Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My July 5 Speech Before Democracy for America - Dallas

As I make this speech, I try to imagine how my daughter sees the world. By a strange set of circumstances, I simultaneously became the father of a 17-year-old girl and a newborn boy. That’s less dramatic than it sounds. Lacey was a student of my wife Samantha’s, a beautiful, smart, creative coil of energy who began living with us three years ago, around the time my son Dominic was born. Lacey began calling us “mom” and “dad” and we started thinking of her as our daughter. Dominic has always known her as his loving sister.

Lacey happens to be an African American. This isn’t something Sam and I have to think of very often. Lacey, however, at times is made to feel self-conscious about her blackness. This happened recently when she and Dominic made a trip to a local grocery store. Lacey told me that, while she and Dominic laughed and played in the check-out line, a middle-aged white women turned to her and began to glower at both of them. Lacey said she didn’t know what the woman’s issue was, so she looked the other way.

After making her purchase, Lacey took Dominic over to a game near the entry of the store, one of those machines resembling a crane that lifts little gifts and drops them into a slot for excited preschoolers. Lacey said the angry white woman passed by them again and made a point of glowering once more. Lacey deeply felt the hostility this time. The stranger’s gaze said, “What are you doing with that white baby, black woman?”

In Dominic’s three-year-old mind, there is no racism, sexism, or homophobia. He knows only two kinds of people: those he knows and who love him and those who don’t. Color is completely irrelevant. The nasty staring woman, however, seemingly lives in a world in which color is everything and pre-determines social relationships. For that ugly soul, love can’t survive a crossing of the color line.

What accounts for the difference in worldview between the angry white woman and Dominic? George Will thinks he has an answer. Is everyone here familiar with George Will, the Newsweek columnist and ABC Sunday morning talk show nag? Will could suffer a stroke and be paralyzed from the eyebrows down and still be condescending. That’s quite a talent. To Will, prejudice is a product of mere happenstance. Nothing institutional supports racism and nothing in American culture feeds it.

Like other conservatives, Will is uncomfortable talking about race. He wants his readers to believe that America functions best when the government is kept at bay regarding economic and social issues. He’s left, however, with the uncomfortable fact that African Americans have not benefited from conservative economic policies under President Reagan and both Bush regimes. The continued black gap in income, housing, health care, educational opportunities, and even life spans, seems to repudiate the conservative theology that if businesses are left to largely mind themselves, a rising tide will raise even the African American boat.

This, of course, ignores the fact that some boats are yachts and some are rafts springing leaks. With classic Reaganomics and its Bushonomics successor failing black America, men like Will are left with no explanation other than to blame blacks themselves for the inequality they suffer. The fault lay, conservatives must argue, in either black racial or cultural deficiency.

Such a perspective edges uncomfortably close to explicit white supremacist thinking. This is where the handful of black conservatives such as Shelby Steele play such a critical role in right-wing propaganda. Perhaps five African Americans in the country are actually Republicans, but the GOP’s friends in the mainstream media make sure each of them get plenty of ink and lots of airtime.

Steele, Armstrong Williams, and their like disguise the GOP’s iron-clad alliance with white backlash voters and seem more legitimate as they praise white folks for supposed inexhaustible generosity (thank you for enslaving us and getting us out of backwards, violent Africa) and excoriate their fellow African Americans for supposedly being too lazy, too promiscuous and too criminal to make it in America. George Will celebrates such blackface conservatism in a June 5, 2006, Newsweek column “White Guilt, Deciphered.” As Will puts it:

The unbearable boredom occasioned by most of today's talk about race is alleviated by a slender, stunning new book. In "White Guilt," Shelby Steele, America's most discerning black writer, casts a cool eye on yet another soft bigotry of low expectations—the ruinous "compassion" of a theory of social determinism that reduces blacks to, in Steele's word, "non-individuated" creatures.

That reduction is the basis of identity politics—you are your (racial, ethnic, sexual) group. A pioneer of this politics, which is now considered "progressive," was, Steele says, George Wallace. He, too, insisted that race is destiny.
The dehumanizing denial that blacks have sovereignty over their lives became national policy in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson said: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others." This, Steele writes, enunciated a new social morality: No black problem could be defined as largely a black responsibility. If you were black, you could not be expected to carry responsibilities equal to others.

