The Death Spasms of American Racism - updated 1/29/12

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jan 29, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Death Spasms of American Racism

by Sheila Musaji

I believe that most Americans saw the election of Barack Obama as a sign that things were changing, that racism has been put aside, that racial reconciliation was possible.  Most Americans saw the election of Barack Obama as representing a huge, positive, hopeful shift in what was possible, and even normal, in American thinking.  Aside from any purely political issues, the election of a black man to the highest office in the U.S. was a sign of HOPE for a future where race was not an issue.

For those of us who were involved with the civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s seeing President Elect Obama on the stage at Grant Park with his family and two little girls brought back vividly pictures of other little black girls like the one in the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With which depicts Ruby Bridges, the little girl who integrated the New Orleans school system in 1960, being escorted to her class by federal marshalls in the face of hostile crowds.  Look at that painting and then look at a photograph of the Obama family and you can’t help but believe that we have come a long way, and you can understand why so many had tears in their eyes.

Brady Carey an Instructor of Speech at Mt. Hood Community College clearly stated why HOPE for a better future is the majority response to the election of Barack Obama:

“It was past nine when I received the news. A moment rarely experienced, a moment that comes maybe once in a lifetime. I look upon the TV and suddenly feel my body go numb. I don’t deny it. It’s a feeling I have been waiting for over two years (actually for most of my life). I thought we have finally reached the ideas for what this country represents. Well, maybe the ideals have been realized and now they are within reach. This moment is so important, so huge, that I’m sure it will take years to fully realize. Yes, Barack Obama has been elected president!

Reading the screen, my eyes begin to well. And within a second, I have transcended all the meanings of this event. Barack Obama hasn’t just been elected the next president it’s much more than that. This victory doesn’t just belong to him, but all of us. It belongs to my Father who fought in World War II to destroy racism. It’s for my Mother who battled her way through corporate sexism. It’s for my brother who raises his family with a blind eye and struggles to pay bills. It’s for my best friend (a proud black-American) who can now say that “yes” anything is possible in light of obvious conflict. It’s for my students whoever had a shadow of a doubt that their voice can make a difference. It’s for all my fellow instructors who deny failure and embrace the honor to teach the next generation. It’s for all of us who has ever been discriminated against (it’s a long time coming). And last but not least, it’s for all of us who stood up against the machine and fought for what is right.

As I watched my fellow Chicagoans gaze upon President-elect Obama giving his speech in Grant Park, I realized hope is something tangible, something that can be shared, and most importantly, necessary for the chance to make change. I think about the struggles that this country has endured and how far we need to go to heal. Now with our new captain at the helm, I believe the journey will be the next great American experience. We will stand united as a country living up, everyday, to the ideals for which it stands. Yes, we can! Thanks Barack for this moment and the ones to come!”

We saw and heard the racial, ethnic, and religious slurs before the election, and these still continue, but the response is different today than it was in the past.  Jon Stewart in a segment of The Daily Show called Obama and Hitler commenting on Congressman Paul Broun’s comparison of Obama to Hitler gave such racist ramblings exactly what they deserve - scorn and ridicule.

Racists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, xenophobes, homophobes - still exist, and the death of racism and the other forms of prejudice is still not (and may never be) a “done deal”.  It is now however a reasonable hope that all of these forms of prejudice can be so marginalized that they lose their ability to have any meaningful influence on America.  If we unite as AMERICANS in a concerted effort to consign any sort of prejudice to the dust bin of history, we can eradicate it from our society just as we eradicated smallpox.  Prejudice is a disease of the mind.  If we see the last pockets of prejudice and racism in America as a disease that requires us to act in order to eradicate them, we can succeed.  YES, WE CAN!  If we take a stand when we hear ethnic jokes, or innuendos, or outright demeaning words or slander directed towards any particular group (because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual-orientation, etc.)  WE CAN move forward. 

Of course,  the disease metaphor also implies the danger we face. Polio, which has been eradicated in the United States, does still exist in the world. Without constant vigil and continuing attempts to educate and assist in the total destruction of the disease, it can easily reemerge and spread.

Similarly, we need to do everything in our power to eradicate the reservoirs of fear and hate.  Those who believe that they are superior to others based on their skin color, sexual orientation, religion, race, or nationality must learn that we are sick and tired of their outdated, uneducated, destructive prejudices. We simply aren’t going to tolerate their expressions of hatred any more.

