Abortion: Race, rape, and the Right

—Gregory S. Parks

I want to tell you a story. I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. . . This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. . . Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.

The above quote reflects powerful imagery employed by defense attorney Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)—the words spoken in his summation before an all-white, southern jury during the criminal trial of a black father who was being prosecuted for killing the white men who raped, hung, and left his young daughter for dead.

The use of racial imagery like this is nothing new in American culture. Take politics, for example: racial imagery has frequently been used to sway public opinion and win elections. In 1990, when Jesse Helms, a white United States Senator from North Carolina, faced Harvey Gantt, a black challenger, race played a role in Helms’ campaign. Specifically, in an effort to allege that Gantt supported racial quotas that would benefit blacks, Helms ran an advertisement that showed the hands of a white person crumbling an employment rejection letter. “You needed that job,” the announcer said, “and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast a few days before the election, and arguably boosted Helms to victory. This should be of no surprise; social scientists have demonstrated for years that emotion is highly predictive of voters’ judgment and decision-making. Let’s have a little thought experiment that contemplates the extent to which racial imagery might effectuate a change in constituent attitudes in other political spheres today.

Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which expanded women’s access to abortion, Republicans have sought to reverse those gains. More recently, Republican politicians, including Richard Mourdock (state of Indiana Treasurer), have asserted that life is a gift from God, and abortions should only be allowed when the mother’s life is at risk.

As a justification for the all-out ban on abortion, Todd Akin (former U.S. Representative for Missouri) has touted that in cases of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because a woman’s body is able to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Some Republicans, such as Joe Walsh (former U.S. Representative for Illinois), believe that there should not even be an exception for cases where the mother’s life may be at risk because, according to Walsh, “’with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance’ in which a woman would actually die.”

The challenge for such politicians, and those who subscribe to their mode of thinking, is to not to imagine some amorphous victim. Rather, they should, in the words of Jake Brigance, “[n]ow imagine she’s white” and her rapist is black. Would they then feel the same way about abortion in instances of rape? I believe they would not, given the history of race, anti-miscegenation attitudes, and political ideology in America.

In the early 1900s, the mandatory separation of blacks and whites in social settings, referred to as Jim Crow, applied to all aspects of life in the South, including public schools and marriage statutes. The idea of “white womanhood” was a major part of white supremacy and was an essential part of the Jim Crow system in the South. White womanhood was premised on a belief that a “lady” must be white. While it was feared that interracial marriages would lead to the creation of “a mongrel breed of citizens” that would destroy white identity and threaten white supremacy, this was a fear only evident in cases involving white women who married non-white men. White women who brought race-based annulment cases against their husbands were protected from both colored men, as well any accusation from the woman’s husband that attacked her whiteness. When white men had children with black women, it was simply seen as a remnant of the practices observed during slavery.

In most states, the fear of a mongrel race as a result of interracial marriage was only a concern when it involved blacks. However, in Virginia, it was illegal for whites to marry anyone other than another white person. Southerners were alarmed by the increasing number of light skinned blacks, as it blurred the line between black and white and threatened both with supremacy and racial purity. Laws prohibiting miscegenation continued until 1967 when they were declared unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. In Loving, the Virginia Supreme Court had relied primarily upon its earlier holding in Naim v. Naim. That case held that the policy behind Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was to prevent interracial procreation and the creation of a “mongrel breed of citizens.”

Racial segregation of public schools was a tool for reinforcing both white supremacy, as well as in preserving the purity of the white race, because of the vital, socialization role that schools play. Because public schools have the effect of shaping the beliefs and perspectives of young impressionable children, they were seen as “key social institutions for inculcating racial consciousness in whites and blacks.” By preventing socialization among black and white children, segregation of public schools was able to address the issue of the development of romantic feelings among people of different races, and consequently, the chances that interracial marriage would occur was decreased. In fact, the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, led to fears that the socializing of black and white children would lead to interracial marriages, and thus, miscegenation. As a result, the ruling in Brown strengthened the fight against interracial marriage.

In the case of rape, the rape of black women was not even recognized in some states as a criminal offense. However, the rape of a white woman by a black man resulted in sentences for rape that were five times that given for convictions of other rapes and sometimes led to a sentence of death. Even the idea of a black man soliciting a white prostitute was viewed as objectionable.

This anxiety surrounding white women being the victim of black men’s libidinal pangs, concupiscent urges, and exertion of power and violence has not only been a historical and cultural-legal fact, it is contemporary and political. In 1991, a Michigan probate judge, discussing the Michigan law under which minors seeking abortions may request a waiver of the parental consent requirement, stated that he was hesitant to grant waivers but would consider doing so “in some cases, such as incest or when a white girl is raped by a black man.” In 2006, a white Maine couple allegedly kidnapped their pregnant nineteen year-old daughter to take her out of the state to have an abortion, because the father of her child was black.

And while many politicians have viewed abortion as breaking up the American family, President Richard Nixon thought that in the case of a pregnancy involving a black man and a white woman,  abortion was a necessary procedure. This is not surprising, given empirical research demonstrating that whites’ political orientation predicts their own romantic partner preferences. White conservatives, more so than white liberals, are less likely to desire black romantic partners and more so prefer white romantic partners. This preference, and its implications, may not even be conscious; researchers have found that political conservativism is predictive of automatic favoring high status over low status groups as well as whites over blacks.

With all this said, the recent tweet from an anonymous writer on MSNBC’s official Twitter account suggesting that conservatives hate interracial marriages may have been more accurate than inflammatory. (“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family,” the tweet read.) It is this anxiety, or hostility, by some on the political Right against black male/white female interracial love, sex, marriage, and in the worst of scenarios, rape, that should help inform their judgments about abortion.

Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law. He is co-author (with Matthew W. Hughey) of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: Remembering the sacrifices of everyday activists

—Sekou M. Franklin

In the upcoming months, there will be countless celebrations marking the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights of 1965. Without a doubt, these laws were crowning achievements in American political history. Congress did in fact adopt two civil rights measures in 1957 and 1960. Yet, they were watered down and did little to contain racial hostilities in the Jim Crow South. Thus by the 1960s, many lawmakers and contenders for the White House were pessimistic about the prospects of passing transformative civil rights policies, especially over the objections of pro-segregationist lawmakers.

Reminding Americans of this history is important as we embark on a series of fiftieth anniversary celebrations. American political institutions (and the leaders that shaped them) had little hope that the long arm of the federal government could be used to bring down de jure segregation. Civil rights and grassroots activists, on the other hand, pushed forward and brought pressure to bear at great risk to their families, communities, and civic institutions. Most of these activists were part of an invisible segment of American political discourse—activists who are unfamiliar to mainstream media and the American public, but through the use of diverse strategies and tactics, helped to usher in major civil rights and social reforms.

In my forthcoming book After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation, I highlight the important contributions of these unfamiliar activists and groups. I focus on youth-based movements and intergenerational collaborations of the post-civil rights era such as the Free South Africa Movement, the Black Student Leadership Network, the New Haven Youth Movement, the Juvenile Justice Reform Movement, and the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer initiative. The book also highlights the work of movement formations of the 1930s/1940s and 1960s/1970s. These include the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Student Organization for Black Unity, and the African Liberation Support Committee.

By focusing on youth-based movements, I wanted to shed light on how an invisible segment of American politics helped to remedy longstanding and seemingly insurmountable inequities. At the same time, the book looks at how these movement formations wrestled with the internal challenges of movement building such as raising resources, sustaining intergenerational collaborations, surviving political repression, and embedding young activists into grassroots networks.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember that the civil rights victories of the 1960s were won because of the sacrifices of ordinary Americans, activists, and organizations. Though most are largely ignored in contemporary political discourse, they were central to the advancement of an emancipatory vision of racial democracy and internationalism.

Sekou M. Franklin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month, post-racial style

—Catherine R. Squires

I was pleased to be invited by NYU Press to blog about Black History Month, a celebration that some who believe we’re “post-racial” would say is unnecessary. When I was a kid, making my way in a “voluntarily” desegregated school district, I looked forward to February with a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I would be one of the few in my class to get 100% on the Black History Month quiz; dread because I was one of the few Black kids in the class, and would feel all eyes on us during the lessons geared toward the month of “special” history projects, reading assignments, and so on.

But I persevered, and one year—perhaps third grade?—I did my Black History Month poster on Benjamin Banneker: scientist, urban planner, clockmaker. I had designs on design: would I be an architect? A fashion designer? An illustrator? Banneker was a perfect fit for me, and I poured my grade school heart into doing his memory justice.

Fast forward to today: from what I can tell, my children are doing the same sort of assignments, learning the same litanies of Firsts, Festivals, and Foods that we learned in my day. While for third graders this might be on point, I have also found that the Millenial, ostensibly “post-racial” students in my university courses regularly report they got little else through middle and high school, and barely scratched the surface on more in their introductory history courses at college.

So I’d like to make a suggestion to jettison the Firsts, Festivals, and Foods trio of Black History Month for a different style of learning about Black and American history. Kids learn who the First Black astronaut was, the First Black senator, and so forth. But what happens after the First? I suggest we do away with how we teach about “Firsts,” and I’ll leave the Festivals and Foods to other, more creative minds.

Part of the power of the First is the person is supposed to disprove theories of racial inferiority. But if we do not follow through after the first to support other engineers, astronauts, and opera singers, then what? If no efforts are made to make the break in the pattern more than an accident of destiny and talent, then we leave a void into which theories of racial superiority creep back in, cloaked in the language of statistics or cultural deficiencies.

When we focus on the Firsts, and not What Followed, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the silence in between milestones of Black History. If we do not look into the gaps between the Firsts, then we fail to see the ways that other individuals, institutions, and social practices worked—often quite deliberately—to crush the spirit of those Firsts, and to make it plain that Black people who wanted to follow in their footsteps would be met with massive resistance.

So I ask that we pair the question “What Followed and Why?” with each First, to ensure that our students can understand the reasons why we still celebrate Firsts, why they remain rarities decades after slavery and Jim Crow.

What happened after Benjamin Banneker made plans for our nation’s capitol, the First Black engineer to be recognized as such by white folks? Why the gap in Black urban planners between Banneker and… well, I must admit I cannot bring to mind a famous Black urban planner. What stymied efforts to bring up generations of Bannekers to design welcoming, sustainable urban spaces to be shared by people of all colors? Why are so many urban areas still segregated, decades after the First Black mayors were elected?

Until we look closely at What Followed, and try to learn lessons from that part of our American history, our celebrations of Firsts will feel less festive and more frustrating as time goes by.

Catherine R. Squires is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: “Toxic Communities” are still prevalent

—Dorceta E. Taylor

It is Black History Month and I am reflecting on the significant strides we have made on issues of racial justice, social equity, and human rights. However, I have also been thinking of the long and difficult road ahead before we can say everyone has true equality in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental arena. While some are content to see environment as untarnished hills and glens and others work hard to protect it, what is often missing from such discourses are the social class and racial inequities that arise in environmental practices and decision making.

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (Duke University Press, 2009), I chronicled the rise of American cities and the environmental problems they confronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the narrative, I documented how environmental racism resulted in the placement of African American communities in the most hazard-prone areas of cities. I also chronicled industrial incursion into and the pollution of Black neighborhoods, the destruction of Black communities and displacement of African Americans to make way for the construction of parks, water systems, and other public works.

