Archive for American History

I See Ghosts

A few weeks ago, Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law SB1070, which originally required peace officers in Arizona to stop and question people “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien” about their citizenship status. No definition of reasonable suspicion was given, and the day after the law was signed, an American Citizen of Mexican descent was arrested for failing to have his papers birth certificate on his person.  “The legislation would require … force public service employees to report suspected illegal immigrants.” This meant that the police could be sued by citizens who felt they weren’t enforcing the new law to their satisfaction.  Subsequently, she signed a second law that withholds funds from schools which offer classes that “… promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” “The bill was written to target the Chicano, or Mexican American, studies program in the Tucson school system,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

A few days ago, Republican (Tea Party) candidate for the United States Senate from Kentucky, Rand Paul stated that while he is against and “abhors anything racist”, there are parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that he finds overreaching because they infringe on the “individual liberties” of racists who own restaurants to discriminate the race of their clientele.  This is the same man who shouted to his supporters on the eve of his primary victory that he is on his way to Washington to “take our government back!”

In Texas, where Thomas Jefferson has been replaced by Newt Gingrich in high school history textbooks by an avowedly vocal and active conservative Christian block of Republican school-board members, they are now attempting to change the language of the books so that the next generation of students doesn’t learn about the slave trade which was the economic foundation of the United States, but rather they learn about the Atlantic Triangular Trade of which slaves were simply one component.  Add to this the Alabama math teacher who tried teaching his geometry class angles by hypothetically assassinating the (first black) current President of the United States, Barack Obama, and these isolated incidents of racism, violence and oppression begin to define an ugly pattern in American civic life.

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts. Watching Senator John McCain say the “economy is still strong” in 2008 echoed to me President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression; watching Senator Obama be chastised for youth and inexperience during that same campaign reflected Governor Clinton and Senator Kennedy’s treatment during their campaigns for the presidency; and watching Governor Brewer sign racial profiling into law and codifying ethnic erasure in schools sounds to me like the breaking glass on Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”). The Night of Broken Glass was an anti-Jewish pogrom in Nazi Germany and Austria from the 9th until the 10th November 1938. (Kristallnacht was part of a broader racial policy of Nazi Germany, including antisemitism and persecution of the Jews and it is viewed by many historians as the beginning of the Final Solution, leading towards the genocide of the Holocaust.)

This comparison, though, was greeted with trepidation by friends of mine.  I had invoked “Godwin’s Law“, one argued.  I was giving in to “leftwing holocaust hyperbole”, said another.  Neither grasped the larger frame of my comparison.  Adolf Hitler is the modern boogeyman for the United States, probably because as a nation we were complicit in his atrocities through our actions and inactions, from sending the US Olympic Team to Berlin for the Summer Games in 1936 fleeing Nazi Germany.  Be that as it may, the steps taken by Hitler and the Nazi Party that moved them and their nation from defeated and downtrodden to The Third Reicht are being echoed today in the United States.

Let us examine these facts:

    • The Nazis began their grip on government with a two-pronged strategy: 1-the Jews are bad, and 2-elect Hitler to lead us back to glory.  Today in Arizona “illegals” are bad, though they don’t know what they look like (except they look illegal, i.e. brown and not from “here”), and Rand Paul is going from Kentucky to “take [his] government back!” from the “un-American” President Obama.
    • The Nazis began as a third political party, running candidates with staunch conservative, anti-Jewish, pro-Germany propaganda riding a wave of national dissatisfaction. Today in the United States, from the healthcare debate to clean energy to the lies about the tax code and the false tales of cancelled National Days of Prayer, the Tea Party is running candidates (and defeating Republicans) whose full-throated persecution of illegal immigrants takes place in states with Southern borders and more dark immigrants than not, legal and illegal. In Arizona, and California, and Kentucky, persecution of “the Other” is coupled with Sarah Palin‘s uber-nationalist “feel good about us and never apologize” national tour, endorsing candidates (Governor Jan Brewer) who share her views or at least bark at her command (Carly Fiorina).  And politicians hoping to ride the wave are going further faster in hopes of grabbing power for themselves (Steve Poizner).
    • Finally, the Nazi’s began their Final Solution to “the Jewish problem” with legislation that targeted German Jews specifically.  They passed laws against the Jews for years before the death trains rolled, and the non-Jews in Germany complied.  Each law, or bundle of legal segregation and oppression, appeared a reasonable reaction to a real or imagined woe of the people.  Arizona’s laws, targeting phantom illegal criminals and demonizing inclusive education, are following the Nazi’s goose-steps in perfect time.

