Cliven Bundy and the Tyranny All Around Us

I've been laughing my way through the Cliven Bundy fiasco because, as Jamelle Bouie suggests, there may be no better example of racist privilege than the right to flout the government's authority and then back its agents down at gunpoint. Bouie asks, hypothetically, how we'd respond if Bundy were black.

Inasmuch as this is even a question, American history has already answered it (emphasis added): 

In an 18-month investigation, The Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.

In some cases, government officials approved the land takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today. Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia, oil fields in Mississippi, a major-league baseball spring training facility in Florida ...

The AP—in an investigation that included interviews with more than 1,000 people and the examination of tens of thousands of public records in county courthouses and state and federal archives—documented 107 land takings in 13 Southern and border states.

In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farm and timber land plus 85 smaller properties, including stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or by corporations.

That is from the AP's exceptional (and oft-overlooked) 2001 series "Torn From The Land." What generally followed this tearing was not a patriotic defense of the little guy but mob violence and ethnic cleansingIn 1912, Forsyth County, Georgia, expelled 1,000 black people—10 percent of its total population—and appropriated their land. (For more on the subject, I suggest Marco Williams's superb documentary Banished.) The unfortunate fact is that plunder—of land, labor, children, whatever—is a defining characteristic of this country's relationship with black people. American militias have rarely formed to end that sort of plunder. They've generally formed to enable it. 

The thing to do here, as Chris Hayes points out, is not to argue that Bundy should be subject to the kind of violence that black people who find themselves in dispute with the government's agents often are. (There's nothing for liberals to cheer about in a running gunfight over grazing fees.) The thing to do is to recognize the limits of our sympathies and try to extend them. "How about widening the aperture," Hayes asks, "for the tyranny you see all around you?"

Segregation Forever

A few weeks ago I wrote skeptically of the jaunty uplifting narrative that sees white supremacy's inevitable defeat. One reason I was so skeptical was because I'd been reading the reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones. If you haven't read her coverage on housing segregation you should. And then you should read her piece from this month's magazine on the return of segregation in America's schools:

Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s—back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.

In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools—meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South now attend such schools—a figure likely to rise as court oversight continues to wane. In 1972, due to strong federal enforcement, only about 25 percent of black students in the South attended schools in which at least nine out of 10 students were racial minorities. In districts released from desegregation orders between 1990 and 2011, 53 percent of black students now attend such schools, according to an analysis by ProPublica.

Hannah-Jones profiles the schools in Tuscaloosa where business leaders are alarmed to see their school system becoming more and more black, as white parents choose to send their kids to private (nearly) all-white academies or heavily white schools outside the city. It's worth noting that the school at the center of Hannah-Jones' reporting—Central High School—was not a bad school. On the contrary, it was renowned for its football team as well its debate team.

But this did very little to slow the flight of white parents out of the district. (This is beyond the scope of Hannah-Jones's story, but I'd be very interested to hear more about the history of housing policy in the town.) Faced with the prospect of losing all, or most of their white families, Tuscaloosa effectively resegregated its schools. 

There doesn't seem to be much of a political solution here. It's fairly clear that integration simply isn't much of a priority to white people, and sometimes not even to black people. And Tuscaloosa is not alone. I suspect if you polled most white people in these towns they would honestly say that racism is awful, and many (if not most) would be sincere. At the same time they would generally be lukewarm to the idea of having to "do something" in order to end white supremacy.

Ending white supremacy isn't really in the American vocabulary. That is because ending white supremacy does not merely require a passive sense that racism is awful, but an active commitment to undoing its generational effects. Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire. 

A latent commitment to anti-racism just isn't enough. But that's what we have right now. With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that a total vanquishing of white supremacy is necessarily in the American future. 

"History travels not only forwards, history can travel backwards, President Obama said recently"Our rights, our freedoms—they are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith."

Indeed. But for right now, the struggle for integration is largely over.

John Roberts and the Color of Money

My friend and MIT colleague Tom Levenson watched, with some interest, the debate between myself and Jonathan Chait. On a whim, Tom pulled together some more thoughts on campaign-finance reform that, I think, help spin this conversation forward. His insights are below.