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014) examines similar themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These same patterns are evident—some to a greater extent than existed in earlier times. In Toxic Communities, I examine African American and other communities of color that are inundated with pollutants emanating from hulking industrial facilities. The air, ground, and water are tainted and residents live in fear of explosions or toxic releases from these facilities.

The challenges do not stop there. Black communities have been systematically been destroyed in the name of urban renewal and that highways could be built to connect the cities and suburbs.  While segregated White communities were built in the suburbs and financed by federal funds, Black communities were redlined and denied such funding. Rampant housing discrimination continues today in the form of discriminatory financing methods, racial steering, and other obstacles Blacks face when they seek housing. Consequently, African Americans still live in some of the most toxic and hazard prone communities in the country.

The book challenges us to develop a better understanding how these inequalities arise. We have to make connections with seemingly unrelated events, policies, and processes. We need more effective research as well as community organizing to hold responsible parties accountable.

Dorceta E. Taylor is the Field of Studies Coordinator for Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).

GOP’s slick Black History ads fall short, miss the point

—Andra Gillespie

[Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNN.com on February 5, 2014.]

It’s February and Black History Month, and networks and major consumer brands are reprising their annual ad campaigns honoring the contributions of African-Americans to the arts, politics, technology and commerce.

This year, a new player is sponsoring Black History Month ads: the Republican National Committee.

In spots airing on black radio and television stations in select media markets, the RNC praises the contributions of black Republicans such as Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services under President George H.W. Bush.

This ad campaign is part of a larger Republican strategy to reach out to minority voters. After President Barack Obama won more than 70% of the vote among blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans (93% among blacks alone) in 2012, the Republican National Committee redoubled its efforts to court minority voters. This ad campaign is a part of that effort.

A well-produced, uplifting ad campaign will not be enough to convince black Democrats to switch their party identification, though.

For every ad praising Sen. Tim Scott, the Republican Party has had to put out fires created by state and local officials who make insensitive racial comments. For instance, in the past two weeks, the Iowa Republican Party had to fire the mastermind behind the “Is Someone a Racist?” flow chart on its Facebook page. The flow chart flippantly charged that racists are white people you don’t like.

By this point, some Republicans are probably wondering why blacks don’t seem to punish liberals and Democrats for their racial missteps. Democrat-friendly MSNBC has faced strong and valid criticism for its recent taunts of the Romney family’s transracial adoption and its assumptions that conservative Republicans don’t marry interracially. For his part, Fox host Bill O’Reilly raised eyebrows when he asked Obama why he had not done more to lower the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks.

The answer is rooted in a long, complicated history of race and partisanship and in psychological frames that the GOP ignores at its peril.

Some Republicans rightfully point out that during the civil rights movement, Southern Democrats tried to block passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. They forget, however, that in the past 50 years, white Southern Democrats (both racists and non-racists) have gradually shifted their party identification to the Republican Party. They don’t account for the fact that GOP has admitted to (and apologized for) purposely using racially coded language to win over racially resentful whites in the wake of the civil rights movement.

And they ignore data that confirm that while black political views have moderated in the past generation, blacks still tend to prefer a stronger federal state and greater governmental intervention, in large part because they perceive the federal government to have done a better job than state and local officials at protecting civil rights.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to the GOP’s outreach efforts among blacks, though, is its misunderstanding of the importance of group dynamics to individual political decision-making.

Republicans value limited government and personal liberty, traits that celebrate rugged individualism and a view of politics that assumes that self-interest informs most policy preferences. Numerous studies have shown that many blacks and Latinos believe that what happens to other blacks and Latinos affects them. This belief that their fates are linked to the fates of their co-ethnics informs liberal policy and political preferences.

It means that an affluent black person might be willing to pay higher taxes if it helps maintain the food stamp program, which helps poor, disproportionately minority people. Or that a Latina born in the United States might wince when Republican congressional candidates voice their opposition to immigration reform because she perceives that tone of the opposition evinces a general antipathy toward Latinos regardless of their nativity.

Don’t get me wrong, Republican outreach to blacks is a good thing, and I hope to see more of it.

Republican candidates who win office need to engage their black and minority constituents, and Democrats should not assume that blacks (or any other group) will always vote Democratic.

However, a polished ad campaign alone is not enough to win over black voters. If the GOP hopes to become significantly more competitive among blacks, it will have to acknowledge the importance of group identity to blacks and other minorities and learn how to frame their principles in terms of group interests.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

The racism that still plagues America

Excerpted from The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America by David Dante Troutt (NYU Press, 2014).

The impatience that characterizes discussions of race and racism in our so-called color-blind society has its roots in the momentous  legislative changes of the 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968 reached into nearly every aspect of daily life—from segregated facilities to voting to housing—and represented a long overdue re-installation of the equality principle in our social compact. The question was what it would take—and from whom—to get to equality.

Was racial equality something that could be had without sacrifice? If not, then who would be forced to participate and who would be exempt? As implementation of the laws engendered a far-reaching bureaucracy of agencies, rules, and programs for everything from affirmative action hiring goals to federal contracting formula, the commitment was quickly tested. For a great many who already opposed the changes, patience was quickly exhausted. As welfare rolls rapidly increased, crime surged, and the real and perceived burdens of busing took their toll, many voters pointed to the apparent failure of a growing federal government to fix the problems it was essentially paid to cure. Among Democratic voters this made for unsteady alliances and vulnerable anxieties. People don’t live in policy and statistics as much as they do through anecdote and personal burdens. A riot here, a horrific crime there, a job loss or perhaps the fiery oratory of a public personality could tip a liberal-leaning person’s thinking toward more conservative conclusions—or at least fuel her impatience. Impatience would ossify into anger, turning everything into monetary costs, and making these costs the basis for political opposition to a liberal state. As it happened, this process moves the date of our supposed final triumph over racism from the mid-1960s to at least the mid-1980s. In the end, impatience won.

