My podcast, “Double Bass” is up and running. In Episode 4, Wynton and I come out of vacation to discuss the recent events of Charlottesville, Virginia, and why white people need to get their shit together.
A few days ago the Grand Rapids Police department released a body camera video from an incident involving two officers, and five black boys.
The police were looking for an armed robbery suspect, and apparently these boys fit the description. The description apparently being black male. None of these boys turned out to be who they were looking for. The police officers later visited these boys’ families, apologized, and thanked them for their compliance to the investigation. Not long after, the Police Chief for the Grand Rapids Police Department issued a public statement saying, “The officers showed empathy, they understood the ages of the children….They did their due diligence in terms of not putting themselves in harm’s way but they also showed that they appreciated the fact that these were young men.’’ In other words, if they could do it over again, they would not have changed a thing.
What these police officers, police chief, and supporters of #BlueLives fail to realize is that these were not young men–they were boys, just playing ball on the block. At what point do black boys cease being boys and become men? Black boyhood has always been erased and diminished by the state. No amount of empathy from these police officers could give that innocence back to these kids, not when guns were drawn.
I don’t doubt that there will be people who will see this video and justify it. They will say these boys did the right thing by listening to these police officers. They will say this is the job these #BlueLives men have to do, and we must comply unquestionably. There will be people who will applaud how calm these officers remained, and that they are to thank for the situation not getting out of hand, when in fact these officers were the ones who planted the seed of fear and terror on these children.
It’s a video that reminds us no matter how hard we try, #BlackBoyJoy doesn’t actually exist. We may attempt to wish it into existence, but at any moment the state can strip that bliss from us. The same joy that these boys were channeling, could have been their death. Black boy joy killed Tamir Rice and Trayvon. These boys could have been no different.
Before I go in, let me make it clear: I have always loved Dave Chappelle. I mean, I made a whole post dedicated to him way back when–in the early days of this blog. I’ve seen every episode of Chappelle’s Show multple times. I watched his stand up. Correction–I memorized his stand up. I’ve studied his ‘Inside the Actors’ Studio’ interview and his Oprah interview. I watched him interview Maya Angelou before her death. For Dave’s whole career, I have been all in on “team Chappelle”. I’ve had nothing but love, respect and admiration for this brother.
…Until last month.
Since they were announced, I was anticipating his two Netflix specials, because I knew that what Dave has always said to be powerful and truth-seeking, and that now more than ever could we use his words to speak truth to power. The first special starts out smooth. As I’m watching, I’m thinking maybe the long-lost black prince has returned to claim his throne as the king of comedy.
But after about 15 minutes, it starts to get problematic real quick. I don’t know which came first–the rape jokes, the homophobia, or the transphobia. Either way, one thing is for sure: This new Chappelle, I ain’t for it.
Here are some of the jokes that made me turn in my seat from discomfort:
On Gay Rights:
“Y’all always have some kind of gay political argument; the last one was about a petition in federal court to take the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ out of the law, and I said “Why would you want those words out the law?” He said “Because it discriminates against same-sex couples,” I was like “N****a please save me the semantics, take your chips out of the casino you’re about to crap out. Go outside, talk it over amongst yourselves, and whichever one of you is gayer, that’s the wife [audience laughs].””
On Caitlyn Jenner coming out as Trans:
“Whenever I see one of them Ts on the street I’m like “I don’t mind them but man I miss Bruce. [audience laughs]
“I knew before you guys knew. I heard things on the street in Hollywood, you know you used to be out, see people: “Hey what’s up Kanye, why the long face?” [audience laugh] “N***a you’ll see, I’ve got two mother in-laws now.”
On Trans Rights:
“I was shocked. Is this happening? Wait a minute, is this a time in American history when an American can make a decision for themselves, and even though other Americans don’t understand it they’ll support it, and let this person live a happy life? Is this what’s happening? If it is then good for America. [audience cheers] That’s Dave Chappelle, the American.
“Although Dave Chappelle the black American, he was a little jealous, I was like “How the fuck are transgender people beating black people in the discrimination Olympics? If the police shot half as many transgenders as they did n****s last year there’d be a fucking war in L.A. I know black dudes in Brooklyn, hard, street motherfuckers, who wear high heels just to feel safe.”
