Q&A with Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land

In Brooklyn’s Promised Land, historian Judith Wellman sheds light on the virtually lost history of Weeksville, an independent free black community in nineteenth-century Brooklyn. 

Founded after slavery ended in New York State in 1827, Weeksville provided a space of safety, prosperity, education, and even power. Its residents owned property, set up their own churches, established two newspapers, and even created a baseball team, appropriately named the Weeksville Unknowns. 

In the interview below, Wellman discusses her research for the book, Weeksville’s most remarkable features, and the national significance of this extraordinary place.

Q: Why is Weeksville important?

Judith Wellman: Through the lens of Weeksville as a unique community, we see how real people dealt with national events and movements in African American and American history. Formed at the end of slavery in New York State, Weeksville was a reaction to the attempt to send free people of color to Africa. Its citizens were involved in virtually every movement for African American rights in the nineteenth century, including the black convention movement, voting rights, Underground Railroad, Civil War and Reconstruction, and the emergence of Progressive reform. Weeksville’s success transcends its unique local history and makes it an important model for the world.

When and how did you first come across the space of Weeksville?

In the early 1980s, I was working with a National Park Service Ranger named Stephanie Dyer. Stephanie lived in the Bronx, but she and I were both working at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. When I visited Stephanie in New York, I thought we were going to visit the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace, but Stephanie took me instead to Weeksville. I’ll be forever grateful for that. And I’ll never forget my first sight of Joan Maynard, founding director, coming down the narrow staircase of one of the old houses on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center. I have been hooked ever since! 

Your study relies mostly on public sources instead of private manuscripts. Could you say more about these materials?

So few early Weeksville residents wrote specifically about their own experiences that we began to look for every public record we could find. Census records recorded (or at least attempted to record) the names of all U.S. residents, including those in Weeksville. They gave us vital information about race, age, sex, occupation, literacy, and property ownership of Weeksville residents. They also gave us names, which we used to look up deeds, assessment records, genealogical materials, and newspaper accounts. Newspapers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, online through the Brooklyn Public Library, provided invaluable details. So did numerous maps. Most unexpectedly, we also found many images relating to Weeksville’s houses, institutions, and people.

This book includes forty-two images and six maps, to give readers a sense of Weeksville as a real place. Wherever possible, it also includes direct quotations from Weeksville’s residents, so readers can hear real voices.   

You described your approach as both chronological and topical. Which period between 1770 and 2010 would you consider to be the most representative or most important in Weeksville’s development?

I most enjoyed learning about Weeksville in the two decades before the Civil War, when it was first founded and grew. By 1855, 521 people lived in Weeksville. Eighty-two percent of them were African Americans. It was a cosmopolitan community, attracting people from the eastern U.S. (including New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland) and also from the West Indies and Africa.

Although only the school principal—Junius C. Morel—was nationally known before the Civil War, Weeksville was home to a variety of remarkable people, including Francis P. Graham, “a man of many eccentricities,” as noted by the New York Times, who was accused of participating in the Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, went to Liberia, and then returned to New York City. He later became a minister, shoemaker, and the largest resident landowner in Weeksville. His nephew (or perhaps his natural son), James LeGrant, became Weeksville’s only carpenter. James LeGrant married Lydia Ann Elizabeth Simmons LeGrant, one of only four women in Weeksville who owned land. All of these people and more lived on the block just north of the current Weeksville Heritage Center house, where the Kingsborough housing project now stands.

How was this community rediscovered in 1966? Was there any historical reason behind this rediscovering moment?

Weeksville was rediscovered in the context of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s. Major credit for this rediscovery goes to Jim Hurley, formerly an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy and Vice Consul to Pakistan. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Hurley was giving tours of New York City neighborhood through the Museum of the City of New York. In 1968, he offered a noncredit workshop through the Pratt Institute of Community Development called “Exploring Bedford-Stuyvesant and New York City.” Delores McCullough and Patricia Johnson were students in this course, and they focused on Weeksville. This group identified the old Hunterfly Road. Then Joseph Haynes, an engineer for the Transit Authority and a professional pilot, took Jim Hurley on a flight to take photos of the old landscape.

The following year, in 1969, the Model Cities Redevelopment Program decided to demolish several old houses near the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. Local residents, including William T. Harley, students from P.S. 243, and Boy Scouts from Troop 342 worked with Jim Hurley, who had a small grant to retrieve objects from these houses before they were demolished. Among other items, they found a Revolutionary War-era cannonball (Weeksville was on the pathway of British troops who came to Long Island) and a tintype of woman who came to be known as the Weeksville Lady.

Local supporters organized Project Weeksville to continue this research. Barbara Jackson worked with students in P.S. 243; Robert Swan did detailed research; Loren McMillan and students from P.S. 243 convinced New York City to designate Weeksville as a landmark. Joan Maynard became Director of the new Society for the Preservation of Weeksville and Bedford-Stuyvesant history, bringing this grassroots preservation effort to national attention. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

What are the most remarkable features of Weeksville? 

Weeksville was a success story. So often we hear about the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of African Americans surviving as free people of color. All of this is important. We need to know this. But if we focus not on what people in the dominant culture did to (or for) African Americans and highlight what African Americans did for themselves, we often find a very different, much more positive story.

This book highlights the experience of ordinary people who together created an extraordinary community—a place of physical safety, high levels of property ownership (about thirty percent of adult men owned property), political participation, education and literacy (with a 93 percent literacy rate for young adults in the 1860s), and the development of community institutions (two churches, a school, an orphan asylum, and a home for the aged) that ultimately formed an important grassroots basis of social reform—the Progressive movement—in the early 20th century.

By the 1850s and 1860s, they had attracted the attention of nationally known African American leaders. People such as Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Rufus L. Perry made Weeksville the headquarters of the African Civilization Society (designed to set up communities of free people in West Africa). Maritcha Lyons made a career as an assistant principal in the Weeksville school, the first person in the U.S. to mentor both African American and European American student teachers together. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, daughter of one of Weeksville’s early landowners, became an early woman doctor.

One of Weeksville’s most noticeable features is that the whole village was dramatically changed—virtually wiped out—by the expansion Brooklyn’s street grid after completion of the Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s. Today, only a very few of Weeksville’s pre-Civil War buildings remain, including the ones on Hunterfly Road, now owned by the Weeksville Heritage Center.

How does remembering Weeksville shed light on the future of African American communities and our society at large?

Weeksville’s citizens wanted to make real in their own lives the American ideal that all people are created equal. Ironically, to fulfill this dream, they had to move to a place outside the control of the dominant culture. As one of about one hundred African American intentional communities before the Civil War, Weeksville fulfilled its goals as a place of safety, property ownership, education, and employment for its residents.