There has been plenty of talk about the Ta-Nehisi Coates-Jonathan Chait argument over the term "black culture" in the context of the ills of poverty and the question of progress as seen through the lens of the actual history of America.

A drastically shortened version of Coates’s analysis is that white supremacy—and the imposition of white power on African-American bodies and property—have been utterly interwoven through the history of American democracy, wealth and power from the beginnings of European settlement in North America. The role of the exploitation of African-American lives in the construction of American society and polity did not end in 1865. Rather, through the levers of law, lawless violence, and violence under the color of law, black American aspirations to wealth, access to capital, access to political power, a share in the advances of the social safety net and more have all been denied with greater or less efficiency. There has been change—as Coates noted in a conversation he and I had a couple of years ago, in 1860 white Americans could sell children away from their parents, and in 1865 they could not—and that is a real shift. But such beginnings did not mean that justice was being done nor equity experienced.

Once you start seeing American history through the corrective lens created by the generations of scholars and researchers on whose work Coates reports, then it becomes possible—necessary, really—to read current events in a new light. Take, for example, the McCutcheon decision that continued the Roberts Court program of gutting campaign-finance laws.

The conventional—and correct, as far as it goes—view of the outcome, enabling wealthy donors to contribute to as many candidates as they choose, is that this further tilts the political playing field towards the richest among us at the expense of every American voter. See noted analyst Jon Stewart for a succinct presentation of this view.

But that first-order take on this latest from the Supreme Court's right wing misses a crucial dimension. It isn't just rich folks who benefit from the Roberts Court's view that money equals speech. Those who gain possess other key identifiers. For one thing, they form a truly a tiny elite. As oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC were being prepared last fall, the Public Campaign delivered a report on all those who approached the money limits the court struck down. They amount to just 1,219 people in the U.S.—that's four in every 1,000,000 of our population.

Unsurprisingly, most of the report simply reinforces the main theme of the reaction to the Supreme Court's decision: This is one more step toward securing governance of, for, and by rich people and their well-compensated servants. One of the most troubling aspects of the story is that the top donors in this country simply don't encounter ordinary folks, the middle class no more than the poor:

Nearly half of the elite donors (47.6 percent) live in the richest one percent of neighborhoods, as measured by per capita income, and more than four out of every five (80.5 percent) are from the richest 10 percent.

Equally unsurprisingly, the world of top donors is overwhelmingly male:

Of donors for whom gender data were available, only 25.7 percent of the elite donors in 2012 were women, even lower than the paltry one-third of donors giving at least $200 to a federal campaign that election cycle. Also, 304 superlimit donors have a spouse or other family member as another member of list, which could indicate either a very politically interested family or a way for one donor to circumvent the existing limits through contributions in his or her spouse’s name. Of the donors without another family member on the list, only 17.7 percent are women.

And against the argument that regardless of the source of the money, cash is gender blind, I give you both data and Nancy Pelosi:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) identifies big money as a key factor holding this number down: “If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility, you’ll have more women elected to public office, and sooner, and that nothing is more wholesome to the governmental and political process than increased participation of women.”

In contrast, further increasing the role of money in politics by removing the aggregate contribution limit means the Supreme Court may end up pushing down women’s role in campaigns even further. CRP’s “Sex, Money and Politics,” report also found that “Women tend to make up a larger percentage of the donor pool when contribution amounts are limited by law.” It continues to note that the three cycles in which loopholes for sending unlimited contributions to political parties or outside groups like super PACs were largely closed, women played a larger role: “In the 2004, 2006 and 2008 cycles, which were the only three since 1990 with strict donation limits restricting the amount of money a single individual could give, the percentage of women as a portion of the donor pool increased.”

But even these pathologies are vastly less severe than those to be found through the lens of race. People of color are almost entirely absent from the top donor profile, and none more so than members of the community that white Americans enslaved for two centuries:

While more than one-in-six Americans live in a neighborhood that is majority African-American or Hispanic, less than one-in-50 superlimit donors do. More than 90 percent of these elite donors live in neighborhoods with a greater concentration of non- Hispanic white residents than average. African-Americans are especially underrepresented. The median elite donor lives in a neighborhood where the African-American population counts for only 1.4 percent, nine times less than the national rate.

