The Casual Blog

Tag: The New Jim Crow

Taking down some more Confederate monuments, and learning some important history

Looking across the N.C. Capitol grounds to the former site of the tall Confederate memorial obelisk

The big Confederate monument on the west side of the Capitol in Raleigh came down last week.  I didn’t learn the news until I walked over there for my morning constitutional.  Where there once was a 75-foot-tall obelisk, there was just a pile of rubble, which workers were cleaning up with a backhoe.  

People think of these monuments as part of history, which they are, in a way, but not the way most people think.  The big Confederate obelisk was dedicated in 1895.  Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, during the 12-year Reconstruction period, there were meaningful efforts to recognize equal rights for formerly enslaved people, but after that, white supremacy was reinstituted in the new form known as Jim Crow.  Most of the Confederate monuments in N.C. and elsewhere date from the Jim Crow period, and carry the coded message that the Lost Cause was noble, and white supremacy was still triumphant, so black people had better know their place, or else.   

It truly is historic that these monuments are coming down, but I’m sorry that they’re coming down so quietly.  There were apparently thousands of  people cheering when the Confederate obelisk was dedicated, and probably a lot who would have liked to cheer as it came down. 

Unfortunately, the Republican North Carolina legislature passed a  law in 2015 following the mass murder of black people by Dylann Roof forbidding the removal of such state owned monuments.  What were our Republican leaders trying to express, I wonder?  Let’s hope it wasn’t support for white racist terrorism, which would not be unprecedented in North Carolina.  Many of those Republicans are still in power, so let’s ask them.  

Recently Governor Cooper issued a decree authorizing removal of the Confederate monuments at the Capitol, which he characterized as an emergency measure.  The Governor’s reasoning was debatable, but close enough for government work.  I’d been a little worried that well-meaning protesters would try to pull down the big obelisk and accidentally crush somebody. Happily, the government workers got the monuments down without anyone getting hurt.

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I took a walk through the Oakwood Cemetery, including the Confederate section.  It’s a quiet, lovely place, with old oak trees and gently rolling pastures.  There are several stone memorials praising the valor of the Confederate soldiers and the nobility of the Lost Cause.  

As for the soldiers, I’d guess there were some brave ones, and others who were flat out terrified.  As in every war, most of them were just followers, doing what they were told to do.  We can  feel compassion for them as humans and feel sorry that their lives were cut short without thinking their cause was noble.  Praising the Lost Cause (described as “Glorious” on a bench in the stone chapel shown below) is another matter.  That’s morally derelict.

Speaking of monuments, there was an outstanding essay by Caroline Randall Williams in the NY Times  titled You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is Confederate Monument.  Williams sets out in stark terms something we don’t much like to think about:  that the brutality of slave labor camps included a lot of rape of black women by white men.  From this racist violence, children of mixed race were begotten, as shown by the many variations in skin tones we now call black.  The evidence has been everywhere for all our lives, and we somehow managed not to notice.  The good news is, now we’re recognizing it was shamefully wrong, and starting to see the need for reparations.  

I also recommend a new essay by Isabel Wilkerson titled America’s Enduring Caste System.  Wilkerson  draws an interesting distinction between race and caste which explains how one can have no particular racial animus and yet still accept the caste system that subordinates people of color.  

As Wilkerson explains, our caste system is not explicit, but it is deep seated and powerful.  We understand it unconsciously, just as we understand our mother tongue, and it guides how we think about hierarchy and rights.  As it has traditionally operated, our caste system decrees that people of color should live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, have lower status jobs, and be regarded with suspicion.  This is, of course, an artificial creation with its roots in the racism that was used to justify slavery.  It is not immutable.  When we look at it more closely, we start to see we can dismantle it.  

I once thought I knew a fair bit about the history of slavery, but I’m finding there’s still a lot to learn.  Last weekend Sally and I watched 13th, a documentary on Netflix about America’s still on-going program of mass incarceration of black people.  It’s really excellent.  The subject is multi-dimensional, but the director, Ava DuVernay did a brilliant job of boiling it down.  Michelle Alexander, who wrote the essential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, appears in the film, and contributes more here to our understanding.

I also want to give a shout out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her new piece on reparations.  Just as in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project work, she brings new aspects of the white supremacist system to light.  In the new essay, she points up that giving enslaved people their freedom and ignoring their poverty and other needs was a brutal way of handling the situation, and it cost many lives.  The continuation of white supremacy after the Civil War ensured that the descendents of enslaved people would remain second class citizens, poor and easily exploited. 

H-J notes that the coronovirus pandemic has taught us some surprising lessons, one being that we can come up with $2 trillion dollars to address economic problems without breaking a sweat.  She makes a compelling argument that now is a great time to finally acknowledge the immensity of the wrong done to kidnapped Africans and their descendents, and take a meaningful financial step toward righting that wrong.  I’ll conclude by quoting the last two paragraphs of her piece:  

Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.

It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.

