Why Conservatives Are Anxious About America

Rahmaan Mwongozi (@TheRocsWorld) recently had one of the few good-faith conversations I’ve heard in recent memory regarding the anxieties among those on the political right with Bo Winegard (@EPoe187) on his podcast.  Mwongozi is a talented interviewer, so I was very interested to hear this segment because I felt he would get real answers and he did not disappoint.  The segment is just 11 minutes, and well worth listening to in full.  I explore my take on the conversation below.
To summarize Winegard’s common thread, the angst stems from:
  • cultural domination of progressive views on race, sex, immigration and other topics in mainstream media and academia
  • the distortion or banishment of other views on those topics from those institutions
  • the prospect of irreversible cultural change
The first point is revealing in a number of ways:
  • It suggests that despite fairly broad, moderate conservative control of the country’s political institutions, conservatives want their views of race, sex, and immigration to control cultural institutions as well
  • it suggests that the ongoing, multi-decade project of building competing conservative institutions has failed to produce any prestigious ones
  • Note the absence of any explicit mention of economic issues in the list of topics driving conservative angst
Winegard’s argument that left-of-center views on race, sex, and immigration are more popular culturally seems broadly correct.  His argument that dissenting views are distorted or banished from mainstream institutions may be informed by his own experience (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/12/assistant-professor-says-hes-been-fired-because-he-dared-talk-about-human-population), but there are plenty of counter-examples.  The opinion section of any major mainstream newspaper you can name has any number of right-of-center columnists and views on race, sex, immigration, and economics.  It’s true of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.  You can and do find conservative views from CNN, to MSNBC, to NPR, even PBS.  The prospect of irreversible cultural change is perhaps the most salient fear of conservatives–and as Winegard correctly says later in the interview culture is not merely about demographics but also norms.
Winegard mentions the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 later in the discussion.  This law made it easier for my parents to come to the United States (though there were Jamaicans in this country well before then, despite the patently racist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924).  The point he goes on to make regarding immigration is that it causes consternation to people (especially more conservative ones) because they are attached to a vision of a country that is more stable.  “They want stasis.”
One problem I have with this argument is that there are at least as many conservative voices advocating not for stasis (and definitely not for celebration of the country’s current diversity, as Winegard does), but for a return to the composition of the country as it was much earlier than 1965.  Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, spoke at length and in laudatory terms of the Johnson-Reed Act and was among the first to support Trump’s Muslim ban.  A second problem with this argument is the idea of hurt or injury to people more attached to the country as it was in 1980 or 1990, to use Winegard’s years.  It would be one thing if he were citing economic examples, but he doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t mention immigrants doing the sort of low-skilled labor formerly done by working class white people (or black people for that matter).  He doesn’t mention outsourcing.  Winegard provides no qualitative description of the harm caused by immigration either.  A third problem with the stasis argument is the idea that people can become attached to whatever the particular demographics of their area are.  Believing that argument would require you to ignore the entire history (and present) of this country when it comes to segregated schools, segregated housing, and the white flight from diversity in both spheres when the number of black and/or brown people exceeds the level of curation that the legacy of redlining still imposes to a degree.
Mwongozi draws an analogy between the response of black & brown communities to gentrification (in the specific case of Oakland) and the response of white communities to changing demographics.  I can see the argument, but gentrification is not about co-existence.  The end result of gentrification is usually to price out and push out those who were there before.  Black & brown people leave gentrified areas under duress.  Winegard and others might argue that immigration is doing the same to them, but that argument is weaker–and not a strictly economic one.
Winegard takes great pains to draw a distinction between “ethnotraditionalism” and white nationalism, and doesn’t want to be called a xenophobe for advocating in favor of preserving the current demographics of the country.  Unfortunately for him, louder voices to his political right are the ones that characterize the restrictionist position.  An additional project of many who advocate immigration restrictionism is the political disenfranchisement of black & brown citizens of the United States.  That’s what every post-election lawsuit was about.  That’s what the sabotage of the 2020 census was about.  That’s what the Supreme Court majority’s evisceration of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was about.  That’s what every resulting Voter ID law enabled by the Shelby County vs Holder ruling was about.  They do not want non-white citizens of the United States to have a say in the debates and conversations about the trajectory of the country.  It may not be fair to lump Winegard in with those who hold such extreme positions, but that background is why it happens–and will continue to happen until they are clear that they are pro-citizen, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Only a Little Forgiveness for Old Debts