In other words: Political money and hence influence at the top levels is disproportionately white, male, and with almost no social context that includes significant numbers of African Americans and other people of color.

This is why money isn't speech. Freedom of speech as a functional element in democratic life assumes that such freedom can be meaningfully deployed. But the unleashing of yet more money into politics allows a very limited class of people to drown out the money "speech" of everyone else—but especially those with a deep, overwhelmingly well documented history of being denied voice and presence in American political life.

Now take the work of the Roberts Court in ensuring that rule of cash, the engine of political power for an overwhelmingly white upper-upper crust, with combine those decisions with the conclusions of the court on voting rights, and you get a clear view of what the five-justice right-wing majority has done. Controlling access to the ballot has been a classic tool of white supremacy since the end of Reconstruction. It is so once again, as states seizing on the Roberts Court's Voting Rights Act decision take aim at exactly those tools with which African Americans increased turnout and the proportion of minority voters within the electorate. There's not even much of an attempt to disguise what's going on.

Add all this to the Roberts decision to free states from the tyranny of being forced to accept federal funds to provide healthcare to the poor. When John Roberts declared that Obamacare's Medicaid expansion would be optional, the decision sounded colorblind—states could deny succor to their poor of any race—in practice, that is to say in the real world, this decision hits individual African Americans and their communities the hardest . as Coates wrote way back when.

So: Money, which disproportionately defends existing power structures, is unfettered; ease of voting, which at least in theory permits challenges to such structures, is constrained; and a series of decisions seeming devoid of racial connection presses thumbs the scale ever harder against the chance that in the real-world African Americans will have get to play on a level field.

'The Joy Women Express Over 100-Calorie Snack Packs Is Not to Be Believed'

I think Roxane Gay's piece on The Biggest Loser is pretty phenomenal. Gay, wh watched the show for several seasons, pegs her essay to contestant Rachel Fredrickson's alarming weight loss--155 pounds over the course of the season, nearly 60 percent of her body-weight. But the heart of the piece is all Roxane Gay:

My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people. 
I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve. 
Punishment is, in fact, one of the few things I allow myself. I deny myself my attractions. I have them, oh I do, but dare not express them, because how dare I want. How dare I confess my want? How dare I try to act on that want? I deny myself so much and still there is so much desire throbbing beneath my surfaces. 
Denial merely puts what we want just beyond reach but we still know it’s there. 


It's so hard to get naked on the page. It's one of the hardest things to convey in my essay classes. You must be naked. You must understand that clothes are the illusion, and  your readers are naked too. Humans are at war with themselves. Once you can accept this, your own wars become less shameful. I don't mean exhibitionism. I mean honesty. The clothes are the illusion.

I'll be teaching this in workshop, tomorrow.

As an aside, Roxane Gay writes the greatest zombi stories in the world.

Barack Obama's Challenge to American Morality

If you haven't yet, it's work checking out Barack Obama's address before the National Action Network, last week. I think it's one of the most significant and morally grounded speeches of his presidency. I think we will eventually regard this current effort to suppress the vote through voter-ID laws, ending early voting, restricting voting hours, etc., in the same way we regard literacy tests and poll taxes. (It's worth recalling this piece for the magazine by Mariah Blake which helps historicize voter suppression.)

I believe in judging Barack Obama's rhetoric and policies not as though he were the president of black America, but of the United States of America. On that count his speech soared. There aren't many topics more important than the security of our democracy. The president did not attack that topic gingerly, but forcefully, directly and without hedge.

It's an important speech.

As an aside, I'll add that I still can't get over seeing a black dude, who is the president, standing in front of Garvey's red, black, and green. Strange days, I tell you. Strange days, indeed. No one knows where this is going.

The Devastating Effects of Concentrated Poverty

Last week I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with social scientists Patrick Sharkey, Paul Jargowsky, and Sherrilyn Ifill who heads the NAACP-LDF. We focused our conversation on concentrated poverty with  a strong emphasis on its effects on black people. I've talked about Sharkey's work quite a bit. His presentation is as impressive as his research. At one point, Sharkey displayed a chart which showed that the average black family making $100,000 a year lives in the same kind of neighborhood as the average white family making $30,000 a year. It's worth your time.