If the prejudice is acted out in such a way that it is a hate crime or civil rights violation, then the offenders need to be prosecuted.  If the assault on others is verbal, then the offenders may have a first ammendment right to freedom of speech, but we also have a right to use our free speech to let them know that their comments are barbaric and that we don’t want to hear them.  We need to openly protest when we hear anything that offends our sensibilities.  Racists may have a right to speak their mind, but so do we. 

I think that the following list of shameful racist incidents during and after the election process are important to look at and analyze.  My personal take on this is that what we are seeing is the “darkness before the dawn”, the dying gasp of racism among a minority of Americans who simply haven’t realized, or had it made clear to them that their world view is no longer relevant.  The racists, fewer and further between, are lashing out in desperation, exhibiting the death spasms of their culture.  The racists are the past, and those who celebrate our wonderful variety as Americans are the future.  We can’t ignore these racist incidents because they show that racism is still an issue and will remain an issue until WE, each and every one of us stands up and defies the racists.  They have no power unless we give it to them.  We don’t need to fear the guys in the white robes and pointy hats, or any other racists, we need to shine a light on them.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors and exposes extremist activity and rhetoric, said anger among white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in response to Obama’s victory resulted in an avalanche of vitriolic postings on racist Web sites.  This is one example of the “lashing out” of racists in their cultural death spasm.

The terrible examples of racism make the news, and remind us that we still have a ways to go, but the death of American racism will be among the many exponentially increasing changes of our times.

What is most hopeful is that the reaction to these racist incidents on the part of the majority has been strong.  Racist incidents provoked Solidarity events at Colgate University, and an anti-racism rally at Yale, Bryn Mawr will have a series of anti-racism workshops, the faculty at St. Joseph’s University is offering suggestions for improving race relations, hundreds of students participated in a Unity March at Baylor University, North Carolina State students lobby for hate crime act in response to campus incidents.  All over the country, a small number of individuals were involved in hateful, racist incidents, but the response they received was a resounding - NO YOU CAN’T!  You can’t take us back down that road. 

The death spasms of American racism:

At the University of Alabama, an Obama poster on a faculty member’s office door was defaced with a message said “He’ll be shot…” followed by the “N” word.

In Fullerton, California  “Two gang members pleaded not guilty Thursday to hate crime and attempted robbery charges in connection with the beating of a black man who was trying to buy cigarettes at a Fullerton liquor store.” The two men shouted racial and anti-Obama epithets in the attack.

In Temecula, California, authorities found spray-painted graffiti on a city sidewalk containing a swastika and anti-Obama slogan

In San Bernadino, California, Diane Fedele of the ‘Chaffey Community Republican Women’ sent out “Obama bucks” fake food stamps which included racist stereotypes.

In San Marcos, California commuters and people walking their children to school saw a series of racist signs threatening presidential candidate Barack Obama, African-Americans and Muslims.  One sign spray-painted on an electric utility box read “Death to ni—ers, Muslim and Obama.”  At least two other similar signs were spray-painted in the area, one of them near San Elijo Middle School.

In Torrance, California vandals spray-painted swatiskas and racial slurs on the home and cars of several Torrance residents who had displayed campaign signs or bumper stickers supporting President-elect Barack Obama

At Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut police are investigating several complaints of racism including slurs and harassing phone calls directed at black players on the school’s basketball team, and slurs written on poster and cork boards outside the dorm rooms of three black players.

In Washington, D.C. at the Value Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council, a booth sold Obama Waffles - a box of waffle mix emblazoned with a cartoon image of a bug-eyed, toothy, dark-lipped Barack Obama eyeing a plate of waffles.  A pat of butter on the waffles is stamped “2008”.  On the top flap, the Obama carton appears in a turban, next to an arrow printed with the text: “Point box toward Mecca for tastier waffles.”

In Marietta, Georgia a local bar made and sold a racist Obama t-shirt.

In Idaho, a bus load of elementary school children chanted “assassinate Obama”.

In Idaho, the Secret Service is investigating a “public hanging” sign erected by a man upset with the election outcome, the Bonner County Daily Bee (Sandpoint) reported Thursday. A handmade sign posted on a tree reads “FREE PUBLIC HANGING” written in large letters beneath a noose fashioned from nylon rope. The sign then names former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, current U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and civil rights activist Al Sharpton. The most prominent name on the sign is “OBAMA,” according to the Bee.

