About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"These white folks, they think the world belongs to them": Charleston, Race, and Forgiveness

In the wake of Dylann Roof's racial terrorism in Charleston last week, many Americans were profoundly touched by the forgiveness extended to Roof by the victims' families at his bond hearing.  I was too.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you.”  Others made sure he knew of their pain and suffering, but extended the same forgiveness.

Today, two African-American writers, Kiese Laymon and Stacey Patton, tried to understand these events within the larger context of the nation's bloody racial history.  Laymon's reflections are intensely personal, while Patton's are largely political.

Both of these extraordinary pieces, each in their own way, questions whether white America is worthy of forgiveness -- and whether the granting of forgiveness by black Americans, repeatedly, contributes more to black shame and white blindness than it does to justice.  “These white folks, they think the world belongs to them," Kiese Laymon's grandmother lamented in the wake of the Charleston murders.  And, he implies later in the piece, white folks think they live outside of history, which means beyond accountability or responsibility.  The articles should be read together -- and, white people, you really should read them.  Particularly if you identify as a Christian.  

As for what I think of all of this, its hard to say.  I am white, I'm not a Christian, and I have no faith to test in this circumstance, save perhaps the one I barely hold in the basic goodness of human beings.  I do think that perhaps whites should stop asking for forgiveness, stop expecting it, and stop taking some sort of redemptive pleasure when it is genuinely offered by black people.  

Patton, in her piece, acknowledges that black acts of forgiveness have always been a form of protest as well as self-preservation -- a soul-shout against being a victim, a way to expunge anger, and to tell the oppressor that they are still standing.  But she also notes that the constant white demand for black forgiveness is yet another burden black Americans have always had to carry, one imposed as much by the persistence of white supremacy as by the tenets of Christian faith.  White atonement in our unequal society seems to need black forgiveness first, and Patton wonders whether that is just or sustainable.  

Laymon wonders what it would look like for truth to really be set free:  "What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them."  Laymon worries that if blacks are too quick to forgive, they will perpetuate this white blindness, and thus their own suffering:  "We will heavy-handedly help in our own deception and moral obliteration. We will forget how much easier it is to talk about gun control, mental illness and riots than it is to talk about the moral and material consequences of manufactured white American innocence."  

To even be worthy of forgiveness -- if that is something important -- it is clear that white America MUST look backward, into history, and then walk forward again, understanding how much of who we are (and aren't) today is constituted by that past.  To do otherwise, to ask, in effect, 'why do they keep bringing up the past?, is, as Laymon notes, to act like an abuser.  As Claudia Rankine put it recently, "history’s authority over us is not broken by maintaining a silence about its continued effects."  White atonement must have its own movement, its own logic.  And then, if black forgiveness comes to us -- like the grace it resembles -- so be it.  With Lincoln, we might fondly hope and pray that this "mighty scourge" of slavery and its poisonous legacy will "speedily pass away."  But nothing disappears when we close our eyes.  Other than our ability to see. 

Historian Nell Painter, in a thoughtful New York Times piece this past weekend, noted that the meaning of 'whiteness' in the present tends to be binary:  racist, or empty.  Today, at least, most white Americans embrace racial emptiness, in the form of 'color-blindness."  The problem with this, of course, is that by doing so, they essentially refuse to "shoulder the burden of race in America."  Claiming 'racelessness' is a uniquely white privilege, as is white frustration with the unwillingness (and inability) of blacks to recognize that claim, and to claim it themselves.  

"Eliminating the binary definition of whiteness -- between nothingness and awfulness -- is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line," Painter argues.  Instead, perhaps, white Americans in the 21st century can choose to walk the path that so many white crusaders for racial justice have trod over the centuries, and see their 'whiteness' as inseparable from the abolition of white privilege and racial inequality.  Embed social justice in its very meaningIn the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”

Thursday, December 04, 2014

I am a white man, stumbling...