What I call impatience, others have characterized as a simmering voter ambivalence—even antagonism, in the case of working-class whites—to civil rights remedies, one that was susceptible to the peculiar backlash politics that elected both Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush president. Language was central to this strategy, and the language that stuck was colorblindness. As Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics,” “In facing an electorate with sharply divided commitments on race—theoretically in favor of egalitarian principle but hostile to many forms of implementation—the use of a race-free political language proved crucial to building a broad-based, center-right coalition.” Ronald Reagan managed to communicate a message that embodied all the racial resentments around poverty programs, affirmative action, minority set-asides, busing, crime, and the Supreme Court without mentioning race, something his conservative forebears—Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon—could not quite do. The linchpin was “costs” and “values.” Whenever “racism” was raised, it became an issue of “reverse racism” against whites. The effect was the conversion of millions of once fiscally liberal, middle-class suburban Democrats to the Republican Party. Issues identified with race—the “costs of liberalism”—fractured the very base of the Democratic Party. In the 1980 presidential election, for example, 22 percent of Democrats voted Republican.

By 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George Bush beat Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the presidential election, many white Democratic voters had come to read their own party’s messages through what Edsall calls a “racial filter.” In their minds, higher taxes were directly attributable to policies of a growing federal government; they were footing the bill for minority preference programs. If the public argument was cast as wasteful spending on people of weak values, the private discussions were explicitly racial. For instance, Edsall quotes polling studies of “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County—the union friendly Detroit suburbs that won the battle to prevent cross-district school desegregation plans in 1973—that presents poignant evidence of voter anger: “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their [white defectors’] vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.”

By 1988, these same voters had endorsed tax revolts across the country and had become steadfast suburbanites, drawing clearer lines between a suburban good life and the crime and crack-infested city. Still they were angry, as magazine articles chronicled the rising political significance of what would be known as the “Angry White Male” voter. George Bush, down seventeen points in the presidential election polls during midsummer, overcame that deficit with TV ads about murderous black convicts raping white women while on furlough. That and a pledge never to raise taxes seemed to be enough to vanquish Bush’s liberal challenger, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. What’s important to recognize in this transition is how as recently as twenty years ago, Americans’ social lives were very much embroiled in racial controversy—despite the obfuscatory veneer of colorblind language to the contrary. Our politics followed. The election of Bill Clinton represented a distinct centrist turn among Democrats toward Republican language and themes and away from rights, the “liberal” label, and the federal safety net. The question we might ask about our current race relations is, only a couple of decades removed from this political history, what would compel us to assume that we are beyond the legacy of our racial conflicts?

 * * *

The racial polarization that connected these political outcomes was deliberately fed by national Republican candidates in order to do more than roll back civil rights. It also served to install “supply-side economics,” a system of regressive tax-based reforms that contributed mightily to the costs of income inequality we currently face. That era—which arguably ended with the election of President Barack Obama—illustrates two points central to my examination of civic connectivity. The first is that the economic underside of racial polarization proved no more than the old okey doke. The second is that localism contains its own contradictions, which have come due in our time. Let me explain.

Only racism could achieve the ideological union of the Republican rich with the working man (and woman). Nothing else could fuse their naturally opposed interests. The essence of supply-side economics was its belief in the importance of liberating the affluent from tax and regulatory burdens, a faith not typically shared by lower-income households who might at best see benefits “trickle down” to them. In fact, they often paid more under tax-reform schemes of the 1980s.  Edsall provides data on the combined federal tax rate that include all taxes—income, Social Security, and so forth. Between 1980 and 1990, families in the bottom fifth of all earners saw their rates increase by 16.1 percent; it increased by 6 percent for those in the second-lowest fifth (the lower middle class); and it increased by 1.2 percent for those in the middle fifth (the middle middle class). But those in the second-highest fifth of all income earners saw a cut in their tax rate by 2.2 percent during that decade; and those in the top fifth got a 5.5 percent decrease in their rate. Overall, the richest 10 percent of American earners received a 7.3 percent decrease in their combined federal tax rate. The top 1 percent? A 14.4 percent cut during the 1980s. Clearly this hurt the middle class, as the vaunted trickle down never arrived. But it was working-class whites who bought the message that this model of fiscal conservatism, married to social conservatism in the form of a rollback of redistributive programs they perceived to favor blacks, would benefit them. It did not. Yet it established a popular political rhetoric by which lower-income whites can be counted on to take up against “liberal” policies that may actually serve their interests as long as opposition can be wrapped in the trappings of “traditional values,” “law and order,” “special interests,” “reverse racism,” and “smaller government.” This was pure okey doke based on an erroneous notion of zero-sum mutuality—that is, that whatever “the blacks” get hurts me.

Which also demonstrates the contradictions of localism. Remember my earlier argument that localism—or local control expressed formally through home rule grants, as it’s sometimes known—became the spatial successor to Jim Crow segregation. Through racially “neutral” land use and housing policy, it kept white communities white after the fall of legal segregation in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Yet here’s the contradiction. While voters opposed to civil rights remedies and Great Society programs followed Republican leadership toward fiscal conservatism at the national level, they maintained their fiscal liberalism at the local level. The tax base they created for themselves through property taxes in suburbia could be contained and spent locally. Edsall describes the irony this way: “Suburbanization has permitted whites to satisfy liberal ideals revolving around activist government, while keeping to a minimum the number of blacks and the poor who share in government largess.” Of course, all of this worked best when “suburbs” meant middle-class white people and “cities” (or today’s “urban” areas) always signaled black and brown people. There was no mutuality of interests between the two kinds of places. It also worked when low property taxes—together with generous state aid—could reliably pay for great local public services like schools, libraries, and fire protection. It was a terrific deal. But that was then. Now, neither is true. The line between cities and suburbs has blurred into regions, and minorities and whites are busy crossing back and forth to work, live, and shop. Most of the fragmented municipalities that sprawled across suburbia are no longer able to sustain their own budgets, threatening the quality of their services, despite unimaginably high property taxes. The assumptions have not held.

