21 posts categorized "Race Relations"

A Dedicated Life: Shirley Sherrod's Ongoing Battle for Racial Cooperation in Georgia

August 16, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part series, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the sixth installment of that series (click here for the fifth, "Deconstructing Reconstruction," by Nicholas Lemann), Ryan Cooper, the Web editor at Washington Monthly, checks in with Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA state director of rural development for Georgia, who was fired after remarks she made at an NAACP banquet were intentionally misrepresented by conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart. The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

Headshot_shirley_sherrodAlmost three years ago, in late March 2010, Shirley Sherrod, who was then the USDA state director of rural development for Georgia, gave a forthright speech about her life story at an NAACP banquet. She told of how a white sheriff had lynched her cousin in 1943, how her father was killed by a white neighbor who went uncharged despite three witnesses, and how after her father's death she dedicated herself to staying in Georgia to work for change. Initially, she said, her commitment was limited to the black community, but in 1985 her mind was changed.

That year, while Sherrod was working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a nonprofit helping black farmers hang on to their land, Roger Spooner, a white farmer in danger of foreclosure, approached her for help. She took Spooner to a white lawyer, assuming that one of his "own kind would take care of him." But when she discovered that the lawyer would do nothing for him, she did what she could instead. Eventually, she helped Spooner keep his farm. This was a lesson from God, Sherrod said during her NAACP speech, to teach her that it's not all about black and white, but about poverty also. "Working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't," she said.

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Reconstruction Deconstruction

August 09, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part series, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the fifth installment of that series (click here for the fourth, "The Next Affirmative Action," by Kevin Carey), Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, argues that the tumultuous decade that followed the Civil War failed to enshrine black voting and civil rights and instead paved the way for more than a century of entrenched racial injustice.The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

Reconstruction_illustrationChildren in elementary school often come home with the idea that the purpose of the Civil War was to end slavery -- but if that were true, then why did it take Abraham Lincoln so long to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and why was it less than universally popular in the Union states? If you see the movie Lincoln, you get a much fuller picture of the contingency of emancipation, and of the difficulty of passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery completely -- but why didn't Lincoln and the Congress think to address at the same time the obvious question of what status the freed slaves would have after that? After Lincoln's assassination, Congress and the state governments settled that matter by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which gave the former slaves full civil rights and voting rights -- but why was it necessary for exactly the same rights to be reenacted, after enormous struggle, nearly a century later, during the civil rights era?

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The Next Affirmative Action

August 02, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part series, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the fourth installment of that series (click here for the third, "A House Divided," by Thomas J. Sugrue), Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy program at the New America Foundation, argues that while affirmative action "as we know it is dying," the Supreme Court's targeting of current policies may be "an opportunity to change the way people think about race and higher education." The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

Affirmative-actionAffirmative action as we know it is dying. A growing number of states have moved to prohibit public universities from considering race in admissions, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in an anti-affirmative action lawsuit that left little doubt about where the Court's conservative majority stands. Less than a decade after the Court upheld racial admissions preferences in Grutter v. Bollinger, newer jurists like Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts seem ready to render unconstitutional a policy that has helped generations of minority students grab a rung on the ladder of opportunity.

The Court's likely decision is particularly odious given the college admissions apparatus it will leave in place. Elite colleges warp and corrupt the meritocratic admissions process in a wide variety of ways. Academically substandard athletes, for example, are allowed in so they can play for the amusement of alumni and help shore up the fundraising base. While some men's football and basketball players come from low-income and minority households, many athletes at the highly selective colleges where affirmative action really matters engage in sports like crew and lacrosse that are associated with white, privileged backgrounds. Colleges also give preference to the children of legacies, professors, celebrities, politicians, and people who write large checks to the general fund. All of these groups are also disproportionately wealthy and white.

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A House Divided

July 26, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part series, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the third installment of that series (click here for the second, "Emmett and Trayvon: How Racial Prejudice Has Changed in the Last 60 Years," by Elijah Anderson), Thomas J. Sugrue, the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the racial wealth gap in America over the last fifty years has not only persisted, it has worsened -- in large part because, African Americans, going back generations, have had little opportunity to build and pass on wealth. Sugrue's latest book is Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race. The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

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Billboard_soup_lineIn 1973, my parents sold their modest house on Detroit's West Side to Roosevelt Smith, a Vietnam War veteran and an assembly-line worker at Ford, and his wife, Virginia (not their real names). For the Smiths -- African Americans and native Mississippians -- the neighborhood was an appealing place to raise their two young children, and the price was within their means: $17,500. The neighborhood's three-bedroom colonials and Tudors, mostly built between the mid-1920s and the late '40s, were well maintained, the streets quiet and lined with stately trees. Nearby was a movie theater, a good grocery store, a local department store, and a decent shopping district. Like many first-time home buyers, the Smiths had every reason to expect that their house would be an appreciating investment.