I came across this parsimonious student loan forgiveness proposal in a tweet earlier today.  The author, Beth Akers, even had the nerve to call this stingy proposal a student-loan jubilee.  The $5000 (which isn’t even cash, but a 1-time tax credit), is just 1/6th the average total student debt for recent college graduates.  She ends her piece this way:

More than half of Americans have built their lives and made ends meet without a college degree.  Call universal student loan cancellation what it is: elitist.

The conservative think tank crowd never seems to have a problem with the government giving away money to businesses, and are quick to hand wave away any evidence of abuse of such programs by big businesses. But the moment there’s even a chance of the government doing something to help individuals, we get to hear a lot of concern about taxes and budgets, along with faux populism.

A cursory amount of digging reveals that the picture of who owes student loan debt is different than the stereotypical “whiny millennial” (some of whom are much closer to 40 than they are to 20).  A Forbes piece from February of this year is particularly enlightening.  The piece is worth reading in full but here are some of the facts I found most interesting:

  • Of the $1.6 trillion in student debt owed, Texas and Florida rank 2nd and 3rd in the number of borrowers and amounts owed (California and New York rank 1st and 4th).
  • Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan are also in the top 10 by number of borrowers and amounts owed
  • Arizona and Florida rank 1st and 3rd in the nation in average student loan debt per capita
  • Over $300 billion of that $1.6 trillion is owed by people aged 50 or older.
  • The 50+ cohort of student loan borrowers is about the same size as the 24 and younger cohort (a little over 8 million borrowers), but the amount they owe is nearly triple the size of their younger counterparts.

So not only is student loan debt not merely the province of the young, nor is it restricted to “coastal elites”.  You could be eligible for retirement and still owe Sallie Mae.  If the student loans you owe are private, there’s no guarantee that debt will be forgiven upon your death.

I am quite fortunate when it comes to student loan debt.  Graduating with a computer science degree from a state university with zero debt (thanks to parents who paid in full, and a state smart enough to subsidize in-state tuition) meant that I didn’t incur any student loan debt until I decided to go to grad school.  In the interim, I was able to buy a home.

Attending grad school part-time at night while working full-time (as my parents did for their undergraduate and graduate degrees, while raising my sister and I) and paying at least some tuition while in school mean that the amount I currently owe is well below the average for recent college graduates.  Even so, it will be another decade from now before I’ve finished paying off Sallie Mae.  I’ll be thinking seriously about higher education for my own children then, since my twins will be in high school 10 years from now.

What the green eyeshade crowd is missing is that the $1.6 trillion owed by students is preventing them from putting their earnings elsewhere in the economy, such as home ownership or investment.  That debt is almost certainly a factor in whether or not people choose to have children.  Akers harking back to an era where a college degree was not a necessity to live a middle class life does not change the facts about the type of globalized economy we live in today.  Nor does it change the fact that automation isn’t just changing “low-skilled” labor, but also some of the jobs that a college degree formerly provided a gateway to. If you actually want to grow the middle class in the United States in anything approaching a sustainable fashion, a solution to student loan debt (both the current amounts, and a mechanism to prevent forgiven debt from simply growing back to even higher amounts) is just one part of a larger conversation. 