Here's a link to the Pew study on the wealth gap I reference. In turns out I underestimated the wealth gap.  Here's a link to Paul Jargowsky's disturbing study on the concentration of poverty across America.

Black Pathology Crowdsourced

I think it might help this discussion to offer some sense of how I came to my views on culture and white supremacy. I want to go back to the original piece I wrote, "A Culture of Poverty," and highlight an exchange I had in comments. Then I want to point to a recent note I received which helped clarify things even more.

Many of you know Yoni Appelbaum. He came to us originally under the handle Cynic. I can name several academics who've influenced my thinking over the past five years—Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Drew Gilpin Faust, Patrick Sharkey, Arnold Hirsch, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tony Judt, and a bunch more. As much as any of the people, Yoni has helped me really sharpen my thinking on the centrality of white supremacy in American history. (This is not gush. There's an entire section of this piece that I owe to him.)

In the original column I had a hazy notion about practices fitting environments. Put differently, I believed that culture made sense when understood within the context in which it operated. One might note, for instance, that married black women—as a practice—tend to have fewer children then married white women. I actually don't know why that is. But if I wanted to find out, I would start from the premise that there is something tangible, discernible, and knowable in the world of married black people that animates that practice. Too often "culture" is basically spoken in the way one might say "magic."

I later sharpened that point in other columns. But it was Yoni who first bought this home for me:

Spot on.

But I'd add that it works this way in reverse, too. It's a point seldom made. I was reading a new memoir the other day, by a Harvard graduate who went to work as a prison librarian. Much of the book is an account of his acculturation. He discovered that his robes and spell books, so to speak, were a lot less useful than plate and a broad-sword. That he couldn't afford to be seen as a punk. He was perfectly equipped for a comfortable, upper-middle-class life—and wholly unprepared for his new environment.

We tend to associate culturally-specific practices with the relative successes of the cultures with which they're associated. Things rich people do must be beneficial; habits of the poor, not. The reality is more complex. Culture of Poverty is a label attached to a wide array of behaviors. There are behaviors—physical assertiveness—well-suited to that environment that may tend to inhibit success elsewhere. There are other behaviors—emphasis on familial and communal ties—that will cut both ways, sustaining people in difficult times but sometimes making it harder for them to place their individual needs above the demands of the group. And there are others—initiative and self-reliance—that are largely positive, and in many ways, even more advantageous if carried further up the social scale.

I bristle when I see people discuss the culture of poverty as a pathology. That's too self-congratulatory, and too cramped a view. The reality is that, like all cultures, it has aspects that translate well to other circumstances, those that translate poorly, and those that are just plain different. And that's no different than the Culture of Affluence.

That was crucial. I understood that cultural practices made sense in their context. But Yoni complicated it even further—some practices hurt, some practices help, and some practices don't matter at all. This really was a knock-you-on-your-ass moment for me, because I could think of my own life and see exactly that. At Howard University, I had a culture—a set of practices—that I employed in intellectual debate that are different than most people I encounter online. We tended to argue from history, and there was premium (somewhat obnoxious) on book citations.

That tradition came out of a sense that we had been "robbed" of history and culture and had to reclaim it—as Douglass did, as Malcolm did, as Zora did. Consider the constant (if inaccurate) quip employed in the black community that the easiest place to hide something from a nigger (and that was how it was said) was between the pages of a book. We were responding to that. My style of arguing—a practice coming out of my environment—was formed there. I would not trade it for anything.

I talk to Yoni from time to time. In fact, a lot of us here at The Atlantic do. (Rebecca Rosen calls him the best critical reader of The Atlantic, hands down.) Taking in the early portion of the culture-of-poverty debate, Yoni offered the following:

Your post sends me back to The North American Review, which asked, in 1912, "Are the Jews an Inferior Race?" It answered the question, resoundingly, in the negative, but the more salient point is that the point was then very much in doubt. After the long centuries Jews spent in Europe marked as a minority, tolerated or persecuted, there was no shortage of thinkers willing to advance the claim that Jewish inferiority was innate, or at the very least, an ineradicable element of a broken culture. "Based on anthropology and biased by personal psychology," explained the author, "anti-Semitic literature advances the theory that the Jewish race is divested of the higher forms of genius and is to be regarded as an uncreative, imitative, practical, and utilitarian body. Mental inferiority and spiritual impotency circulate accordingly in the very blood of the Jew." 

