Tag Archives: slavery

Legacies

Antonin Scalia – the justice who gave us so much unnecessary contempt while handing down dismissive and even capricious decisions – died on Saturday. While many have focused on the astounding kerfuffle that’s developed, in which Senate Republicans apparently are going to avoid confirming a Supreme Court Justice for eleven months, I’m more interested in taking a moment to remember Scalia before his prominence in this “originalist” era begins to gather dust.

Justice Scalia was a man that’s easy to dismiss as a motley of contradictions. He demanded that LGBT people remain a criminalized class in the name of preventing governmental tyranny. He argued that Black people should receive lesser educational opportunities in the name of their own well being. He cheerfully supported the limits to election spending being the size of your donors’ pocketbooks in the name of free speech. Underneath these baffling justifications, so easily torn down – often delightfully by Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is a kind of stunningly consistent judicial logic. His guiding principle seems to have been that the powerful could define how things were and should be, and that he was very glad to hold an appointed life-long position of power.

At times it’s been presented as a bastardization of his own claims to “textualism” that he supported such a deeply anti-democratic view of politics and the world. That of course involves a certain rosey look at the past that Scalia elevated into an all-encompassing justification. The writings he, and for that matter his colleagues on the court, pour over and cite either were written by or derived from the works of slave owners engaged in genocidal campaigns of colonization. Might makes right isn’t that much of an importation really. What set Scalia apart, even from other conservatives on the court, was his dogmatic insistence that the framers were literally never wrong.

Scalia was a product of an often forgotten era – of Reagan’s shining city upon a hill. The 1980s saw the sudden emergence of an almost mythic devotion to a historically murky period, drawing phrases from a 1630 sermon and connecting them to institutions born from a 1787 political convention. Reagan gave a voice to a conservative backlash to what for some was a frightening new world of LGBT liberation and the Civil Rights Movement. It didn’t matter if they were nonsensical appeals to an inconsistent and complex past as long as they served those suddenly on the defensive as a source of comfort. Scalia’s constitutionalism was to some degree little more than an intellectually buttressed version of the same argument from historical authority in the name of authority itself.

The term-less appointment to the Supreme Court let Antonin Scalia sit as a reminder of that time period even while Reagan gave way to Bush, then Clinton, and ultimately Obama. Anthony Kennedy, a centrist alternative put forward after Robert Bork had made it too clear what power for power’s sake looked like, never so fully encapsulated what that Reagan-era moment in history looked like, and has had a judicial career that lived beyond it. Scalia was there alongside him of course, writing more dissents and opinions than almost any other justice in history, but his judicial outlook seemed frozen in time compared to Kennedy’s. At the end of the day, he could only shout at the slow but steady advancement past that Reagan-era reaction or align himself with the positively Macchiavellian rightwing adaptations to that new climate.

Even as people politically opposed to him – again there’s always Ginsberg – mourn him, there is some recognition in liberal circles that what has passed is not just this man but the era that produced him. Far more than former Chief Justice Rehnquist’s passing of his position to current Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia’s death portends a new structural alignment on the court. Any nominee from Obama, even a comparatively centrist one, is going to tip the fragile balance further to the left on most issues.

A Republican blockade against sitting any appointee from the president is the perfect procedural issue to fire up the liberal vote in the 2016 races, and an almost guarantee that another Democratic president would issue their nominations to a more friendly Senate in 2017. Insisting that no one be seated is a complaint with essentially no point, since the anger is that an era is over. Republicans might as well direct those complaints at the demographic shifts in the country, at the transformation of their social wedge issues into liabilities, at the failure of their promised prosperity to manifest for most.

Much like how liberal appointments in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s, the growing liberal bloc on the Supreme Court is a reflection of what has followed Reagan – Clinton’s and Obama’s two-term administrations. The Supreme Court serves as a sort of record of what came before, softly echoing the presidency and to a lesser extent congress. Part of what died on Saturday was the tangible impact of Ronald Reagan, and the political party which still holds debates at his presidential library doesn’t seem to be taking it well.

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A limited socialism

Trigger Warning: racism, slavery, lynching

Earlier this week, I noted that Bernie Sanders’ socialism quite abruptly runs aground when applied to some groups peripheral to a lot of his politics. The reality of poverty in the Middle East is something his political view of the world apparently can’t accept, and so he had to essentially deny the reality that the United States is the wealthier nation in almost every respect when interacting with even resource-rich countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Over the course of this week, a strange domestic cousin to this apparently has come out as a part of what is driving down support for Sanders within many Black political circles. I just wanted to briefly point to what struck me as vital explanations of how Sanders’ comes across on this issue. The always fascinating Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on Sanders’ statements about reparations:

This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. […] Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument. To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. […] judged by his platform, Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy. Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?