Below are Eric Garner's final words, before his life was snuffed out by a New York City cop.  It reads like a dark unwritten sequel to Langston Hughes' "I, Too, Sing America" --the sequel that ends not with ashamed whites welcoming him to the table, but rather with him kicking the table over, and understanding that white supremacy is beyond shame.

"Get away [garbled] for what? Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today. Why would you...? Everyone standing here will tell you I didn't do nothing. I did not sell nothing. Because everytime you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me [garbled] Selling cigarettes. I'm minding my business, officer, I'm minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don't touch me. Do not touch me. [garbled] I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe."

I am a white man. All my adult life I have tried, in my own stumbling way -- and with all of my limitations -- to be a race traitor. 

What do I mean by that? 

I don't mean trying to be 'color blind,' which really amounts to nothing more than complicity with oppression. White man, don't tell me you 'don't see race.' What the hell are you looking at? 

And by 'race traitor' I don't mean trying to get right with God by cleansing my mind and soul of bias. What good is it to have one's conscience clean, and one's hands dirty? What good is it to walk away from Omelas? What does that change? 


To be a traitor is not to walk away from something you reject. 

To be a traitor is to walk right up to what you reject, and kick it over. Treason to whiteness, as Noel Ignatiev once wrote, is loyalty to humanity. And treason, by definition, is a political act.

NONE of us will breathe, until white Americans collectively recognize the devastating power that racial subordination has over daily life in this country, and how implicated we are in it. We'd best dis-enthrall ourselves, and quickly. 

As sickened as I've been by the reactions of so many whites to recent events, I have been truly inspired by the willingness of so many people to get out in the streets. I'm trying to hold on to the belief that the moral arc of the universe does in fact bend toward justice. But holy shit is that arc long, and I fear I lack the vision to see over the far horizon.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

East Siders, Write In Marcus Mitchell for City Council in Ward 3

Voters in Providence’s 3rd ward here on the East Side have the chance to make history on Tuesday, by writing in Marcus Mitchell for City Council in his race against Kevin Jackson.  I believe we should take it.  In conjunction with the election of Jorge Elorza as mayor, it's a vital step toward making our city government more responsive, honest, open, and representative of our increasingly diverse, young and creative population.

I have lived here for a decade.  My wife and I are raising our children here, and we long ago fell in love with the youthful, creative, and quirky exuberance of Providence.  We’ve made our home here.  We want our kids to see its politics and government as something that is noble and important, worthy of their time, consideration and respect.  I am an American History professor, and I write and teach about cities, politics, and social movements.  One of the things I’ve learned over the years, and that I constantly try to impress upon my students, is that history teaches us how truly ephemeral – and recent – societies governed by democratic institutions and the rule of law truly are.  This country has really only been a functioning democracy for just over 3 decades, and that accomplishment is under constant threat even now.  Most people throughout human history have lived in societies where the power to make the rules – the laws -- was determined by birth, by wealth, by ‘connections,’ and by violence.  Most people today still do.  It is often said that we get the government we deserve.  Providence – and my children – deserve a municipal government filled with citizens who understand that the power we give them is a sacred trust, which they exercise with us, not over us, or for their own direct benefit.

We have some important choices to make in Providence this year, I’ve recently realized.  It wasn’t just Buddy Cianci’s campaign for mayor, and his long (and ongoing) proclivity for treating democratic laws and processes with disrespect, that woke me up to this.  It was Kevin Jackson’s participation in his campaign that got me.  I honor and appreciate Jackson’s service to the neighborhood.  I agree with him on many policy issues.  And like Tom Waits, I like my town with a "little drop of poison."  But this is too much.  His behavior tells me that he's become a bit too comfortable in his seat.  As historian Robert Caro once said of NYC highway maven Robert Moses, he originally sought power because of the things it would enable him to do; later, he did things because of the power it would bring him. 