There are a lot of things to be critical over during the two specials. On my own end, it really hurts knowing how many parts that are cringe worthy, and the fact that it’s coming from someone who I’ve idolized since I was 14. But I kept watching regardless, because I was hoping maybe my hero would turn things around. And at moments I really thought he would, but it just never happened. What was most alarming was how he centered one of the whole specials around the justification of rape. This is important. It is important because it was brought up in order for him to reconcile his inner conflict with the Bill Cosby rape allegations. He compares it to a super hero who can only activate his powers by rubbing a woman’s vagina. So in the event of a crisis, the only way he can save people, is by raping a woman. Chappelle’s words: “He rapes women. But he saves more than he rapes.” The audience laughs.
To Chappelle, Bill Cosby more than likely raped these women, but even still, he was his idol. His conclusion–not mine–is that even if he did rape these women, he did a lot of good for the black community, and somehow that should absolve him from the trauma he instilled on these women. With this in mind, everything else he says make sense. It’s an age-old dilemma, or not really a dilemma, but a plague within the black community. And it’s one that has always been reinforced: Black cis straight men, are really only here for other black cis straight men.
The Bill Cosby debate showed not just how little we value women’s voices, or black women’s voices, but also their trauma. Dave also displays how much black men don’t value the trauma of LGBTQ and Trans folk, especially within black communities. He can only stand for his own oppression as a black man, and everyone else’s oppression needs to get to the side. Regardless if the same violence that has plagued black men also plagues LGBTQ folk and women, even in–especially in–the black community.
So I ain’t for it for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he has claimed before to be on a platform of social responsibility. Ten Years ago, when Dave came back from Africa, he told Oprah why he left Chappelle’s Show in an interview. He explains how he felt that he didn’t feel he was making white people question their racism, but rather enabling it.
Chappelle’s Show was great for a lot reasons, mainly because of how he confronted the racism we see all around us. Chappelle’s Show took the reality of racism, and put a humorous spin onto it. In doing so, Chappelle was able to make the viewer stop and think, “maybe we need to stop normalizing all these things that are racist AF, and do better.”
But at some point in making the third season, Chappelle noticed a white dude laughing at his jokes behind the set. He discusses this in an Oprah interview. It was a different type of laughing, Chappelle notes, as if the racial stereotypes he was attempting to dismantle were actually being reinforced instead. As in this dude wasn’t laughing at the irony of Chappelle’s joke, he was laughing because he was probably racist AF. Chappelle felt that being on such a platform, meant understanding the social responsibility he had, and that maybe he wasn’t using his heightened visibility responsibly. That’s real. This is important, because ten years later, he has finally returned to the stage, but he appears to have abandoned any sense of “responsibility” when he chooses to discuss LGBTQ issues or rape culture.
Dave Chappelle could have made a nuanced conversation around rape culture, homophobia, and transphobia. He could have highlighted the bigoted statements, and then brought it home by pointing out how ridiculous it is to hold these stigmas against these marginalized people. In short: he could have given their struggle the same level of respect he gives the struggle for black men, but he didn’t. He was lazy. And I ain’t for it.
I think comedy can be used as an amazing weapon. I do agree that maybe we shouldn’t hold comedians to the same standards of everyday conversations. That maybe we shouldn’t have such soft skin, as well, and be able to take a laugh. But this new Chappelle feels different, and it has dangerous implications. You watch Chappelle’s Show, and when Dave tackles race, no matter how you see it, there is nuance to it. At face value, it can make you cringe. But the more you dig, the more you see how profound the message is that he is getting to.
But in his new special, there is nothing deep about how he tackles homosexuality, trans folk, or rape culture. It’s all surface level. What’s worse is he never actually challenges these phobias, but rather just reinforces it.
Some people say comedy should be exempt from the rules, but I see comedy as art, and art as protest. It ain’t just laughs when people are dying for the same shit Dave is saying in these specials. We can choose to fall back into the patterns of a dangerous culture that says its okay to spit out whatever hate we want to so long as it makes people laugh in the name of comedy, and reinforce centuries old hate; or we can challenge ourselves to think differently, to do better, and be better human-beings.
Whatever helps y’all sleep at night, I guess….