I am sorry that Mr. Will finds race relations in America -- a tale involving kidnapping, enslavement, lynching, torture, the Ku Klux Klan, riots, and Hitlerian theories of human evolution, as well as heroic resistance, artistic resilience, and the life stories of moral and intellectual giants like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer -- unbearably boring. It must be baseball season.

But honestly, George Will is not normally this stupid. Even he can see that segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s views on race were not identical to that of Lyndon Johnson, the guiding force behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Johnson quote Will uses does not show that the late president thought race was destiny. Johnson simply observed that people are shaped by history. In other columns, Will conceded that the Civil War deeply shaped the modern United States politics. Yet somehow he believes that the Civil War’s central characters, African Americans, exist in a bubble untouched by larger historical events.

It gets worse. Citing Steele’s book as unalloyed truth, Will continues:

"By the mid-sixties," Steele writes, "white guilt was eliciting an entirely new kind of black leadership, not selfless men like [Martin Luther] King who appealed to the nation's moral character but smaller men, bargainers, bluffers and haranguers—not moralists but specialists in moral indignation—who could set up a trade with white guilt." The big invention by these small men was what Steele calls "globalized racism." That idea presumes that "racism is not so much an event in black lives as a condition of black life," a product of "impersonal" and "structural" forces. The very invisibility of those forces proved their sinister pervasiveness.

The theory of "structural" or "institutional" racism postulates a social determinism that makes all whites and American institutions complicit in a vicious cultural pattern. The theory makes the absence of identifiable adverse events in the lives of individual blacks irrelevant to blacks' claims to victimhood. Victim status is a source of endless, sometimes lucrative and always guilt-free leverage over a guilt-ridden society."

Will, fortunately, does not quote the entire Steele book, but we are never told the identity of these “smaller men, bargainers, bluffers and haranguers.” Logicians call this a straw-man argument. I do hope I meet Will one day so he can reveal the identity of these black people are who have experienced an “absence of identifiable adverse events.” U.S. Census, educational and health data show African Americans with much higher rates of disease, poverty and early mortality. Perhaps Will’s black friend Shelby Steele has had an easy time of it and this has distorted the bespectacled columnist’s perspective. But can Will seriously argue that there is no such thing as institutional racism?

As I recall, Will likes to occasionally pretend he’s an average guy by writing ad nauseum about Major League Baseball. Perhaps Will has forgotten the existence in the early and mid-twentieth century of the Negro Baseball League, created because African American players were barred from the National and the American Leagues not because of their talent but because of their race. Do Will and Steele believe this creation of racially separate baseball leagues happened because of the individual intolerance of white fans, players, concessionaries and owners, or because the rich white guys who ran the teams decided they wanted their All-American game all white? If the later, that would, by definition, represent institutional racism.

Denying the existence of institutional racism has the advantage for conservatives in that it leaves the larger society with no collective responsibility for addressing African Americans’ problems. Human nature being perverse, the government can do nothing to insure each citizen plays nice and has an open mind. For conservatives, this mitigates Will’s hated “white guilt” and, as a side benefit, undermines any government expense in bridging the economic gap between blacks and whites.

It’s not too difficult to demonstrate the existence of institutional racism. Take schools, for instance. My research leads me to believe that a young man, Jerrold Ladd, had a more typical experience growing up black than did Shelby Steele. Ladd learned racial boundaries long before the young African American entered a white Dallas elementary school in the late 1970s. The Trinity River, Ladd writes in his 1994 autobiography Out of the Madness: From the Projects to a Life of Hope, formed a racial barrier “as distinct as the Berlin Wall . . . a boundary between the projects [on the west side of the Trinity] and north Dallas, the white side of town.”

Ladd crossed the physical boundaries of this neighborhood after being transferred from George Washington Carver Elementary School to John J. Pershing in 1978. Every day, Ladd was bussed across a bridge to a school “surrounded by forested lots and . . . castle homes.” Ladd never lost his amazement at the size of the white neighborhood homes. “I could not believe that only one family would occupy one of these large houses,” he notes. Stepping onto the school grounds, Ladd discovered that racial boundaries were both physical and psychological constructs. “ . . . [B]lacks and the whites avoided one another as if the opposite had smallpox . . . I didn’t want to be here, among all these strange people . . .”

Ladd believed he had no agency in his own life. One of his uncles told him he would only get as far as the white men let him. “He was right because none of us had any proof to the contrary,” Ladd writes.
“ . . . No one had ever told me I was capable of being a genius, building a city, pioneering new medicine, becoming an engineer. . . .” Looking back, Ladd believed the schools and the popular culture had emptied his soul of content and rendered him unable to dream of a better future.