Perhaps now we should consider the racially polarizing policies that became the norm under Reagan’s failed experiment. We tried them. Some believed fervently in them. But it is clear that they didn’t work and are not in our long-term national or local interest. There remains a legacy of racism, however, that continues to harm some of us disproportionately and all of us eventually. It’s to those three examples that I now turn.

Read the rest of this excerpt at Salon.com.

“I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men”

—Sylviane A. Diouf

For all its apparent fidelity to the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave falls quite short when it comes to integrating the various dimensions of community solidarity and resistance Northup witnessed and described. Making them part of the film, even tangentially, would not only have given a more faithful account of the book but, more importantly, of the historical reality.

During his years in Louisiana, Northup heard, discussed, and saw them all: from talks of rebellion to wishes of American defeat in the Mexican War, from planned mass migration to Mexico to escapes to the woods.  Especially escapes to the woods. Northup even planned for his own by mistreating the dogs so that they would not attack if sent after him; and he secretly fed Celeste, a runaway who hid in the swamps for months to avoid the whippings of her overseer.

Indeed, like her, tens of thousands of men, women, and children left for the woods, the swamps and the mountains, carving into the wilds what I call “the maroon landscape” that extended from the borderland of plantations to the hinterland and cut paths to the slave quarters, the Big House and even the cities. Some were newly-arrived Africans, like Arrow from Benin, who escaped two days after landing in Charleston and managed to stay hidden for years. Others built large communities, as did St. Malo in Louisiana, and even a fortified camp, as did Captain Cudjoe in the Lowcountry.

Counting on their own resources—the tacit solidarity of the enslaved community (a community completely absent from McQueen’s film), night raids on plantation warehouses and, sometimes, remunerated work for white and black men—the maroons created a unique alternative existence. Rejecting passing for free in the slavery South or the semi-free North, they wanted out of white-controlled areas, even if living in the wilds was hard and hazardous.

Many felt safe only when they disappeared from the face of the earth.  When her owner hit her, a young woman hit back and ran away to a cave, an underground home that her husband equipped with a stove and furniture. Three children were born there, a stone’s throw away from the plantation. While the husband remained enslaved, bringing them the food he gathered from neighbors, mother and children lived under the Georgia ground for seven years and got out only after slavery was abolished. Hundred of miles away, a Virginia family lived in its own large cave and brought to life fifteen children who never had to endure slavery.

Maroons developed new forms of life as they retreated from, but still measured themselves against, a terrorist system and took advantage of a challenging environment. Their removal to the wilderness was not only a denunciation of the social order of the land but more profoundly, a radical rupture. Like the runaways, they wanted freedom but, distinctively, they wanted freedom on their own terms, not those of the larger society.

It was a difficult enterprise and, to be sure, they made mistakes. Some cost them their freedom or their lives. But over all, their neglected narrative, is one of courage and resourcefulness; hardships endured and freedoms won that adds a crucial chapter to the multi-faceted chronicle of slave resistance. One that 12 Years a Slave, the movie, unfortunately chose to ignore.

Northup knew from experience that, “Notwithstanding the certainty of being captured, the woods and swamps are, nevertheless, continually filled with runaways.” Former maroon Tom Wilson from Texas explained why: “I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men.”

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author, notably, of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.

Dude, what’s that smell? The Sriracha shutdown and immigrant excess

—Anita Mannur and Martin Manalansan

All across America, bottles with a green cap, rooster and fiery chili sauce that were once exclusively the mainstay of fast food style Asian restaurants, have been slowly making their mark on mainstream palates. In 2011, the popular television show The Simpsons featured an episode—described by executive producer Matt Selman as a “love letter to food culture”—in which Bart Simpson’s usually pedestrian palate becomes attuned to the finer possibilities of sriracha.

In 2012, as part of a national campaign to introduce a new flavor, the Lay’s potato chip company announced Sriracha as one of the three finalist flavors, along with Cheesy Garlic Bread and Chicken & Waffles. Cheesy Garlic Bread Lay’s eventually went on to win the contest; some claim it was because the signature piquant taste of sriracha could barely be detected in the chip’s flavor. In 2013 the national bagel sandwich chain restaurant Brueggers introduced the Sriracha Egg Sandwich. Not to be outdone, Subway followed suit with their version of a chicken sriracha melt.

By the end of 2013, sriracha popularity seemed to be at an all time high. From January to December of 2012, some 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce had sold, and on October 27, 2013, the first Sriracha festival was held in downtown Los Angeles. Americans, it seemed, could not get enough of the hot sauce. That is, until it came into their own backyards.

On October 28, Huy Fong Foods, the purveyor of sriracha, was sued by the small town of Irwindale, California for causing “burning eyes, irritated throats, and headaches” to its residents. An initial report published by the Associated Press tellingly described the odors produced by the Huy Fong plant as “a nuisance.”

Huy Fong’s owner and creator David Tran’s mistake was in assuming that the sriracha boom meant that the town of Irwindale would accept the changes that came with the presence of Asianness. In many ways, his story was that of the consummate Asian American model minority who had made his mark through hard work and perseverance in America. From origins in Vietnam to “making it” as an ethnic entrepreneur in the US, the story of sriracha, and in particular that of Huy Fong, can be understood as a quintessentially Asian American story.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese origin, was among the first wave of refugees to leave Vietnam in 1979. Fleeing Vietnam aboard the Panamanian freighter “Huy Fong,” for which he later named his company, Tran started his fledgling company in the town of Rosemead, California in the mid-1980s with an initial investment of a meager $50,000. Over the next two decades, the company, which exclusively harvests jalapeños grown in Piru, California, grew dramatically, largely by word of mouth, and has become one of the most popular condiments with something of a cult-like following.