I think Imani Gandy quite succinctly wrapped up the issue on twitter a day later:

Much of the presidential campaign so far has been about parsing the ways in which Donald Trump wants to redirect economic redistribution towards certain (implicitly, White) communities. Bernie Sanders’ radical language for himself and his ideas has helped him avoid a similar examination so far, but it’s worth checking to see in what ways he hopes to address the social, economic, and political inequalities felt by people of color.

His treatment so far of those unique experiences as simply more common in communities of color is stopping short of directly addressing them. If that’s the level of consideration his political philosophy has for people of color, it doesn’t really sound like it exists for them.

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The Five Most Crucial Moments in Last Night’s Debate

Trigger warning: anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism, linguistic imperialism, slavery, abortion, colonialism, islamophobia

Last night, fifteen candidates in the Republican Presidential Primary appeared on CNN over the course of two debates lasting five hours. Almost every word said by their entire group will cast longer shadows than I think most realize, not only through the primary, but into the general election. In such a crowded and raucous field, these individual statements are going to define how many people think about the Republican Party and will play a key role regardless of whether the candidate who said them is necessarily nominated. Here are the five that stood out to me as most emphatically defining the party and its eventual nominee to the general public.

Lindsey Graham didn’t dogwhistle quietly enough

In the lower tier debate round, a number of candidates were asked to speak at greater length on immigration policy than those in the upper tier. For many, the trick was to both avoid alienating statements about immigration that could harm their favorability with many ethnic communities or that would mark them as opposed to the heavy-handed approach to immigration that appears to have built Donald Trump a base of support overnight.

Lindsey Graham intriguingly attempted to not only triangulate between those two diametrically opposed constituencies but also stress the policy desires of business interests within the Republican coalition with the argument that immigration is necessary to maintain economic efficiency. That third consideration may have been too many balls in the air for him to juggle properly, and led to him speaking a bit less indirectly to the racial and ethnic dimensions of anti-immigration sentiments within the Republican Party. As Graham himself put it-

I have a little different take on where the country is going on this issue. Number one, in 1950, there were 16 workers for every retiree. How many are there today? There’s three. In 20 years, there’s going to be two, and you’re going to have 80 million baby boomers like me retiree in mass wanting a Social Security check, and their Medicare bills paid. We’re going to need more legal immigration. Let’s just make it logical. Let’s pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico. […] We’re not going to deport 11 million people here illegally, but we’ll start with felons, and off they go. And, as to the rest, you can stay, but you got to learn our language. I don’t speak it very well, well, look how far I’ve come? Speaking English is a good thing. […] I never met an illegal Canadian.

Part of what this reveals is that the comparatively pro-immigration business wing of the Republican Party is quite comfortable with racially and ethnically charged devaluing of specifically Latin@ immigrants, but more broadly immigrants of color in general. That isn’t precisely groundbreaking, but potentially Graham made that obvious to people who hadn’t seen or realized it before. Their alternative to a total restriction on immigration is a restitution of sorts of the historical immigration policies the US has had, which encouraged the “right kind” of immigrants. Whether that will as neatly translate into racially and ethnically “desirable” immigrants as it historically has remains to be seen, but the emphasis on racial and ethnic contrasts between Canada and Mexico that Graham relies on seem to suggest that that’s the case.

With Graham failing to subtly reassure the anti-immigrant parts of the Republican base without telegraphing the racially and ethnically-charged nature of his immigration platform, you would think his dodge and miss would have led to an outcry. According to the google analytics, however, he captured most of the attention over the course of the lower tier debate. He failed to come off as being motivated by legality rather than race and ethnicity in animus towards immigrants, but he managed to appeal to two other typically Republican constituencies: White nativists and the business community. If that benefits him, that will confirm for many hesitant voters what the Republican Party stands for and what policies it as a cultural force wants to advance.

Did Carson just say he wants to reintroduce slavery?

Speaking of the ultimate fate of the millions of undocumented people in the country, Ben Carson touted his plan for them in more extemporaneous detail that he previously has. On the face of it, it’s quite garden variety Republican policy. The currently undocumented people in the US can’t receive citizenship directly without penalty because that would be “jumping the line” or something similar in the eyes of anti-immigrant groups. Carson takes a page from both the compassionate conservative and business community however, and rejected at least the official language of deportation or the immediate hostility towards a guest worker program. The policy carved out by those separate rejections is that immigrants will be offered a guest working program with potentially the eventual ability to apply for citizenship, but with a number of restrictions placed on that to make it as inaccessible for them as possible.