The residents of Weeksville formed a unique community in a unique time and place, but their message transcends that uniqueness to speak to us all, as citizens of this world in the early 21st century. Specifically, Weeksville challenges us as citizens of this world to consider the usefulness of separatism versus integration as a way to create places of respect and empowerment for all people.

As a historian of European American background, how did you become involved in the project?

This project actually started out as a National Register nomination, not a book. In 2003, Pam Green, Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, invited me to work with them on a National Register nomination for the Weeksville houses. We had a wonderful team of people—Cynthia Copeland, Judith Burgess-Abiodun, Theresa Ventura, Lee French, Victoria Huver, and others—with everyone working on different sources. We were all astounded by how much we found. The project kept growing, until it finally became this book.

Truly, in so many ways, I am an outsider to Weeksville. I did not grow up in Weeksville. I did not grow up in any African American community. So there is much that people who grew up there would instinctively know but about which I am completely unaware.

Yet, by their success, the people of Weeksville transcended their own small unique community. They spoke to Americans—white as well as black—across the country, today as well as in the nineteenth century. We all—as citizens of this world—need to know their stories, so that we can learn something from them.

World Toilet Day: Haiti’s tragic cholera epidemic

In honor of World Toilet Day coming up on November 19, one of our authors, Sara Fanning, and her husband discuss a possible solution to Haiti’s tragic cholera epidemic. 

—Sara Fanning and Rob Curran

Haiti has never fully recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010. Widespread homelessness, impassable roads, food insecurity, and access to clean drinking water continue to hinder recovery efforts.

But perhaps the biggest problem is created by one of the most basic human functions—defecation.

Cholera, though eliminated before the earthquake, has come roaring back and shows little sign of abating. This deadly disease is spread through contact with infected feces. Despite public awareness campaigns, thousands in cities like Cap Haitien and Port-au-Prince, are still using the “flying toilet” – a plastic bag – and spreading the disease from person to person, house to hous

Lack of sanitation is foreign aid’s dirty little secret.

United Nations Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson recently singled out sanitation as a “staggering” problem for as many as 2.5 billion people. And yet, according to IRFC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), sanitation receives 27% of global funding far less than that given to clean water availability. In Haiti only 29% of the ­population has access to any sanitation resources.

It’s hard to convince authorities that sanitation must be addressed ahead of more obvious needs like food security. So what is to be done? American ecologist Sasha Kramer is addressing sanitation and food security at the same time.

Kramer has lived and worked in Haiti off and on for over ten years, and she knows the problems facing Haiti well. She and her team at SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihood) have distributed hundreds of composting toilets in areas most affected by cholera. Although building and distributing toilets is SOIL’S primary mission, they also collect human waste. Kramer wanted to figure out a use for the thousands of pounds of waste her toilets were producing. And so “the poopmobile” (as Kramer calls it) was born. It’s a green Subaru truck, with a flat-bed large enough to fit the 60 drums of waste (900 gallons worth) collected from the toilets on a weekly basis. The waste is then stirred with sugar-cane pulp and stored in large wooden silos for nine months. At the end of nine months, the compost is sent to a lab to test for pathogens. Scientific research has shown that treated human compost is no more dangerous than animal manure.

When we visited Haiti recently, Kramer took us on a tour of her experimental farm and shared stats she’s gathered on the impact of SOIL’s fertilizer on crop yields. According to her numbers, $60,000 worth of spinach can be produced from a hectare of land treated with SOIL’s fertilizer versus $3000 worth in the same patch of land if left untreated. Looking over the test fields, the contrast could not be clearer between the lush crops of sorghum, banana trees and amaranth spinach on the plots treated with what Kramer calls “humanure” and neighboring control plots. For example, the banana trees in the untreated soil are stunted to chest-height, while those on the composted soil stand 20 foot high – even though both sets were planted at the same time.

When you see the results of SOIL’s fertilizing system and look over the eroded fields and hills of the rest of Haiti, you can’t but think (and hope) how this fertilizer could transform the landscape of Haiti. Deforestation and over-farming have rendered the top soil into little more than dust in most rural communities. The sight of teams of men breaking up this soil with picks is painful in its futility. In the days of French plantations, Haiti was the biggest agricultural producer in the world; now, it cannot even feed itself. More than 80 per cent of Haiti’s farms fail to produce enough food to feed household members let alone have surpluses. Haiti has one of the world’s lowest rates of chemical fertilizer usage – less than one kilogram per hectare of arable land, compared with more than 100 kilograms per hectare in the U.S., according to World Bank estimates. With more than two-thirds of the Haitian population dependent on farming as the main source of income, investment in low cost fertilizer is essential to the economic improvement of the entire country.

For developing countries like Haiti, which can’t afford the billions of dollars of investment required to establish sewage systems or provide fertilizer subsidies, Kramer’s simple but effective system is a way to kill two birds with one stone. A fleet of “poopmobiles” would be the only major capital investment required for SOIL to transform both sanitation and food supply in Haiti.

Around the world, food and sanitation problems often go hand in hand. As Deputy Secretary General Eliasson makes his push for “toilets for all” ahead of World Toilet Day on November 19, he should look to SOIL’s poopmobiles and Kramer’s low cost solution as an answer to Haiti’s needs.

Sara Fanning is an assistant professor of history at Texas Woman’s University and the author of Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement. Her husband, Rob Curran, is a financial and travel writer whose work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune.com among others.

[This post originally appeared on GlobalPost.]

The satiric lesson of ‘Dear White People’

—Pamela Newkirk

[This article originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Rarely is a white audience afforded a lucid and freewheeling response to the deluge of indignities blacks still endure. Instead, reaction to the barrage of stereotypes embodied in many Tyler Perry films, the one-dimensional depiction of blacks in news or reality television, or whites’ insulting appropriation and commodification of a hard-earned black urban culture, is seldom considered.

Now Dear White People, appropriately set on an elite and predominantly white university campus, delivers a timely and barely satiric lesson on why, for many blacks, tensions continue to simmer beneath the nation’s facade of racial harmony and transcendence. The film’s writer-director, Justin Simien, lays out an ambitious lesson plan to reveal how racial stereotypes play out on an elite campus that claims to celebrate diversity.

Inclusion in such settings typically means a small number of blacks fitting into preconceived notions of who and what they are. And for many, the stereotype of black life—of a monolithic, urban slang-wielding group that glorifies criminality and crass consumerism—is more salient than the reality of black individuality.