Life and Religious Liberty for Me, But Not for Thee

With Amy Coney Barrett now on the Supreme Court and weighing in on cases, the payoff to the evangelical right for their unstinting support of Donald Trump becomes even clearer than it has already been.  She joined a narrow majority to block COVID-19 limits on church occupancy.  Despite numerous cases of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to church events (whether worship, choir practices, or other gatherings), despite over a quarter million Americans dead from COVID-19, the Supreme Court majority ignored the known science around how COVID-19 spreads because of “religious liberty”.  Much has been made of the fact that six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, but there were Catholic justices (including the Chief Justice) in the minority.  Even the Pope was critical of those protesting restrictions on church attendance.

As someone who felt compelled to quit my first full-time job out of college because of constant pressure from my employer to work on my day of worship (as a Seventh-day Adventist, my family and I typically attend church on Saturday), I am angry that religious liberty is being used as the pretext to invalidate measures intended to preserve public health.  When those measures (and stricter ones) have been applied elsewhere (parts of Europe, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, etc), we’ve seen them work successfully in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19.  Particularly because the same Supreme Court was not at all concerned about religious liberty when it came to the Muslim travel ban (the Quakers, among others, see the hypocrisy clearly), the ruling seems especially hollow.  Plenty of churches (including my own) have stayed remote throughout the pandemic, either broadcasting services from empty sanctuaries except for themselves and musicians, or from home.  I’ve given offering and tithed online.  It is by no means an ideal experience, but given my own comorbidities it is better than risking my twins being orphaned.

Because Supreme Court confirmation fights (and the attendant press coverage) have focused so narrowly on where a nominee stands regarding Roe v. Wade, no attention has been paid to their stances regarding other issues quite relevant to life–and death. Invalidating restrictions on church occupancy during a pandemic is just one of the ways in which “pro-life” applies very poorly to describing where a justice actually stands.  As the clock runs out on the Trump presidency, the Department of Justice under Bill Barr is accelerating the pace of executions.  Barrett has already participated in her first capital punishment case on the Supreme Court.  She did not recuse herself, nor register her opposition to the execution going forward as justices in the minority did.

I suppose it has always been this way, but when a lot of people talk about religious liberty, they only want it for themselves–and no one else.

Rest In Peace David Prouse

I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember. But I hadn’t thought much lately about exactly where that love began until a phone call from my mom today. She called to let me know that David Prouse had died. While James Earl Jones was the unforgettable voice of Darth Vader, David Prouse was who we all saw.

Before tonight’s conversation, where she reminisced about taking my sister and I to see it in the theater, I distinctly remember her taking me to see Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was 9.  I remember the anticipation of seeing and just how much I enjoyed it.  But when she mentioned my sister being in a stroller, I paused.  Because my sister and I are 4 1/2 years apart, she wasn’t talking about when we saw Return of the Jedi.  My mom was talking about the preceding movie—The Empire Strikes Back.  While I’ve seen it many times since then in almost every conceivable format save LaserDisc, I didn’t remember the very first time.  She thought I would be scared of Darth Vader, but as she told me I mostly stared in awe.

So Rest In Peace to David Prouse.  Thanks to you—and my mom—for starting my journey into science fiction.

Empathy Now

Predictably, the calls for empathy for “the other side” have already begun.  This tweet from Ian Bremmer is one example:

While I understand the sentiment, I find these demands for empathy to be premature. The speed with which these demands have come (and the people they tend to come from) tell me that they do not know anyone who has been hurt by the effects of Trump’s policies–much less have been hurt themselves.

One of my former co-workers had his wife prevented from joining him here because of the Muslim ban. He and I were working on a contract at the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service at the time. Another co-worker from that time was married to someone from one of the banned countries. Imagine trying to explain to your child what the president said about the place you come from, and your faith.

For years I have listened to Trump and his supporters attack birthright citizenship–the very thing that makes me an American. I’ve seen his administration make it harder to become a citizen legally and try to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens like my parents. I have quite a few friends from the places Trump called “shithole countries”. I’ve stressed out along with my staff and friends at work about whether or not their visas would be renewed as they navigated a process made deliberately harder by the Trump administration.