What Carson added last night to that was the florid image that this workforce bereft of the benefits of citizenship would be toiling, specifically, in the fields. The tone of it calls into question whether those guest worker statuses would permit them much latitude in choosing the nature of their work, their employer, and other basic rights taken for granted by many. In effect, they would constitute a legally captive labor force with slim chances dependent on others’ mercy to be granted protections and liberties purported for all but actually reserved for a few.

slaves in fieldUnnamed slaves in a field by an uncredited photographer. From here.

Does that strike anyone else as sounding familiar?

Unlike Graham, Carson isn’t auditioning to make it out of the lower tier of candidates but is rather attempting to maintain his upper-to-middle-of-the-pack status. What’s more, he has to do this as a Black man in a primary election defined by voicing anger, something he may not be able to do without facing negative repercussions others wouldn’t. From those two facts spring a selection of uncomfortable possibilities.

However these statements affect his rank will speak loudly about what exactly it means to be a Republican and more generally vote or support for any of them. Beyond that, they are also a reflection of the historical amnesia and detachment from present realities to be a plausible Black Republican candidate. Simultaneously, this is showcasing to the broader public the policies desired within Republican circles and reflecting the limitations and requirements put upon Black people within those spaces.

Fiorina tried tapping into Trump’s base’s anger

Just before the first debate I tweeted a couple of questions that I wanted anyone reading to keep in mind while watching. One of the most important in retrospect was-

With Carly Fiorina rising from the lower tier and Carson’s surge to second place in many polls, those two candidates seemed both best poised to use their momentum to capitalize on any weakness by Trump. The actual answer to this appears to have been, intriguingly: both.

Carson focused on being an affable contrast to Trump, down to a very even-tempered and counter-conflict personality. He was careful to appear to be that directly towards Trump as well, potentially shaving support off of Trump’s by being policy-wise similar but potentially more palatable from a social standpoint.

Fiorina, alternatively, wasn’t interested in playing the good cop to Trump’s bad cop. She worked to outdo Trump himself in channeling the anger that catapulted him to the front of the polls. She used that far more strategically, building to a fiery crescendo that drew some of the biggest applause of the night:

While Carson may have made some small in roads with a careful play, Fiorina took a big risk in trying to bottle Trump’s base’s anger and redirect it, largely not towards Latin@ immigrants but towards comprehensive healthcare and Iranians. The hostility towards those seen as less important and less socially valuable is maintained, but put to work in ways that safely advance Republican policies more directly in line with the party’s economic elite, in terms of dismantling the health provisions for low income women and boldly insisting on absolute fidelity towards US interests by other countries.

Part of Trump’s whole appeal is that he is breaking the establishment’s mold, so it’s unclear that Fiorina’s play won’t backfire. Keep your eyes peeled to see if the party’s core can camouflage itself with the periphery’s fiery emotions.

The first casualty is the truth

For many this is unsurprising. Everyone expects politicians to fudge the truth in their favor. What’s more, to be fair it can be pretty difficult to be on-call to speak with complete accuracy on all sorts of topics the way they must. That said, the stretched truths in this debate reflect a growing problem within Republican politics, however, where the entire basis for a set of policy decisions is a complete fabrication. The problem is no longer a lie that’s convenient but that’s the entire foundation of a political stance. Immediately after Fiorina’s denouncement of a Planned Parenthood video a whole slew of tweets like this one went out:

The supposed torture of a not only viable fetus, but one that was living after being aborted should, in a reasonable world, tip people off that what’s being stated isn’t true. Not only did that false anecdote prompt invective and applause, however, but it’s the emotional crux at the heart of the fierce demands for absolute defunding of Planned Parenthood.

My own personal version of this was the insistence that not only do most countries not have “birthright citizenship” but that, according to Trump, Mexico is one of them. In a word, that’s wrong.

More generally, while most of the world does indeed have its citizenship system based in jus sanguinis (family background) rather than jus soli (location of birth), the normal state of things in mainland countries in the Americas is to have a basis in jus soli – only Colombia is an exception to that. So, while there is a technical global rejection of that, the hemisphere-wide norm is one that the US fits. The idea of us being strange in terms of that and specifically different from Mexico is, however, the basis of an argument for undoing our legal standards for how citizenship is passed down to specifically target communities of recent immigrants.