Last month, a man was shot six times while being restrained at a gas station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His name was Alton Sterling. He was black, and the cop who chose to kill him was white. Many people would argue that racial identity doesn’t matter in a case like this, but for black people, Alton Sterling wasn’t an exception, he was the rule. For anyone arguing that #AllLivesMatter, they only need to see the video of his killing to know that right now, the word “All” excludes black lives.
For the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the slaying of Alton Sterling was a tipping point. Watching a man be senselessly murdered, shot six times in the head while on the ground—that will wake people up. And what we saw in the days to follow was a growing understanding that this can’t continue.
This past year, we aren’t seeing anything new—the black experience in America has always been defined by violence— but now more people are starting to take it seriously. Black America’s pleas for life are being heard for once, but that isn’t relief, it is frustrating that it took this long. What is equally frustrating is that some people still will not be swayed.
A week later, five cops were killed in Dallas, and any potential momentum from the death of Sterling was met with a wall of resistance. Maybe some will never say #BlackLivesMatter because in their minds, black issues have never been view as urgent. To say #AllLivesMatter is to take the blue pill of American history and pretend that we got to where we are with no tension, no injustices, and no blood shed. To simplify the hurt and fear by black people is to either ignore how real violence has always been in black people’s lives, or to just not care.
At the height of lynching, around 1890, around six black men were killed every month by white mobs. This is not hearsay, or speculation, this is fact. Nor is this just “black history”. It is American history, as American as the Declaration of Independence and the Hamilton musical. More alarming is that in the heart of Dixieland, the mass murder of African-Americans at the hands of lynch mobs was not just public knowledge, it was public entertainment. Look at archival footage of the lynchings and see white children, white sheriffs, white politicians—all smiling. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization, were regarded as respected individuals in their communities. To many whites, they weren’t breaking the law or committing murder, they were preserving white dominance. Through the lens of white supremacy, those who participated in lynch mobs were viewed as heroes.
1890 was almost half a century after slaves were emancipated. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had been passed. African-Americans were free citizens, entitled to the protection of the law, and on paper, black men could vote. Yet 40 years after emancipation, blacks living in the South still were living in a state a fear. Six lynchings a month is not just a number. It is a Trayvon Martin, a Tamir Rice, a Sandra Bland, an Eric Garner, a Michael Brown, an Alton Sterling, every month. Those are the same numbers we are seeing today.
Lynching wasn’t what solely defined black existence in the South. There were the Jim Crow laws, which told you if you were black that your skin color, not your merit, will determine life prospects, which school you can go to, what restaurants to avoid, and the occupation you would be allowed to pursue. There was sharecropping, where even if slavery had ended, other systems of servitude could be used to lawfully maintain a caste system based on race. Laws were enacted that placed black men in prison at disproportionately higher rates than whites, who were then leased to companies for cheap labor. Black men could vote, but poll taxes, literacy tests and other clauses would keep them from the polls. If all these tactics failed to keep black Americans as second class citizens—if blacks still aspired for something more—violence would be used without the least bit of hesitation.
This is what it meant to be black in a Jim-Crow South. Post-slavery, but not even close to post-racist. Violence may not have always been the first resort, but it was never absent as a possibility. If you didn’t step out of the way on a sidewalk for a white person to pass, if you didn’t address a white as “sir” or “ma’am” no matter the age, if you spoke your mind at the wrong time, you might as well have had a death wish. As soon as black people’s bodies were no longer seen as valuable under slavery, they would be easily disposed of if need be. If you were black and chose not to prescribe to the racial hierarchy, you could be killed.
This barbarism was known throughout the country, including on Capitol Hill, where just as many legislators came from the North as from the South. Any idea that the terror in African-Americans’ lives was unknown to whites in the North needs to be dismissed. People in the North were well aware, and their silence was an acceptance of a way of life in the South, an acceptance that black lives did not matter, that blackness meant a deserved onslaught of oppressive forces, approved by, even if not directly administered, the state.
Only in 2005 did Congress apologize for their inaction during this dark period in American history.