 

Views of the big anti-racism protests, and getting close to some bears

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A black bear last week in eastern North Carolina

It’s been almost two weeks since the first peaceful protests in downtown Raleigh, followed by not-so-peaceful protests, vandalism, and looting.  In our city and many others, people gathered in the streets in opposition to police killings of unarmed Black men.  The crowds shouted in unison, Black lives matter! And No justice, no peace!  

Late in the night, some of the demonstrators started throwing bricks through the big plate glass windows and grabbing the cash registers and goods from the shops.  There were some small fires.  It looked like our city could be in big trouble.  

The protests were not far from where we lived.  Our building’s management boarded up the ground-level windows the next day, and a lot of area merchants and residences did likewise.  But it seems like the demonstrators had second thoughts about the destruction.  The protests continued the next day, with marchers with signs, shouting, and drumming, but without the vandalism and looting.    

There have been thousands of people here and around the world peacefully protesting police violence and other anti-Black discrimination.  It’s not surprising that Black people are protesting.  They’ve lived with these problems and related ones for a long time.  It’s good that they’ve found the courage and purpose to organize, and good that non-Black people are joining in.  The movement is helping white people to see the reality of our caste system that subordinates and oppresses Black people.  

Our racist system, and the background folk ideology that sustains it, took a long time to construct, and it will take time to deconstruct.  But it feels like we may be moving in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll keep moving that way.  

What to say about vandalism and looting?  Obviously, it’s not as bad as the police violence and killing of innocent Black people.  Some of the vandalism likely comes out of anger, with inadequate legal outlets for that anger.  In many places, Black voting has been suppressed, so ordinary political expression is not available, and other methods of communicating are too expensive.  I can understand why anger and frustration make throwing a brick through a plate glass window seem like the only available way of getting attention.  And breaking glass and lighting fires certainly does get the attention of the power structure and the media.  

The problem is that property damage and theft also align with the traditional racist narrative that Black people are dangerous and must be controlled, with violence if necessary.  Property destruction is an understandable emotional outlet, but it is ambiguous as communication.  It creates a space for new police violence and disruption of lives by the criminal justice system.  Also, looting may just be a way to get things without paying for them, which is nothing to be proud about.

So, my recommendation is to stop breaking glass and looting, but keep shouting for change.  I really admire the courage of the protesters.  I took on board the message that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous and requires that we not get too close together, and as far as I know that’s still true, so I haven’t been marching.  Also, I’m fearful of getting tear gassed and clubbed by police.  There have been a few stories of police expressing compassion, but a lot more about brutal police attacks on non-violent protesters.  

That’s something else that needs to change.  I feel concern for the police, who in the best of times have a tough, dangerous job.  There are probably many police officers who resist and oppose anti-Black racism, but there are clearly some who don’t.  Police violence against Black people is endemic.  It has to stop. 

There was a heartening essay  in the Washington Post today by Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah.  He noted that police training fosters a mind set of being a warrior, with citizens as the enemy.  He described his own experiment with a different approach to policing.  The key idea was to approach the people in the community he served as neighbors, and try to help his neighbors.  In his experience, it lowered the risk of violence and increased the possibilities for peaceful resolutions.  It sounded like a great idea!

But as I say, this is a good time for non-Black people to learn more about the Black experience and our caste system.  I was pleased to see that three books I found really helpful on this subject are near the top of the New York Times Best Seller list:  White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram Kendi, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  I continue to recommend them.   

I got to spend some time last week in eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosin Lakes Refuge.  I was there as part of a wildlife photography trip led by master photographer Mark Buckler.  This area is said to have the largest concentration of black bears on the planet, and we were hoping to see bears.  

There were a lot of them.  We saw mothers with cubs, frolicking yearlings, and males courting females.  We saw bears of various ages walking, running, eating, playing, and resting.   A couple of the bears looked like they had been injured, but most seemed to be well fed and healthy.  It was moving to be with these beautiful and resourceful creatures.   

 From what I learned, the popular myth that bears are normally fierce and apt to attack humans is way off the mark.  They are normally wary of humans and busy with their own concerns.  They are, of course, wild animals, wary and not entirely predictable, and they are definitely capable of attacking humans who threaten them.  

But we saw no aggressive behavior.  Some of the bears we saw were shy and kept a good distance, but a few let us get pretty close and stay for quite a while.  Of course, we kept a sharp eye and ear out for signals of discontent, like grunting, growling, or slapping the ground, and frequently updated our possible exit strategies. 

There were also some less beautiful creatures, including opossums and biting insects that left me with some extremely miserable itching wounds on my legs.  Some of these seemed to be chiggers.  But there were different looks to the wounds:  some bites became blisters, some became hard, and other were oozy.  Wonder if they bite bears?

Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily.  This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.  At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.

A towhee

At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull.  After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts.  I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.

A Bonaparte’s gull that looked a lot like a black-headed gull

For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app.  I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.

I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend.  Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the  war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. 

This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.    

An osprey at Jordan Lake

There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points.    though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.  

Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person.  The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book.  The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.  

Juvenile bald eagle

 When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a  symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted.  We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us.  It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.