So many conflate blackness with an underachieving urban underclass that, for some white filmgoers, it’ll come as a surprise that blacks don’t wish to be viewed as products of street culture. Nor do they relish the curiosity of whites who touch their hair or inquire about its texture, manageability, or authenticity. The individuality and dignity readily accorded whites are often denied blacks, so few African-Americans manage to escape some of the slights deftly depicted on screen.

Even at elite colleges, many high-achieving African-Americans are often addressed by their white peers as if aliens from a rap video, rather than as fellow classmates from similar or even more-privileged backgrounds. Why white students feel entitled to use the N-word, or to affect urban slang when greeting their black classmates, is both confounding and yet all too familiar.

One character in Dear White People, a prototypical nerd and gay writer, is assumed to be a member of the Black Student Union and to live in black housing when in reality he feels as alienated by many blacks as he does by the larger culture. A girl from the South Side of Chicago is so determined to fit in that she conforms to a narrowly prescribed, self-deprecating role; while the main character, Sam White, is the agitator whose provocative campus radio show, Dear White People, not only catalogs the daily slights but lashes back. In one show she mockingly counsels: “Dear White People, don’t dance.” But behind the scowl is the pain and frustration of a sensitive aspiring filmmaker who privately favors the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman over Spike Lee.

While Sam speaks for the black students, she is understood best by her perceptive white boyfriend. He alone among the characters sees and fully appreciates the person beneath the skin. It is here where we are granted a close-up look at the intricate dance that is race, the complicated series of endlessly variable calculations that defy neat categories or lazy shorthand. It’s all covered, sometimes tumbling all at once from the screen with such velocity that one may at times miss the subtlety.

What becomes clear is that the central black characters are anything but the interchangeable cartoon cutouts they are in the imaginations of their white—and sometimes their black—peers. The cost of acceptance in predominantly white settings is often great, as is the temptation to insist that America has come so far on the racial front that whites can be considered the new victims of discrimination who can mindlessly evoke black stereotypes for fun.

In the end it’s not their race that unites these highly individual black students at the proverbial cafeteria table, but rather the barrage of indignities that effectively obliterates their differences. It’s the persisting erasure—the inability to see them as unique individuals—that cuts so deeply.

Recognition or even denial may account for some of the uneasy laughter I heard in the Upper West Side theater where I was among an age- and racially-diverse New York audience. Not all will agree that the filmmaker’s incisive critique is justified, but this film is certain to be discussed, on campuses and elsewhere, for many weeks and years to come.

Pamela Newkirk is Professor of Journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2012).

Not a monster: Society’s creation of men who use violence

—Hillary Potter

The surveillance video footage released this week that depicts professional football player Ray Rice rendering Janay Rice unconscious with a single punch seems to have evoked a fairly unified opinion of Mr. Rice’s actions and how he should be sanctioned. It appears most of the public sentiment about Mr. Rice’s brutal actions is condemnation of the assault. These denunciations came in the form of calls for Mr. Rice’s permanent ousting from the National Football League and for Rice to be criminally prosecuted and incarcerated​—all of which satisfy standards of punishment in U.S. society.

Although already sanctioned months ago by the NFL commissioner with a two-game suspension after the release of a video that captured images after the assault took place, the commissioner and Baltimore Ravens management levied heftier sanctions. The collective public cheer for the swift actions of Ravens management and the NFL to, respectively, release and suspend Mr. Rice is welcomed in the wake of the often racially divided responses to last month’s shooting death of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. As a scholar and activist who critically interrogates the roles and impacts of race, gender, and socioeconomics on crime, criminality, and criminal legal procedures, I am pleased the NFL is no longer maintaining its complicity in Mr. Rice’s violent actions toward a person he presumably loves.

Aside from my personal concern for gendered violence, which overwhelmingly finds girls and women as the targets or victims of this form of transgression, this case seized my attention because of my research that especially focuses on the intersecting role of race, gender, and socioeconomics in the manifestation of and responses to intimate partner abuse and violence. The tactics used by abusers to control and harm their mates (and their children) have little variance across race, culture, and class; what frequently varies are responses by victims, family and friends of the couple, legal system officials, and factions of the general public because of distinct sociocultural views, values, and customs.

I have read and heard recent comments about Mr. Rice referring to him as a monster, an animal, and a “piece of shit.” Whether there is video documentation or not, I wish that assaultive behaviors like Mr. Rice’s​—by men of any race​—would always produce such a visceral reaction by others and I hope the average person is always disturbed by abuse and violence subjected on girls and women by their so-called partners.

There is, however, a minority who essentially supports Mr. Rice’s actions because of a perception that Ms. Rice slapping at or spitting on Mr. Rice was provocation or justification for Mr. Rice’s assault. In my research, victims are placed at the center of the analysis and I view them as the experts in their lived experiences. This must also be the way we consider the present case. The brutality against Ms. Rice must remain central to this case, but only to the extent that she is not blamed for Mr. Rice’s actions. Furthermore, that the couple married after the assault is not to be judged by those who are not privy to Ms. Rice’s experiences and emotions. Many women remain in relationships with abusive mates for a variety of reasons, and it behooves uninformed purveyors of this case to educate themselves on the virtual entrapment of women subjected to abuse by their intimate partners.

Those who victimize others must also be placed at the center of the analysis. However, deeming Mr. Rice a monster, an animal, or a “piece of shit,” serves no one. This labeling is a copout. To simply call Mr. Rice a monster​—just as is done with serial and mass murderers​—is easy, because doing so distances the abuser from the “regular guy,” and explaining abusive and violent behaviors without tenuous biological or supernatural explanations is complex, confusing, and messy. But we must reflect on the social and cultural mechanisms of our society that instill and preserve violent and controlling behaviors in our boys.

Once we recognize and acknowledge sociocultural explanations for abuse and violence, we are forced to acknowledge our role as a society in creating these “monsters.” Indeed, we know that many regular guys are abusers. The regular guy who abuses girls and women often operates in clandestine locations (such as the home) or his behaviors are known or seen by others who do not or cannot confront the regular guy’s abusive behaviors. But some regular guys who violate others are exposed. Ray Rice, in effect, is a regular guy.

I also believe aiming the mirror on society’s self will push us toward a criminal legal system that rejects ineffective punishment and banishment methods and adopts a system focused on accountability, healing, restoration, rehabilitation, and treating each other with humanity. To be sure, this notion is the basis of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative that seeks to ensure boys and young men of color are provided with the resources necessary to realize socially productive and healthy lives. Although the initiative has been duly criticized for overlooking analogous plights faced by girls and young women of color, it has generally been accepted as “the right thing to do” to provide boys and young men of color with equal opportunities for success as their white counterparts.