That culture of white supremacy fueled the mass exodus of blacks from the South to northern cities. From 1910 to 1970, 6 million African-Americans came north in hopes of better prospects, but found no escape from white supremacy. Black folk leaving Jim-Crow South would arrive only to find new legal systems in place to limit their prospects. Around the same time that northern cities were seeing an increase in African-American migrants, the Federal Housing Administration began granting home loans at better rates than ever before. The suburbs were being formed and the middle class was expanding, but blacks would have a harder time grabbing hold of these incentives. Many mortgages had racially discriminatory clauses in the contracts, denying any chance of a suburban, middle-class life to anyone who wasn’t white.
As whites moved to the suburbs, blacks remained in the cities, where they continued to be subject to racist policies like redlining. Redlining restricted and decided how funds would be allocated throughout a city and where city would invest its funds. City officials would color code a map. An area colored in green would get the most amount of resources, whereas an area with red would get little-to-none. This is where the term redlining comes from. Most areas colored in red were areas with a high demographic of Blacks.
To make bad situations worse, the construction of Highways in the 1960s would segregate and impoverish black communities even more. City officials would often decide to construct these highways in communities where people of color resided. The construction of these highways would displace the people living in these neighborhoods that would soon be torn up, but they didn’t have much options on where to go from there. The end result was more concentrated and segregated communities based around race and class than before.
This is how the northern ghettos were formed, and the rest of the tragedies and injustices that define the modern black American experience—poor schools, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, drug trade—became natural consequences of racist policies towards black and brown people. White supremacy existed even with legislation. It is too strong to be held down by law. At the core, it is not American policing that black people want reformed, but the state to finally commit to upholding the dignity of what it never has before: black lives. Just like the days of lynching, the police has terrorized these communities in order to preserve white supremacy. The names we see behind hashtags aren’t a new trend, they are the status quo since Jim Crow south, and they define what it ultimately means to be black in America.
It is easy to condemn the anger of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But that anger comes from how history has always treated black lives, spat at them and told them “your issues will take second seat”. When the state has perpetually given little regard to not just your humanity, but your fathers, and your father’s father, and a whole line of black men you have descended from, who look like you, and have continually lived life with hopeless outlooks, it is hard to not be jaded and to remain calm and collective at every new death we hear.
Yes, Black people are angry, but Black rage can’t exist without a history of white hate. This history has always been known to black people, only now are white people perhaps beginning to realize they never had to know this history, and that makes them uneasy. The case for #AllLivesMatter is only validated by people who either choose to minimize the history of violence in black people’s lives or completely ignore it. The slogan is for people who want to continue to be comfortable in a bubble that lets them ignore the issues pertaining to black people, but the movement won’t stop for whites’ uneasiness over addressing racism. If it wasn’t for the brave souls who stood up, made white people uncomfortable, blacks would still be in chains. You don’t get progress without a little bit of tension, of making the status quo be questioned, and the power group feel uncomfortable. This idea that the only way we can achieve true unity is through never fully acknowledging all the horrible things that have been done is nonsense. Black people are dying, have died, and will continue to die regardless if we chose to confront reality head on or wipe it under the rug. Some people can choose whether or not they want to acknowledge this history, but their choices will continue the extermination of black people.
Throughout history, what the state has never done is value black lives. We need to accept this as fact before anything else. Progress is only predicated on honesty.
Around 12 A.M. Tuesday, Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was around the same time that the Baton Rouge Police Department received a call that an African-American male in a red shirt was seen pointing a gun at someone outside of the same convenience store. Police showed up, and found Alton Sterling, in a red shirt, selling CDs. He fit the description–if only partially.
The video above shows what happened next. Two officers pinning Sterling to the ground, at which point one of them realizes he may be armed. One of the officers proceeds to pull out his gun, even though Sterling is clearly immobile, and shoots him 6 times. He died shortly after.
People will make justifications in this case. Yes, Sterling was armed, was selling CDs illegally, and had a list of prior convictions extending back 20 years. However, there is no debating this case. It was wrong. When we put into account his prior mistakes to justify his death, not only is it misleading, it’s irrelevant.
I have trouble believing one’s criminal past can justify the error in judgement by the police officer, but I have never held America to a standard that would make it so justice could be carried out with clear judgement. Sterling’s plight comes from a legacy of injustice that traces itself back to the origins of this country, through the lynchings in antebellum south, Jim Crow, up to this past Tuesday morning.
No matter how disheartening it is to see this video, it will never be surprising to me. The era of lynchings has never escaped us, and that is what this movement is telling the world. That from the days of Ida B. Wells, up until today, in 2016, black folk are still living “Without Sanctuary.”