The article was, itself, a response to a letter in a previous issue that considered that the Jews, in "all their immiscibility," had survived centuries without sovereignty only at the cost of producing, "a character so unattractive, even repellent, their shortcomings even in righteousness and their insignificance in everything else, without poetry, without science, without art, and without character." 

That's one example. There are innumerable others. My point is that, at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to conclude that Jewish culture, whether innate or the product of prolonged persecution, had itself become a significant impediment to success. But that, a century later, it seems impossible to reconcile the idea that Jewish culture was the problem with the record of success that Jews produced over the following hundred years, in those nations in which they were not similarly persecuted. 

Now, we get Jed Rubenfeld explaining how that same culture—formerly blamed for Jewish inferiority—is actually a distinct advantage. And just so, a hundred years from now, there will be bestsellers explaining how black culture, forged in centuries of adversity, accounts for the remarkable success of the African-American community. The point is that the same sets of cultural characteristics operate very differently in different circumstances. And to focus on the culture—rather than the circumstances—seems obtuse.

Yoni is the Yoni of Atlantic Media.

More seriously, I really would like to see more historians in these debates. We have plenty of people with economics background, with political-science backgrounds, and some even with sociology backgrounds. But it feels like there is a massive gulf between how people who study American history see their country, and how not just Americans but American journalists see their country. Forgive me if that is too sweeping.

I keep thinking about this idea of pessimism. A few weeks ago I was at Rhodes College for a conference. I ended up sitting at dinner with the historian Thavolia Glymph, and some other historians of note. Glymph's work is a corrective to the idea that there was some sort of sisterhood between plantation matriarchs and enslaved black women. She was talking about some of the evidence she'd seen and she said that—"When you read a woman's diary and in the middle of dinner she pulls out a knife and slashes her servant, you start to understand." That's not an exact quote. But the point I am making is that I've had the luxury of reading, and now visiting with, a number of scholars (historians, anthropologists, some multi-disciplinary folks) and what you get isn't The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon.

Indeed you often get something much darker then what I'm giving you here. At that same conference I was noting—as I often do—that the Wilmington coup in 1898 is the only coup in American history. The historians in the room looked at me like I was crazy. (Timothy Tyson literally shouted "Noooooo" from the audience.) That's because, as I was told, the truth is much worse. There have been plenty of coups in American history—most of them dating to Reconstruction, and animated by white supremacy. How's that for depressing?

We deserve more of that in our lives. We deserve to see ourselves fully. It's not our history that makes me fatalistic, it's our history of looking away. 

'He Hated Error More Than He Loved Truth'

A few notes for some folks who are interested in the winding path to the Blue Period:

1.) A friend sent along the following quotes from Michael Oakeshott on the limits of awesome sonnage. Oakeshott is critiquing Hobbes who raised sonnage to historic levels:

...The blood of contention ran in his veins. He acquired the lucid genius of a great expositor of ideas; but by disposition he was a fighter, and he knew no tactics save attack. He was a brilliant controversialist, deft, pertinacious and imaginative, and he disposed of the errors of scholastics, Puritans and Papists with a subtle mixture of argument and ridicule.

But he made the mistake of supposing that this style was universally effective, in mathematics no less than in politics. For brilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment. Always to play to win is to take one’s standards from one’s opponent, and local victory comes to displace every other consideration. Most readers will find Hobbes’s disputatiousness excessive; but it is the defect of an exceptionally active mind.

And it never quite destroyed in him the distinction between beating an opponent and establishing a proposition, and never quite silenced the conversation with himself which is the heart of philosophical thinking. But, like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition. There is sagacity in Hobbes, and often a profound deliberateness; but there is no repose.

I didn't finish Leviathan. I hope to get back to it. I'm sure some folks in the Horde will disagree with this characterization. But I think the deeper point about "brilliance in controversy" is one for the ages. It's tough to remember that you must never do it for them. It's tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for "destroying," "owning," or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate--and all its volume and spectacle--to define you. 

