Silver Rights

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

Saturday, April 03, 2004  

Commentary: Mencken and the inferior man

A neo-Confederate sympathizer recently posted a blog entry extolling the virtue of writer H.L. Mencken, who died in 1956. He claimed he was saluting progress in race relations. Al Barger admits the only books he has ever read are those of Ayn Rand. It shows. If he had an even middling understanding of American history, the distorted views of it he expresses would not occur. But, of more interest for this entry, is why Barger is attracted to Mencken.

First, let's consider who the writer was. Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore 15 years after the end of the Civil War. The core belief of the Old South, that some people are better than others, would influence him his entire life. He would embrace the myth of the genteel Southern aristocracy while dismissing most Americans as 'boobs' for decades. An irony of Mencken's career was that the petit bourgeoisie that championed him did not realize he looked down on it.

Mencken began working as a newspaper columnist in his teens. His most prominent role was as founder and editor of the American Mercury, from 1925 to 1933. The magazine reflected Mencken's romantic delusions about the South.

To try to understand the southern identity in historical terms is to quickly realize that over time there have been many Souths: the sunny South, the savage South, the agrarian South, the Jim Crow South, the violent South, the cracker South, the frontier South, the antebellum South; H.L. Mencken's Old South, populated by "men of delicate fancy, urbane instinct and aristocratic manners -- in brief, superior men -- in brief, gentry," the suffering South, the moral South, and the list goes on.

To have a gentry, one must have riffraff. Mencken considered everyone inferior to his "superior men." But, he believed Jews and blacks to be most inferior of all.

Much of the biography about Mencken has been lightweight, focusing on the humor of his writing and admiring his idiocyncracies. However, reporter Terry Teachout has produced a book that takes a more critical look at the Sage of Baltimore.

To cut right to the thorniest issue: Mencken, Teachout writes, "was an anti-Semite"; that fact "cannot now reasonably be denied."

However, for a long time it was denied, or danced around, by well-meaning people, including Jews, who wanted to give Mencken the benefit of the doubt in weighing his racial tolerance against his racial insensitivity. But even former defenders, such as Joseph Epstein, have also come to this conclusion after viewing the posthumous evidence.

Mencken respected the civil rights of blacks, but thought them inferior. He liked Jews and had many Jewish friends, but subscribed to the stereotype that they were pushy and consequently brought on the troubles that befell them.

. . .His anti-democratic, anti-American, pro-German sentiments loom much darker and less benign here than in previous biographies.

But, the best source on Mencken and racism is Mencken himself.

I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.

Mencken believed that people of African descent were inherently inferior. He would be considered a 'scientific' racist by today's standards. Furthermore, he opposed efforts to remove the Negro from what he considered the race's natural, savage state.

. . .the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness.

He did not change his mind, despite efforts of several African-American intellectuals to influence him.

But the fact remains that the Southern whites have to deal with the actual Negroes before them, and not with a theoretical race of African kings. These actual Negroes show actual defects that are very real and very serious. The leaders of the race, engrossed by the almost unbearable injustices that it faces, are apt to forget them.

Mencken's explicit racism is still papered over in some quarters..

Why would Al Barger embrace H.L. Mencken? Having known my share of conservative white men with king-sized egos and limited ability over the years, I believe I understand him. Though Mencken's literary reputation has not held up particularly well, he used to be considered the superior man he thought himself to be by his peers. Barger is not a person of achievement. His blog entries, which are replete with 'because I said sos' and bereft of any research or analysis, reflect that. They would embarrass a person able to realize how lacking in any redeeming quality they are. But, if a much more intelligent man of letters, H.L. Mencken, held the same belief in the inferiority of African-Americans he does, that elevates the belief. . .in his opinion. In reality, Mencken's belief in white supremacy just confirms he was a racist. It does not make racism "the truth," as Barger asserts.

Barger's attempt to rationalize his warped viewpoint by associating it with a famous writer is not uncommon behavior in these times. Increasingly, the far Right is attempting to rewrite history to support racial divisions in our society. It declares Abraham Lincoln a tyrant, says the Civil War was not fought over slavery and asserts there is nothing wrong with racism. But, as is true here, such conclusions are little more than pretexts for deeply held prejudices.

Reasonably related

Al Barger previously:

Claimed slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

Attacked Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant who harmed the country.

posted by J. | 5:15 PM

Friday, April 02, 2004  

Law: Gay student's tee shirt was inappropriate

Some people are lauding a teenager who says she is gay for virtually blackmailing the school district where she lives. I am not.

Gay Student Wins $30,000 Settlement from New York City in T-Shirt Flap

Apr. 2 - A gay Queens girl who was suspended for wearing a "Barbie is a Lesbian" T-shirt to school has won a $30,000 settlement from the city, her lawyer said yesterday.

Natalie Young, 15, had sued after the incident, alleging her right to free speech was violated, attorney Ron Kuby said.