Obviously Jan Brewer and Rand Paul and Sarah Palin and the Texas School-board and the Alabama math teacher are not rounding up darkies and shipping them off to Manzanar.  However, they are laying tracks toward that racially segregated, oppressive Us v. Them state of constant emergency with their calculated words and deeds just as surely as the Chinese and the Irish did when building the Trans-Continental Railroad.  With each law passed, they are reaching out from beyond the grave to drag the United States back in time.  And all that stands between the sad history of segregation and oppression, of marginalization and genocide, is the full-throated rebuke of evil from people of conscience, whether that is writing blogs and letters, being informed and informing others, getting out in the streets to organize, or running for the local and national offices which have the power and authority to squelch the hate that fear produces.  Pastor Martin Niehmoller, writing in the midst of the Holocaust, put it more simply, “when they came for [someone else]/ I did not speak . . . [and] when they came for me/ there was no one left to speak.”

The problem with being a history teacher is that I see ghosts.  In the last several weeks, the backlash against progress and inclusion, against the embodiment of the American Ideals of Liberty, Equality,  and Opportunity has been staggering and shocking.  But beyond being shocked, the need for Americans of Conscience to speak up and to act, to fight back in the name of the country we cherish and the humanity we struggle to embody is pressing and immediate.  Marcus Garvey put into words my thoughts, the firing of my synapses which drove me to speak of Arizona’s laws in Nazi terminology when he too was attempting to rally his people, and so I leave you with his words.  They are as pertinent in 2010 as they were when he spoke then in the 1920s, in the same country, fighting the same battle with a different face.

“Up You Mighty [Human] Race!  Accomplish What You Will!”

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Black Code, Arizona

In the late 19th century, after President Andrew Johnson ended congressional reconstruction, Southern former-confederates like Bob McDonnell passed laws in the southern United States which limited the rights of newly emancipated and enfranchised black men and women “legally”.  They included literacy tests in order to vote, fees to attend public schools, and poll taxes.  Poor whites were allowed to circumvent these laws which applied to them, too, allowing them to feel like they were part of the wealthy majority culture by “grandfather clauses”:  if the person applying had a grandfather who’d voted, they were exempted from the tax or tests.  These laws were called Black Codes, because they were designed to stop black people from participating in the citizenship of the United States.

Welcome to Arizona.

The Arizona state legislature last week passed a law which makes it illegal to be undocumented.  That means that I as a black mexican american citizen of the United States couldn’t run to the car wash or the grocery store without my birth certificate, because I look “illegal”.  The Brown Code is a celebration of a whiter nation because it also requires government agencies to enforce racial profiling.  Michael J. Fox could walk through Arizona without a second glance, but he was once an illegal immigrant to the United States.  The difference between the two of us?  Melanin.  The law that is sitting on the governor’s desk today is the codification of racism, as were the Black Codes after the civil war.  Like the Confederates of old (then called Democrats) who sought legal redress for their military and ideological and moral losses, the neo-conservatives in Arizona (now called Republicans) are seeking legal security that the United States will continue to be a nation of European-descended and controlled dominance after what they perceive to be a racial loss to President Barack Obama.