The people who voted for Trump–twice in some cases–meant for us to endure another 4 years of these assaults on citizenship, faith, and dignity. Even as I write this, some of his supporters are amplifying Trump’s baseless charges of voter fraud. To ask those who opposed Trump to show empathy to his supporters now shows a real lack of understanding for the profound harm Trump’s presidency has inflicted on marginalized people (and likely will still inflict because his presidency doesn’t officially end until Inauguration Day in January 2021).

Sympathy may be possible later, perhaps even empathy–even though his supporters certainly displayed none who disagreed with them in 2016–because those of us who at least attempt to take our Christianity seriously believe Matthew 5:44 to be a command, not a suggestion. But it will not be on anyone else’s timetable.

2016 Was Not an Anomaly

As of this writing, we lack certainty regarding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. But we know enough to be sure that 2016 was not an anomaly. Trump has already surpassed his vote total from 2016 by over 4 million votes.  In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly a quarter million of our fellow citizens—due in significant part to the incompetent handling of the pandemic—Trump still has a path to a second term.  Despite the open corruption and self-dealing, despite Trump’s racism and misogyny, despite impeachment and a trial for pressuring President Zelensky into opening an investigation into Biden, 4 million more voters want a second Trump term.

Those 4 million additional votes for Trump include improving on his performance with Hispanic voters. While it is easier to see hindsight (as most things are), the combination of the Supreme Court preventing Trump from cancelling DACA, the targeting of previous fear mongering about “caravans” not being directed at Cuban-Americans (or not perceived by them as such), and the successful branding of Democrats as socialists by their GOP opponents seems to have resulted in a faster and clearer result favoring Trump in Florida than in 2016. Even some of those targeted by the caravan rhetoric have not been swayed from their support of Donald Trump. This election should mark the official death of the “demographics is destiny” idea that Democrats have been operating under for many years. As Chris Ladd puts it perfectly in this paragraph from a piece written November 2, 2020:

“Democrats’ POC coalition was premised on the notion that these targets of white racism would recognize their common interests and unite in resistance. Thing is, many don’t want to risk sharing the fate of Blacks in America. Educated whites and more affluent immigrants generally feel safe from being treated like Blacks, but less affluent newcomers on the margins of whiteness don’t. Rather than joining forces with this coalition, many immigrants see an alternative path to safety – becoming white.”

Becoming White: The Weakness in Democrats’ “People of Color” Coalition

Another key factor in Trump’s apparent Florida victory: the successful imposition of what is effectively a poll tax by Florida’s GOP governor and legislature prevented nearly a million Floridians who had completed sentences for felony crimes from voting. They did this in clear defiance of the 65% of Floridians voted in favor of automatic restoration of voting rights in 2018.

While the Democrats appear to have retained control of the House of Representatives (including all 4 original members of The Squad), the majority will be smaller than it was after the 2018 midterms.  Even as Cori Bush joins The Squad, QAnon will seat its first congresswoman, and Madison Cawthorn (known for a bucket list that included visiting Hitler’s Eagles Nest) will become the youngest member of North Carolina’s delegation to Congress–and of the entire body. 

As significant as the uncertainty regarding the presidential election is, the GOP appears to have retained control of the Senate as well. The electorate not seeing fit to punish any of the senators who have enabled all of Trump’s excesses has created a huge opening for a slightly more subtle authoritarian to successfully challenge Biden, Harris, or whoever else the Democrats put up for the presidency in 2024.  Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson, and/or one of Trump’s children seem likely candidates to at minimum form exploratory committees if not follow through and run to succeed Donald Trump.  Even in the event Trump loses the 2020 election, I would not rule out the prospect of Donald Trump running for re-election in 2024.  

