Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I'm Not a Racist

“I’m not a racist.” How often I hear and see that statement. I wonder if it’s ever true.

Ideas have much longer lives than people. The simple idea that skin color matters in the worth of human beings might be as old as society itself. But the complex ideas of scientific racism, that ranked skin colors and heredity from super-race to inferior beings, were created at the end of the 19th century, and then elaborated in the 20th. Racism was a melange of sciences, a truly interdisciplinary theory that used what passed for scientific evidence 100 years ago to demonstrate conclusively that northern European white people were the finest people of all. The Nazis turned this certainty into a program of genocide, but neither did they invent it nor did it die with Hitler in his bunker.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century American scientists, philanthropists, and political leaders agreed that people of any color but white were inferior and that their lives were not worthless, but worth less. The discriminatory immigration laws with national quotas, the experiments on African Americans at Tuskegee from 1932 to 1972, the 1920s growth and then post-World War II reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, the Jim Crow laws and sundown towns across the country, the treatment of Native Americans by governments at all levels, were supported by a clear set of ideas that biological scientists and social scientists “proved” were true again and again.

The racist consensus was visible in every public space in America. Every major newspaper, every radio and, later, TV station, every legislative body, every private club and every classroom taught, repeated, and reinforced the racial rankings that had been developed. Even if one refused to swallow this ideology whole, it was impossible not to be affected by its constant repetition.

I was born into this American racist consensus and I have lived to see its demise. The greatest proof that we are nearing the end of this idea is the constantly repeated claim, “I am not a racist.” Until the 1960s the overwhelming majority of white American leaders and white American citizens proudly proclaimed their racism and insisted on its continuation as the determinant of public life. Being racist is no longer socially acceptable.

But it is not so easy for a society to just forget every aspect of an all-encompassing racial world-view. The battles over ending open, public, legal racism stretched into the 1970s, and the remnants of less visible racism in mortgage loans, hiring practices, and history books persist into the 21st century. Powerful ideas cannot be waved away with a magic wand.

There are too many recent manifestations of these racial ideas for anyone to argue persuasively that we have reached the end of racism. Not merely at the fringes of responsibility, but in the center of public life, racism is still being practiced. Orange County GOP Central Committee member Marilyn Davenport just circulated an email picturing President Obama as a chimpanzee. She wondered what all the fuss was about, because those seemingly defeated ideas still resonated with her and with those with whom she exchanged the message. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour can’t understand what was so bad about Jim Crow.

I know that phrases from my past, images that I remember from long ago, and beliefs which I was taught still rattle around in my head. I try to keep them inside, out of my speech and away from my behavior. But they haven’t disappeared, for me or anyone else who had them implanted in our minds.

Racism isn’t an either-or, yes or no, 100% or 0% issue. All of us, of all colors, carry images and stereotypes of ourselves and others, which can be overcome, but never eradicated. Maybe there will be a society in the future where race doesn’t matter at all, where skin color is like eye color, where heredity is like shoe size, an interesting but inconsequential fact. A society where people can say, “I am not a racist,” and be believed. We aren’t there yet, and we won’t get there until we examine how the lingering racial idea that was so powerful just a lifetime ago still affects our public lives. We just have to look at the nasty debate about immigrants or current discussions about Muslims as terrorists to see the continued power of that idea.

Yes, you are a racist. So am I. Let’s hope today’s children are better. It all depends on what we teach them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 26, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Would a Birth Certificate Matter?

Suddenly the birthers are back in the spotlight. A surprising remark from Donald Trump has reinvigorated the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the US.

Birthers demand to see a birth certificate. Would it help? I don’t think so.

I have a professional interest in this bit of racist politics. My life as a historian revolves around looking for documents, checking their authenticity, deciphering their many meanings, and explaining to others how I interpret them. So I have given the public words of birthers unusual attention.

Many birthers are just like Trump. He had never indicated any doubt about President Obama’s birth in Hawaii until last month, as he leaped into the Republican race to be President. These opportunist birthers don’t believe in anything, except that they can promote conservative causes and their own public profile by doubting the facts. The most prominent political figure to ride the birther train thus far has been Orly Taitz, a wacky sue-everyone lawyer who got on the ballot for California Secretary of State and received one quarter of the votes in the Republican primary.

