of immigrants. In 1952, during the same year the movement started, the Jewish scholar Oscar Handlin won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on immigration. American history, he wrote, is immigrant history. This was the view promoted by John F. Kennedy and in 1960 he would win the White House.

Worse still, before America began to see itself as a nation of immigrants, it already was a nation with millions of black citizens. Rather than building on Negro History Week and extending an olive branch to their fellow citizens who were celebrating the legacy of Lincoln, the Daughters of the American history attempted to co-opt the entire month and pretended that Frederick Douglass had never lived. Woodson had adopted a proven formula of promoting racial harmony by coupling the president with the great abolitionist and the DAR could not have missed it altogether. Negro History Week was often discussed in majority white papers across the nation.

Had the DAR desired to reach across the color line, it would have taken some effort. Not many African Americans would have forgotten how in 1939 the DAR had barred Marian Anderson, the famous opera singer, from performing in their Constitutional Hall. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt, the stalwart champion of black equality, resigned from the DAR in protest of their racism. The DAR had baggage.

An outreach to blacks would have been imperative because the rising liberal establishment was hardly interested in promoting American history. In the 1950s and early 1960s, leading liberal intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter associated Americanism with radical conservatism and anti-intellectualism. The large urban newspapers greeted the arrival of American History Month with great indifference, if not disdain. The New York Times mentioned the celebration only four times in its history—two of them brief mentions of the presidential proclamations. The Washington Post covered the movement as a women’s event, reporting on it in the women’s section of the paper. Large papers reported on American History Month, they never promoted it with special sections. Indeed, the liberal media was in full effect.

It virtually goes without saying that the anti-Americanism that accompanied the rise of sixties radicalism did nothing to extend the reach or life of the movement. The anti-Viet Nam War movement signaled a break with American history and a distrust of American institutions. Radical historians scoured the past looking to debunk proclaimed American ideals and celebrated all departures, however slight, from the mainstream capitalist creed. Even in its mildest form, the Black Power movement called into question the promise of American history and savaged the Founding Fathers as slaveholders and racists. Woodson’s beloved Lincoln was no longer a liberator—he was a white supremacist. The DAR and its figurehead, Phyllis Schlafly, now famous for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, would become the symbol of anti-feminism, and it would take years before feminist historians could make peace with the mothers of the American revolution.

What is remarkable is that between 1952 and the mid-1960s, the American History Movement never spilled beyond the Daughters of the American Revolution. Successful movements never remain the monopoly of their promoters. Why didn’t Americans who liked the message and not the messenger establish their own vehicles for celebrating American History Month? If the DAR was too elitist (and it was!), why didn’t other patriotic groups such as the Knights of Columbus or even local Parent Teachers Associations take up the cause?

The American History movement was up against more than liberalism’s distrust of patriotism and the newcomers’ dislike of the old elite’s claim to the Founding Fathers. It was trying to promote history to segments of the American population that had never cared much for the past. Looking forward, not backwards, has been the way of white folks in the American story. For native and foreign born whites alike, the pursuit of wealth has often meant uprooting oneself from people and places and seeking new opportunities.

Besides the traditionalism of the founding WASPs, the grand exception to the anti-historical impulse among whites had been among Southerners. Long ago William Faulkner noted that the defeat in the Civil War engendered in the Southern youth a sense of history in a land generally devoid of the same. The historian Eugene Genovese has emphasized that the South’s love of history was not born of defeat, but was rather an outgrowth of its agrarian traditionalism. Thanks to the New Deal and the Cold War, progress was bulldozing the South digging up the roots of Southern history. The Civil Rights movement led to the resurrection of rebel symbols, but Confederate nationalism lay buried in dozens of battlefields being transformed into middle class havens. The struggle that made modern America was in the way of progress and that was not a safe place.

History appealed to black Americans precisely because it drove racial progress. Woodson had shown that the path through the future was through the past. Arthur A. Schomburg, his contemporary and fellow advocate of black history, put it best, “The American Negro must make his past in order to make his future.” History moved black people forward by showing the world what people of African descent had accomplished and the contributions that African Americans had made to the nation. It was in raising black self-esteem through examining the record and empowering one group of Americans to look at the other eye to eye. And it was a concept that had been understood by African Americans since their participation in World War I when they fought to free others and now looked to free themselves.

Not surprisingly, black history was part and parcel of the civil rights movement. It existed in the Freedom Schools in the South, and in the school boycotts in the North. Integrationists wanted Negro history in schools, so that black and white children would know the truth about blacks and their contributions to the nation. To be sure, black nationalists have ever made their case for separation by appeals to a litany of grievances, giving birth to one of the most vibrant debates about the American past. (To this day, slavery and Jim Crow live in black barbershops and beauty parlors.)