In Chicago, Illinois, a lawsuit has been filed alleging that while a huge Chicago crowd celebrated the election of the first black U.S. president, some white city police officers committed hate crimes against a black family cheering Barack Obama’s victory from home.  The federal lawsuit claims several officers discharged pepper spray near members of a family celebrating Obama’s win outside their home on the city’s West Side last week.

At Purdue University in Indiana there was an incident involving incident expletive graffiti about President-elect Barack Obama painted on a campus tree.

At the University of Kentucky in Lexington an effigy of Obama was hung by a noose in a tree on campus.

In Bar Harbor, Maine Police are investigating two incidents in which black figures were left hanging by nooses from trees on Mount Desert Island the day after Barack Obama won the presidential election.

In Portland, Maine at Gray-New Gloucester High School officials are investigating two incidents of racism

In Springfield, Massachussetts, a predominantly black church was destroyed by arson a few hours after the Obama election.

In Midland, Michigan, a man dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia walked around toting a handgun and waving an American flag. Initially denying it, the man eventually admitted to police that the display was a reaction to the Obama victory.

In Traverse City, Michigan, Employees at Hampel’s Key and Lockshop flew an American flag upside down last Wednesday protesting the election of Obama.

In Annandale, Minnesota someone sprayed KKK across both sides of an Obama for president sign and left the carcass of a dead raccoon at the base of the sign.

In Pearl, Mississippi, employees of local schools — a bus driver and a coach — banned children — black and white — from the bus or class simply for mentioning the President-elect’s name.

On the University of Mississippi campus there were reports of disruptions on many dorm floors with white students yelling at black students celebrating Obama’s victory.  In one episode, white students called a black student the n-word, and saying we have a (expletive deleted) N-word for a president. 

In West Plains, Missouri a racist billboard was put up on the highway showing a caricature of Obama wearing a turban. 

In Warren County, New Jersey a cross was burned along with an Obama flag on the lawn of an Indian families home.

In Mastic, New York more than a dozen cars were spray painted with graffiti.  The graffiti included racist slurs and sexually graphic references. At least one resident in the quiet Mastic neighborhood told Newsday her son’s car was scribbled with a message threatening to kill Obama.

In Staten Island, New York Ali Kamara, an African American Muslim teen, was viciously assaulted by four men with baseball bats in what police believe was a bias attack sparked by Obama’s presidential victory.

At North Carolina State University, four students face expulsion for spay painting the phrases, “Let’s shoot that (N-word) in the head” and “Hang Obama by a noose.”

In Durham, North Carolina, several police officers are under investigation for allegedly posting racial remarks on their personal websites.

At Western Carolina University in North Carolina a dead bear cub was draped with a pair of Barack Obama campaign signs.

At Appalachian State University in North Carolina, there has been a series of incidents including reports of threatening conversations or “racially charged, horrible statements” in the residence halls after celebrating Obama’s victory.  The conversations also included a statement suggesting Obama may not be alive in 2009, and one student wore a t-shirt with the phrase, “Obama ’08, Biden ’09” displayed on it.

In Cleveland Ohio a Medina County High School racist graffiti was spray painted on the exterior walls of the school.

An Ohio man hung an effigy of Obama in his front yard.

At George Fox University in Oregon an effigy of Obama was hung by a noose from a tree. 

In Pennsylvania a teacher’s aide was suspended for going on a racist rant to a minority student saying that “Obama was going to be shot and killed, the U.S. flag would be changed to the KFC flag, and the national anthem would be changed to “Movin’ On Up.”

In Pennsylvania‘s Apolacon Township, situated in an area known for KKK activity, an interracial couple looked out their front window to find the remnants of a burned cross.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania a threatening note was left on someone’s car saying “We know you (expletive) voted for Obama—now just watch out for your house!”  In a separate incident someone spray-painted the word “Obama” on a vehicle and then set it on fire.

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania there were racial incidents reported election night, mostly racial epithets aimed at black students.  In a separate incident, the campus newspaper—The Brown And White—had a piece of paper placed inside hundreds of newspapers last Friday that read “Your president is black. How does that make you feel?”

At St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania there has been controversy over the school’s delayed response to an October 29th incident inside McShain Hall where racist and sexist language was written on a classroom board along with drawing of a stick figure in a noose.

At LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - A street corner just off LaSalle’s campus was the site of student violence in wee hours of Sunday morning. Witnesses and victims say that at least 20 white male students, members of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, allegedly attacked several black students as a party in their unofficial frat house let out.