The Black Codes danced in time with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited the number of immigrants that could come to the United States for employment from China.  They were the precursors of legalized segregation immortalized by the famous “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson SCOTUS decision in 1896.  Legalized segregation gave birth to numerous avenues of discrimination and codified racism, none the least of which was the Bracero program which shipped immigrant labor from Mexico north when it was convenient and south when it was not.  And here we sit today with modern racists trying to sweep up and sweep out all the brown people under the guise of “immigration reform”.  This current legislation requires police to ascertain documents of citizenship from people without any reasonable suspicion except that they are darker skinned.  It is reminiscent of the pass laws which died with South African apartheid sixteen years ago, where black and brown citizens of that nation were required to carry papers but white ones were not.

It will be of some note whether Arizona Governor Jan Brewer decides to once again codify racism by signing the legislation into law, thereby putting her name down with Governor Wallace, or simply refuses to act and lets it “pass into law”, thereby washing her hands like Pontius Pilate.  Either way, much like the Black Codes and legalized segregation, this law will be struck down by those who have read the Constitution of the United States, and who believe that the ideals expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence are the providence of all citizens of this nation.

As President Obama recently stated, “the blessings of this country belong to every single American,” regardless of skin color.

Even in Black Code, Arizona.

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The South Fails Again

And What He Didn’t Say . . .

The North Won the Civil War.  Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election.  Democrats in Congress won the Health Care Reform battle, and are poised to do the same on energy.  Duke won the NCAA Championship this year, as did UConn.  While these are all facts, there are literally thousands of people who are not happy about them.  Stanford fans are frustrated that their team held UConn to 12 points in the first have but couldn’t win the game.  Butler fans are gluing their hair back in from that last desperate half-court miss.  Congressional Republicans are planning to “Repeal and Replace” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  John McCain and Sarah Palin are still out on the campaign trail.  And Governor Robert McDonnell of Virginia has proclaimed April to be Confederate History Month in his state.

While it is not for me to dismiss the history and family pride of those who’s forebears believed that this was a nation for white people to own and black people to work, I heartily disagree.  And while it is not for me to say that the ideas of states’ rights which were tied to the battle of grey-suited warriors to free themselves from Republican tyranny and federal oppression is wrong, I agree much more with John Jay’s assessment that “Nothing is more certain than the indispensible [sic] necessity of government; and it is equally undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.”  I must, as a mature student of history, acquiesce to the fact that the story of the Confederacy is someone’s grandfather’s or grandmother’s story, and while they disagree (or don’t) with those views, they have a right to represent their history the same way I have the right to represent mine; to find those pieces with which they agree and find pride and cherish and celebrate them.

However, Gov. McDonnell is a one-sided celebrant, and herein lies the problem.  He makes no mention of the enslaved victims of the Confederacy, those on whom the burden of states’ rights onerously fell like a crushing weight.  He neglects, then, my grandparents in a way which has historically sought to invalidate their humanity by rendering them, as Ralph Ellison so eloquently denounced, invisible.  It is this racism of blindness which continues to trouble us in 2010.

Telling only part of the story is a lie of omission which perpetuates and exacerbates many of the current political and social ills of our day.  We saw this with the health care debate; we see it with Sarah Palin’s continued uttering; we see this with the Tea Party movement, both in its displays and its coverage; we see it with the stimulus package; on a daily basis, telling only the part of the story that helps us is the accepted norm.  Governor McDonnell, though, has just said something very different to the black people in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  He has just said that they don’t exist, by not including their participation in the Confederacy.  Though most of that participation was bad, and should serve as a reminder of the democratic ideals on which this nation was founded, there were black men, enslaved men, who fought in the Confederate army.  Are they not worthy of recognition?  There were black men and women who greeted the defeat of the Confederacy as liberation, as an entrance into full citizenship and the beginning of their acquisition of the natural rights they’d been denied.  McDonnell has said by his omission that the Confederate ideology of chattel slavery of African Americans wasn’t “significant for Virginia.”

Flying the Confederate flag for many southerners is an honoring of their ancestors, a reading of their historical maps as they make their own journeys. But just as Congressional Republicans won’t be able to repeal health care reform, Palin and McCain are going to lose again; Butler can’t take one more shot; Stanford can’t make one more block; and cheering the Confederacy while denying black folks won’t help the South rise again.

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