Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Thursday, March 27, 2003  

The continuation of history

Self-examination is popular in Bloggersville this week. Many people are examining their feelings about the invasion of Iraq and the 'war' on terrorism. Others are asking themselves about "the end of history." The term refers to the eureka! moment when a person stops perceiving history, or more accurately, current events, as distant and begins to perceive them as personal.

I don't believe there was such a bifurcation for me. I grew up in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. I'm not old enough to have experienced segregation, but the tension surrounding integration was still very much present. I remember civil rights marches and other forms of protest. A cross was burned on the lawn of the very white-looking African-American dentist who dared run for city council. He lived down the street from us. That confused me. If people with olive or darker skin were the ones detested by most white people, why had he been persecuted?

North Carolina was considered comparatively soft when it came to segregation and abuse of nonwhites. The state had never had an African-American population of more than 15 percent back then. Citizens in parts of it refused to secede during the Civil War. South Carolina, on the other hand, has long had a tradition of deep racial paranoia because of its history as one of the few states that once had a black majority. Mississippi and Alabama, also homes of large black populations, were equally determined to maintain a white supremacist society. Alabaman Condoleeza Rice, who had friends blown up by racist vigilantes when she was a child, has spoken of having grown up amid "home-grown terrorism." My older sister is about her age, but I don't think she would use terminology that strong. Tarheels are Southerners, but not that Southern.

I must have already had a racial consciosness by the time I was six years old because I recall writing a play for my second-grade class about Indians. And, I would have also already have known middle-class white people lived differently than we did since I sometimes accompanied my mother to her work as a maid when I was little. I was fascinated the first time I saw a vacuum cleaner.

At the same time, I must have been reading books that took it for granted children were white. I vaguely call one called "The Littlest Rebel." My brother had taught me to read when I was four, so my reading skills would have been at about the fourth-grade level by the time I started school. I became an inveterate reader. Other Southern tripe found itself on to my reading list along with the works of Lorraine Hansberry and Kristin Hunter. The juxtaposition of "Gone With the Wind" with "The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou" must have been interesting. (Hunter would later teach me writing at the University of Pennsylvania.)

There were incidents in school, where I was often the only minority child in my class because of tracking by scholastic achievement test scores. A memorable one involved the principal of an elementary school I attended calling my mother to his office to give me a whipping for having won the school spelling bee. A Lumbee child was not supposed to do that. Having been reared to never cross white authority figures, she complied.

I really cannot think of a time when I didn't know there was a societal pecking order and that people of color were at the bottom of it, doubly so if one was female. The personal and the political were merged from the beginning. History was always very much present in our lives.

The accounts of other bloggers 'awakenings' follow a pattern. 'Race realist' scientist Charles Murtaugh says:

I don't know if I can pin down the precise date, but the first "historical" event that I remember having an emotional impact on me was the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. (Custom-made, it would seem, to scare the crap out of a little kid.) I was still too young at the time to read the paper, but I definitely talked about it a lot with my parents. My dad had hated the Shah, but he was hardly "objectively pro-Khomeini" as a result -- as he explained it to me, and I've never heard a compelling argument to the contrary, the hostage crisis was an example of what we now call diplomatic "blowback." He blamed Khomeini, but he also blamed the CIA for helping install and shore up the Shah.

CalPundit Kevin Drum's end of history episode also involves a foreign military related event, the overthrow of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He is able to affix a time period: September 1972.

Young Matthew Yglesias recounts a militaristic awakening, but also an uncannily sophisticated grasp of sexual mores I'm surprised he knew about as a pre-adolescent.

For Kevin it’s martial law in the Phillipines in 1972, for Charles it’s the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. For me it’s Gulf War I which ten year-old Matt followed pretty closely after the start of the air campaign interrupted my efforts to watch cartoons on TNT. In a weird way, then, it feels to me as though history has run full circle. I don’t think I really grasped what was going on at the time, though, and I don’t have clear recollections of what my thinking was. For that we need to push forward somewhat to the 1992 presidential primaries where I distinctly remember predicting at the nadir of his standing (some kind of scandal) that Bill Clinton would win the nomination and that at the end of the day people didn’t really care about his marital infidelities.

Perhaps the common thread in these end of history episodes is malesness and its connection to a warrior ethos. However, these are not the kinds of men who go to war. (Though the thought of Murtaugh trapped in a trench in Iraq with a sandstorm blowing all around and no batteries for his radio warms my chilly heart.) But, I suspect my brother's memories of growing up in North Carolina are very similar to mine. So, perhaps the criteria for an end of history experience are more about class. After all, upper middle-class children are more sheltered than others. So, when reality comes a-calling, it may jolt them more. Maybe gender, class and race all play a role in whether one experiences such an awakening.

