Archive for the ‘Race’ category

A Shuttered Past

November 21, 2015

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:


That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:


And in old age:


Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.


1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

Bows In The Hood

September 17, 2015

Here’s something to wash away the taste of last night’s DerpFest extraordinaire.

From the NPR story on Black Violin:

Kevin Sylvester says that when most people see a 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pound black man, they don’t expect him to also be a classically trained violinist. A recent exchange with a woman in an elevator, when he happened to have his instrument with him in its case, drove that point home.

“She’s like, ‘What do you play?’ ” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘I’m a violinist.’ And she was like, ‘Well, obviously you don’t play classical, so what kind of style do you play?’ ”

Sylvester says he explained that while he does have a degree in classical music, he plays all kinds of styles. “She didn’t mean it maliciously,” he says, “but I hope she gets to see us in concert and we can change her perception.”

A not altogether non sequitur.  As I watched this video, I was reminded why I’m a member of the Democratic party.  It’s got a lot of problems, lot of positions espoused by leaders at every level of government at which I wince.  But the party that nominated and elected Barack Hussein Obama is one that can envision an America that looks like the country Sylvester and his co-conspirator in gut and horsehair, Wilner Baptiste, want to help create.  I’ll leave the “and the other party….” half of the duology unmentioned…its would-be leaders said all that was necessary last night.

Plus, and for your early evening pleasure — these guys can play.

We Have A Problem With Guns

June 18, 2015

The front page in today’s Charleston, S. C.’s hometown paper:

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 1.44.30 PM

It’s a little hard to read, but the sticker that partly obscures the headline about a mass shooting advertises the latest deal at a local gun store.  “$30 GETS YOU EVERYTHING” — all the goodies needed to have a fine time with your new weapon.

Race, terror, the long history of attacking African American leaders, institutions and anyone else at hand in support of white supremacy, all the evils that run like a river through American history dominate the coverage of the massacre at Emanuel A. M. E, and they should.  This is an atrocity bred in the bone of the American idea, as Jelani Cobb writes:*

For black Christians, the word “sanctuary” had a second set of implications. The spiritual aims of worship were paired with the distinctly secular necessity of a place in which not just common faith but common humanity could be taken for granted. No matter the coming details about the shooting in Charleston, it seems almost inescapable that the assault on a single black church is an inadvertent affirmation of the need for an entire denomination of them.

I don’t want to distract from the core, essential truth:  racial disparity, cruelty administered on racial grounds, systematic discrimination based on race remain at the center of US life, and we need to say that out loud and do what we can about it every damn day.

But at the same time, as Cobb also writes,

We periodically mourn the deaths of a group of Americans who die at the hands of another armed American. We periodically witness racial injustices that inspire anger in the streets. And sometimes we witness both. This is, quite simply, how we now live.

We have a problem with guns.  It isn’t going away.  You can dig through the twitter streams and comment threads as I have, but you already know what you’ll find.  For too many Americans, the solution to our gun problem is obvious:  the answer to a bad shooter in church are good ones.  If only those at prayer had been packing, Dylann Roof wouldn’t have been able to kill more than three or four before taking a couple of hundred grains of lead to the throat in return fire. If only…


The ammosexual defense of their kink is predictable and almost certainly incorrigible.  Driven (and heavily armed) that’s a view that’s managed to hold political sway over the mushy majority for whom the notion the the liberty of the gun-sniffing few outweighs the freedom of the rest of us to assemble, travel, speak without fear of suppressing fire.  What drives that is, at least in part, the normalization of gun fetishization.  Which is what you see above.  And is what must be shamed out of the public square.

The Charleston Post and Courier has apologized on its Facebook page for the sticker, calling it “a deeply regrettable coincidence.” Forgive me if I don’t take that statement in the manner its author may have intended.  It’s not the coincidence that’s regrettable.  It’s the deeper implication behind the juxtaposition.  Just in case its readers may have missed the contingency of that mea sorta culpa, there’s the phrase that followed the paper’s regrets:

We apologize to those who were offended.

“To those who were offended.”  How about to the human race.  How about to the nine folks praying at church last night — except, of course, they can’t because the guns that come with whatever gaudy deal (here’s a perfect gift for your 21 year old! A precision machine designed to deal death in quantity!) have in yesterday’s employment ended those nine souls, took their lives and everything they might ever have been or done.**  How about to the families of those gone, then — except what will you say.  “Sorry we advertised more death with the news of the deaths of your loved ones!”

I don’t mean to single out the Post and Courier — and especially not the folks writing and editing it, who have no control over what the business side does.  But it’s just so damn telling.  As long as guns are just fit fodder for the daily special we’re doomed to repeat this miserable charade over and over again, mourning yet more victims while doing absolutely f**k all to honor their memory in any way that may lessen the odds of it happening again.