Food historian John T. Edge notes that part of sriracha’s success is in its ability to position itself as malleable to many palates: “Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.” Despite sriracha’s obvious connection to Thainess—the sauce, according to a recent documentary, Sriracha (Dir. Griffin Hammond, 2013), has its origins in the town of Si Racha—Tran disavows the necessary connection to one particular national lineage, noting, “I know it’s not a Thai sriracha…It’s my sriracha.”

As the company expanded, it moved from its more modest location in Rosemead to a larger factory in Irwindale. And with the growth of the factory, resentment of the presence of Asianness has been more acutely expressed through a refusal of the visceral and purported offensiveness of Asian odors. Ultimately it is the inability of odors to remain in place, the toxicity and the purported public health danger of Asian coded comestibles that has come to characterize this stage in the sriracha story as a story of racial exclusion in an Asian American context.

As Martin Manalansan has written elsewhere, “smell in America…is a code for class, racial and ethnic differences.” Yet cities are expected to function as odorless zones, both literally and psychically. Traces of immigrant excess must always be kept at bay and where food is concerned, difference must be managed to ensure that the kind of food one finds at the table is synchronous with the mandates of a multiculturalist ethos of eating. It must not appear “too foreign,” “too different”, “too oily” or too aberrant. In other words it must not be too offensive, lest it upset a carefully calibrated balance of acceptable multiculturalism.

Sriracha seemed poised to become America’s next favorite condiment. But condiments have to be manufactured somewhere, and when Asianness comes to roost in the town of Irwindale, population 1,422 (2% Asian American, 47% white), the cultural odor of the town also changes. And taste for difference, as history has suggested, can often only go so far. The winds in the California city of Irwindale not only transport the sharp smell of chilies in the sriracha sauce, they also convey the heavy weight of Western history’s fraught encounters with olfactory experiences.

Throughout the ages, smell has been used to mark things and bodies that are sinister, sinful, dangerous, foreign, diseased, and decaying. Modern cities were planned under the idealized schemes of de-odorized landscapes. Accoutrements to contemporary living include room deodorizers and air fresheners that aim to eliminate unwanted odors and showcase social uplift and class distinction. The Sriracha incident in California reeks of all these historical antecedents and cultural symptoms. The very fact that sriracha has been called a “public nuisance” and a potential health threat is part of a longer tradition that views Asianness as a public health menace. The SARS epidemic of 2002, with its concomitant xenophobic links to the fear of Asian bodies, is not far removed from the panic about Asianness discursively inherent in the charges being levied against Huy Fong Foods.

In the midst of all the accusations and counter-accusations of state overreach, cultural insensitivity and xenophobia, smell should not be seen as merely a potential health hazard but rather as a crucial signpost of where we are as a society and as a nation in the 21st century. Indeed, to consider sriracha’s odors a public nuisance is not far removed from the kinds of radicalizing language that is used to put immigrants in their place. We may like our sriracha bottles on our tables, but we don’t want it too close, lest it contaminate our spaces of living. Like the Asian American bodies with which we associate the bottles of hot sauce, we prefer to limit the spread of Asianness.

On November 29, 2013, three days after the Los Angeles court ruled in favor of a partial shutdown of the company, Huy Fong Foods released a simple statement to the public with a banner reading, “No tear gas made here,” placed outside its Irwindale factory. Those simple words summed up what is perhaps really at stake here. The underlying issues which have led to the fracas about sriracha are very much about toxicity, but the banner is as much about dispelling the notion that the product they are making is toxic as it is about pointing out that underlying racism and charges against Huy Fong are mired in a more dangerous form of toxicity—one that seeks to vigilantly remind immigrants about where they do and do not belong.

Anita Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian /Asian American Studies at Miami University. Martin F. Manalansan, IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Mannur and Manalansan are co-editors (with Robert Ji-Song Ku) of Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (NYU Press, 2013).

Mandela was not a Hallmark card

—Alan Wieder

Long-time South African educator and President of the New Unity Movement, R. O. Dudley had a quote that he used when speaking of various iconic South African struggle leaders: He “had arms, not wings.”  It is a phrase that we should remember when speaking of the late Nelson Mandela, but unfortunately, press coverage in the United States as well as throughout the world has turned Madiba into a Hallmark greeting card figure.

And while Mandela’s role as a freedom fighter and the major force for reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa should be honored and celebrated, we must remember that we are talking about a complex revolutionary, and also a complex politician.

Nelson Mandela worked with comrades throughout the struggle and beyond. Internal colonialism, racism, class disparity, and extreme oppression were part of South African history long before the apartheid regime came to power in the late 1940s.  Nelson Mandela collaborated with other activists, black, Indian, coloured, and white, at Wits University in Johannesburg and it was within this grouping, as well as from his fellow African National Congress Youth League leaders, that he came to a belief in nonracialism.  I was asked recently if he was criticized for promoting nonracialism during the struggle and I answered that he actually came late to the party. He clearly stated that it was the struggle commitment of fellow students at Wits—Ruth FirstJoe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ishmael Meer, Norman Levy, J.N. Singh and others, as well as his close friends, and struggle stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo—that changed his view on the struggle. A view that went from African Unity and only fighting racism to a belief that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.No one argues with Mandela‘s leadership in the African National Congress during the fifties and through the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The key word here, though, is comrades, because Nelson Mandela always worked with other people in the struggle, during his time at Robben Island Prison, and of course in both the negotiations with the apartheid regime and the forming of the first South African democratic government in 1994.  President Barack Obama was totally in error when he said that Mandela’s life proved the power of one man with courage and vision could change the world.