I can say with certainty that this girl child of working-class people of color knew the machinations of society had a measurable impact on her life all along. As for history, William Faulkner seems to have been described it accurately to me: "The past is not dead, it's not even past."

Note: Lumbees are a 'tripartite racial isolate' of Native American, West African and Scottish ancestry. There has been much ado about names for us over the years, with some preferring Croatoan, Cheraw, Red Ankles, mulattoes, Melungeons, and more, recently Tan or Natirah. I usually refer to Lumbees and/or African-Americans as people of color.

posted by J. | 2:53 PM

Monday, March 24, 2003  

Was Rangel right?

I just received this message from a friend:

Here is the link to the POW pictures of those that are alive. Americans should be seeing this so they can see this maintenance company, which appears to be majority non-white, with Asians, Hispanics, and Blacks among the five living prisoners, is just as involved in this conflict as anyone else. With the unbalanced strength of the forces, these people are very much at the same level of risk as combat forces, primarily to accident or capture, unlike a battle with higher, more even casualties between the two sides. White America and all of America should see who is fighting for America, and that, unlike in wars past, unequal treatment should not resume apace with the ending of the war.

(The article is from the Times of Oman. Perhaps we should be reading more of the foreign press to learn what is really going on in this war.)

Before the war began, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y, was criticized for suggesting minority Americans might be disproportionately injured, captured or killed. The evasion used was that combat troops are still mainly white. However, the distinction between combat and support is not clearcut, as my friend pointed out above. It is still possible minority groups will be impacted disproportionately.

The Christian Science Monitor says the current fighting force is different in composition than any previously fielded.

They will be older and more experienced - on average 27 years old. They will serve in a military that is one-third smaller than the one that existed just 12 years ago in the Gulf war. Most important, they will be far more diverse than almost any military force of the past.

A record number of women will be serving on the front lines, for instance, as will a higher percentage of Latinos. Perhaps most unusual for a war in the Middle East, more Muslims would be taking up posts on aircraft carriers and pitching tents in the Iraqi desert.

African-Americans, alone, make up 29 percent of the Army. The American population is about 12 percent black.

Another way this war will differ from others will be in the ancillary effects. The four young helicopter crew members who were the first reported casualties left behind at least three children under the age of 12. Three of the men were or had been married. Most troops killed or captured will bereave spouses because military personnel are more apt to marry and to marry young than the rest of the population.

Unlike soldiers a quarter-century ago, soldiers are more likely to get married rather than stay single. While the population as a whole keeps getting married later, service members are marrying at a younger age. Today, a majority of enlisted personnel and 70 percent of officers are married. That could have ramifications at home if there are US casualties in war.

"It means there will be more widows," says professor Charles Moskos, [a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.] "Instead of the mother crying, it will be the young bride."

Reflecting concern about disparities in harmful effects of the war as well as disapproval of the invasion of Iraq itself, Rangel and other African-American Congress members were well-represented among the minority of their peers who refused to endorse the war now that it is a fait accompli Friday.

On the 11 House Democrats who voted against the "unequivocal support" resolution, eight were members of the Congressional Black Caucus: Conyers; Ohioan Stephanie Tubbs Jones; Californians Barbara Lee, Diane Watson and Maxine Waters; New Yorkers Charles Rangel and Edolphus Towns; and Virginian Bobby Scott. They were joined by California Democrats Mike Honda and Pete Stark, as well as Washington state's Jim McDermott.

Fifteen members of the CBC, including Lewis, CBC chair Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and CBC vice-chair Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, voted present. They were joined by seven other House members, including leaders of the anti-war block in the Democratic caucus, such as Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

The opponents of the resolution emphasized they were opposed to this war because they support the mainly working-class people who make up the armed forces and believe the war is not in their or the civilian population's best interest. They are not alone in wondering why working-class people, many of them minorities, are expected to bear a disproportionate share of the risks of military engagement. If any segment of the population is missing from today's military, it's the children of America's elites, says Professor Moskos.

Rangel has proposed remedying that situation by bringing back conscription.

At the beginning of this year, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced the Universal Service Act 2003, a bill requiring two years of compulsory military or alternative civilian service from all American men, women and legal permanent residents ages 18-26. The president would determine the number of people needed and the means of selection. Deferments would be limited to those completing high school, up to the age of 20, with no exemptions for college or graduate students. The bill, introduced in the Senate by Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., remains in committee and is unlikely to come to a vote in the near future.

