The United States has always faced a fundamental tension. On one side are those who champion, enforce, and/or profit from hierarchies of power: white supremacist racism, sexist patriarchy, Christian fundamentalism, and capital concentrations chief among them. Arrayed against these hierarchies of power are people who promote and work for racial equality, gender and sexual equality, cultural tolerance, the amelioration of poverty, and genuine freedom both for and from religious beliefs and practices.
For nearly two and a half centuries, these tensions have produced victories and defeats for all sides. While more of course remains to be done: the 20th century witnessed a steady rise in poor people’s (and everyone else’s) quality of life; women began making substantial advances a hundred years ago; racial, ethnic, and religious minorities have made important gains since World War II; LGBT people have achieved remarkable progress during the last half-century; and more recently, agnostics and atheists have begun carving out spaces of acceptance.
While these struggles are all longstanding, dividing lines are usually not very simple or clear cut. Ever since settler colonial slave owners began authoring stirring documents about freedom, many Americans have been on the side of freedom and equality on an issue or two, and against it on others. History offers no shortage of racist feminists, sexist civil rights workers, exploitative plutocrats who seek to help the poor in their spare time, homophobes of every stripe, and so on. Because there are so many divisions and contests, and because the lines of alliance and contestation are often unclear and shift over time, the major U.S. political parties have historically teetered back and forth on various issues. Read more »
An anthology I’ve edited with David Winner, titled Writing the Virus, has just been published by Outpost19 Books (San Francisco). Its authors—among them Joan Juliet Buck, Rebecca Chace, Edie Meidav, Caille Millner, Uche Nduka, Mui Poopoksakul, Roxana Robinson, Jon Roemer, Joseph Salvatore, Liesl Schillinger, Andrea Scrima, Clifford Thompson, Saskia Vogel, Matthew Vollmer, and David Dario Winner—explore the experience of lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, and the politicization of the virus from a wide variety of perspectives. The majority of the texts were written exclusively for the online literary magazine StatORec, and a keen sense of urgency prevails throughout, an understanding that the authors are chronicling something, responding to something that is changing them and the social fabric all around them.
The range of this anthology is broad: there’s a haunting story that explores the psychological dimensions of an anti-Asian hate crime with a curiously absent culprit; hallucinatory prose that gropes its way through a labyrinth of internalized fear as human encounters are measured in terms of physical distance; a piece on the uncomfortable barriers of ethnicity, civic cooperation, and racism as experienced by someone going out for what is no longer an ordinary run; and a jazz pianist who listens to what’s behind the eerie silence of the virus’s global spread. Read more »
Two months ago, a college student in my Native American history class was perturbed. How it could be that during her K-12 education she never learned about the 1890 massacre of nearly 200 Native people at Wounded Knee? She was incensed and incredulous, and understandably so. It’s an important question, a frustrating question, and a depressing question. In other words, it’s the kind of question anyone who teaches Native American history is all too used to.
My students typically begin the semester with a vague sense of “we screwed over the Indians,” and are quickly stunned to discover the glaring depths of their own ignorance about the atrocities that Native peoples have endured: from enslavement, to massacres, to violent ethnic cleansings, to fraudulent U.S. government actions, to child theft and the forced sterilization of women, to a vast, far-reaching campaign of cultural genocide that continued unabated well into the 20th century.
I started slowly, explaining to her that one problem is the impossibility of covering everything in a high school history class. Even in a college survey, which moves much faster, you just can’t get to everything. There’s way too much. A high school curriculum has no chance.
But, I said, that begs the question, both for college and K-12: What gets in and what gets left out? Read more »
There are times when customary evils become outlandish and intolerable. Then there is a call for irreversible ethical change, a transformation of more than the way we judge this or that, times in which which old laws are struck down and new ones framed. I want to suggest that a change in the structure of feeling occurs, when the ethical substance of our lives is transformed. This can happen at a glacial pace, or – as now -very quickly indeed. In Lenin’s famous remark ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’.
In such a time as this, people are mobilised in new ways; symbols like statues and flags that might once have been barely registered take on the significance of exemplars. And an act of cruelty that might once have been part of the drab monotony of unchangeable oppression takes on a paradigmatic, mobilising force. Then everything seems to be moving. Of course, one can see change as merely exchanging one kind of ethical outlook for another, with no way of choosing which is best, the view of the moral relativist. ’They thought X was OK back then, and we don’t. Whose to say who is right?’This is quite mistaken. For a start there were people ‘back then’ who condemned slavery, the subordination of women, empire and much more. The society of the past, as now, did not speak with one voice: it had dissidents, reformers and heretics. Nor is the past hermetically sealed off from the present: we are what they became.Read more »
On June 22, in Los Angeles, five police officers responded to a complaint about music being played too loud in the middle of the night. A pit bull attacked one of the officers. Armando Garcia-Muro, a 17-year-old high school senior, restrained the dog, but it got free and charged at the police. Two of the officers fired six to eight rounds at the charging dog. One of the bullets hit and killed Garcia-Muro.
In May of this year, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant woman, at home with three young children, reported a burglary. Two officers went to her apartment, aware of the fact that she suffered from mental illness and that there was a good chance they might encounter threatening or dangerous behavior. According to the officers' account, when Lyles threatened one of them with a knife, they both fired shots at her, killing her immediately.
In July 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight. He was driving with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter. He informed the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, that he had a firearm (for which he had a license). Yanez, apparently concerned that Castile was pulling the firearm out, shot him seven times. The incident was recorded on the police car's dashcam. Yanez was charged with manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm. Earlier this month, Yanez was acquitted of all charges.
The list of such incidents could be multiplied indefinitely. Trayvon Martin; Alton Sterling; Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Danroy Henry, Tashii Brown; Sam DuBose; Charles Kinsey; Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner…… It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes by without a news report of a black person (usually unarmed) being killed by police offers (often, but not always, white) in circumstances where the use of deadly force seems wildly excessive.
The current volatile state of global higher education raises urgent questions. Student protests broke out at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2015. These demonstrations initially called to remove the statue of the racist imperialist Cecil Rhodes from campus.
Similarly, in the United States and beyond, Black Lives Matter is gaining traction. It combats systematic racism and discrimination as well as police killings of black people. The movement emerged in response to the lack of justice for the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. There has been a vicious backlash against the group around the slogan “All Lives Matter,” whose participants attempt to paint Black Lives Matter as violent Marxists.
This July Patricia Leary, a professor at Whittier Law School, wrote an incisive rejoinder to a student letter criticizing her decision to wear a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus. In this reply, Leary dismantles the assumption that the motto “Black Lives Matter” is preceded by a silent “only”:
There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:
Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular, it is important that we say that…
This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.