Thus, even as a Black feminist criminologist who knows, works with, advocates for, and gathers personal stories from women victims of intimate partner violence, I promote and believe in a restorative and transformative approach that does not desert the abusive and violent men that our society has produced. These abusive men were once harmless young boys, but were ultimately “trained” by the best to become violent and controlling. They were trained by the gendered customs that are permeated throughout our society and have been transmitted through the generations for generations. Today’s abusive men were schooled in social scripts that trained them that girls and women are inferior to males; therefore, it is their right as men to control “their women” in any ways they see fit. This patriarchal training program spans a broad range of abusive and controlling behaviors, some of which involve blatant physical violence and others that result in discriminatory employment, legal, and social policies that suppress girls and women.

As the sports-based saying goes, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Ray Rice is not a rare, unexplainable creature, and Janay Rice is not to blame. Ray Rice must be held accountable for his actions, but we must also place universal blame in the societal norms that social institutions and members of our society continue to espouse, and that too many men (and some women) are too complacent with and too fearful to abandon.

Hillary Potter, a resident of Denver, Colorado, is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of Battle Cries: Black Women and Intimate Partner Abuse (NYU Press, 2008).

Between the world and #Ferguson

—Jelani Cobb

[This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.]

When I was eighteen, I stumbled across Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.” The poem, a retelling of a lynching, shook me, because while the narrator relays the details in the first person, the actual victim of that brutish ritual is another man, unknown to him and unknown to us. The poem is about the way in which history is an animate force, and how we are witnesses to the past, even to that portion of it that transpired before we were born. He writes,

darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

Nothing save random fortune separated the fate of the man who died from that of the one telling the story. Errin Whack and Isabel Wilkerson have both written compellingly about the long shadow of lynching. It is, too often, a deliberately forgotten element of the American past—one that is nonetheless felt everywhere in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests followed the shooting of Michael Brown, who was eighteen years old, by a police officer. One can’t make sense of how Brown’s community perceived those events without first understanding the way that neglected history has survived among black people—a traumatic memory handed down, a Jim Crow inheritance.

It took sixteen days for Brown’s body to be buried, an extended postscript that included three separate autopsies, the emergence of duelling interpretations of his last moments, and the resolution of precisely nothing about how race, media, and policing operate in the United States. A year ago, people gathered in anticipation of a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. During that case, images of people wearing hoodies, as Martin had when he was shot, proliferated on social media. This month, it has been portraits of people with their hands raised, in recognition of a number of witness accounts that Brown tried to surrender before being shot by police officer Darren Wilson. (Wilson, according to press reports, has told people that Brown was running at him.) The idea, in both instances, is that, like Wright’s narrator, any of us could be Martin, Brown, or one of the hundreds of others who have died under questionable circumstances. There is a disturbing sense that this is how we spend our summers now, submerged in outrage, demonstrating, yet again, the hard parameters of public sympathy and the damnable, tiresome burden of racism.

In the days after 9/11, it was common to hear people say that it was the first time Americans had really experienced terrorism on their own soil. Those sentiments were historically wrong, and willfully put aside acts that were organized on a large scale, had a political goal, and were committed with the specific intention of being nightmarishly memorable. The death cult that was lynching furnished this country with such spectacles for a half century. (The tallies vary, but, by some estimates, there were thirty-three hundred lynchings in the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the civil-rights era.) We know intuitively, not abstractly, about terrorism’s theatrical intent. The sight of Michael Brown, sprawled on Canfield Drive for four hours in the August sun, dead at the hands of an officer who was unnamed for a week, recalled that memory. It had the effect of reminding that crowd of spontaneous mourners of their own refuted humanity. A single death can be understood as a collective threat. The media didn’t whip up these concerns among the black population; history did that.

For fifteen days this month, people marched in heat and thunderstorms, amid tear gas, despite the warnings of police styled as a militia, undeterred by the tear gas or the obstinacy of the local bureaucracy. They persisted despite the taint that opportunistic violence and looting imposed upon their efforts.

Linda Chavez wondered on Fox News whether “the ‘unarmed teen’ mantra” really fit Brown, who was six feet four and nearly three hundred pounds and had been caught on video shoplifting—and, it perhaps bears repeating, was a teen, and was unarmed. Chavez was roundly criticized, but she was really only guilty of saying aloud what many others have thought. Whatever happened or did not happen between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson on a winding side street, in the middle of the afternoon, in a non-descript outpost on the edge of a midsized city, whatever we imagine we know of the teen-ager, the salient fact is that he did not live long enough to cultivate his own answers.

I spent eight days in Ferguson, and in that time I developed a kind of between-the-world-and-Ferguson view of the events surrounding Brown’s death. I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more dangerous than the perception that one is a danger. I’m embarrassed to recall that my adolescent love of words doubled as a strategy to assuage those fears; it was both a pitiable desire for acceptance and a practical necessity for survival.  I know, to this day, the element of inadvertent intimidation that colors the most innocuous interactions, particularly with white people. There are protocols for this. I sometimes let slip that I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of reassurance: there is no danger here. And the result is civil small talk and feeble smiles and a sense of having compromised. Other times, in an elevator or crossing a darkened parking lot, when I am six feet away but the world remains between us, I remain silent and simply let whatever miasma of stereotype or fear might be there fill the void.

Fuck you, I think. If I don’t get to feel safe here, why should you?

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press, 2007). Read more of Cobb’s writing via The New Yorker here.

“Sounds familiar”: The revolution in #Ferguson

—Shana L. Redmond

My first efforts to see the real time, on-the-ground happenings in Ferguson was on that day, the same day that alternative media streams temporarily went black. I visited Activist World News Now online for the live stream of Ferguson but I did not get a visual of that embattled community’s resolve; instead I heard it. From beyond the black screen I heard a voice leading a chant:Seven days after the murder of Black youth Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, state governor Jay Nixon instituted a citywide curfew between the hours of midnight and 5am. This effort to tame and remove from view those who continue to protest and rebel against the injustices suffered there and around the country was a part of a larger blackout designed to conceal the escalation of the militarized police state in Ferguson. This strategy on the part of the city’s police department included disabling streetlights and attacking and arresting journalists covering the story.

Solo voice: “Won’t be no police brutality…”

All: “…when the revolution come.”

Solo voice: “Won’t be mass incarceration…”

All: “…when the revolution come.”