One both issues, major candidates are not only stretching the truth, but creating an idea of what is true to validate a political stance that has made them wildly popular. I’ve written before about the unrealness of politics in the US and an emerging post-truth politics, but this is a jolting resurrection of those attitudes after they proved rather useless in the 2012 elections.

Rand Paul endorses secular dicatorships

For those who have been reading this blog for many years, you might remember my misgivings with the libertarian counter to standard Republican security policy. In a nutshell, the criticisms don’t seem to be motivated by much concern for the people most likely to experience violence justified in the name of “national security” so much as fear that that violence is likely to eventually be used against other groups or otherwise is poorly supervised. Rand Paul has long been the most visible example of those types of pseudo-dovish politics on a national stage. He didn’t disappoint on that last night when he explained-

[S]ometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East. Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.

The possible concern for how US military interventions negatively affect people in the targeted countries is papered over with the fear that they jeopardize if not undermine other US policy objectives. Out of the mouth of the libertarian candidate, supposed speaker for liberty in the room, comes a defense of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, which outside of Syria have by and large operated with significant US support. This is the alternative within the GOP’s major candidates to a neoconservative crypto-colonial approach towards the Middle East: a selective mix of that and a more historied colonial attitude that democracy is a privilege we can deny other nations. That not only limits the debate in that room but speaks to what the limits of the Republican Party’s policies are.

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A transcript of the main round of the debate can be found here, and a transcript of the initial round here.

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Denali denial

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, slavery, the Confederacy, genocide

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the US Board of Geographic Names would no longer refer to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, by that name but rather by the indigenous Athabaskan name, Denali. This is actually a purely federal change that follows the renaming of the south-central Alaskan mountain by the Alaskan Board of Geographic Names, which began officially using the original name in 1980. In fact, Republican Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski praised the change while noting that the mountain had been known as Denali for centuries.

Denali_Mt_McKinleyMount Denali’s highest point is 20,237 feet above sea level and has the largest mass of a single mountain in the world.

Even this largely symbolic reclamation of US land has prompted hostility and racism on the part of many commentators, however. Conservative news sites like Breitbart had their zingers ready, even including “Obama has now solved all the world’s problems, and decided against his second choice [of a name], Mt. Trayvon.” More seriously however, they noted (apparently in disagreement) that “President Obama has obviously attempted to undo many of McKinley’s accomplishments” such as stifling indigenous rule in Hawaii and otherwise expanding the US’s colonial rule and spheres of influence – namely over Cuba. Snopes already has a helpful page up explaining that Denali doesn’t mean “Black Power in Kenyan” (among the inaccuracies there – Kenyan is a nationality, not a language). Iowan Republican Senator Steve King joined the fray as well, seemingly under the impression that the name was somehow constitutionally mandated:

The change has tapped into a clear hotbed of paranoia that White historical figures won’t be remembered (or at least honored with monuments and other named sites). What’s feared instead is that present and historical Black people or indigenous cultural figures and concepts will be. These fears are being expressed in the midst of White people organizing to preserve emblems of and monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. As the New Yorker described one meeting led by Donald Trump supporter and White nationalist Michael Hill:

When Hill took the stage, he told his compatriots that the recent lowering of the Confederate flag was just the beginning. Soon, he warned, adopting the unspecified ‘they,’ they will come for the ‘monuments, battlefields, parks, cemeteries, street names, even the dead themselves.’ The crowd was on its feet, cheering him on. ‘This, my friends, is cultural genocide,’ he said, adding, ‘Often, as history has shown, cultural genocide is merely a prelude to physical genocide.’

Denali was renamed to honor the President of a conquering people – a statement of White power –  and so it’s been imagined that it now being renamed by the first Black President must similarly be a statement of Black power. To even hint at addressing the pain of conquest and enslavement that is American history is interpreted as having to mean redirecting and recreating those pains. Slavery and colonization were genocidal, realizing that’s the case isn’t, but denying that difference is politically necessary for many.

Breitbart posed a question in their coverage of this: “when will President Obama change the name of the American Southwest to Aztlan [sic]?” Much like the belief that Denali means “Black power” in “Kenyan” this reveals not only a colonial ignorance (it’s spelled Aztlán, is a more specific location than the entire Southwest, and has a specific importance in Aztec history) but also a strange paranoia. What is the problem with recognizing the indigenous group’s names for various parts of that land? What does it threaten and why should anyone care? The cord struck struck for many by these name changes show something vulnerable is being exposed.