This video is all the evidence we need to know that Black Lives are still not valued in this country. In my mind and heart, there is no debate. Alton Sterling deserved better. Freddy Gray deserved better. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Day–they all deserved better. Black lives have always deserved better. Excuses are for white supremacy.
Last week, we saw the unimaginable happen–the UK voted to leave the EU in the name of xenophobia and fear of all things non-white. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. For me, being black and living in the US, this is frightening. Because what divided the UK vote and put Europe in shambles was the same conversation that are dividing voters in the U.S.
How did we get to where we are today? Where politicians can be so openly hateful and divisive, and through doing so, they only become more popular?
Just like #Brexit, I never imagined Donald Trump making it this far. From the whole backlash after his remarks about Latinos at the beginning of his campaign, he seemed doomed. His poor choice of words caused him to lose endorsements and business deals, tv stations like NBC and Univision were publicly denouncing him, and we all just assumed that eventually he would fade away. But what no one seemed to acknowledge was that the power was never in news stations attempting to cut ties with him, the power was—and still is—in the hands of the people who are choosing to vote for him, show up to his rallies, and stand up for everything he says—no matter how ugly the words may turn out to be.
When most presidential candidates would soften their language to ease the backlash and gain support, Trump keeps pushing the hate, and people not only keep coming, they are being more enthusiastic than before. His rallies have been anything but normal. He has found a group of people that are not appalled, but attracted by all of his antics. The more divisive his language gets, the more solidified his following becomes.
As the number of followers grows, so does the media attention corporate support. One month, mainstream news media outlets are distancing all ties, and the next, they can’t get enough from him. You turn on CNN any given morning, and they will be either broadcasting a Trump rally, showing highlights of Trump speaking, or talking to him directly on the phone. The same goes for every other mainstream network. NBC, the same network that dropped endorsement after his initial remarks about Latino immigrants, had him on Saturday Night Live! as a host two months later.
What Donald Trump realized is that there is a segment of Americans who are clinging on to a certain idea of what America should be–and that is what America once was. Trump supporters don’t want America to be great again, they want it to be white again. The more this is being realized, the more we are seeing other politicians also change their rhetoric. And we are seeing a group of closeted racists feeling empowered by Trump’s words and unashamed in their own prejudices.
This didn’t happen overnight, and this didn’t start with Trump. This sort of extreme hateful rhetoric has been used to appease to a certain voter base—whites—for more than half a century. The difference now is that we are seeing it reach new extremes and being taken more seriously than before, which is why it’s important to know how we got to a point where a man like Trump can be taken seriously as a presidential candidate: because he is a product of partisan politics gone wrong, and how dangerous this type of strategy is–and has been–for democracy.
George Wallace: “Segregation Forever!”
In his inauguration as Alabama governor, George Wallace stood in front of a large crowd on a cold January day in 1963, proclaiming:
“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Those words reflected a reality in the American South: white Southerners were not willing to compromise a way of life that had been the backbone of southern identity—the oppression of African Americans through Jim Crow.
The irony is that just four years prior, George Wallace ran on a much different platform. He had a moderate stance on civil rights, and was even endorsed by the NAACP. Had he ran for governor a decade earlier, perhaps a moderate stance on race would not have hurt his chances, but by 1958, civil rights had come to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and it impacted white Americans’ way of life. No longer was ‘Civil Rights’ just some abstract idea in the distant future—it was in their front yard, staring them in the face. By 1958, the country had seen the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Brown decision, and the Civil RIghts Act of 1957. More black organizations were being created and a collective black voice was growing to tackle once and for all a century-long battle for equality. The more gains the Civil Rights Movement made, the more white Americans would be forced to open their arms, their restaurants, and their schools to black Americans. As tensions grew, whites who opposed integration started looking for a politician who would voice their hate.
“Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
In 1958, Wallace didn’t take those events into account, and he lost because of it. Four years later, and he would not allow himself to make the same mistake. His opinions—along with his rhetoric—changed drastically. Whereas he was once backed by the NAACP, four years later he was wooing the Ku Klux Klan with white supremacist language in order to secure his place as Alabama governor. In his own words, the response from the white South to his change was clear: “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
While campaigning, Wallace made it clear how strong he favored keeping Alabama schools segregated. In June of his first year as governor, he had his chance to show how far he was willing to go in order to preserve the traditional—racist—way of life in the South. It was that same year the Federal Courts ordered that the University of Alabama desegregate and enroll two black students—Vivian Malone and James Hood. The Deputy Attorney General came in from Washington in order to ensure the law would be upheld, and was joined by hundreds of print and television reporters, all watching to see how the Alabama governor would handle the event.
Wallace stayed true to the word and flair that he was becoming known for. He read a speech full of fiery, staunchly segregationist language in front of a crowd of people who only wanted to hear the words of someone in favor of segregation, and they loved it. He spoke of the federal government’s commitment to racial justice as a tyrannical force infringing the rights of Southerners. Without any sense of irony, he went on to say, “I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.”
“Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.”
Wallace wasn’t able to change the court order with such antics, and the students were eventually admitted. But even if he didn’t get his way this time, it turned to be a learning experience for him, and one that would alter the rhetoric of politics from that point onward. Yes, the federal government had ruled in favor of supporting civil rights, but just like Donald Trump today, Wallace was learning that many of his constituents desired something different. He realized that channeling white hostility towards black Americans didn’t need to be restricted to the South. “They all hate black people,” he said, “all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.” It was not a matter of getting everyone who didn’t believe in him to vote for him. It was a matter of getting everyone who did believe in him to vote for him. Wallace wasn’t targeting America, he was targeting racist white America.
With that understanding of going after a very specific demographic as a voter base, he decided to take his politics beyond Alabama and to the White House. Not under “white supremacy,” but by catering to the idea of “States’ Rights” and demanding the federal government stay out of affairs that, in his opinion, they had no say over. By demanding “States’ Rights”, he argued for self-governance, and the idea that even if racism was immoral, it was the right of each state to decide that, and on what terms. He carried on the tradition that began when slavery was established and then debated, and what the Civil War—or as many southerners still call it, “The War of Northern Aggression”—was fought on: state autonomy versus federalism. Only now, Wallace was softening the language to be used at a time when you couldn’t be openly racist, even if the rhetoric clearly showed it. Like Trump, he was creating a socially acceptable racism, and he was finding an audience that was more than willing to hear him.
It didn’t matter that Wallace never made it all the way to the White House. By his later campaigns, hundreds of thousands of people would come to see him speak at campaign rallies, not only in the South, but the North as well. That turnout should say something—even with laws being passed that favored equality, not everyone was willing to move with the times. The shift in Wallace’s rhetoric doesn’t show that his ideologies changed, but rather how he capitalized on the fact that the general consciousness of many white Americans had remained the same.
Barry Goldwater’s ‘White Lilies’ Start to Bloom
After Wallace’s presidential bids, other politicians began to take note of these trends as well. At the same time as Wallace, Barry Goldwater was courting the segregationist vote. Even if Barry wasn’t from the South, he knew the right words could win him white votes, and that’s all that mattered to him. Like Wallace, in the late 1950s until 1960 Goldwater voted for civil rights legislation, but by 1961 he was realizing that maybe there were more gains to be made by courting white segregationists. He took the idea of “States’ rights” as a fight against a looming government on the verge of controlling everyone’s lives. Similar to Wallace, Goldwater was using the case for segregation as a means of states exercising their political liberty. The irony: it was liberty through denying black Americans their own freedom.
Goldwater was one of only five senators from outside the South who voted against the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. For his 1964 presidential bid, he campaigned throughout the South with theatrical tricks to talk about race in coded language and imagery. His campaign rallies would be filled with full-bloom white lilies, in addition to a sea of white Southern ladies in all-white gowns. In doing so, he was making a very clear message to a white base: he was here to preserve whiteness in all its purity.
To give some context, it should be known that the fear of black men raping white women is what allowed lynchings to go unchecked for almost 100 years, and it was the same notion that allowed segregation to flourish. The myth fed to the public was that by keeping the races separated, white women would be protected from black men. Goldwater knew what he was doing. From the flowers to the white gowns, Goldwater was attempting to be seen as a white savior against civil rights without ever having to mention race.