2.) As noted before, I first began seriously considering the immortality of white supremacy after listening to Nell Irvin Painter. I say "seriously considering" to distinguish it from the kind of general cynicism toward white America that a lot of black people feel. I felt that and then lost most of it with the election of Barack Obama. What followed wasn't cynicism--which I think is really just another specimen of naiveté-- but something more haunting and real. Here are a couple interviews on that point--one with Phoebe Judge at WUNC in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the other with Jonathan Judaken before a lecture at Rhodes College in Memphis.

3.) Horde Legionnaire Absurdbeats has done the tremendous--and laudable--labor of compiling virtually every single book and scholarly article I've ever spoken of on this blog. Some of them remain unfinished--Leviathan, The Origins of Species and Discipline and Punish, being the major ones. The two that really pushed me over were were Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom and Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft. Morgan is indispensable. There is no single book I've found myself reviewing more over the past five years. 

4.) Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft is curious compilation of essays that I did not quite get when I first read it. Below I've embedded a video of me and Barbara Fields discussing the book. I was still processing its thesis even as I was interviewing to her. (I remember being really afraid of looking stupid.) But the basic argument is that Americans tend to speak of "race" as a biological constant, which it isn't. That notion it, itself, a product of racism. Racecraft is the process by which something moves from the condemnable (racism) to the value-neutral (racism.)

Thus we say that we need a "conversation on race" or "race divides America" or we speak of "different races." Another way to say this is we need to have a "conversation on racism" or "racism divides America," or to speak of "historical victims of racism." This is very key. The was no white and black race until we created one, and this creation was--itself--an act of racism, done to justify other acts of racism. Presuming that there is biological constant called "white" and "black" removes human actors, elides responsibility, and annihilates history.

Around 39:30 you can hear Fields give a good explanation for the process of racecraft.

6.) The New York Times has a great video about "The Superpredator" era of social policy in the 90s. In many ways it brings us full circle. Its protagonist is John Dilulio, who with William Bennett, authored the book Body Count which predicted that a wave of "godless" and "fatherless" and "jobless" juvenile criminals would soon descend on America. You will remember that it was in the company Bennett that Paul Ryan offered his unlettered critique of inner city culture. Bennett and Dilulio were wrong--horribly so, as the film lays out. America's black communities are still paying the price, and will continue to for some time. That is danger of crafting policy as though we have no history and writing off broad swaths as culturally pathological.

7.) We began with Oakeshott. It seems fitting to end with one of his disciples. I recommend checking out Andrew's attempt to think his way through this. It's admirable and more writers should do it. I very often strenuously disagree with Andrew over the force of white supremacy in American history and the American present. At the same time, Andrew was a big, big influence in my efforts to master the art of thinking publicly. Sometimes our teachers come in unexpected clothing. We are better for taking the lesson, nonetheless. 

The Blue Period: An Origin Story


The secret origins of "the blue period"--if that's what we're calling it--lay in the video embedded above. In it, historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses her book A History Of White People and calmly, and methodically, breaks my heart:

On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences.  We have a great inequality of wealth and income.  This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well. 

You can see from my posting at the time I was sort of horrified by Painter's argument. It didn't really mesh with my worldview at the time. At that point I was a progressive in every sense of the word. I believed that you could sketch a narrative of progress in this country from enslavement to civil rights. It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end--some day--with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy. 

I probably first came across Painter as a young child. My Dad had a ridiculous collection of black books and I'd just swim through them. I certainly knew about her during by my late teenage years at Howard. By then I understood her to be one of the great historians of our era. I also came to understand at Howard that historians are heartbreakers. I have often referred to my history professors destroying all my Afrocentric fantasies, and then telling me that I must, somehow, pick up the pieces and argue for my humanity. The Nubians, for whom I was named, weren't going to cut it. At least not alone. I thought about that for awhile--history and humanity. The history I had been taught had been crafted by humans for political aims. And if these black people truly were human, than it meant that other people likely would also do the same. Even my countrymen. 