Countless are the continuing statements on Nelson Mandela as a man of peace and love and forgiveness—none of them are untrue yet they are clearly only a partial portrait as Nelson Mandela was part of a struggle fighting against what Bishop Desmond Tutu often refers to as a “pigmentocracy.”  And an organized pigmentocracy at that.  Throughout the 1950s beginning with the Defiance Campaign against the magnification of racist legislation, to the Freedom Charter calling for democracy for all South Africans, to the 1956 Treason Trial, the mission of Mandela and his struggle comrades was to change the South African government.  However Gandhian the strategy and tactics of this part of the struggle took, the government oppression became more harsh, more violent, and more oppressive.  Thus, by 1962, for Nelson Mandela, who had gone underground, as well as his comrades, it could not be all peace and love.   Before he was arrested that year Mandela was clandestinely interviewed by British journalist Brian Widlake.

If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics.  In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.

Mandela was actually asking the apartheid regime, once again, to question their own policy of harsh, violent, repression.  And what he was proposing at this point was not actually armed struggle, but rather armed propaganda—attacks on government facilities in an attempt to show, first the people, and then the government, that the apartheid regime was not invulnerable.

At this point, 1962, armed propaganda didn’t do much to reach either goal, and although Mandela, in partnership with Joe Slovo, had written a document for armed struggle, called Operation Mayibuye, and cadres of struggle soldiers were sent out of South Africa for military training, the arrests at Rivonia crippled the struggle for almost a decade.  Yet even at trial Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary—his message certainly wasn’t peace and love.  His now famous speech in the court deserves repeating.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela went to Robben Island prison in 1964 and would not see freedom until 1990. In fact, his face was not even seen in a photograph again until 1988—representation of the totality of apartheid.  His interactions in prison, however, were both revolutionary and human, and in spite of the harsh conditions he faced he was involved in political conversations across the boundaries of competing struggle organizations and was very much part of what prisoners referred to as Robben Island: Our University.

Nelson Mandela spent the struggle years in prison and it was comrades like Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils, and younger MK soldiers that continued the struggle-in-exile.  Within South Africa black people on the ground and the in-country exemplification of the ANC, the United Democratic Front, kept the struggle alive.  But by the mid-eighties Nelson Mandela was part of the conversations with the apartheid regime and he was released in 1990.  It must be remembered that South Africa did not have a successful armed revolution, but rather a negotiated settlement.  And this is where Nelson Mandela becomes a politician.

So while I do not begrudge the peace and love eulogies nor question the magnitude of the end of organized and legislative apartheid in South Africa, I again think that it is important to view Madiba with more complexity.  No one will ever claim that the negotiations with the apartheid regime were easy and it is here where Mandela’s mastery as a politician comes front and center.  Yes, it was important that he publicly stood up to De Klerk.  But one has to question whether these clashes didn’t play well for both men within their own constituencies.  We have to also wonder at which point the United States, the United Kingdom, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund entered negotiations about negotiations.  Because the formal negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime is where Mandela’s political skill is paramount.  Nelson Mandela basically sidelined (albeit temporarily) Thabo Mbeki and chose three negotiators that represented the far left of the struggle—Cyril Ramaphosa then of the Mineworkers Union and Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj from the South African Communist Party.  Did Madiba know that selling what would surely become a neo-liberal transition to the struggle left was more difficult that negotiating with the enemy?  Did Madiba know that he needed Joe Slovo to proclaim the sunset clauses that would protect the jobs of apartheid regime bureaucrats?  Again a question—but one surely worth asking.

What we do know is that neo-liberalism came with vengeance to South Africa and that the ANC and President Mandela became partners with the West.  But we also know that in the early struggle years Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who believed and fought for a people’s democracy.  So, even if there is much more complexity than the present eulogies exhibit, Madiba is still estimable.  And the hope, at least from my perspective, is that the love of people that these Hallmark eulogies proclaim will lead to 1980s struggle conversations and actions that address the class disparity, lack of services, freedom of press issues, and corruption that exist today in South Africa.

Alan Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheidpublished this year by Monthly Review Press.

[This piece originally appeared in Monthly Review's webzine. Read it here.]

Who you know: How social networks hurt Black and Latino job prospects

—Daria Roithmayr

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights what many of us already know—that the burden of recent unemployment falls harder on black and Latino workers than on whites, even though black women and Latino men are working more consistently than their white counterparts.

This is largely due to occupational segregation—the fact that certain racial groups cluster into certain jobs. While some jobs have become increasingly integrated over time, others are dominated by particular groups. As Thompson notes, Latinos make up almost half of farmworkers, blacks make up a third of home health aides, and Asians make up 60% of personal appearance workers. So when the economy sours, certain low-skill, low-income jobs are hit harder than others, and as a result, certain racial groups are hit harder than others

Thompson argues that a disparity in education explains these racial differences. But education is only part of the story. The real story lies elsewhere, in something called “network effects,” which Thompson only mentions in passing.

The old saying—“it’s not what you know but who you know”—matters quite a lot in explaining occupational segregation. Employers fill well over half of all jobs via personal word-of-mouth referrals, and certain jobs, including those listed above, are filled almost exclusively via insider referrals.

A person’s contacts pass along information about the job opening and then often vouch for the candidate to the prospective employer. But job referral networks tend to be racially and occupationally segregated for reasons owing mostly to the idea that birds of a feather flock together socially because they create natural and comfortable connections.

Unhappily, black and Latino job referral networks are more likely to include people who are employed in low-skill, low-income jobs like bus driving and farm work, owing to past discrimination. What’s more, these networks are self-reinforcing. That is, going forward, people who make use of those social networks are far more likely to be referred via word-of-mouth to the same kinds of jobs. So Latinos will continue to take up jobs as domestic workers, for example, because the people in their networks are already employed in those kinds of jobs.