Racism, for Ladd, became his central experience in Dallas schools. Ladd’s experience with Dallas education is particularly ironic, given the deep hopes with which the city’s black community greeted the opening of Freedmen’s Bureau schools in the 1860s. To fully appreciate the central role black schools played in the formation of the African American community in early twentieth century Dallas, it is necessary to consider the hope many blacks held for education, especially in the immediate aftermath of emancipation.

After the Civil War, African Americans hoped whites could see the logic in allowing educated blacks to participate in civic life. Many African Americans saw schools as a gateway to something more than the merely symbolic freedom attained during Reconstruction. "The free people are aroused to the possibility of educating their children," William H. Horton, the Sub-Assistant Commissioner for the Freedmen's Bureau in Dallas, wrote just two years after Emancipation. Unfortunately, Dallas whites would not financially support black schools. Some whites threatened violence to prevent blacks from receiving education.

White animus towards black schools stemmed in part, as Horton observed, because the "majority of people here scoff at the idea of a Negro being susceptible to receiving an education, that the . . . black can not be taught to read and write, &c." Former slaves pooled their meager financial resources to help fund the schools but the withdrawal of federal financial support, even to pay teachers, undermined the effort. Whites likely also feared that an educated black population would grow even more restive about poor working conditions and would demand that their civil rights be respected. Such schools might be inciters of rebellion. "The whites are not disposed to help them," Horton wrote in the late 1860s. "At Lancaster . . . the people said they will break up any freed school that may be started there.”

Former slaves pooled their meager resources to pay teachers, but the withdrawal of federal financial support for freedmen's schools undermined the effort. M.L. Cappell, a widow raising a child on her own, arrived in Dallas in 1867 but soon learned of an order from the Superintendent of Freedmen's schools that teacher's salaries would be suspended only when she read about the new policy in the newspaper. The lack of salary meant she would have to abandon her students.

“[M]ost of the Freedmen . . . whose children I taught are very poor and unless they receive assistance from the government or some other source I don't think it will be possible for them to keep up a school," Capell wrote to the Freedman's Bureau. "If I was in a situation to do so I would devote all my time for the next twelve months gratis to the education of the blacks; but I am a widow and a very poor one at that and I have myself and child to take care of and am therefore compelled to charge in order to sustain myself." Horton kept a Freedmen's Bureau school open for two months but was forced to close it due to lack of funds. "The Freedpeople," Horton observed ". . . really are too poor to help themselves." Public education would not be available for Dallas’s African Americans for another 16 years.

The city's first public school opened its doors in 1883, with Colored School No. 1 following suit the next year. By 1890, black students attended seven elementary schools. The Dallas Colored High School opened in 1892 (and was renamed Booker T. Washington High in 1922). In the early 20th century, the black school year lasted only 60 days a year, compared to 100 a year for white students. Black schools had no libraries, and minimal playground space and equipment. Dallas spent $51 per white student on facilities compared to only $22 per black student. By the 1930s, Booker T. Washington High School held 1,664 students on a campus meant to hold only 600. White school leaders saw the role of segregated black schools as preparing students for low-wage manual labor. In spite of Jim Crow-imposed limitations, men like Principal John Leslie Patton believed they had a much broader mission. Such educators saw black schools as political incubators that would prepare young blacks to battle the assumptions of whiteness.

Patton taught and served as principal at Booker T. Washington High for 39 years. He attended Dallas' segregated schools as a child before earning a degree at Prairie View College, northwest of Houston and pursuing post-graduate education at New York University. Patton returned to Dallas to teach at J.P. Starks Elementary for $72.50 a month. Patton quit after a year because he could earn more as a Pullman porter, but his parents insisted he resume his classroom role because he had a duty to his people — "the kind of duty St. Paul felt," as Patton put it. When Patton rose to the position of principal at Booker T. Washington High, he opened night classes to educate older African Americans. Black students could shape the future, he believed, if they were conscious of their past and their obligation to the larger black community and for that he created what he called a “Negro History” course that drew heavily on the writings of major black intellectuals such as W.E.B Du Bois. "It's difficult for a people to tell where they're going unless they know where they've been," he said in a newspaper interview in the early 1960s.