This performance, in the step-worn and gas canister-ridden streets of Ferguson, was the sound of protest and all the evidence I needed to document this war zone. The sound showed me that police antagonized protestors. The sound showed me that there were critical and politically diverse numbers of people there, demanding change. The sound showed me that neither voices nor spirits were broken in that city under siege. And the sound showed me that the peoples’ determination to imagine and claim different futures, free from police brutality and mass incarceration (amongst other violences), is alive even when haunted and pursued by death.

Unfortunately, the sounds emanating from Ferguson also showed me that times haven’t changed as much as some insist they have—at least not for African descended people in the U.S. The demands by protestors for alternatives to the frightening present are not new. Marcus Garvey, the inimitable leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), argued a century ago for these futures that we still march for today. This truth is particularly devastating when one considers that one of his most famous speeches on Black violability was compelled by events that occurred 15 miles southeast of Ferguson.

In 1917, Garvey delivered a speech entitled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots.” The bloody events of that massacre, which ensued just over the state line in western Illinois, began with a white mob who attacked the Black working class section of the city over perceived competition for employment. Their murderous nativism was so explosive that the Illinois National Guard was deployed. Garvey’s speech on the incident followed a large silent protest staged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City. Far from condoning this approach, Garvey argued that it was “no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.” He continued,

For three hundred years the Negroes of America have given their life blood to make the Republic the first among the nations of the world, and all along this time there has never been even one year of justice but on the contrary a continuous round of oppression. At one time it was slavery, at another time lynching and burning, and up to date it is wholesale butchering. This is a crime against the laws of humanity; it is a crime against the laws of the nation, it is a crime against Nature, and a crime against the God of all mankind.

The litany of brutalities described here provide a genealogy of state-sanctioned violence that continues to its logical end in contemporary Ferguson, New York City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and countless other locations across the country. As in 1917, the National Guard has again been called to greater St. Louis. Black communities continue to be the laboratories for warfare, testing the efficacy of technology (Ferguson police have employed tanks, snipers, tear gas, and rubber bullets, to name but a few weapons) and enemy narratives that turn murder victims into easily disposable criminals. This is the status of our democracy.

I do not know what special meaning the people who slaughtered the Negroes of East. St. Louis have for democracy of which they are the custodians, but I do know that it has no literal meaning for me as used and applied by these same lawless people. America, that has been ringing the bells of the world, proclaiming to the nations and the peoples thereof that she has democracy to give to all … has herself no satisfaction to give 12,000,000 of her own citizens except the satisfaction of a farcical inquiry that will end where it begun, over the brutal murder of men, women and children for no other reason than that they are black people seeking an industrial chance in a country that they have labored for three hundred years to make great.[1] 


Shana L. Redmond
 is Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is a former musician and labor organizer. Her book, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora, is available now from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter: @ShanaRedmond.


[1] Marcus Garvey, “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots” (1917), reprinted on the “American Experience” website, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/garvey/filmmore/ps_riots.html (accessed August 17, 2014).

Upcoming events with Gerald Horne

Author and historian Gerald Horne will be on a mini book tour this weekend to discuss his two new books, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, released in April 2014 from NYU Press and Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crow, ​out now from Monthly Review Press. 

All events below are free and open to the public.

Friday, July 25 at 7:00pm
New Haven People’s Center, 37 Howe Street, New Haven, CT

Gerald Horne will launch his new book, Race to Revolution: The U.S. and Cuba during Slavery and Jim Crowas part of the People’s World Friday Night Film and Discussion Series. Books will be available for signing at a discounted price. For more information, please contact ct-pww@pobox.com.

Saturday, July 26 at 6:30pm
Sistas’ Place
456 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

Join NYU Press and Gerald Horne for a book signing and discussion on his recently published book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the origins of the United States. This important historical analysis highlights how slavery and ongoing racism are tied into the fabric of US society. Books will be for sale at the event.

Sunday, July 27 at 7:30pm
Red Emma’s
, 30 
W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD

Special double book event! Gerald Horne will present and sign copies of ​The Counter-Revolution of 1776 ​and ​Race to Revolution. RSVP on Facebook (optional).

Our legacy, too: Muslim women and the civil rights movement

—Jamillah Karim

“No one person owns this. This history is a history of thousands of people and we tell hundreds of those stories.”

When I heard former mayor of Atlanta Shirley Franklin speak these sentiments about the civil rights movement on the occasion of the opening of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in my hometown of Atlanta, GA, I could not help but think about the courageous women whose stories are told in my new book Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored with Dawn Marie-Gibson.

Growing up in a Sunni mosque community in Atlanta, originally a temple in the Nation of Islam, I regularly heard the stories of men and women who converted to Islam to boldly protest racism and advance opportunities for African Americans. Through them, I felt that I had inherited firsthand the legacy of the civil rights movement. Later, however, I learned that the “Black Muslims,” as scholars called them, were not considered part of this movement. While the civil rights movement was marked by aspirations to integrate with whites, the Nation of Islam was labeled separatist because it promoted black pride and independence.

A few scholars, however, have resisted the tendency to write African American Muslims out of the movement. With efforts to see the movement beyond the black church and to include Muslim women among leaders of the civil rights era, womanist religious studies scholar Rosetta Ross devotes a chapter of her book Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights to Clara Muhammad, who contributed significantly to the NOI’s beginnings. Ross writes,

“Although she was not a part of what might be called the ‘mainstream’ Civil Rights Movement, Clara Muhammad’s role as one who helped construct the vehicle that transmitted notions of race pride to the Black masses made her a significant participant in the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement” (142).

It was during an interview with Karen, a former member of the Nation in Queens, New York that I realized that Nation women were not unlike the African American women of the civil rights movement. With a tone of “righteous discontent,” Karen described her dedication to the Nation of Islam but also her protest to some of the Nation practices that confined women. Her simultaneous alliance with and protest to male leaders in the organization immediately reminded me of the position of black Baptist women in the South as portrayed by Evelyn Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent.

Quite literally, Nation women were these women before converting. Before the Nation, they had membership or affiliation with the black church, and some were members of civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). No Nation woman that I met proved this connection to the civil rights movement as remarkably as Ana Karim.

Ana was no ordinary woman in the Nation—or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. A SNCC activist carrying out voter registration work in poor, rural areas near Tuskegee Institute, where she attended college, Ana witnessed grave atrocities against African Americans. “I nearly lost my life,” Ana told me, her words bearing no exaggeration. Some of her peers were shot to death fighting for the rights of others. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his invitation, she sat with Muhammad who tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed one of the most horrific acts of inhumanity, perpetrated against a pregnant African American woman.