Given black history’s utility, African Americans never waited for Woodson’s Association to pave the way. To his credit, Woodson never tried to control the celebrations. He urged local communities to form committees and get on with the work. And so they did. By the time the Association named February Black History Month in 1976, it was largely a fait accompli. In places like Chicago, the House of Knowledge had begun celebrating “Negro” History Month as early as 1967. By 1969, “Black” History Month was being celebrated in many of the city’s public schools.

The white liberal establishment that ignored American History Month embraced the movement of the oppressed minority. Raising self-esteem and spreading sensitivity through black history was different from promoting unbridling and unblinking American nationalism. Big city newspapers that did nothing for American History Month ran special sections on black history.

Conservative America adopted Black History Month as well. Tending to their bottom lines, corporations commercialized black history. Firstly, they recognized that that history had a special appeal to black Americans—the ubiquitous celebrations told them so. Secondly, marketing surveys revealed that blacks were particularly brand loyal. As the incomes of blacks rose in the 1960s, corporations promoted black history. Black history was part and parcel of the cola wars between Pepsi and Coke. Among the first to develop promotional materials for the black consumer, Pepsi created spoken word albums during the early 1960s. By the late 1960s, Coke teamed with ASNLH to produce a Negro History Week Kit. In the mid-1970s, Budweiser, the King of Beers, celebrated black history by commissioning famous artists to salute African Kings.

Integration brought the movement into erstwhile white places. As black children entered predominately white primary and secondary schools, February became first Negro History Week and then Black History Month. It started before Black Power, but black militancy certainly did not hurt the cause. In higher education, Black Power ushered in Black History Month and Black Studies. In the workplace, black history entered as blacks became more than menials, and human relations specialists recognized its importance in workforce management. Black History Month again underwrote progress.

Increasingly we hear calls to end Black History Month. Black history, some black folks say, is American history and therefore should neither be segregated nor reduced to a month. Others would have American history be colorblind altogether. And some just think it’s horrible. (God, bless them, too.)

These groups mean well, but they know too little about American history. Woodson often looked askance at his creation, but understood that it was people driven. It is a popular movement with which leaders and corporations want to be identified. It thrived for fifty years without a presidential proclamation and would grow stronger were one denied. It’s that kind of creature. And who, even if they could, would really kill it? It’s the only American history compatible with our ideology of progress.

A Note on the Academy Changing before My Very Eyes

Stem Image

As the workings of global capitalism shrink the middle class here and grow it abroad, the institutions that serve the American middle class will be hollowed out, too. If you look past the myth that free trade brings prosperity to all and grasp the basic capitalist premise that markets seek efficiency, then globalism means opportunity will knock at the door of the less expensive worker.

For some reason many of us do not link global capitalism to the university save invoking one aspect of it–so-called privatization, which really means passing the cost on to the students and donors. More profound is the transformation of the education delivered to students. We hear about this mostly as “the adjunct” crisis, but that too is only part of the story. The trend includes the decline of the humanities, social sciences, libraries, and, more generally, research positions.

As a high school student in the 1970s, I marveled at America’s colleges and universities as I prepared to apply to college. Later I came to understand that the system was a product of the Cold War and the need to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and democracy over anti-democratic, anti-private property communism. Now that the competition is over and capital has won and gone global, there is little need to underwrite the democratic experiment which presumed non-STEM knowledge about history, culture, and public affairs. Democratic nationalism is barely more a force than communism, so the pressure for an educated citizenry hardly exists.

It seems we no more need universities, especially research universities, for the masses than we need music, art, and history in our public schools. These topics used to belong to the rich and if current trends continue they will be their special preserve again. The poor must make themselves useful. STEM addresses that problem, though it is sold as the path to personal and national wealth. In recent years, STEM has become not simply about producing engineers and computer scientists, but also training non-union, lower-paid workers needed on the floors to operate the equipment in the returning factories. This is the STEM for the junior colleges and workforce developmentStem Image.

Except for the schools for the one-percenters, American higher education is becoming a place where our children become useful for those in need of their labor. The ideal of the educated worker is replacing that of the enlightened citizen. Parents have bought into this and so have many university professors and administrators. It is largely a done deal.

Some of my mentors who were advocates of higher education have placed so much of their attention on maintaining resources for the poor that they have hardly noticed that they are not sending them to places dedicated to empowering them as citizens. The transformation has largely escaped them and so they struggle unwittingly to make a new “college-educated” working class.

We Need a New Basis for Local Politics beyond People of Color

In fighting the #policepower, there is no substitute for building political majorities at the county level. That is where it resides in our structure of government, and it would take a veritable revolution and a new Constitution to change that. There are many counties and virtually entire states where we will never be able to build a majority coalition, but our loved ones get shot down even where we have large numbers and the potential for more political allies. We should focus there.

From the Rainbow Coalition of the last generation to the People of Color Politics of today, we have not excluded whites, but let us face the fact: We have not won over enough white people to make our lives as sacred as theirs, or anyone else’s. For a decidedly ethnic person like me, this is not an easy reality to accept, but I have reluctantly concluded that this reality met be grappled with to preserve black lives.