For their part, my parents moved to a rapidly growing suburb that would soon be incorporated as Farmington Hills. Their new house, on a quiet, curvilinear street, was a significant step up from the Detroit place. It had four bedrooms, a two-car attached garage, and a large yard. It cost them $43,000. Within a few years, they had added a family room and expanded the small rear patio. Their subdivision, like most in Farmington Hills, was carefully zoned. The public schools were modern and well funded, with substantial revenues from the town's mostly middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers. All of the creature comforts of the good suburban life were close at hand: shopping malls, swim clubs, movie theaters, good restaurants.

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Emmett and Trayvon: How Racial Prejudice Has Changed in the Last 60 Years

July 19, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part seriess, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the second installment of that series (click here for the first, "America's Twentieth-Century Slavery," by Douglas A. Blackmon), Elijah Anderson, the William K. Lanman Jr. Professor of Sociology at Yale University, explores how racial prejudice in America has changed in the sixty years since fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, visiting relatives in Mississippi, was brutally beaten and possibly shot by a group of men, who later dumped his body in a nearby river, because he had flirted with the daughter of a local storeowner. Anderson's latest book is The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

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Headshot_elijiah_andersonSeparated by a thousand miles, two state borders, and nearly six decades, two young African American boys met tragic fates that seem remarkably similar today: both walked into a small market to buy some candy; both ended up dead.

The first boy is Emmett Till, who was fourteen years old in the summer of 1955 when he walked into a local grocery store in Money, Mississippi, to buy gum. He was later roused from bed, beaten brutally, and possibly shot by a group of white men who later dumped his body in a nearby river. They claimed he had stepped out of his place by flirting with a young white woman, the wife of the store's owner. The second boy is Trayvon Martin, who was seventeen years old late last winter when he walked into a 7-Eleven near a gated community in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles and an iced tea. He was later shot to death at close range by a mixed-race man, who claimed Martin had behaved suspiciously and seemed out of place. The deaths of both boys galvanized the nation, drew sympathy and disbelief across racial lines, and, through the popular media, prompted a reexamination of race relations.

In the aftermath of Martin's death last February, a handful of reporters and columnists, and many members of the general public, made the obvious comparison: Trayvon Martin, it seemed, was the Emmett Till of our times. And while that comparison has some merit -- the boys' deaths are similar both in some of their details and in their tragic outcome -- these killings must also be understood as the result of very different strains of racial tension in America. The racism that led to Till's death was embedded in a virulent ideology of white racial superiority born out of slavery and the Jim Crow codes, particularly in the Deep South. That sort of racism hinges on the idea that blacks are an inherently inferior race, a morally null group that deserves both the subjugation and poverty it gets.

The racial prejudice that led to Trayvon Martin's death is different. While it, too, was born of America's painful legacy of slavery and segregation, and informed by those old concepts of racial order -- that blacks have their "place" in society -- it in addition reflects the urban iconography of today's racial inequality, namely the black ghetto, a uniquely urban American creation. Strikingly, this segregation of the black community coexists with an ongoing racial incorporation process that has produced the largest black middle class in history, and that reflects the extraordinary social progress this country has made since the 1960s. The civil rights movement paved the way for blacks and other people of color to access public and professional opportunities and spaces that would have been unimaginable in Till's time.

While the sort of racism that led to Till's death still exists in society today, Americans in general have a much more nuanced, more textured attitude toward race than anything we've seen before, and usually that attitude does not manifest in overtly hateful, exclusionary, or violent acts. Instead, it manifests in pervasive mindsets and stereotypes that all black people start from the inner-city ghetto and are therefore stigmatized by their association with its putative amorality, danger, crime, and poverty. Hence, in public a black person is burdened with a negative presumption that he or she must disprove before being able to establish mutually trusting relationships with others.

Most consequentially, black skin when seen in public, and its association with the ghetto, translates into a deficit of credibility as black skin is conflated with lower-class status. Such attitudes impact poor blacks of the ghetto one way and middle-class black people another. While middle-class blacks may be able to successfully overcome the negative presumptions of others, lower-class blacks may not. For instance, all blacks, particularly "ghetto-looking" young men, are at risk of enduring yet another "stop and frisk" from the police as well as discrimination from potential employers, shopkeepers, and strangers on the street. Members of the black middle class and black professionals may ultimately pass inspection and withstand such scrutiny; many poorer blacks cannot. And many blacks who have never stepped foot in a ghetto must repeatedly prove themselves as non-ghetto, often operating in a provisional status (with something more to prove), in the workplace or, say, a fancy restaurant, until they can convince others -- either by speaking "white" English or by demonstrating intelligence, poise, or manners -- that they are to be trusted, that they are not "one of those" blacks from the ghetto, and that they deserve respect. In other words, a middle-class black man who is, for instance, waiting in line for an ATM at night will in many cases be treated with a level of suspicion that a middle-class white man simply does not experience.