Elijah Muhammad’s call began to make sense to her: “It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything—just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

Interviewing Ana was a highlight of my career for I had been chosen to tell the story of this remarkable African American Muslim woman. Ana went on to do extraordinary things in the Nation and in the Sunni community that emerged from the Nation under the leadership of Imam W. D. Mohammed. She rose as a leader of African American Muslims—men and women—because, she says, “I assumed the hardship of the civil rights movement. God prepares you for what’s coming in the future.” Ana proves that no one person or one religion owns this history.

Jamillah Karim is co-author (with Dawn-Marie Gibson) of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam (NYU Press, 2014).

What Freedom Summer means to me

—F. Michael Higginbotham

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

The famous line from the song “Summertime,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, captures how I feel when I reminisce about most summers gone by. Playing little league baseball, swimming at the beach or local public pool, or roasting marshmallows over the open fire, playing team tag under the stars, and gazing at fireworks on the 4th of July, all represent the best of what an American summer should entail. Yet, the summer of 1964 brings up very different images of America’s past.

In the summer of 1964, major civil rights organizations implemented a plan to significantly increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Officially called the Mississippi Summer Project but popularly referred to as Freedom Summer, the initiative was a bold step to directly tackle racial exclusion in the political process in a state with, arguably, one of the worst civil rights records. Due to discriminatory laws and practices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, economic punishments, and physical intimidation, black registration in Mississippi was at 6%, the lowest of any state. The plan involved over one thousand volunteers, mostly white college students from northern universities, working closely with civil rights workers and leaders in the Mississippi black community, facilitating black voter registration.

From the onset, most white Mississippians resented any attempts to increase black voter registration, or to alter the racial status quo in any way. During the course of the two and a half month project, massive and often violent resistance occurred, including bombings and burnings of black churches, businesses, and homes; arrests and beatings of volunteers and aspiring registrants; and the murder of four civil rights workers and three state residents. These resistance efforts were successful at dissuading black Mississippians from registering.

While few additional voters were registered during Freedom Summer, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi helped to focus attention on racial barriers to voting rights throughout the South. Recognition that Mississippi was not an aberration but rather a reflection of widespread exclusion of black voters throughout the south, and in some parts of the north, helped further efforts by civil rights groups and leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Lyndon Johnson, to secure passage of voting rights protection on a national scale. The result was the Voting Rights Act (VRA), enacted in 1965, the most democratizing piece of legislation ever passed.

In signing the law, President Johnson termed it “a monumental law in the history of American freedom.” He was right. In less than four years after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. In Mississippi, for example, black registration increased from 6% to 66%.

Certainly substantial progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Much is owed to those brave young participants in Freedom Summer who helped bring attention to the broken promises of democracy for thousands of Mississippi blacks. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an effective VRA. Anything less would diminish the meaning of Freedom Summer.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

Pride Month and Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx

—Amber Jamilla Musser

Last week I waited for an hour to go inside a warehouse and see Kara Walker’s new art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” The line stretched several blocks to see a woman posed like a sphinx with a headscarf. She is rendered in white sugar, so she is grainy to the touch and fine powder falls around her. She looks regal and impassive, staring past her minions—small brown candy boys carrying baskets, fruit, or other objects, who melt slowly into the ground around them.

While Walker is known for her fierce engagement with history, race, and sexuality, you might be asking what this has to do with pride? Though it may be coincidence that Walker’s installation is up during Pride Month, I want to ask what it would mean to think about these projects as overlapping.

Both Pride Parades and Walker’s installation involve bodies—bodies on display, bodies watching other bodies, waiting bodies, nudity. One might even be tempted to say that both are celebrations. Walker’s installation, always controversial, honors many things including the pain and suffering of plantation slavery and the labor of the Domino workers. Pride parades, begun to mark the Stonewall riots, honor LGBT struggles for inclusion and rights. In theory, pride parades offer a way for LGBT people to live in their identities freely by dancing in the streets as they are cheered on by their brethren.

There are differences, however. In Walker’s installation black female sexuality is at once revered and enclosed, animal and human, and the emotions one sees or feels upon encountering the marvelous sugar baby are amplified by the production of distance. A Subtlety is a spectacle; the black boys are spectacles; we gaze upon them and their eyes do not meet ours. In contrast, Pride parades mobilize bodies and invite participation.

These different spaces and conjured embodiments remind us that the gap between these worlds is not just a matter of adding adjectives, but of seeing how history and bodies meet. Pride parades aim to turn historic shame into pride. Walker’s installation, enclosed in a building whose walls ooze history and sugar, asks us to recall pain and shame by making us confront regality. Though people of color are not necessarily estranged from mainstream pride celebrations, the gulf between these displays helps to articulate what happens when we imagine sexuality as liberatory while forgetting that for some it is still embedded in a difficult and complex history. As my forthcoming book, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism, argues this is not a question of merely taking different intersecting identities (black queer female) into account, but asking how celebrating one set of values—pride—threatens to eclipse our ability to understand other experiences, where powerlessness cannot necessarily be overcome with a parade.

Amber Jamilla Musser is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (forthcoming in September 2014 from NYU Press).

The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

In late June, hundreds will convene in Jackson, Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. The 1964 Freedom Summer was one of the most courageous campaigns for freedom in the history of the United States. It built upon heroic work of Mississippi human rights activists who labored without much national media attention and support or protection from the federal government.

After emancipation from enslavement, Black Mississippians were denied basic human rights through a system of white supremacy and racial terror. Mississippi’s state leaders unashamedly promoted and supported Jim Crow apartheid in the state, which included denying voting rights of people of African descent, 42% of its population. Racial violence was a major force in maintaining white supremacy in Mississippi and other southern states.

In the early 1950s, an indigenous network of African-American activists emerged under the banner of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the guidance of movement veteran Ella Baker, young Robert Moses, a Harvard graduate, came to Mississippi in 1961 on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Moses began to recruit Mississippi Black college students and youth to organize for voting and human rights in the state, in coordination with the network local Black freedom fighters. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) soon joined Moses, SNCC, and local NAACP chapters in the effort to secure voting rights in the state.

The white supremacist power structure responded to the upsurge of Black activism with an increased campaign of racial terrorism, harassing, repressing, and in some cases, assassinating local Black activists and movement supporters. The terrorism in the state, which drew almost no attention from the media, inspired the singer Nina Simone to title a protest song “Mississippi Goddam.”