Surely the people of Summit/Mt. Hope don’t need to settle for this.  We can’t.  We will be failing our children if we do.  Even if we think that Jackson is often ‘right’ on policy issues, or that Cianci is ‘effective,’ the cost is simply too high.  Mussolini, they say, used to make the trains run on time.  There are lots of people right in our own neighborhood who could serve on the City Council and make those trains run on time -- but who could also do good while doing well.  We don’t have to settle for a mess of pottage, when something more nourishing is within our grasp.

We need to elect someone who fights the good fight while using power in a responsible way.  We're about to send Aaron Regunberg to the State House, for example.  I believe Marcus Mitchell is also one of these people.  

While I can't claim to 'know' Marcus, I have talked with him quite a bit over the past few weeks.  We share some personal experiences, having to do with family and health, and I know he has answered the call to run at considerable personal sacrifice.  

I have found Marcus to be a decent, thoughtful person, a good listener, with an empathetic sensibility that aims toward inclusion, civility, and moderation.  I believe his commitment to the public good is genuine and deeply-felt, and that he would seek to build on the movement that puts him into office, rather than abandoning it once safely on the Council.  While he is an idealist, he isn’t a naive one.  I know where he came from in Philly, and I doubt anything he has seen or will see here will throw him. His Quaker sensibilities seem to infuse his approach to politics, and we certainly could use a councilman who listens, and believes all voices deserve a measure of respect.  I think he has the desire and the ability to bridge differences of race and class in our neighborhood.  People I respect feel strongly about his candidacy.  That goes a long way with me.  Your friends and allies say a lot about you.
Marcus has a vision of the role our councilperson should play in the community:  to knit together the racial and class divisions of Ward 3, find common ground, and make of our diverse neighborhood a model for the city.  We can do that.  But only we can do that.

We have not just a chance to make history on Tuesday – we have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to do so.  I will proudly write in Marcus Mitchell, and connect the two arrows.  You should too.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Are teaching American history and teaching patriotism the same thing?

The recent controversy about how American history should be taught in public schools (in Colorado and elsewhere) has me thinking a lot about patriotism, and what it would mean to teach it -- and why so many Americans seem to think that teaching a fuller version of our national history somehow diminishes it (and us). 

I assigned a thought provoking essay by George Kateb in my Just War Theory class this semester, "Is Patriotism a Mistake," and that's pushed me a bit too.  Kateb argues that patriotism, in its essence, is an attack on the Enlightenment.  One's country is an abstraction, not a principle; morally speaking, there is 'no there there.'  A moral principle is by definition universal, while patriotism decidedly is not.  Patriotism makes self-love and self-concern into an ideal - and the inevitable result, Kateb concludes, is self-preference.  And violence.

As an American history professor, I'm having difficulty figuring out how one 'teaches patriotism,' and indeed whether one should consciously seek to do so at all.  

If we assume that patriotism is defined as love of country -- as opposed to nationalism or jingoism, which includes an assertion that our country is somehow 'better' or 'superior' to others -- then I fail to see how teaching an American history drained of conflict, ambiguity, and wrongful deeds encourages students to love their country, any more than loving our spouse requires us to willfully ignore their flaws and mistakes. 

I have been teaching and writing about the history of race, inequality, war and politics for two decades now, and my patriotism remains undiminished, though it is tempered and imperfect, like all love is; how is one to value and respect the lightest parts of us -- the 'better angels of our nature' -- without understanding the dark ones too? 

More to the point, how are we supposed to understand some of the trials and tribulations of other members of our American community in the present (patriotism requires us to love them too, yes?) without opening our eyes to ALL of our history?  If America is a country worth loving, we have nothing to fear from the truth. And if America is NOT a country worth loving, surely patriotism is indeed a mistake.  It is something to be valued as long as valuing it remains consistent with justice; when these two paths diverge, the principled person must plant their seeds in deeper soil.  The task for all of us, of course, is to make our collective enterprise worthy of love. To me, that's patriotism. A relationship is a process, not a golden idol requiring genuflection.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock...

Something uplifting, to share with you on this lovely Mother's Day morning.

Early in 1973, the 74 year-old writer E.B. White received a letter from a man who had lost faith in humanity.