The Senate remaining in GOP hands even if Biden wins kills most (if not all) prospects for meaningful legislation to reform the issues we’ve seen during the past four years. If the latest anti-ACA lawsuit succeeds with the 6 conservative justices now seated on the Supreme Court, millions of Americans will lose the healthcare insurance they gained because of it and millions more (including myself) with pre-existing conditions at risk of becoming uninsured (and uninsurable) due to changes in employment. Without control of the Senate, Democrats would have little power to put a legislative fix into law. The same would be true of nearly any law the GOP chooses to make a court case out of. Because this same Senate has stocked the lower court with Trump appointees (mostly political hacks with law degrees rather than serious jurists), such cases reaching SCOTUS if lower courts don’t rule the way the GOP prefers seems more likely than not. GOP control of the Senate almost certainly puts a wrench in any plans Biden has for staffing cabinet and sub-cabinet positions requiring Senate confirmation.

While it appears that Biden may yet win the presidency, we know that for the second consecutive election and the third in just 20 years, a minority of American voters has (for now) successfully stymied the will of a majority of American voters at the ballot box thanks to the Electoral College.


Perhaps unlike most people of Jamaican or West Indian descent, I was somewhat conflicted by Biden’s selection of her to be his vice president.  During her presidential run, a lot of people focused on her responses to the questions about whether or not she smoked weed in college (and what music she listened to).  What put me off about her response was not that she smoked, but that she used the Jamaican part of her heritage as an excuse to lean hard into a stereotype about the island and its people.  Her father apparently had a similar reaction.

Even without the bad weed joke, some of my conflict was regret that Colin Powell wasn’t first.  I came of age politically at a time when his name was bandied about as a possible vice president and when he thought about running for president himself.  As a teenager, I was thrilled at the prospect that someone just like me–right down to both parents immigrating here from Jamaica–would run for president.  I even said at the time (and again in a recent family group chat) that I’d have volunteered for a Colin Powell presidential campaign.

Despite my conflict, I wish the Biden-Harris ticket success.  They would give this country at least a chance to move toward its stated ideals.  And as for the commentary in some quarters regarding how insufferable Howard graduates will be, or AKA sorority sister will be, (or Jamaicans), I welcome that prospect.  Jamaica has always punched above its weight culturally.  A vice president of Jamaican descent would just be the latest example.

Thoughts on “Cancel Culture”

On Twitter, I’m one of those guys who tweets “At-will employment” every time someone loses their job because they did something stupid enough publicly enough that their employer decides the cost of their continued employment is too high. Lately that stupid thing tends to be something racist, and given the various and sundry ways at-will employment has put people–including myself–out of work in the past, I’m 100% okay with racist deeds being added to the list of things that can make you unemployed. Amy Cooper getting fired from her job at Franklin Templeton because she went viral for calling the cops on Christian Cooper (a black man) under false pretenses isn’t “cancel culture”. That’s the downside of at-will employment.

In October 2017, Juli Briskman was out cycling one weekend in northern Virginia when President Trump’s motorcade passed her on the road. She gave the motorcade the middle finger. When she informed her employer (a government contractor) that she was the woman in the picture that had gone viral on social media, they fired her. That wasn’t “cancel culture” either, just the downside of at-will employment (the wrongful-termination lawsuit she filed the following year was dismissed for that reason). The same is true of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi attendees of the Unite the Right rally who were fired by their employers after being identified. So how do these examples connect to the Letter on Justice and Open Debate?

The signatories of this letter (at least a few of whom went on Twitter to withdraw support from it after they learned who else had signed) purport to be concerned about the weakening of “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”. This begs the question of what is being debated, and what differences people are refusing to tolerate in favor of ideological conformity. “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces;” hints at one such example, but gets the key fact wrong. James Bennet, who did not read the Tom Cotton op-ed he chose to publish, resigned as the head of New York Times Opinion–he was not fired. The piece in question was updated with a 317-word editors’ note indicating the piece “fell short of our standards and should not have been published”. Another example “a research is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study”, refers to the firing of David Shor for retweeting the work of Professor Omar Wasow. Jonathan Chait writes about it at length in this piece, and argues far more persuasively against “left illiberalism” than the vague and anodyne Harper’s letter because he is specific. When I first learned of the Shor firing, it seemed unjust to me–and still does. His employer did wrong in firing him, and doing so smacks of precisely the sort of “woke liberalism” that those to the right on the political spectrum often decry.