To overcome the ongoing campaign of terror, Bob Moses proposed an intensive campaign known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The project would organize a racially-inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), organize voter registration, and establish a network of Freedom Schools to educate Black children in literacy, math, and African-American history. Given the lack of media attention and the government’s failure to act, Moses advocated bringing in hundreds of white college students to volunteer in the summer project. The national news media and powerful government officials would pay attention if their sons and daughters were in racist, violent Mississippi.

The national leadership embraced Moses’ proposal (despite opposition from the majority of Black Mississippi SNCC organizers)—and in 1964, hundreds of Black and white volunteers from around the United States arrived in segregated Mississippi to confront white supremacy.

The Freedom Summer did not deter violence. On the eve of volunteers coming to the state, three members of CORE—James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman—disappeared and were ultimately found murdered in Neshoba County. Over one thousand activists were arrested in the state between June and October that year; 37 churches were bombed or burned to the ground; and 15 people were murdered, due to white supremacist violence. Local Black communities re-doubled their efforts to provide protection for activists and volunteers; some formed roving, armed patrols to protect their neighbors from attack. Activists from nonviolent organizations even picked up arms to join local Blacks in protecting the community.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) presented a persuasive challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. MFDP leader and spokesperson Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist Black sharecropper, powerfully described, to the U.S. and the world, the violent terror of Mississippi. Hamer passionately illustrated her experience of being evicted from the plantation where she and her husband worked, incarcerated, and brutally beaten for attempting to register to vote.

The National Democratic Party and its leader, President Lyndon Johnson, chose to maintain its relationship with the pro-segregationist Mississippi delegation. The MFDP was offered a compromise of two seats within the pro-segregationist delegation. This compromise was rejected by the MFDP. The national Democratic Party leadership realized the potentiality of the MFDP challenge, particularly as the freedom struggle was winning the fight for voting rights. This led to the undermining of segregationist policies in the Democratic Party in the South and the inclusion of Black people.

On the other hand, some SNCC and CORE activist chose not to rely on political parties, but instead to move in an autonomous direction calling for independent Black political organization. Some began to focus on grassroots, economic development through cooperatives. Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists in the historic Mississippi Delta initiated the cooperative Freedom Farms. The call for Black political self-determination or “Black Power” was also complimented with a call for self-defense particularly since the federal government could not be relied upon for protection, echoing the sentiment of local Mississippians, many from previously nonviolent organizations embraced the advocacy and practice of We Will Shoot Back!

The legacy of a system of apartheid and white supremacy manifested in contemporary institutional racism stills effects Black Mississippi. With it large Black population, Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S. In Jackson, the state capital, a movement has emerged for grassroots Black politics. Jackson is 80% Black, the second highest African-American population of any major city in the U.S.

The People’s Assembly was organized in 2008 in the city’s Ward 2 to elect revolutionary Attorney Chokwe Lumumba to City Council. Born and raised in Detroit, Lumumba had first came to Mississippi in 1971 as a member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1971. The RNA desired to establish in an independent, Black government and socialist economy in the Deep South, including Jackson and the Black majority counties of Mississippi. Lumumba later became the Chairman and co-founder of the pro-Black self-determination, pro-socialist New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). He also worked to bring Bryon De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice and for a Black agenda for city’s first Black Mayor. Lumumba identified himself as a “Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and was a card-carrying member of the MFDP, not the state Democratic Party, which he associated with the legacy of white supremacy.

After Lumumba was elected with 63% of the vote to the Jackson City Council in 2009, the People’s Assembly continued to organize task forces around youth and economic development, educational policy, and improving the ward’s infrastructure, as well as providing direction for the councilman in his voting on the city’s legislative body. This formula served as the model for Lumumba’s election to the city’s Mayor in 2013. In the runoff of the Democratic primary, he earned 58% of the vote while his opponent rose five times of Lumumba’s campaign fund. Lumumba received 86% of the vote during the general election. With this mandate, he planned to expand the People’s Assembly citywide and institute a plan of worker-managed cooperatives to reinvigorate the city’s crumbling economy. Lumumba consciously tied himself to the Mississippi Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Lumumba’s untimely death in February 2014, eight months after his inauguration to Mayor, is a setback to his initiatives and the agenda of the Assembly. But the struggle continues. The People’s Assembly is still building citywide and in May 2014, a Jackson Rising New Economies conference announced Cooperation Jackson, an initiative to organize worker-managed cooperatives in the city as a model for impoverished Black communities in the state.

As we commemorate 1964 Freedom Summer, we must not ignore the continued fight for Black self-determination, democracy, human rights and economic justice in the Mississippi and the U.S. The People’s Assembly and Cooperation Jackson represent contemporary manifestations of this fight and a continuation of the promise of Freedom Summer. Let us not forget: in Mississippi, the struggle for freedom continues!

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

Fox News’ divisive race strategy

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

Right-wing political figures have often defended the content of Fox News and other right-leaning media. A common ploy is the insinuation that the “mainstream” news establishment is in fact biased in favor of liberal ideological framings of issues or that it is actually antiwhite. For example, Sarah Palin famously blamed the “leftist lamestream media” for allegedly pressuring Newt Gingrich to soften his critique of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (while in fact the disapproval came from Fox News), and Palin again insinuated charges of political targeting when she decried the media as attacking right-wing figures with their brand of unfair “gotcha journalism.” Rush Limbaugh also compared the mainstream press to a “drive by shooter except the microphones are guns.” Limbaugh further asserted that the anti-right, mainstream media attempts to “destroy people’s careers. Then they get in the convertible, head on down the road and do it all over again, while people like you and me are left to clean up the mess with the truth. So I call them the drive-by media.”

The Fox News audience is distinct. Numerous studies have found Fox viewers to be less informed about political and current events than viewers of most other broadcast news and cable networks. This could mean either that Fox News performs less effectively in educating viewers or that Fox News attracts less knowledgeable audiences. Other studies have found that individuals who like news with in-depth interviews tend to watch network news and CNN more than Fox, and that individuals who prefer news that aligns with their already-formed opinions are much more likely to watch Fox News (while no such relationship exists for the CNN or network audiences). More research indicates that ABC, CBS, and NBC all favored their own polling numbers and reported “positive” polls for Bill Clinton and “negative” polls for George W. Bush, while Fox appeared to favor exactly the reverse. This would seem to indicate that Fox is simply on the conservative side of media bias. However, while all media outlets have political leanings, Fox News is exceptional in that Fox was especially willing to cite external polling numbers of Clinton if they were damaging—a practice that other news outlets did not perform.