Years after Howard, I sat with Painter on a panel at the United Nations. Her poise was ridiculous. There was something modest and grand about how she carried herself. I thought it was the aura of a person in full awareness of their big brain and all that it could do. Once I got over my fear of speaking in her presence, I found her to be one of the sharpest people I'd ever engaged. Her assessment of white supremacy cut to the core of me. I had always considered a vaguely-defined "hope" to be a prerequisite for writing. What kind of intellectual confronts a problem and concludes, "Beats the hell out me."

I had, by then at least, gotten past the idea that history was a pep rally, that if France had walls, Zimbabwe must have walls too. I also knew that Nell Painter knew a good deal more about America than me. If she thought racism would always be with us, then I had better take that notion seriously.

That was four years ago. I knew something about redlining and the New Deal. But not really. I had not heard of Arnold Hirsch. I certainly had never heard of contract lending. I knew about the wealth gap, but not really. I knew that the ghetto was public policy, but I did not know the extent. (I still don't totally. My knowledge about what happened on the South Side, for instance, is still lacking.)

I was grappling with the Civil War. I had some sense of Reconstruction. I had begun to grasp that slavery was not a side practice in America, but big business I still (sort of) believed in "class-based" solutions, for racist problems. I hadn't read Patrick Sharkey's research into neighborhoods. I hadn't grappled with Robert Sampson's work on Chicago and the vast gulf that divides blacks and whites. I hadn't read Walter Johnson's work on the intrastate slave trade. I hadn't thought about Rousseau's sense of slavery as useful killing. I hadn't read Isabel Wilkerson

And I hadn't thought at all about what any of this meant for humanity. I hadn't read about Japanese soldiers practicing beheading techniques on their fallen prisoners.  I hadn't read any of Tony Judt's books. I hadn't grappled, at all, with communism. I didn't know who Timothy Snyder was. I had no sense of a world where morality depends, almost exactly, upon the size of your arsenal and your distance from the conflict. I had not grappled with a Poland pillaged by Nazis, pillaged by Russians, the Nazis turning on the Russians, and then the Russians "liberating" the Poles, and then subjugating them. Again. 

I had not been to Paris. I had not committed to French.  I had not read James Baldwin in almost twenty years. I had forgotten some things:

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this -- which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never -- the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro's experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards....

In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. 

They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law -- in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

And I'm not done. I haven't yet grappled with Israel. I haven't grappled with the experience of Indigineous Peoples since I was a teenager reading Bury My Heart At Wounded KneeMy whole project suffers from a kind of bias. I haven't thought about the black diaspora--Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Venezuela--in years. I haven't even considered India and China--a giant swath of humanity and history. I don't think a human gets to see all of this before dying. But I want to see as much of it as I can. And here is the key thing--it thrills me to see it. I love seeing it. I love knowing. The knowing is its own reward. The ability to frame the question is it's own gift--even if you can't quite name the answer.

I think now, four years after watching that video, and having read A History of White People, that I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my "in" to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don't need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone's need to feel warm and fuzzy inside:

The TNC of 2010 who wrote that great piece seemed like the kind of guy his father was. Tough. Strict with his kids. And all because he knew the world out there really is wicked and unfair, but that ultimately you can make it if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Anyone can rise above it and find their way to a decent life. I’m now left wondering if that TNC still exists.  Does he tell his son to just quit or move to some other country because there is no hope for the U.S.?

In short, TNC is angry, and that anger is clouding his vision.

I pray my friend circles back to hope soon.


I think it's hard for people who know you for your work, to grasp that they don't actually know you. And  it's hard for people to get that if they refer to you as an acronym, they probably have never referred to "you" at all. And none of my friends are anonymous. The work gets dark and people think I must be dark. But they don't know and they can't see what's right in front of them--I was born dark. 

I never expected a single thing I wrote to change anything. Writing rarely does. I never expect to make any white person see anything. And if they do, I hope they go read more. But really it's beside the point.

My aims are fairly limited: I expect to hug my kid, and tell him I love him. I expect to hug my wife, and tell her I will always support her. I expect to make my Momma proud ("Be a good race-man," she used to say.) And I expect to honor my Dad. I expect to drink some good rum. And I expect to know more tomorrow than I know today. And I expect to talk to the youth about taking control of their own education. And I expect to be a good writer. 

And that really is it. It's all I can ask. It's all I can control. Isn't this old?