Natalie, who was booted for a day from Middle School 210 on April 10, 2002, even though the school had no official dress code, said the settlement should make life easier on other openly gay students.

"I think they should feel more comfortable about who they are," she said.

I must disagree with the school system's decision. Any clothing that might result in disrupting the learning environment can be forbidden by a school district. If any disruption occurred or was threatened, the young lady should have been told to return without the shirt on. The school's response seems to have been impeccable.

Unfortunately, the lawyers representing the school shirked their duty. Giving in to this kind of blackmail may lead to students wearing extremely offensive clothing to school. I have regularly blogged the activities of Kirk Lyons, a neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate leader. His favorite way to raise money is to send groups of students to public schools attired in tee shirts depicting black people picking cotton and a Confederate flag. He then tries to blackmail the schools to settle lawsuits he has filed when the students are disciplined. This kind of behavior is something we don't want to open the door wider to.

I've read comments from gay persons saying Natalie deserves the money because of her status as a minority. Again, I must disagree. I don't believe any child should be advertising his or her sexual interest in school. I would be just as opposed to a straight kid wearing a tee shirt reading: "I love 69." Clothing that is disruptive has no place in school. That is the law. When I see a school system shelling out thousands of dollars over a frivolous lawsuit, it is clear the settlement was reached for nonlegal reasons. A form of blackmail -- give me money or suffer bad publicity -- has been used.

As for gay people who support this kind of chicanery because the perpetrator is homosexual, they do themselves no favors. This is the kind of situation that makes the claim gays want special rights appear true. Children are sent home to change inappropriate clothing every day. Natalie should have been treated the same as others are. Her claim of special status should have been ignored. The school system had a good case. Under the caselaw, it is settled that any clothing that is potentially disruptive or disruptive can be excluded. I believe Natalie's shirt was potentially disruptive.

posted by J. | 11:25 PM

Thursday, April 01, 2004  

News: Race problems fester at n-word school

Sometimes a bad situation improves. I had hoped that would be the outcome in regard to the white teacher who called an African-American student a "nigger" in class. As veteran readers of Silver Rights know, Brian Emanuels (pictured) of Seattle said he was resigning from predominately minority Cleveland High School. Unfortunately, he lied. Apparently, the mainly white administration of the school kept Emanuels on staff in a different position while claiming he had left. But, the bad situation did not stop there. In the ensuing months, life at Cleveland has gotten worse. Three teachers have now ended up in trouble for verbally abusing African-American pupils. Parents and students are furious. Little learning appears to be occurring.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has talked to students, parents and administrators.

Parents are demanding a solution to racial problems at troubled Cleveland High School, where three teachers have been placed on leave in the past year over race-related incidents.

During a meeting in the South Seattle school's auditorium yesterday, parents outlined a list of demands for principal Rick Harwood.

They called on him to protect the school's dean of students -- one of only a few African American employees at Cleveland -- from clashes with teachers. They demanded that more than 75 concerns in a letter written by students be addressed, and that the district hire a person of color to help Harwood, who is white, resolve those issues.

When I wrote about Brian Emanuels I said I believed he should be dismissed. It is my opinion his behavior and the subsequent snubbing of minority students and their parents were evidence of deeper problems at the school. Some bloggers responded by posting entries supporting Emanuels. According to them, African-Americans are the problem. They students at schools like Cleveland need to be 'disciplined' by people like Emanuels. Well, the 'disciplining' has continued.

Yesterday's meeting follows the March 12 suspension of a teacher for allegedly using racially inappropriate language during a ninth-grade science lesson.

Sierra Jones, 14, said she was in the class when the teacher questioned students about problems they were having at school and which teachers they didn't like. Jones said she told the teacher she didn't like him.

"He said, 'Well, I don't like black people,' " she recalled. "If you don't like black people, don't come into a school that's majority black and teach."

The episode involving Jones followed two others, including Emanuels' displays in two separate classes.

Last September, teacher Nick Georvasilis was placed on leave for using a racial term to refer to a group of students. Georvasilis -- who also declined to comment -- reportedly singled out a group of black students who were misbehaving and told them to leave the class. He received a written reprimand.

Last May, teacher Brian Emanuels was also reprimanded for using the word "nigger" to make a point to a student. The former Microsoft manager was permitted to return to work, but left before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the administrators have continued to do nothing to solve the problems. Harwood, the prinicipal, seems to be ignoring the crises. Nor does he appear to be providing leadership in regard to education. According to sources, the school has become more disorganized and students are performing poorly on achievement tests. I will confer with people who know more about education than I do about the situation at Cleveland High School. For now, I will just say 'I told you so.'

Reasonably related

•Emanuels' behavior became an issue.

•Emanuels struck twice.