Patton taught his students that they must insist on full equality. "You can't teach [white and black] children out of the same books and expect them not to want the same things," he told a reporter. He proclaimed in his Negro History classes that "the Negro has formed an integral part of American civilization . . ." As opposed to white schools, at Booker T. Washington High the history of Egypt, "the cradle of civilization" was taught as part of "Negro" history. "Africa, the Mother country . . . is often called the Dark Continent; but this is a misnomer, for Africa gave to civilization the smelting of iron, stringed instruments, trial by jury, etc.," Patton's curriculum guide for the course declared. Patton saw his goal as a teacher to "awaken a proper social consciousness and pride in the developments and achievements which the Negro has made . . ."

Ironically, segregated schools became bedrock of community building. While teaching at Booker T. Washington High School, Brewer and Patton gave history back to their black students, exposing them to the achievements of Africans and of African Americans. If the existence of separate and unequal, crowded, under-funded and under-supplied Jim Crow schools were designed to send a message of black inferiority, Brewer and Patton exploited the opportunity provided by segregation to create a positive image of blackness unmediated by a racist white power structure.

This type of community building would be sacrificed at the advent of desegregation. On September 6, 1961, Dallas implemented a so-called stair-step integration plan involving only a grade at time, thus possibly dragging out full integration until the mid-1970s. On the first school day of the 1961-62 term only 18 black elementary school children — attended by an escort of police and school officials — were enrolled at eight previously all-white campuses in the district. By decade's end, only 57 of 177 campuses were deemed integrated. By the end of the 1969-1970 school year, 113 campuses were still all white.

By the time Jerrod Ladd attended Dallas schools, white students in the city had been fed a steady diet of white supremacist thought for seven decades. This curricular racism did not fade as black students took seats alongside whites in the 1960s and the 1970s. Throughout the twentieth century, Dallas school textbooks consistently denied the past achievements of African civilizations. The 1927 textbook World History in the Making was typical, noting in its introduction that, “[n]o account is given of the black races of Africa and Australia, of the brown races of southeastern Asia and the Pacific Islands, or of the red races of America; because the elements of culture among these people have rarely influenced modern civilization.”
Racial oppression was a duty thrust upon the white race, according to the 1935 textbook World History. In the introduction to Part XI of the text, entitled “The White Man’s Burden,” the authors declare:

“The European white man has taught, and if need be, has compelled his yellow and black and brown brothers to adopt the ways of the Europeans . . . Truly it is a burden, and a heavy one, to lead hundreds of millions of strangers into the paths of European civilization and progress.”

African Americans were the largest non-white group in Dallas, but they were the most rarely mentioned in school texts. Blacks were depicted as ignorant, shiftless and unable to act on their own volition. The one time they appear as historical actors, during Reconstruction, they are portrayed as unschooled puppets manipulated by unscrupulous carpetbaggers. In this discourse, the newly freed slaves were ill-prepared to be citizens in a democracy and, by implication, still were in the twentieth century. Portrayed as illiterate and needing the discipline of slavery to work, the black workers are blamed by textbook writers as leading the South to economic ruin after the war. Given the vote, former slaves sent their ignorant peers to Southern state houses along with Northern “carpetbaggers” interested only in profiting from the economic and political chaos. Corruption was rampant, the texts claim, until “home rule” was reinstalled by white Southerners and the Negro put back in his proper place.

One textbook writer used by the Dallas school district, David Saville Muzzey, describes Reconstruction as a “crime” and his sentiments are echoed by other textbook writers, who portray the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as Southern self-defense. “The only way to combat congressional legislation was with violence when other methods failed,” James Truslow Adams and Charles Garrett Vannest write. Muzzey admits grudgingly that some Klansmen may have been excessive in their techniques. “Deprived by force of any legal means of defense against this iniquitous kind of government, the South resorted to intimidation and persecution of the negro,” he writes. “ . . . Inevitably there was violence done in this reign of terror inaugurated by the Ku-Klux. Negroes were beaten and scalawags shot. Of course these deeds of violence were greatly exaggerated by the carpetbag officials . . .”