Nixon’s ‘Tough on Crime’
Even if Goldwater or Wallace never became president, they both set the tone for other candidates, like Richard Nixon, to carry on and fine-tune their ideas. By Nixon’s second term, he was outspokenly against the forced busing mandated to desegregate schools, and he adopted a tough-on-crime rhetoric that spoke out against the civil rights movement as being “lawless”, and argued that allowing such protests—no matter how peaceful—to go unchecked would tear down the foundation of a civilized society. He was equating civil disobedience to criminality.
It was that definition of lawlessness that Nixon was able to refine to a high degree in order to speak out against black Americans, even if he wasn’t the first to attempt to make the relationship. In fact, the first argument during the 1950s in response to civil-rights activists was the idea of “law and order.” In the same way Barry Goldwater appealed to racial fears of black men raping white women at his rallies, politicians were catering once again to the fear of poor and working-class whites, especially at a time when whites were being asked to make an effort towards achieving equal civil rights for black Americans. Civil rights legislation had been passed, and now it needed to be implemented. Federal court orders gave schools a strict deadline on when to desegregate and required busing from lower income—usually black—communities. Predominantly white communities were now being affected by such court orders, and many—in the North and the South—weren’t happy with how their neighborhoods, schools, and institutions were being impacted by such decisions.
Nixon knew of this contempt that many people had towards civil rights, and he offered solutions that reflected that. He had to show that segregation was the answer to whites’ problems. But it had become politically dangerous to say that openly, so instead he discredited the civil rights movement by labeling it as “lawless” , and then standing against policies that were pro-civil rights–such as forced school busing, and being tough on crime. Nixon’s “tough on crime” agenda wasn’t directed at crime, but at black Americans through attempting to associate race and crime and then appealing to racist beliefs without openly doing so.
The Southern Strategy
Nixon didn’t come to these conclusions on his own, and maybe that’s why he was so much more successful than Goldwater and Wallace. in 1969, a Nixon strategist by the name of Kevin Phillips published a 500-page document titled The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he made the well established argument that what divided voters was not issues of class, but race. And NIxon’s actions showed this could be true. In 1968, Nixon won his first term by a close margin, and his agenda was much more racially ambiguous. By the 1972 election, his policies had changed to reflect Philips’s wisdom, and he won by a landslide.
From that point onwards, the Republican party, not just Nixon, would adopt what would be known as the “Southern Strategy”. It entailed an understanding that to stay relevant and keep a strong voting base, they would appeal to southern white men and what southern white men valued most: white supremacy. “We’ll go after the racists,” one of Nixon’s aides, John Ehrlichman, wrote. “That subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches on schools and housing.” H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, would also say that the “whole problem is really the blacks….the key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
“We’ll go after the racists.”
After Nixon, Ronald Reagan carried on that tradition. Firstly, he went one step further by adding to the tough on-crime-rhetoric with a specific stance on poverty, associating welfare with giving handouts to ungrateful blacks for the hard work that white Americans were doing. Not only was he associating race with crime, but with poverty as well. Even if Nixon first proclaimed a war on drugs, it was Reagan who made it what we know of it today, one that would disproportionately impact communities of color, a fact that many people would be completely okay with.
What started as just racially coded language in the 1950s in response to civil rights turned into a war that terrorized black communities while catering to white fears. The “welfare queen” of Reagan’s presidency, the drug laws he passed, which flourished under Clinton’s and George W’s administrations, can trace their origins to the rhetoric of the likes of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater.
This is how we get to where we are today. This is how we herd millions of African Americans into prisons, continue to fund schools unequally, and keep urban conditions the same, if not worse, than 50 years ago. This is how we solidify a racial caste system without ever vocalizing the word “race.”
The Birth of Trump and Modern Politics
The parallels are too similar between 60 years ago and now, and history tells us that this can get more extreme. Donald Trump represents everything that is wrong with American democracy, and how partisan politics undermines democracy—that to be elected by the people, we should aspire to be the people, no matter how ugly their sentiments may be. In Trump, we look to a country that was founded on whiteness and black oppression, and that has continually remained unapologetic to such racist origins. His success is not that he could be president, his success is understanding what many Americans still hold dear to them—white supremacy.
I can imagine that, behind closed doors, Trump and his associates were having the same conversations that Nixon, Goldwater, or Wallace were having: how to cater to a voting base, or use hate and fear for political gain.