•Emanuels remained at Cleveland after resigning.

posted by J. | 11:30 PM

Monday, March 29, 2004  

Reading: African immigrant's story confounds

Is it possible to write a contemporary book that is combination autobiography and analysis of society? Two recent reads make me wonder. I described Debra Dickerson's An American Life in entries here and here. Her effort led me to think it might be a better idea to write a separate autobiography, while devoting essays or books to analysis of society. I finished Manthia Diawara's We Won't Budge yesterday. It also left me thinking the author would have fared better by writing two books instead of one.

Diawara is a Malian who immigrated to France, and then the United States, during the 1970s. He attempts to describe his journey as an individual and the challenges facing African immigrants from former French colonies in the same volume. He falls short of doing either. To the extent the book works at all, it is as an autobiography.

Diawara grew up mainly in Bamako, Mali, too poor to afford more than a single set of clothes much of the time. During his teens, he and his friends developed a superficial interest in American music. That became his inspiration to become an American someday. But first, he traveled to France, the typical goal of Francophone Africans. He went on a student visa, but received little education in the three years he lived in Paris. His immigration occurred at the same time France's Right Wing political parties were passing laws to dissuade immigrants from their former African colonies. Like most people in his position, Diawara was continually harassed by the police and immigration officials. Though he was not sans papiers, i.e., without documentation, he found himself ensnared in the same web as the thousands of Africans in France who are.

In the mid-1970s, Diawara obtained a student visa to attend American University in Washington, D.C. Again, his poverty was problemmatic. The young men coming to the U.S. from Africa invariably told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that their parents would support them. Usually, they were lying. Their relatives were too poor to send them money. So, they worked off the books and in constant fear of 'Migra.' Diawara began as a dishwasher at French restaurants. He eventually became a pantryman, preparing salads and desserts such as chocolate mousse and creme caramel. The sojourns at the restaurants were trying because the French owners brought their racist attitudes with them. It was not unusual for the immigrant workers to be referred to as monkeys or worse. The tension and raids by the INS were the backdrop against which Diawara studied for his degree.

Diawara arrived in Washington during its emergence as the premier Chocolate City. The political and cultural clout of African-Americans was experiencing a renaiisance. For the first time, he became enthralled with his African origin, instead of ashamed of it. He found himself moving away from his Muslim, conservative upbringing to more closely resemble the African-Americans he increasingly spent time with. At the same time, he felt the skepticism of black Americans who believed Africans were preferred over them by white people.

Though the chronology is not clear, Diawara eventually obtained not just a bachelor's degree, but a doctorate in literature. He now teaches at New York University. He also had two children during the 30 years he has lived in the U.S.

Diawara's effort to put immigration to France in some kind of analytical framework is less successful. He believes the tension between tradition and modernity prevents Francophone Africans from being assimilated. However, he is ambivalent about actually condeming practices such as polygamy and female genital mutilation, which keep Malians and other African immigrants at odds with their adopted country. He believes France owes its former colonies because of its past and continuing exploitation of their resources and people. However, Diawara never describes what form fair treatment of African immigrants would take. Should they be allowed to vote despite a low literacy rate? Should there be some kind of affirmative action so that African immigrants will not continue to be trapped in menial jobs such as cleaning streets and clerking in stores? Should the government fund their education? Diawara doesn't say.

The killing of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police reminds Diawara that conditions in France and America are not so different when it comes to racial discrimination.

In February 1999, four New York City policemen searching for a rape suspect knocked on Amadou Diallo's door to question him. When he came to the door he reached inside his jacket, at which point the officers shot at him 41 times, hitting him with 19 bullets. The object Diallo was reaching for turned out to be his wallet.

There was immediate outcry from New York City residents, who vividly remembered the recent police torture of Abner Louima, an innocent man who was sodomized with a plunger handle by New York police officers inside a precinct office.

The incident reinforced already-existing perceptions that the NYPD uses excessive force, and prompted massive demonstrations against police brutality – and for punishments of the officers – in New York and Washington.

Diawara resolves to write a book of protest about the treatment of black immigrants in both countries. We Won't Budge is that book. The title echoes that of "Nous Pas Bouger," a protest song written and sang by Malian Salif Keita.

He sang it in defense against the exclusion and the human rights violations of Africans in the global world. I intend my book to continue the dissemination of Salif Keita's ideas and to contribute to making the lives of African immigrants better. It is a book about Africans in Europe and how their presence influences European politics. It is a comparative study of two social systems: race relations in America and France; identity politics and commuitarianism on one hand and individualism and universal rights on the other.

Though the goal is a good one, Diawara does not achieve it. Instead, a reader finishes the book somewhat frustrated. I wonder about the many holes in his autobiography and his inability to articulate his vision of a France where African immigrants are treated right. We Won't Budge is acceptable as a primer volume for learning about the immigration of Francophone Africans. However, it will be necessary to read more thorough works to understand the issues involved in that type of immigration.

posted by J. | 7:35 PM