If you think the solution is simply protest, you are half wrong. If you think you can build the winning coalition while harping about white privilege, you are wrong. A common ground must be sought and found with white people and all others. We need white allies today as much as we did in the urban North in the twentieth century. We like to point out that urban protest brought about concessions from the state in the 1960s, but we do not like to acknowledge that the resulting #whitefear drove the politics of outsized policing and mass incarceration. We can take the position that white people’s fear is white people’s problem, but it is our children, not theirs, who are dying. Moreover we delude ourselves if we think the fear residing in whites is not shared by other groups. Our polls simply ignore everyone besides blacks and whites.

The urban politics that preceded the turmoil was nothing to write home about; the patronage politics from the 1920s to the 1960s was majoritarian politics that paid more national than local dividends. Yet the carnage was probably not nearly as high, but we do not have numbers to know.

The new urban coalitions I am talk about amounts to nothing radical, and for this reason it will not appeal to many who want national and perhaps even global change. Nothing said here precludes working nationally or globally. It merely says that local politics and coalitions are critical. Yet as one unwilling to wait for the restructuring of society, I believe we must reach out to others who are looking for local change, regardless of color. Influencing the prosecutor’s office is key and must become a central part of our electoral politics. Our local coalition politics must insist on this without preconditions that blame victims or exalt the police beyond the citizen.

This need for a new basis for politics becomes more important as the cities become gentrified and yet we must continue to work in them. In many cases, the grand juries will get increasingly non-black. And yes it is politically possible that people of color politics can give way to anti-black politics, especially since New York is not America.

No Special Right of Self-Defense for Police: The Evil This Time

Nothing shows the folly of using historical analogies to convince people of the evil right before their eyes than the case for justice for Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. For most people, moral sensibilities lag behind social change. For this reason, every generation has the burden of convincing the world that what it is facing is actually oppression. What appears normal and moral to most must be revealed for its inherent evil, not for its association with one already accepted. Analogies linking police killings to lynchings have failed to work on the average white American.

To most Americans, liberal and conservative, lynching is wrong. And it is wrong primarily because it is gone, and they have been taught in school and in church that lynchings are wrong. Before lynching died down and disappeared efforts to get an antilynching law failed because many Americans, mainly Southerners, saw nothing particularly wrong with lynchings—they were a defense of civilization against criminals, black beast rapists and other such horrors. Today lynching is not wrong because the accused was never convicted of a crime before being executed, but because the accused was executed before they were born. White Americans are always willing to cop a plea for past sins. Slavery was wrong only after the fact. Lynching was wrong after it disappeared.

If whites believe that lynching was wrong because an “accused” man was found guilty without a trial, then they would be outraged that an unarmed black man was shot at 12 times or so and posed no threat to anyone and he had not been given a trial. Does anyone really believe that Office Darren Wilson needed to shoot so many times to secure his person from even a “hulk” of a man. At best Michael Brown was an unconvicted criminal who could have been charged with stealing cigars. Nonetheless everyone is okay that he was summarily killed by a cop without a trial because he was a criminal of an uncharged offense. Now think where we would be if he had been accused of rape by a naked white woman running down the street? Would we not be hearing that a criminal had been killed by an office as he sought to escape? And would whites be patting themselves on the back for it having been done by a cop rather than the mob? See, your Jim Crow analogies mean nothing when confronting the evil this time. The cop has replaced the mob and everything is neat and legal, especially since the cop invoked the notion that he was afraid for his life. Making an analogy between police killings and lynchings does not work because white Americans today are not willing to plead guilty to injustice that is before their eyes and no historical analogy will do.

We have the burden–even if we should not–of showing this evil for what it is today, in our time, on its own terms. We must show that the police cannot engage in summary executions because he or she sees apparitions dancing around in their heads preparing to strike them dead—even when unarmed. The I-was-afraid defense is a right unique to the police. A citizen cannot simply claim self-defense because they were afraid and use it to justify a continued use of force against an unarmed person—even with stand your ground laws or the normal castle doctrine. A citizen cannot claim to be afraid of the police and fire to preserve his or her own life. And how did the police get to claim a right that even soldiers in combat cannot claim against innocent civilians. If soldiers cannot claim this right in warzones, police should not have them at home. The professional policemen, no different from other armed professionals, should not be able to invoke fear to avoid a charge of murder. It is effectively a right to commit murder by confessing that one is an unprofessional coward.

This state-sanctioned policy that empowers police against citizens is more consistent with a police state than a liberal democracy. The police killing of our children–and all God’s children–is wrong unless there is a clear and present danger presented to a cop. A cop’s right to self-defense can be no greater than the citizen’s. When a cop has rights that a citizen lacks it will often be used against others citizens for whom it was not originally intended. Be clear, this antiblack policy is used predominately against African Americans with relative ease of credibility, but others also fall victim to it. As Booker T. Washington said, you cannot drag a man into the gutter without dragging yourself down, too.