Fox News also appears to cater to ethnocentric assumptions. This discourse has grown with the election of Obama to the White House. In one study, researchers asked panelists where they obtained their televised news about national and international affairs. Roughly one-quarter of respondents indicated that they received their information from Fox News. At the time of the study, questions of Obama’s birth were being raised. When asked if they believed Obama was born in the United States, only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American born. The authors of the study, Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, wrote, “[T]he reinforcing and/or persuasive role of oppositional media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio could make it increasingly difficult to disabuse the sizable minority of individuals disposed to accepting invalid assertions designed to paint Obama as the ‘other.’” In the face of such evidence, many Fox apologists, commentators, and guests often defended the views of Birthers and Tea Party activists. While frequent Fox talking head Ann Coulter claimed that that no one on Fox ever mentioned “Birtherism,” research indicates that not only did Fox News mention it; they ramped up coverage of the Birthers leading up to the April 2011 release of the “long form” birth certificate. Moreover, at least 85 percent (forty-four out of fifty-two) of false claims about Obama’s birth went unchallenged on Fox News. Fox segments repeated that Obama never produced a birth certificate, that Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and that Obama spent $2 million in legal funds blocking the release of his birth certificate.

As social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson make clear in “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Fox News realized in early 2009 that the Tea Party was a major conservative phenomenon in the making and “moved to become [its] cheerleader-in-chief.” Fox began speaking of major Tea Party events weeks in advance and they became more of an advertiser for the Tea Party than a source of news about them. This coverage glorified the future Tea Party events by creating buzz about the expected large crowds and the political and social effect of the rallies. Having just defected from CNN, Glenn Beck traveled to various cities to interview people days before Tea Party rallies even occurred. Skocpol and Williamson contend,

A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber.’” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” . . . [D]uring the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers.

Simply put, Fox did not simply cover Tea Party events as they transpired, but rather helped to create and sediment support for the fledging movement in its weakest stages.

With the alignment of Birther and Tea Party movements with GOP and other hard-right-wing candidates, Fox News is shown to have a significant effect on voting patterns. In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan find that

[t]owns with Fox News have a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point higher Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections, compared to the 1996 elections. A vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive in the 2000 elections. We also find an effect on vote share in Senate elections which Fox News does not cover, suggesting that the Fox News impact extends to general political beliefs. Finally, we find evidence that Fox News increased turnout to the polls.

Consistent with evidence of media effects on political beliefs and voting, this recent research indicates that exposure to Fox News may very well induce undecided viewers to vote for Republican candidates. Together, these findings demonstrate the unique character of Fox News, its power to influence voting patterns, and the makeup of its audience.

Fox News and associates constantly constructed the average white viewer as a hard-working American who is, at base, frightened by the unfair and racialized agenda of Obama. Characterizing the white viewer as an American under the assault of a dark and dangerous “other” implies a racial conflict in which the white viewer is an innocent bystander in the racial drama directed by the Obama administration.

For example, in July of 2008 Glenn Beck engaged in a pithy race-based fear-mongering remark on his Fox News show. He stated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that Obama “is, I believe, a racist.” After other journalists and activists asked him to specify, rationalize, or retract his remarks, Rupert Murdoch defended Beck’s comment. In a November 2009 interview with Australia’s Sky News, Murdoch said,

On the racist thing, that caused a grilling. But he [Obama] did make a very racist comment. Ahhh . . . about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.

Moreover, Sean Hannity joined Murdoch in defending Beck’s assertion that Obama is a “racist.” In discussing Beck’s comment, Hannity stated, “But wait a minute. Wait, hang on a second. When the president hangs out with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years, I’m—can one conclude that there are issues with the president, black liberation theology?”

Right-wing pundit Mark Levin went so far as to frame Obama as a cult-like figure whom whites should reasonably fear as heralding the opening stages of a fascist social order:

There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.

During an October 2008 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated,

I fear that Obama will stir up a race war. You want to ask me what I fear? I think Obama will empower the racists in this country and stir up a race war in order to seize absolute power. I believe that’s what he will do. It will not be as overt as you may think, but it’ll be a subtle race war on every level imaginable.

As the show went on, Savage took an online caller, who stated,

I absolutely agree with you as far as the race war goes. I think the greatest thing that concerns me about Obama is his resentment toward this country. I feel that him and his wife feel that they have fought very hard against whites, and that everything that they have, they are entitled to versus being thankful and feeling privileged for living in this country, and what this country has provided in terms of opportunities.

To this Savage replied, “Correct. And affirmative action helped both of them, there’s no question about it.”

White viewers of Fox were constantly framed as people who should be frightened and apprehensive about issues pertaining to race. In February 2007 Glenn Beck stated that he doesn’t “have a lot of African-American friends [because] . . . I’m afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare.” In this same vein, Bill O’Reilly stated, “Instead of black and white Americans coming together, white Americans are terrified. They’re terrified. Now we can’t even say you’re articulate? We can’t even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescension?” In this way, Fox commentators played up racial fears and anxieties, while painting whites as victims of overly sensitive nonwhites, race-baiters, and political correctness.

Seizing upon this fear, Fox News and right-wing commentators anointed themselves as the real civil rights activists of today’s “anti-white” era. Glenn Beck stated that his Restoring Honor rally was to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” So also, in 2007, Michael Savage stated,

[B]asically, if you’re talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you’re gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it’s become in this country. It’s a whole industry; it’s a racket. It’ s a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males’ birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn’t qualify for it. Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They’re not coming out of women’s hides.

Are they? No, there’s only one group that’s targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.

By stoking racial fears and framing themselves as the true heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative commentators can effectively advance a pro-white agenda that seeks to roll back some of the progressive gains toward equality of the past half-century while mystifying any such overt claim or color-conscious agenda.

These examples illustrate that the white-as-victim narrative both is widely shared and carries resonance across the right-wing media airwaves. Indeed, the story of white victimization is, in our supposedly “post-racial era,” a dominant feature of the media’s obsession with race. The right-wing media calls out to its viewers to identify as racialized white victims. And in competing for audience viewership, networks like Fox attract white viewership by telling them they deserve both social sympathy and a (white) badge of courage for the battle wounds they have received for simply being white. The white audience’s righteous indignation is constructed through a media narrative that tells them they should feel displeasure with the legal initiatives (for example, affirmative action) that are not redressing past discrimination but enacting it upon them in the present. This makes the political quite personal. Such right-wing media discourse reinterprets historical and current patterns into personal attacks in which a black bogey man (today incarnated in the personage of Obama) hates them only because they are white. Importantly, these media messages attempt a paradoxical recovery of white political domination through the discourse of personal white victimization.

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.

[Read a fuller version of this excerpt from The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks on Salon.com.]