*See also Charles Pierce, marrying his gift for language and his capacity for righteous rage in this piece.

**And yeah, I’m channelling (read, clumsily paraphrasing) that Clint Eastwood speech from The Unforgiven here.

Image:  Karlis Padegs, Madonna with a Machine Gun1932.

I Can’t Even…

June 3, 2015

Four relatives who cheered their children at a high school graduation  in Senatobia, Mississippi, have been served with arrest warrants for disturbing the peace.


To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, at least the two of the four facing charges who have been identified in news reports are African American.  The complainant, Senatobia school superintendent Jay Foster is white.  Mr Foster is a stickler:

Superintendent Foster said the charges were far from ridiculous.

While Foster declined an on-camera interview with WREG, he said he’s determined to have order at graduation ceremonies.

“We must have order.”



Makes one proud to be an American.

Image:  Sassetta, The Blessed Ranieri frees the poor 1437-44

Guess The Complexion Of The Shooter

January 18, 2015

Here’s all you need to know:

A Sentinel, Okla., man on Thursday shot the town’s police chief four times and was then released from custody after questioning.

All lives matter and I’m glad no one was killed in this bit of 2nd Amendment insanity — but if after Martin and Brown and Rice and Crawford you still somehow wondered if white privilege were a thing, just give it up.


More detail:

Sentinel Police Chief Louis Ross was shot in the chest three times and once in the arm Thursday morning after breaking down the front door and entering a house at 205 S 4, Sentinel Mayor Sam Dlugonski said.

The chief was wearing a bulletproof vest that was loaned to him by a sheriff’s deputy minutes before the raid on the home. He survived the shooting, and authorities said the vest saved his life.

Dlugonski and a neighbor on S 4 both said the man detained in the shooting was Dallas Horton, who lives at 205 S 4. Investigating authorities did not release the man’s name.

Agents with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation said the man who shot the chief was released after hours of questioning when they determined they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him.

“Facts surrounding the case lead agents to believe the man was unaware it was officers who made entry,” OSBI wrote in a news release.

Well, yes.  But then there’s this:

Chief Ross said Washita County 911 received two calls from a man who identified himself as Dallas Horton, and claimed to have a bomb inside the head start school….

Chief Ross told News 9 he called for county back up before entering Horton’s home.

Up to this point, Horton claimed he never knew any officers were in his home.

“Don’t know what he heard or didn’t hear screaming from five officers of the law announcing our presence, requesting to see hands,” said Chief Ross.

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and state (a) it’s amazing, just flat out gobsmacking, that anyone could shot a cop four times and not face a gazillion bullets coming the other way; and (b) that I simply cannot imagine the circumstances in which a non-white cop-shooter who did survive the initial event would be back on the street the same day.

That conclusion could just reflect my biases.  It certainly involves an inference beyond the facts known to me as I write this.  Still, American history and our recent past seem to tell a pretty consistent story to me:  African Americans, and especially black men, face the threat of violence under the cover of law to a degree that a middle class white guy like me cannot begin to fathom.  So I’m prepared to make the leap that the color of the shooter here made a difference in his treatment by law enforcement.  I certainly could be wrong:  any individual case can be an outlier in any direction.  But if I had to bet…

Again, I want to repeat something really important:  it’s a great thing that neither the police chief nor the suspect are dead.  That’s what we would want to see come out of moments of crisis in law enforcement.

I’m just noting here that I want that outcome for all those confronting the sudden presence of armed cops:  toy wielding shoppers, kids on a playground, young men walking, anyone.   Such happy endings shouldn’t be reserved only for a gun nut who can be distinguished from those less fortunate individuals by — among other things I’m sure — the fact that he happens to be white.

Image:  John Singer Sargent, Graveyard in the Tyrol, 1914-1915.


Eric Garner’s Killer Won’t Be Indicted

December 3, 2014

Another grand jury somehow manages to avoid indicting a cop who put an unarmed man in an illegal chokehold and, ignoring his pleas (“I can’t breathe!”), strangled him to death.   Eric Garner’s crime was peddling untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk.  He was a husband and the father of six.  And he was a black man.  I hope I may be forgiven for believing that last fact to be germane, both to the confrontation in which he died and the fact that his (white) killer, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, now escapes any scrutiny of law.


Another district attorney somehow managed to avoid gaining an indictment within a grand jury process he entirely controlled.  It is said that any competent prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what’s desired on the day.  I hope I may be forgiven for believing that Staten Island DA Daniel M. Donovan Jr. had no intention of putting a cop on trial.  Never mind that Officer Pantaleo was captured on video tape performing an illegal act that led to the death of a human being who’s threat to society consisted of dodging local tobacco taxes, cancer stick by stick.