How is Donald Trump discussing building a wall any different than Wallace’s “Segregation forever”? How is his criminalizing of Latinos for wanting a better life different than Nixon’s labeling of African Americans protesting equality as “lawless”? From Trump’s polarizing Islamophobic language, to his anti-Immigration hypocrisy, to the general racist atmosphere that permeates everything he says and everywhere he speaks–the rise of Donald Trump is no mystery, however frightening the outcomes seem to be. Trump is America’s #Brexit, just a more openly racist agenda and a playbook that has continually been added to. His whole rhetoric is taken from his predecessors–Wallace, Goldwater, Nixon and a host of others who realized that there was more to gain by dividing than unifying through partisan politics.
We may not get a president out of Trump, but we are getting a public acceptance of being openly hateful, and that is just as dangerous.
Recently, four 6th graders at the school I work at wrote a letter to President Barack Obama on the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It’s a powerful letter, and you can read it here. So powerful is the letter, in fact, it received thousands of shares, tv stations ran the story, and just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama even wrote back.
What’s more inspiring is while all of this was going on, one of the boys’ classmates, a white student named Louis, wrote his own letter to the President–largely inspired by what his four classmates had already written.
Louis’s letter isn’t attempting to overshadow what the boys have done. It’s a letter of encouragement, and more importantly, it is an example of what white allyship can adequately look like. This may be an issue that impacts Black youth at disproportionate rates to whites, but white youth should still be contributing to this movement. Silence is its own form of oppression, and this movement–this world–could use more people like Louis, where at just 12 years old, he is understanding his privilege and that he also has a social responsibility: to be an ally.
Here is the letter:
Dear Mr. President,
Inequality is a huge problem in our modern day world, even at a young, elementary school age. Studies have shown that black students were three times more likely to be expelled than white students in the 2011-2012 school year. It is hard to imagine that a black child who is doing the same thing as a white child is being treated worse. I feel as though I should give back to people of color in every way possible to make up for the harsh injustices that have happened to people of color in the past. I try to remind myself that I am not one of the many people who believe that the color of someone’s skin makes them better or worse than another person.
In the news I hear about all the horrible things that have gone on involving inequality. I hear about the killing of Michael Brown, I hear about the statistics that are so far from fair, but I also hear about my schoolmates. I am so proud of my four schoolmates for standing up and bringing inequality under a spotlight. They wrote a letter that has gone so far, to thousands of internet shares and a place in the news. I feel strong when I know that they made a difference.
But they also received hate from people who wrote rude things, because these people knew that if they wrote it on a viral article they would get attention. And that disgusts me. I posted a video for a school project on YouTube about the importance of Black Lives Matter. Somehow, someone found the video and posted hateful comments toward me and people of color. He assumed I was African American and said “…As long as too many blacks commit too many crimes, like over half the murders, you are just another scumbag justifying your races criminal behavior your dindu attitude.”
This ruined my day. It ruined my day because he said those incredibly racist things, but also because he assumed I was an African American.This ruined my day because he thought there was no such thing as an ally, someone who stands up for people who are being bullied when they are not. Every Time I read a disturbing fact about white people treating black people with inequality I feel emotional. I feel emotional about the injustice of it, but I also feel emotional about the fact that I am white. I wish that I did not have something in common with this person who is being so rude to their victim but also to themselves. This person who commented assumed I was black because I cared, but just because I am white and these issues do not affect me does not mean that I do not care.
When you bully someone of a different skin color, you are bullying one of your fellow human beings. And I say bully because anybody who treats someone differently because of their skin color is a bully. And everyone has been bullied, just on lower or higher levels. They are no different from yourselves. If everyone hated different looking or thinking people it would be a messed up world.
The whole reason I am writing this letter to you is because after reading my schoolmates letter, I learned about the Black Lives Matter movement in America. After reading so many letters, facts, and articles I have learned that black lives do matter and inequality is a massive issue in America that needs to be addressed. Everyone has the right to be treated equal, and that’s not happening.
I encourage you to read their letter as well. We all would like to conference with you about this problem that needs to be addressed. Inequality is an emergency that need to be tended to.
~Louis, on behalf of Keidy, Zayd, Bryson, and Phoenix.