In Texas at Baylor University students awoke the morning after Obama’s victory to find a noose hanging from a tree in front of Morrison Hall.

In Tennessee police foiled a skinhead plot to kill random African Americans, and Obama himself.

In Texas, a back-up offensive lineman on the Texas football team posted a message on his Facebook page that read, “All the hunters gather up, we have a [racial epithet] in the White House.”

Texas Christian University  received word of a half-dozen instances of racial epithets being used in conversations about the president-elect and one report of an Obama poster being torn off a student’s door at a residence hall, officials said.

In Washington County, Virginia an Obama sign had “KKK”  written twice in white and the word “kill” in black above Obama’s name.

In Buckley, Washington five students at White River High School in Buckley are accused of hanging a doll of Obama with a rope by its neck in what appears to be a mock lynching.

The U.S. Secret Service says there has been a dramatic spike in death threats against President Elect Obama.

UPDATE 5/30/2010

It seems that the State of Texas may change the content of history textbooks.  An article in the Guardian Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns says

Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the “significant contributions” of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.

The new curriculum asserts that “the right to keep and bear arms” is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.

There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.

The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous “Atlantic triangular trade”, and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.

“There is a battle for the soul of education,” said Mavis Knight, a liberal member of the Texas education board. “They’re trying to indoctrinate with American exceptionalism, the Christian founding of this country, the free enterprise system. There are strands where the free enterprise system fits appropriately but they have stretched the concept of the free enterprise system back to medieval times. The president of the Texas historical association could not find any documentation to support the stretching of the free enterprise system to ancient times but it made no difference.”

The curriculum has alarmed liberals across the country in part because Texas buys millions of text books every year, giving it considerable sway over what publishers print. By some estimates, all but a handful of American states rely on text books written to meet the Texas curriculum. The California legislature is considering a bill that would bar them from being used in the state’s schools.

An article by Bryan Monroe eloquently points out why this should concern everyone

So, why should you care what a group of right-wing administrators are doing to shape the minds of 4.8 million children in the third largest state in the union? Well, beyond the obvious—these are 4.8 million black, brown, yellow AND white kids whose education is at stake—the state of Texas also has tremendous power over shaping the content of textbooks for the rest of the nation. Ultimately the have a say in what our kids learn no matter where we live.

The Lone Star State has historically wielded potent, although waning, buying power with the nation’s leading K-through-12 textbook publishers. This year, Texas is expected to spend as much as $1 billion buying books. Book orders that large tend to influence, if not dictate, what goes onto the pages in those textbooks not just in Texas, but nationwide. It’s often been cheaper for publishers to print one social studies textbook for 50 million 7th graders in several states, rather than customize 50 different textbooks for each. Even as other states are having similar debates, publishers may now have to see if that practice still makes sense.

You’d think that conservatives who advocate smaller government would shudder at the thought of allowing state government bureaucrats to use their power to brainwash the minds of young students. But I guess they missed that part of their neo-con class.

Not only is it dangerous to deliberately manipulate what goes on in classrooms in order to commandeer the pliable minds of our children, it is antithetical to the basic values most educators expect of themselves and their colleagues. These changes legislate ignorance, plain and simple. And, it is just plain wrong. Our schools should be a place where children learn truth, curiosity, critical thought and discovery, not political dogma and early-stage indoctrination for the ultra-liberal left or arch-conservative right.

Our politicians should know better, our educators surely want better and our students really deserve better.

UPDATE 1/29/2012

Today, I read an article Tea Party Groups In Tennessee Demand Textbooks Overlook U.S. Founder’s Slave-Owning History by Trymaine Lee that made it clear that we still have work to do.  According to this article

A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country’s founders being slave owners.

According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.”

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody—not all equally instantly—and it was their progress that we need to look at,” Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.

During the news conference more than two dozen Tea Party activists handed out material that said, “Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

And that further teaching would also include that “the Constitution created a Republic, not a Democracy.”

The group demanded, as they had in January of last year, that Tennessee lawmakers change state laws governing school curricula. The group called for textbook selection criteria to include: “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

The latest push comes a year after the Texas Board of Education approved revisions to its social studies curriculum that would put a conservative twist on history through revised textbooks and teaching standards.

The Texas revisions include the exploration of the positive aspects of American slavery, lifting the stature of Jefferson S. Davis to that of Abraham Lincoln, and amendments to teach the value of the separation of church and state were voted down by the conservative cadre. Among other controversial amendments that have been approved is the study of the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action.