Another segment of the birther lobby, the true believers, is unlikely to be satisfied with a birth certificate. Obama has already produced his Certification of Live Birth, which had no effect on the birther movement. Mere pieces of paper mean nothing to those who have gleefully incorporated the “fact” that Obama was born in Africa into their world-view and daily life. There is no body of evidence, no official pronouncement or newspaper story that could dislodge their certainty. As with Holocaust deniers and creationists, about very different subjects but with the same mindset, evidence makes no difference. The goals that are achieved by promoting these ideas, in this case the illegitimacy of Democratic politics and of the first black President, are too important to be sacrificed to evidence or logic. As in Holocaust denial, racism plays a large role, but not the only role, in the minds of the true birther believers.

Is there a significant third group among those who publicly question Obama’s birth, the skeptics, who will be convinced when the state of Hawaii produces a document? I might think so, if any birther would talk about another document in this case, the report of Obama’s birth in the two Honolulu newspapers in August 1961. How did it get there? Really doubting Obama’s birth, rather than jumping on a circus wagon to share in the attention, means explaining how and why that document was created.

No birther has done that. The true believers have their theory, involving wide and broad conspiracies across the decades. But they don’t talk about it much, because they know the rest of us would think they are even crazier. The worldwide conspiracy that could insert a false birth notice in the “Honolulu Advertiser” years ago and then make that African boy the President of the United States would have no trouble creating an authentic looking birth certificate.

So I don’t believe that new evidence will make a difference to many birthers. Those opportunists who simply use any handy weapon to gain something for themselves, without regard for truth or consequences, will find another and another, seamlessly moving on without ever addressing their hypocrisy. Many, like Trump, have been enormously successful in attracting constant public attention that way. Trump said, “People love this issue, especially in the Republican Party”. And he’s right: in February, a Public Policy Polling survey found that more than half of likely GOP primary voters believe that Obama was not born in the US. More recently, in another PPP poll, one quarter of Republicans said they would only vote for a birther candidate.

In an age where people devote their lives to proving that the moon landing was faked, and that the Bush administration attacked the Twin Towers pretending to be Arabs, the birthers might even seem rational.

So I don’t think producing a birth certificate will make any difference to birthers. But I hope Obama allows Hawaiian officials to release his birth certificate. I’d like to see it. I love to see how important documents affect people’s understanding of the past. That’s why I’m a historian.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 19, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Academic Freedom and What I Write

One of the trustees at Illinois College, where I work, wants to be sure everyone knows that my columns do not reflect the official positions of the College. I’m guessing that trustee does not agree with my politics. I also think this reflects a misunderstanding.

In the first place, Illinois College has no official position on global warming, the value of unions, how to celebrate Christmas, or any of the other subjects I write about. That is a beautiful thing. In countries where there is little freedom of opinion, all institutions, especially those connected directly with the state, are expected to take public positions that mirror official state policy. Dictatorships do not tolerate dissent, so that all public institutions must toe the party line. Here in America we can rejoice in the freedom of our public and private institutions of higher learning to maintain neutrality on controversial public issues. Illinois College’s official position is to accept and encourage a diversity of opinion on all kinds of issues, rather than to pick a side.

That official neutrality in turn allows people who work in higher education to stake out our own individual political positions. A second beautiful thing about American freedom is that I am permitted to write what I want about politics. Because Illinois College has no official political positions, what I say in these columns or elsewhere is assumed to be my own opinion. My writing can be judged on its merits.

This freedom from government thought control must always be defended. The recent effort of Wisconsin Republicans to silence Professor Bill Cronon, historian at the University of Wisconsin, because he was critical of the legislation to remove collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin state employees, shows how easy it is for politicians to try to punish political speech they don’t like.