But this pervasive cultural association -- black skin equals the ghetto -- does not come out of the blue. After all, as a result of historical, political, and economic factors, blacks have been contained in the ghetto. Today, with persistent housing discrimination and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, America's ghettos face structural poverty. In addition, crime and homicide rates within those communities are high, young black men are typically the ones killing one another, and ghetto culture, made iconic by artists like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, and the Notorious B.I.G., is inextricably intertwined with blackness.

As a result, in America's collective imagination the ghetto is a dangerous, scary part of the city. It's where rap comes from, where drugs are sold, where hoodlums rule, and where The Wire might have been filmed. Above all, to many white Americans the ghetto is where "the black people live,” and thus, as the misguided logic follows, all black people live in the ghetto. It's that pervasive, if accidental, fallacy that's at the root of the wider society's perceptions of black people today. While it may be true that everyone who lives in a certain ghetto is black, it is patently untrue that everyone who is black lives in a ghetto. Regardless, black people of all classes, including those born and raised far from the inner cities and those who've never been in a ghetto, are by virtue of skin color alone stigmatized by the place.

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America's Twentieth-Century Slavery

July 13, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic will publish an eleven-part series of stories, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

The first installment in that series, "America's Twentieth-Century Slavery," by Douglas A. Blackmon, tells the shameful story of how hundreds of thousands of freed slaves and their descendants were forced into bondage in the decades after the Civil War. Blackmon, a journalist, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

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Slavery-another-nameOn July 31, 1903, a letter addressed to President Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the White House. It had been mailed from the town of Bainbridge, Georgia, the prosperous seat of a cotton county perched on the Florida state line.

The sender was a barely literate African American woman named Carrie Kinsey. With little punctuation and few capital letters, she penned the bare facts of the abduction of her fourteen-year-old brother, James Robinson, who a year earlier had been sold into involuntary servitude.

Kinsey had already asked for help from the powerful white people in her world. She knew where her brother had been taken -- a vast plantation not far away called Kinderlou. There, hundreds of black men and boys were held in chains and forced to labor in the fields or in one of several factories owned by the McRee family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Georgia. No white official in this corner of the state would take an interest in the abduction and enslavement of a black teenager.

Confronted with a world of indifferent white people, Mrs. Kinsey did the only remaining thing she could think of. Newspapers across the country had recently reported on a speech by Roosevelt promising a "square deal" for black Americans. Mrs. Kinsey decided that her only remaining hope was to beg the president of the United States to help her brother.

"Mr. Prassident," she wrote. "They wont let me have him....He hase not don nothing for them to have him in chanes so I rite to you for your help."

Considered more than a century later, her letter courses with desperation and submerged outrage. Yet when received at the White House, it was slipped into a small rectangular folder and forwarded to the Department of Justice. There, it was tagged with a reference number, 12007, and filed away. Teddy Roosevelt never saw it. No action was taken. Her words lie still at the National Archives just outside Washington, D.C.

As dumbfounding as the story told by the Carrie Kinsey letter is, far more remarkable is what surrounds that letter at the National Archives. In the same box that holds her grief-stricken missive are at least half a dozen other pieces of correspondence recounting other stories of kidnapping, perversion of the courts, or human trafficking -- as horrifying as, or worse than, Carrie Kinsey's tale. It is the same in the next box on the shelf. And the one before. And the ones on either side of those. And the next and the next. And on and on. Thousands and thousands of plaintive letters and grimly bureaucratic responses -- altogether at least 30,000 pages of original material -- chronicle cases of forced labor and involuntary servitude in the South decades after the end of the Civil War.

"i have a little girl that has been kidnapped from me...and i cant get her out,” wrote Reverend L. R. Farmer, pastor of a black Baptist church in Morganton, North Carolina. "i want ask you is it law for people to whip (col) people and keep them and not allow them to leave without a pass."

A farmer near Pine Apple, Alabama, named J. R. Adams, writing of terrible abuses by the dominant landowning family in the county, was one of the astonishingly few white southerners who also complained to the Department of Justice. "They have held negroes...for years," Adams wrote. "It is a very rare thing that a negro escapes."

A similar body of material rests in the files of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the one institution that undertook any sustained effort to address at least the most terrible cases. Dwarfing everything at those repositories are the still largely unexamined collections of local records in courthouses across the South. In dank basements, abandoned buildings, and local archives, seemingly endless numbers of files contain hundreds of thousands of handwritten entries documenting in monotonous granularity the details of an immense, metastasizing horror that stretched well into the twentieth century....

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