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Jus Soli

Trigger Warning: racism, anti-immigration politics, deportation, antisemitism, antiziganism, fascism, The Holocaust, slavery

Last night, Melissa Harris-Perry filled in for Rachel Maddow on the latter’s nightly news program and brought to light a worrying political process happening within the Republican presidential primary. Before Donald Trump’s entry into the race, the immigration policies that dominated were variations on a light-handed approach designed to avoid alienating the increasingly nativist Republican base or the growing Latin@ share of the electorate.

His bombastic arrival stuck out so much because of its overt hostility towards Latin@ immigration, and his campaign has maintained its sizable lead by calling most recently to dismantle jus soli – the “right of the soil”, or in plain English that location of birth can create citizenship. Harris-Perry noted that the various Republican competitors looking to unseat Trump as frontrunner have decided to jump on board, at least becoming willing to consider dismantling the birthright citizenship system central to not only US law but also this country’s image of itself.

jus soli
This would make the US only the second mainland American country to not have total jus soli. In the above map the darkest blue countries have absolute jus soli, light blue with restrictions, and pale blue previously had and have since abolished. From here.

The inevitable question that dismantling jus soli as a legal principle leads to is this – what are we doing instead? The legal world by and large contrasts jus soli with jus sanguinis, the “right by blood”. There are fewer world maps of countries proudly proclaiming they maintain citizenship and related legal rights as a matter of bloodlines, and for obvious reasons. It’s generally a remaining legal practice from earlier, imperialistic, undemocratic eras.

Throughout Europe, jus sanguinis largely became practice as a way of retaining the citizenship of members of the same ethnic group, scattered across conquered holdings away from their nation’s core population. To the extent that jus sanguinis has a democratic history, it’s one tarnished in the long view of history. It echoes a kind of classical Athenian democracy, reserved for a minority of unenslaved men with the right pedigrees.

That notion of citizenship was the norm for most of democracy’s history in Europe, first under Greek and Roman governments that all steadily descended into a toxic mix of corruption and imperial ambitions. Those ideas about democracy later resurfaced with that particular legal quirk in the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. The many ethnically German thinkers who saw the slow rise of a more modern nation-state out of feudal localism are often forgotten, but their ideas on citizenship left their mark on the Europe that emerged from the medieval era. While Immanuel Kant (although himself quite racist) viewed race as something historically gained and otherwise subjective and environmentally-influenced, later German philosophers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel developed the idea of a sort of objective ethnicity without complexity or question.

The path from those opinions to the (then) perpetual statelessness of Jewish and Rromani people was long and complex. But the idea that ethnicity is something objective, with no context, complexity, or ways of operating across otherwise distinct groups helped create the policy of total exclusion of those groups. It helped create a system for legally classifying them. It ultimately bears some responsibility for the violence against them that made possible.

Historically, jus soli also has its own skeletons of course. It’s popularity in the Americas is inseparable from its use under settler colonialism. That history, however, is complicated. The rights of the soil were systemically denied to large populations within the United States, namely to settlers of color, slaves, and indigenous peoples. That said, at many times jus soli was a legal concept used to press against those actions and to insure marginalized communities’ right to live as they wished within the country.

While the origins of birthright citizenship in the United States are complex, its current centrality to our legal system is a byproduct of Reconstruction. The Fourteenth Amendment’s citizenship clause expands already present ideas about natural citizenship often tied into location of birth and declared that literally everyone “born or naturalized in the United States” is a citizen the same as everyone else. At the time, that was a radical statement of equality between former slaves and former slavemasters, but it has since evolved as a legal value that defines a central preoccupation in US law – our shared equality (at least in theory) before it.

Rooted in the national abolition of slavery, our brand of absolute jus soli has been a defining legal tool to expand denied rights to a wide array of disenfranchised groups. In short, the proud history of what it means to be a citizen of the United States articulated time and again by this country’s first president of color and the multiracial and otherwise diverse coalition that was key to electing him is impossible to fully separate from birthright citizenship. When we talk about the country we are becoming, we have to acknowledge the ways in which the expansive and unhindered practice of jus soli in the US has key in us going just this far. That is part of the context we have to understand the rising contempt for birthright citizenship as being at least in part within, a call for a metaphorical destruction of that new concept of what this country could be.

The featured image of this article is from a July protest against deportation policies that would separate birthright citizens from their parents, from here.

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