Attention has been focused on the question of whether minority soldiers and their families suffer disproportionately in times of war by the early death of Staff Sgt. Kendall Damon Watersbey, 29, one of four Marine crew members killed on the U.S. CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that crashed Friday in Kuwait. Watersbey's father faulted the president for his son's death in an interview: "George Bush, take a good look at this man, cause you took my only son away from me," Michael Watersbey said, holding up a picture of his son.

It will be interesting to see if discussions of disproportionality continue after hostilities have ceased. Of course, if minority Americans had the same educational and employment opportunities as white Americans, the issue of disproportionate impact as a result of military service would not even arise.

posted by J. | 2:46 PM

Sunday, March 23, 2003  

A poet and an injustice

Attacks on a poet continue apace since attention was refocused on a poem he wrote about the bombing of the World Trade Center. He is now being linked with Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) who was recently accused of anti-Semitism.

On the Net, Slate's David Orr attempts to make a case of moral equivalence between two men he deems American icons: Amiri Baraka, the official poet laureate of New Jersey, and Maurice Bessinger, the owner of a chain of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina. Baraka, one of the original Beat poets, is in trouble about possibly anti-Semitic remarks he made after 9/11. The governor of his home state is attempting to remove him from his position as poet laureate. Bessinger's barbecue sauces have been excluded from some supermarket chains because of the white supremacist views he flaunts. Orr favors Bessinger, downplaying those views. He does describe Bessinger's devotion to the Confederate flag:

So when the South Carolina Legislature decided to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the Statehouse in 2000, Bessinger took matters into his own hands: He replaced the American flags in front of all of his stores with enormous Confederate banners. In response, several large retailers in the South dumped Bessinger's Carolina Gold barbecue sauce, which prompted Bessinger to sue the retailers for discriminating against his political beliefs.

Orr also makes a passing reference to the fact Bessinger refused to serve African-Americans in his restaurants until 1976, more than a decade after equal accommodations laws were passed. But, he does not explain the depth of Bessenger's bias. This is a man who insists on passing out tracts claiming slavery is Biblically justified.

A man who is being promoted by segregationist and secessionist groups such as the League of the South and the Conservative Citizens Council.

A man who broke the law by refusing to apply for the requisite permits to fly his ignoble flags.

A man who appears to have learned nothing despite having lived 72 years.

Baraka, who obviously set himself up to be misinterpreted, if he was, offers a somewhat plausible rationale for the poem he is being criticized for:

The most offensive phrase in the poem to my various attackers is, "Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / to stay home that day/ Why did Sharon stay away?" To infer that I am accusing Israel of committing the atrocity is disingenuous slander and character assassination. But I do believe, as I stated about England, Germany, France, Russia, that the Israeli government, certainly it's security force, SHABAK knew about the attack in advance.

To assert that the Israeli government might have been aware of terrorists' plans is not an indictment of Jews in general, though I don't believe there are any rational grounds for making such an assertion.

Orr credits the difference in response to Baraka and Bessinger, which he exaggerates, to societal worship of poets.

More particularly, it's an idea, originating in Plato, that the poet is "a light and winged and holy thing. … There is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses." This notion—the poet is half vessel of God, half helpless idiot—was attractive to the Romantics as well, who added to it the concept of Poet as Outsider.

I differ. The distinction between the two is that Maurice Bessinger, the millionaire owner of nine restaurants and an internet business, is in a powerful position in which he is able to impact the lives of his fellow South Carolinians of all races. His past policy of excluding blacks from his restaurants doubtlessly caused them inconvenience and possibly economic damage since they were separated from co-workers and stigmatized. Bessinger's current policy of flying huge Confederate flags on his properties and handing out pro-slavery tracts continues those harms. Furthermore, it contributes to strained race relations in South Carolina.

Baraka's works, on the other hand, are known only to the relatively few Americans interested in literature. (And, contrary to Orr's dismissal, ''Baraka's work isn't really so good," the writer's works from the '50s through the '70s are among the best of the times.) Beyond the halls of academe and literary reviews, Baraka has no impact. Indeed, most of the population of New Jersey probably doesn't recognize his name. That may be why he has sought attention with his possibly anti-Semitic babbling. Bessinger is a genuinely bad man. Baraka, a mere fly in the ointment. Orr has what American society en masse values reversed: poetry isn't sought after, but a tasty barbecue sauce is considered a great find.

posted by J. | 11:10 AM