Another friend of mine asked for my thoughts on J.K. Rowling and Noam Chomsky signing the letter, so I’ll address them specifically here. From the little I’ve seen on Twitter, Rowling is receiving backlash for some tweets and more detailed opinions regarding transgender people that could be characterized as transphobic. To me it is unsurprising that Rowling would sign the Harper’s letter. There is no downside I can discern to signing onto a vague letter about free speech and tolerance for differing views, but it will not prevent those who see Rowling’s positions as transphobic from being any quieter or less vehement in their opposition to her opinion. Chomsky is a scholastic giant who has influenced multiple fields of study. He has been an activist for many causes above and beyond free speech, subjected to multiple arrests, and earned a place on Nixon’s enemies list for that activism, so unlike many others on the list he has demonstrated the courage of his convictions for decades.

I think Mansa Keita was on target regarding the objectives of the Harper’s letter when he tweeted the following:

The term “cancel culture” is simply a rhetorical device meant to control the contours of acceptable speech. The speech and values of those telling you how you should speak is not more privileged than your own.

Another friend of mine quite recently described cancel culture as being “seated somewhere between McCarthyism and market forces”. I find this description quite apt as well.

There are certainly other examples beyond those I’ve listed where the expression of one’s opinion resulted in them losing a job. James Damore’s firing by Google is one example from my line of work. Rush Limbaugh getting fired by ESPN some years ago is another. Twenty years before Colin Kaepernick began the silent protest against police brutality that would ultimately cost him his career, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the NBA for refusing to stand during the anthem. Whether “cancellation” for one’s expressed opinion is as prevalent or permanent as some claim is an open question. So is the assertion that many people are self-censoring due to fear of consequences for speaking out. Anecdotes (including those I’ve shared) are not data.

The signatories (all of whom have substantial platforms of their own from which to convey their opinions) seem to be asking for themselves, and presumably other less-powerful people that controversial speech be somehow more privileged than other speech. They seem to be asking for a “freedom from consequences” that Juli Briskman (and certain Unite the Right rally attendees) were not exempt from. This piece on Digg goes much further in exploring that ground, and deals more specifically with some of the letter’s endorsers. If freedom from consequences is at heart what the Harper’s letter is asking for, how do we square that demand with the current nature of at-will employment? Instead of vague open letters in magazines with a vanishingly small total circulation, do we reconsider the current nature of at-will employment? Do we ask employers to be braver? Do we go so far as to change laws? Or do we continue to complain about the status quo?

Academic tenure is the concept I think comes closest to what the endorsers of the Harper’s letter are asking for. The intent of academic tenure as I understand it (not being an academic myself) is to preserve the freedom of academics to hold a variety of views. Academic tenure is not a guaranteed job for life however, though it is purposely difficult to fire a tenured professor. By the same token, academic tenure is exceedingly difficult to achieve. While this does not mean that a tenured professor expressing opinions I find abhorrent would not bother me any less, the difficulty of achieving tenure limits that possibility quite significantly.

Gatekeepers in spheres beyond academia no longer command the same power they once did. First blogging, then social media platforms disintermediated news organizations as ways of getting one’s opinion heard more broadly. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms added virality to the mix. These platforms combined with ubiquitous cellphone cameras have disintermediated the police as the only source of information about their activities, providing brutal documentary evidence of the need for the police reforms the Harper’s letter calls overdue. These platforms also make the letter’s assertion that the free exchange of ideas is becoming more restricted a somewhat dubious one. There is probably more free exchange of ideas than ever–but within echo chambers of the like-minded. Those who believe in all manner of conspiracy theories can easily find their tribe in the same way fans of particular sports teams, musicians, or hobbies can. Those of us on different sides of any number of issues are more likely to talk past each other–or at each other–than with each other. The echo chambers and the absence of a shared set of facts may be as much of a danger–if not more so–than “cancel culture”.