I got nothing.  This is not a justice system.  This is not policing in any form that I understand.  This is how law serves as cover for power when the forms but not the substance of civil society are all that is left.

I got nothing at all.

Image:  Hans Memling, Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, (detail), 1480.



Asked and Answered In Ferguson — A Tale of Two Times Stories

November 26, 2014

Here’s a fact The New York Times seeks to explore in the wake of the decision to let the killer of an unarmed youth go free:

A nation with an African-American president and a significant, if struggling, black middle class remains as deeply divided about the justice system as it was decades ago. A Huffington Post-YouGov poll of 1,000 adults released this week found that 62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position.

The Times notes that this divide is nothing new:

In 1992, a Washington Post-ABC News pollfound that 92 percent of blacks — and 64 percent of whites  — disagreed with the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King.

“What’s striking is just how constant these attitudes have been,” said Carroll Doherty, the director of political research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

This particular article doesn’t go into much depth on who might be right — the white majority that sees justice being done from King to Brown, or the African American majority that sees culpable killers go free, but it does make clear that the experience of everyday life is … well, it’s the great grey lady (formerly) of 43rd Street, so this is how the sociology passage begins:

That whites and blacks disagree so deeply on the justice system, even as some other racial gulfs show signs of closing, is perhaps not as odd as it seems.

Not odd at all, as it happens, on the evidence of another long analysis piece in today’s paper the Ferguson decision:

But the gentle questioning of Officer Wilson revealed in the transcripts, and the sharp challenges prosecutors made to witnesses whose accounts seemed to contradict his narrative, have led some to question whether the process was as objective as Mr. McCulloch claims.


And what might have prompted such unpleasant suspicions about an upstanding public servant?  Perhaps this:

Officer Wilson, in his testimony, described the encounter in terms that dovetailed with a state law authorizing an officer’s use of deadly force …

In some cases the questions seemed designed to help Officer Wilson meet the conditions for self-defense, with a prosecutor telling him at one point: “You felt like your life was in jeopardy” followed by the question, “And use of deadly force was justified at that point in your opinion?”

Might as well have just used cue cards.

Defense witnesses — which is to say that those witnesses with testimony to exculpate the voiceless dead against the charge of he had it coming — did not receive such helpful guidance:

Though the prosecutors did not press Officer Wilson and other law enforcement officials about some contradictions in their testimony, they did challenge other witnesses about why their accounts had varied.

Prosecutors did not seem to shy from pointing out the discrepancies between multiple interviews of a single witness, or at some points exploring the criminal history of some witnesses, including Mr. Johnson, Mr. Brown’s friend.

And you know something:  priming works.  This was a prosecutor/cop defense attorney who knew exactly what he was doing:

Over the months, the jurors seemed to focus intently on the final movement that Mr. Brown may have made toward Officer Wilson, after a brief chase. The prosecutor asked witness after witness if it seemed as if Mr. Brown were reaching for a weapon, though few said they saw anything like that. Mr. Brown was found to be unarmed.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Or rather, this is an answer to the question implied in its companion article.  If blacks and whites view the criminal justice system differently, then, obviously, as the Ferguson trial of that dastardly murderee, Michael Brown, shows so clearly, that’s because it is different for white and black.  Or more precisely to the point made brutally clear in the sorry history of the Ferguson grand jury, both black victims and those African Americans accused of crimes cannot expect the abstract ideal of the rule of law to reach them.

The single essential requirement for justice within a justice system is that the institutions and individuals involved receive genuinely equal treatment.   As we can see from the top level decisions made in this case down to the fine grain of particular questions and answers, Darren Wilson benefited at every stage from the unequal approach prosecutor McCullough chose to employ.  (Take a look at this New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin for a fine account of just how thoroughly the fix was in from the moment McCullough chose to go the grand jury route.)   Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address pondered out loud the mystery that two sides, each believing in the same God and in their claim on the blessings of heaven were still locked in an utterly destructive struggle.  How could that be so?  Perhaps, he said, in what seems to me to be the most devastatingly honest utterance by any American president ever:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The offenses still come.  It’s a good thing that in twenty first century America a child can no longer be sold away from its parents.  It’s a step in the right direction that the act of looking at a white woman whilst being a black youth is not still a capital offense.

But a century and a half after a president counseled his war-riven nation, the offenses still come.

The death of a teenager who, we are told, it was OK to kill, simply adds this latest harvest of blood to the debt that Abraham Lincoln sought to settle so long ago.

Image: William Hogarth, The Court, c. 1758.


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