The board approved more than 100 amendments affecting social studies, economics and history classes for Texas’s 4.8 million students.

The influence of the amended textbooks will likely reach far beyond the state of Texas. The state is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks, and many other states adopt Texas’s books and standards.

The curriculum changes were pushed through by a majority bloc of conservative Republicans on the Texas school board, who have said the changes were made to add balance to what they believe was a left-leaning and already-skewed reflection of American history.

“There is some method to the madness besides vindicating white privilege and making white students feel as though they are superior and privileged and that that it is the natural order of things,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas State NAACP, told The Crisis magazine last year about this time.  “The agenda being pushed and the ultimate impact intended is to make young people automatically identify with one political party.”

A number of groups, including the NAACP, the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education have joined forces to beat back the measures, which they said would have a negative impact on minority children.

The groups sought a federal review of the state’s public education and have raised claims that the Texas State Board of Education has violated federal civil rights laws. In a formal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, the groups charge that the new curriculum was devised to “discriminate.”

The measures went as far as to replace instances of the trans-Atlantic slave trade with “Atlantic triangular trade.”

“It is going to be extremely psychologically harmful to African-American young people because they are marginalized in the curriculum,” Bledsoe said. “It will require them to be taught things such as the benevolence of slavery and the problems with affirmative action rather than the good and the bad.”

“They voted down a motion that requires students to be taught about the terrorism brought about by the Ku Klux Klan and what they did to ethnic and racial minorities, but they turn around and pass a provision that requires the teaching of the violence of the Black Panther Party.”

An article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography “‘Who Controls the Past Controls the Future’: The Virginia History Textbook Controversy” by Adam Wesley Dean makes it clear that this battle over textbooks is not new.  It is a critical issue

During the civil rights movement, the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction became bitterly contested. Segregationists used the Lost Cause version of these events to generate opposition to integration. Civil rights activists responded with their own histories documenting slavery’s evils, placing race at the center of the Civil War, and relabeling Reconstruction’s failure as a tragedy instead of a triumph. In 1948, the Virginia General Assembly, controlled by the Democratic Party, created a textbook commission to impose their own version of history in Virginia public schools. The assembly mandated that all fourth-, seventh-, and eleventh-grade students—both black and white—learn the state’s history from books created by the commission. As Washington Post columnist Benjamin Muse recognized, public perception of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction influenced Virginia’s “gravest problem from Appomattox down to today—the race problem.”

The government-mandated textbooks presented slaves as generally happy and the Civil War as resulting from unwarranted federal interference in state affairs. This article examines how and why these textbooks entered Virginia public schools. It connects the history presented in the books to contemporary battles over integration from President Harry Truman’s 1948 order desegregating the army to massive resistance. The article also explores opposition to the books, emphasizing the role of African American teachers, national outrage, and the election of Republican governor Linwood Holton in removing the books from public school curriculum by the 1970s.

An article by Jerome Christensen discussing what history professory, Greg Schmidt had said about the teaching of the subject of slavery, is also informative

How Americans view and interpret their past is closely linked to how that past is described in the history textbooks that have been a near-universal experience for every generation of Americans, Schmidt said.

As an example, he cited a text published in 1942 that claimed “there was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization” and that the “childlike, improvident, humorous, prevaricating and superstitious negro” although enslaved was “adequately fed, well cared for and apparently happy.”

Contrast that with the view published in 2010: “For enslaved people, slavery was not merely a system of enforced and often harsh labor. It was a struggle against poor food, poor shelter and the constant threat of brutal treatment and separation ... a steady assault on the selfhood and the family and community life of slaves.”

Who controls the past controls the future, and who doesn’t learn from the past is doomed to repeat it. 


Clouded history? WSU prof talks fact vs. history in textbooks, Jerome Christensen

Historians speak out against proposed Texas textbook changes, Michael Bimbaum

How Texas’ School Board Tried to Pretend Slavery Never Happened and Why Your Kid’s School May Be Next, Bryan Monroe

NAACP Criticizes Texas Textbooks For Watering Down Slavery And Civil Rights

Tennessee Morphs Into Texas With Textbook Censorship Of Slavery

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change, James McKinley, Jr.

Texas textbook revisions cause controversy

Texas textbook war: ‘Slavery’ or ‘Atlantic triangular trade’?, Amanda Paulson

“‘Who Controls the Past Controls the Future’: The Virginia History Textbook Controversy”


Originally published 11/15/2008