An Imperfect Dividing Line for Honor

America still wrestles with names, symbols and statues.  But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, some of the nation’s idols are falling faster than I can type.  Just today came news that Princeton University is removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from their school of public policy and a residential college.  Woodrow Wilson famously screened the pro-Klan Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915.  Earlier this week, the city council of Charleston, South Carolina voted unanimously to remove a statue of John C. Calhoun from their city square (and the removal work has already started, likely with a museum as its final destination).  In addition to serving as Vice President, Secretary of State, and senator, Calhoun was perhaps this country’s most ardent defender of chattel slavery. The reckoning has even spread abroad, with protesters in Bristol, England pitching a statue of Edward Colston (a slave trader) into the harbor and Belgium beginning to remove statues of King Leopold II (brutal colonizer of the Congo).

Resistance to removing these men and certain symbols from places of honor still continues however.  While Mississippi has begun the process of considering a new state flag (minus the Confederate flag insert), the current flag still has its defenders. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest (whose Confederate troops massacred black soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow, and later led the Ku Klux Klan) still stands in the Tennessee state house after an 11-5 vote against removing it in favor of another Tennessee historical figure.

Two things prompt my attempt to craft a dividing line (however imperfect) for honor:

  1. The toppling of a Ulysses S. Grant statue in San Francisco
  2. News of protesters’ demands for the removal of an emancipation memorial in Washington, DC.

In my view, if someone fought to create the country in the Revolutionary War, fought to preserve the country during the Civil War, supported Reconstruction, or were responsible for desegregating anything at all, that is sufficient cause to leave up any statue of them or leave their name on any building or public facility where it may be–whatever other flaws and shortcomings that individual may have.

Adam Serwer’s defense of Grant is reason enough that no state of Grant should ever be abused in such a fashion.  Professor Aderson Francois adds Grant’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and in a congressional commission that studied post-Civil War terrorism against black men and women in the South.

Professor David Blight (perhaps the best living authority on Frederick Douglass), writes an eloquent defense of The Freedmen’s Memorial.  Before reading his column, there was so much about the monument I did not know:

Professor Blight closes with a most constructive idea of how to add context to imperfect monuments to flawed men:

Rather than take down this monument to Lincoln and emancipation, create a commission that will engage new artists to represent the story of black freedom from one generation to the next. Let today’s imaginations take flight. Perhaps commission a statue of Douglass himself delivering this magnificent speech. So much new learning can take place by the presence of both past and present. As a nation, let’s replace a landscape strewn with Confederate symbols with memorialization of emancipation. Tearing down the Freedmen’s Memorial would be a terrible start for that epic process.

In response to the Blight column (which I shared with friends on Facebook), one of them asked me if I felt monuments to Thomas Jefferson should be torn down. Here is my response to him:

The short answer is no. The longer answer is while the hypocrisy of certain of the founders of the United States re: chattel slavery is obvious, they were trying to build a nation. I favor Dr. Blight’s approach of adding more context. The Confederate States of America and those who led it (by contrast) betrayed the nation the founders built and had the explicit goal of breaking this nation in two for the purpose of preserving and expanding the institution of chattel slavery. Statues of those who supported the Confederacy were erected to support the myth of the Lost Cause, and in concert with violence and terrorist acts against black people, despite the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. With the exception of tombstones and gravesites, I would not preserve a single Confederate monument on public land were it up to me. Strike Confederate names from every military base, every road, every school, and/or other public facility as well.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin is a place I’ve visited many times.  The words of the Declaration of Independence inscribed on one of its panels are clearly at odds with Jefferson’s treatment of the enslaved and profit from chattel slavery.  Monticello, Jefferson’s primary plantation, is attempting to address this contradiction even today.   When it comes to the Founding Fathers, hagiography has characterized too much of our treatment of them.  As more is revealed, it seems that what we have been taught as history looks more like propaganda.  Continued denial of the unsavory, hypocritical, and contradictory beliefs and actions of America’s founders serves the nation poorly.  But destruction of their monuments may not serve us any better.