White -- the author of Charlotte's Web as well as the widely-used Elements of Style -- generously took the time to dash off a short but heartfelt note:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

E. B. White
March 30th, 1973

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The mass incarceration state, and American barbarity

Yesterday, the National Research Council published a massive 464-page report that looks at the extraordinary four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction.  The report, which was commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, is a devastating confirmation of the ground-breaking work of Heather Ann Thompson, Michelle Alexander, Bruce Western and others on the American mass incarceration state -- what Alexander has called 'the New Jim Crow.'  Emily Badger has a good summary of it in today's Washington Post.

1 out of every 100 American adults is now in prison or jail -- the highest in the world, and 5 to 10 times higher than other Western democracies.  Nearly 1/4 of the world's prison population is in the United States.  But this actually undercounts how many of our citizens are caught up in this system, because it doesn't include people on probation or parole:

One must keep in mind that most of those nearly 8 million people are young, black or Latino, and swept up into the criminal justice system because of small-scale drug possession crimes and racially-targeted policing.  The consequences, for these individuals and their families and communities, are devastating:  they lose access to public housing, student loans, Food Stamps, and -- in far too many states -- the right to vote and serve on a jury.  They also generally lose access to employment.  

If a nation's government budgets tell us something about what that country values, what Americans now care about is abundantly clear:  militarism abroad, and incarceration at home.  State spending on corrections has increased 400% since 1980, with state prison populations growing by 475%.  This has taken place during a time of declining crime rates -- and there is no evidence that mass incarceration has contributed in any way to that decline.  There is plenty of evidence of its devastating impact on families, communities, and public priorities.  The vast majority of these arrests have been for small-time drug violations, particularly for people of color, even though their use of illegal drugs is no greater than that of whites.  

Stunningly, in many states the criminal justice system has become the primary provider of health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, job training and education for low-income adults.  If you've ever wondered where all the funding for public higher education has gone, the answer is clear:  the mass incarceration state.  This is just as true in blue states like Massachusetts, as it is in red states in the South and West.  

Much of the barbarity of American life in recent decades has been revealed in the past 10 days, in all of its ugliness -- the mass incarceration state, the death penalty, and the willful racial ignorance of those who interpret our laws. My country tortures (its own people, as well as others), condemns millions of children to lives of poverty and ill-health, and maintains a racial caste system with the taser, the gavel, the syringe, and the morally abhorrent myth of its own color-blindness. It also auctions off its political system to the highest bidder.  As I get older, I'm finding it harder and harder to even understand, let alone feel, patriotism.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Obama's 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative, and the limits of racial uplift

This past Thursday, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.  I of course appreciate what New York Times columnist Charles Blow (and Obama) are emphasizing here, but the materialist part of me gets frustrated with this approach to things. 

The struggles of young black men ultimately don't come down to the lack of hugs from their fathers, though obviously we all need that. Material conditions can facilitate nurturing relationships, and they can undermine them. When one looks to the material conditions under which so many young African-American men live, one finds things that are attributable largely to poverty, and are thus shared by many poor Latino and white kids too. But one also finds conditions that have been uniquely imposed upon blacks in this country, and one must address those too.

If Obama wants to truly address the underlying issues, he would create universal preschool, change the welfare system to directly attack child poverty, desegregate suburban housing and schools along lines of race and class, pump massive resources into inner-city schools, and radically transform our predatory criminal justice system, which does more to destroy the lives of young black boys and their families than any uplift efforts can possibly counter. 

Of course, I know that if Obama had a pliant Congress he actually would do many of these things, so I don't blame him entirely. But there is a danger to having our first black president approach these issues in this way, by essentially containing the problem to the behaviors of black adults, and the institutions in black communities, thereby absolving from responsibility and reparation those public and private institutions that sustain racial inequality and white privilege. On the subject of racial inequality, when something is proposed with which everyone nods in agreement (as appears to be the case here), that probably means it isn't worth much. Bit cynical of me, I suppose.