Dallas history teachers would have had to look no further than local archives to reveal that this view of Reconstruction not only reeked of racism, but suffered the additional handicap of being completely false. Reconstruction in Dallas, and the rest of the South, did not represent an era of so-called “negro rule” imposed on Dixie by ruthless Yankees bent on exploiting ignorant black voters. In Dallas, for instance, Reconstruction leaders had established deep roots in the city. A. Bledsoe, an immigrant from Kentucky, had been an outspoken Unionist in Dallas County before the Civil War. The Reconstruction-era mayor, Ben Long, arrived in 1855 as a Swiss immigrant, part of the anti-slavery, utopian socialist La Reunion colony near Dallas. Appointed as mayor by Horton during Reconstruction, Long would win the office once again, after the withdrawal of federal troops, in an 1872 popular election. A.J. Gouffe, a French immigrant, arrived in Dallas in the 1850s, and held stock in the Dallas Iron Bridge Company. Rather than exploitative drifters with little long-term interest in the city's success, these prosperous middle class men remained entwined in the city's power structure after Reconstruction ended, though perhaps as a contrary minority.

Contrary to what Dallas schools taught, the violence represented by the post-Civil War Klan did not represent heroic political resistance to a corrupt, undemocratic government, but criminal thuggery at its worst. The death rate for blacks during the years between 1865-1868 was 3.5 percent higher than modern-day Dallas, Houston and New York City. Whites between 1865-68 murdered about 1 percent of black males between the ages of 15-49, according to historian Barry Crouch. In Bosque County, Texas during Reconstruction, for instance, three prominent citizens were implicated in the castration of a young boy. Also in Bosque County, in the fall of 1866, a boy was whipped to death and a 7-year-old girl, Dolla Jackson, was sexually assaulted and robbed of 25 cents. Whites attacked Jo Brooks, a Limestone County freewoman, cutting her ears off and burning off her limbs with no apparent provocation. Such incidents numbered in the hundreds across the state.

All this Reconstruction-era violence had aimed to terrorize African Americans into quietly surrendering their newly-won citizenship. The lies about Reconstruction told by Dallas schools in the next century also aimed at disempowering black students and to justify racial discrimination in the minds of their impressionable white peers. Textbooks taught white children to fear African Americans as violent and unpredictable and to view their black peers as congenitally unfit for participation in self-government.

Even as the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s rolled back Jim Crow, and as African Americans first entered nominally integrated campuses, the racism embedded in the Dallas school curriculum varied little from what was offered in the 1920s. One textbook from the 1960s, The World Today: Its Patterns and Cultures, declared that “Negro” Africa south of the Sahara was a wasteland of civilization, empty of achievement and glory. “With only two minor exceptions, no African tribe ever developed a system of writing,” the authors stated. “Nor did Africans build substantial monuments such as the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians did.” The writers apparently forget that Egyptians are Africans.

Throughout the text, Egypt and the whole of “Arab” North Africa are acknowledged as having created significant civilizations, but this sub-region is excised from the rest of the continent in the textbook’s maps. On a map on page 405 of The World Today, Egypt is included as a part of the “Middle East,” but “Africa” is identified as the part of the continent south of the Sahara on a map on page 541. A heavy black borderline is drawn separating “civilized” North Africa from the “uncivilized” south on these maps. This constructed borderland, known as the “Middle East,” thus robs Africans from ownership of some of the continents’ greatest triumphs.

Long after his days in public school, Ladd learned to reclaim the land of the pharaohs as part of the African past. Exploring Nation of Islam ideology, Ladd delved into an Afrocentrist version of the past which valorized black achievement and independence from white hegemony. This counter-myth would remove him, in Ladd’s words, from the “madness” of Eurocentrism. This erasure of the African past in Dallas school books resulted in an emptying of identity. “It was the loss of our minds,” Ladd says, “for the mind is the soul of man.”

This message of black inferiority was a core, essential element of the Dallas school curriculum. The city’s African Americans were taught that their poverty-wracked status was inbred, and that, at best, they could only serve as acolytes in American democracy under stern Caucasian tutelage. These lessons aimed to destroy black political activism in utero. These same lessons not only aimed to free whites from guilt about past injustices, but to relieve the racial master class of any sense of responsibility of four centuries of anti-black violence, discrimination, poorly funded education and inadequate health care.

Whites enjoyed social privileges based on their skin color not because of tyranny, a century of schoolbooks proclaimed, but because of special biological endowments granted by God Himself. These crude racist ideas carried so much power precisely because they were not expressed in individual acts of intolerance but carried the imprimatur of institutional authority. It takes powerful forces to turn angels like my son Dominic into the monsters of the Ku Klux Klan or lesser demons such as that bitter white women who sneered at my daughter in the grocery store. The toxic worldview of racism had to be taught, and it was for a century in Dallas classrooms. Only now are we learning the high cost of unlearning racism. Racism is a collective sin and to expunge it takes collective action.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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