These efforts can come from the left or the right. In communist countries, educational institutions did take official positions, and all of their faculty had to follow them to the letter. In the middle of the twentieth century, college professors in the US were expected to support the government’s witch-hunt for hidden communists, which was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, but supported much more broadly by the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the American Legion, and a host of other private and public bodies. Although the ostensible purpose of McCarthy’s secret lists and loyalty oaths and investigations into people’s personal lives was to protect the US from foreign subversion, the search for communists was used for political advantage to weaken labor unions, attack civil rights activists, and squelch any criticism of American foreign policy. Faculty at many universities were fired, because their political views were seen as dissenting from this official position.

Since the 1960s, freedom of political opinion has once again become the norm in our schools. Many conservatives today are angry that faculties tend toward the liberal side of political issues, but that is simply the result of the individual decisions of thousands of professors. Nobody forces us to take any position on any issue. We all expect each other to take positions that are supported by evidence and logic.

My ability to express my own opinions in this column represents one of the great freedoms which America, and the American educational system, provides. I do not have to submit my writing for approval, nor fear that my job would be endangered by what I say.

I do not know what the official position of Illinois College is about anything that I write about, nor do I think there is such a position. Even if there were, I do not represent it, any more than I represent the official line of any other organization I belong to. For that freedom, I am thankful.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 12, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How to Boil a Frog

The Republican Party, buoyed by the recent election, is on the move, writing its agenda into law. In many states, it’s public sector workers and unions. Republican governors backed by Republican legislatures are eliminating collective bargaining rights for teachers, firefighters and all other state employees, as they reduce their job benefits.

In Maine, it’s art and labor. The Republican Governor has removed a large historical mural in the lobby of the Department of Labor, because it depicts Maine workers, from colonial apprentices to paper mill workers striking in 1986. He is renaming the conference rooms, because they honor Frances Perkins, the nation’s first female labor secretary, and César Chávez, the migrant worker organizer.

In Wisconsin, it’s historians. William Cronon, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, recently identified the source of Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation as coming from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of Republican elected officials which has been promoting model conservative laws since 1973. Cronon demonstrated that long-standing Republican ideology, not Wisconsin’s budget, lay behind the new laws. Two days after he posted his blog, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see Cronon’s emails, trying to find something they could use to attack him for abusing his state account for partisan purposes.

In Washington, DC, it’s public broadcasting. Republicans in the House passed legislation which eliminates federal funding of PBS. It also forbids your local public station from buying National Public Radio programs using the federal funds.

In South Carolina and Arizona, and recently in Washington, it’s light bulbs. Republican legislators are fighting a federal law, passed under President Bush, that mandates better energy efficiency of light bulbs. It is part of their larger strategy of opposing every response to global warming and every attempt to reduce our dependence on petroleum products.

In each case Republican politicians say that all they are trying to do is balance budgets. But these facts say otherwise. Removing art, turning off Sesame Street, and reducing regulations on big business will not save us a penny. This is about ideology, an ideology that has never won an election. Roper polls show that PBS is Americans’ most trusted source of news and information. USA today found a month ago that more than 70% of American families had bought energy-efficient light bulbs and 84 percent were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with them. If Sesame Street and public news can be silenced, if the memories of labor struggles for a decent wage can be erased, if historians can be intimidated, if unions which tend to support Democratic candidates can be crushed, then maybe eventually that ideology will eventually be the only one we hear.

If you are in the broad American middle class, though, don’t worry. The disintegration of the public school system will take many years, as classes get bigger, skilled teachers leave the profession, and buildings crumble. Most of the nation’s bridges are fine, or at least not about to collapse, like the one in Minneapolis. Bankers, food conglomerates, energy companies released from the regulations that have curbed their single-minded drive for profit, will probably not promote risky investments, market substandard foods, or pollute our air and water, at least not right away.

You might not notice the rewriting of our history to eliminate discussion of slavery, remove references to labor, and promote the achievements of great white men, because the pesky historians who would point it out will be silenced by government intimidation.

The rich funders of this agenda will get richer, but don’t they deserve it?

You’ll be just fine. The climate may get a bit warmer, as it has been doing for decades, but you can just turn up the air conditioner a notch. It all happens so gradually, you’ll hardly notice. Just like a frog in a pot, the warm water will feel good. Until it doesn’t. And then it will be too late.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 5, 2011