Thompson thinks that the explanation for occupational segregation is less network effects and more education. But education itself is a function of self-reinforcing network effects, this time in our neighborhoods. Public schools get their funding from local property taxes, and, like social networks, those local neighborhoods are racially segregated, which means that poor black and Latino schools are underfunded and contain predominantly poor students with greater material needs. In turn, these schools produce students with fewer skills. And of course, over time, those students are more likely to work in low-wage, low-skill jobs, and to live in poor segregated neighborhoods with underfunded schools.

Thus, even if intentional discrimination were to end tomorrow, occupational segregation will continue indefinitely. Indeed, until we address the problem of network effects, the everyday processes that we take for granted—referring our friends for a job or choosing a neighborhood on the basis of public schools—will continue to reproduce racial inequality.

Daria Roithmayr is the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Professor of Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She is the author of Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).

The New Southern Strategy: GOP plays the race card (again)

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

At a recent Tea Party meeting in Hood County, Texas, Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made bold statements reeking of white supremacy and Christian nativism, suggesting that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a “divine revelation from God […] yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation […] The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.” And just months prior to that event, in speaking to the North Tea Party on behalf of his son Ted (who was then running for Senate), Rafael urged the crowd to send Obama “back to Kenya.”

In the wake of the political dysfunction, gridlock, and rightwing obstruction, these statements certainly gesture toward important questions. Namely, is Rafael Cruz merely a “bad apple” that threatens to spoil the GOP or are his comments indicative of a larger strategic rhetoric that resonates with the lesser angels of our nature?

We suggest the latter.

Since the “Southern Strategy” whereby the GOP turned its back on Civil Rights and began courting white Southerners who believed they were victims of a new reverse racism social order, the Republican Party has employed subtle (and not so subtle, as witnessed above) rhetoric that turns on implicit anti-Black and anti-immigrant messages. It is said no better than former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater’s 1981 remarks in which he laid bare the GOP racialized strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”  By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  I’m not saying that.  But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.  You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Hence, Ronald Reagan’s evocation that “welfare queens” were gaming the system sent a clear yet implicit message: Your taxes are high because Lyndon Johnson’s programs are funneling your money to undeserving and lazy black women.  When a group that supported George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran a television advertisement that blamed Michael Dukakis for murders committed by Willie Horton (a black parolee who broke into a white couple’s home), the message baited white fears about young black male violence.  When Jesse Helms, a white senator from North Carolina, faced black challenger Harvey Gantt in 1990, Helms’s camp ran a television advertisement showing the hands of a white person crumbling a rejection letter with the voiceover: “You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast just a few days shy of the election and boosted Helms to victory in what was previously a dead heat.

And in relation to Obama, we have a new Southern Strategy: Cruz’s comments fall lock and step with GOP and Tea Party elements that have attempted to frame Obama as either culturally out of place if not legally unable to hold the presidency. Due in part to the conservative conspiracy theorists, a small cadre of politicians (e.g., Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, or Nathan Deal, the Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. of Georgia), and already established cultural tropes that conflate whiteness and Christianity with Americaness, by the 2008 election season, studies showed that U.S. residents were more likely to associate American symbols with white politicians (e.g., Hillary Clinton) or even white European politicians (e.g., Tony Blair) than with Obama. Even when American citizens viewed an American flag they then showed implicit and explicit prejudice toward African Americans in general and reluctance to vote for Obama when compared to those not exposed to the flag.

Simply put, Barack Obama did not fit most American’s implicit idea of an authentic American, and the GOP has seized upon that opportunity to engage in the latest state of the New Southern Strategy. The playing of the race card, even in implicit fashion, remains an efficacious political strategy for those on the Right.

Matthew W. Hughey is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is assistant professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law.  They are co-authors of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (forthcoming in 2014 from New York University Press).

The First American Muslims

—Sylviane A. Diouf

This week, 1.2 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. Among them will be millions of believers throughout the Americas. While most people think Middle Eastern immigrants brought Islam to these shores, hundreds of thousands of West African Muslims preceded them and left significant marks of their faith and experience, including in the written word.

They have been mostly forgotten, but as my research shows, Muslims—mostly from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria—were among the very first Africans to be transported to all parts of the Americas (I study cases in twenty countries) as early as 1503. Some were teachers, students, judges, religious and military leaders, pilgrims to Mecca, and traders.

In the Spanish territories, whose colonists were only a few years removed from centuries of Muslim rule at home, their arrival was perceived as a threat to the spread of Christianity among Native Americans. But proselytism was not high on the Muslims’ agenda. Even though they made some converts, education and the preservation of the community were their major concerns—as was the difficult transmission of the faith and its rituals to their children, surrounded as they were by practitioners of other religions.

Many Muslims could read and write Arabic and their own languages in the Arabic script. They were not just a few individuals writing for a Western audience like Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley. They were countless people scattered across the New World writing for themselves and their own. From North Carolina to Georgia, from Brazil to Trinidad and Jamaica, although restricted by slavery, they produced letters, excerpts from the Qur’an, prayers, talismans, uprising blueprints, autobiographies, and other manuscripts that are still extant. These documents provide invaluable insight into their intellectual, social and religious lives; their educational attainments prior to deportation; and their personal and collective perspectives.

Most manuscripts have disappeared but some are still being recovered. On October 8, a 223-page copy of the Qur’an was put up for auction. It was written—from memory—in London in 1733 by Ayuba Suleyman Diallo (known in the West as Job ben Solomon), an erudite man from an elite family who had been enslaved in Maryland and was on his way back to Senegal. He owed his freedom to a letter in Arabic he had written to his father, asking to be redeemed. Intercepted and translated, his missive led to his being manumitted. Unbeknownst to all, Diallo’s precious manuscript had been in the private collection of a Californian since the 1960s.

We still have much to learn about the enslaved Africans who are part of the history of Africa, Islam, the Americas, and the global African Diaspora. And, uniquely in the world of American slavery, their own manuscripts are central to the discovery and recovery of their story.

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.