My First Juneteenth

Today marks the date in 1865 when General Gordon Granger read General Order 3 to the people of Galveston Bay, Texas, informing the enslaved there and in all of Texas of freedom that had been rightfully theirs two years earlier.  That was essentially the full extent of my understanding of Juneteenth until recently, so I’ve taken the additional time off my employer gave us today to dig a bit deeper.  Juneteenth.comthe Wikipedia entry about Juneteenth, and this explainer by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have been my starting points.  I shared these links with my direct reports as well as my co-workers before our 2PM close today, and was heartened by how generously they were received.

In today’s national discussions of and writing about Juneteenth, the role of Texas and black Texans doesn’t get nearly the prominence it should.  Even as someone who has read The Warmth of Other Suns, and the way that aspects of black southern culture migrated north and west out of the South along with its people, it didn’t occur to me that holidays would or could migrate too.  Once I looked at the map of dates when different states granted it official recognition however, it made sense that Minnesota and Florida were among the first states outside of Texas to grant that recognition before the year 2000.  In reading a story like this one, it reinforces yet again that we in this country are fundamentally miseducated about its history when it comes to the Civil War, Reconstruction, its failure, and the consequences of that failure.

Even a widely-acclaimed documentary like Ken Burns’ The Civil War–which my high school classmates and I watched parts of in history class on VHS after each episode aired–can’t convey just how determined some in this country were to preserve the institution of slavery.  Only in reading about Juneteenth did I learn of plantation owners and other slaveholders migrating to Texas and bringing those they enslaved along with them to escape the fighting (and leveraging their distance from Union troops to extract years of additional labor from them).  This thread by Aderson B. Francois, professor of law at Georgetown University, tells a story I definitely did not know about concerted efforts to make it unconstitutional to abolish slavery.  Not only was the Corwin Amendment passed by both houses of Congress by the necessary margin to proceed to ratification, not only did Abraham Lincoln support it, but my home state was among five that ratified it (and only rescinded that ratification in 2014).  Thanks to a friend I met back in grad school, I learned that some of the defeated Confederates attempted to preserve the Confederacy in Brazil.

Spending the time to learn more about Juneteenth has unearthed quite a few things done in previous years to focus attention on it, and the story of black people in this country more generally.  This interview with Isabel Wilkerson from 2017 leads off with audio from the 1940s housed at the Library of Congress from a formerly-enslaved woman old enough to remember the original Juneteenth, and reflects upon the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police in the previous year.  This piece on the National Museum of African American History and Culture website talks about the legacy of Juneteenth.  A brief story from The History Channel originally published in 2015 talks about the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.  I’m not sure how many other holidays have their own flag, but Juneteenth does and has for over 20 years.

Another interesting thing Juneteenth has done in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is spark good faith questions from white friends and co-workers about aspects of black history in the United States.  While my heritage makes my connection to the term “black” more complicated, I refer friends to documentaries like 13th, and to the scholarship of Dr. William Darity to learn more about reparations.

In addition to spending at least a part of today learning more, I donated to two non-profits and encouraged friends to do so as well.  The Innocence Project works to free those wrongly convicted of crimes.  The Equal Justice Initiative operates The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which seek to educate about the history of enslavement, lynching, and mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States.  Perhaps this Juneteenth will be the beginning of an annual tradition of learning and contributing to the cause of justice.