The Meaning of July 4th To the American Negro …..By Frederick Douglass

July 1, 2011

Delivered July 5, 1852

Rochester, New York

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too — great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory….

…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.ÑThe rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery Ñ the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, an denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Amercans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their mastcrs? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….

…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. ‘Ethiopia, shall, stretch. out her hand unto Ood.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But to all manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his Prison-house, to thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive —
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

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Recommended Reading: Austerity for Whom? New “State of the Dream” Report Highlights Unequal Impact of Recession, Austerity; Communities of Color Disproportionately Burdened By United For a Fair Economy

January 23, 2011

(In this 8th annual State of the Dream report, United for a Fair Economy once again makes the case that when it comes to matters of economic privation, communities of color in the United States are disproportionately burdened by the legacy of past discrimination and the enduring crisis of inequality that afflicts our nation. Following my featured interview on the January 19th edition of Talkback! with Brian Miller, executive director of UFE and co-author of the report, there have been numerous enquiries for more information on this issue. For your convenience, we have reproduced below the publicly available executive summary of the report — courtesy of United for a Fair Economy — with a link to the PDF available at the organization’s web site. This report should be necessary and required reading for anyone with an interest in fairness and equality for all).

– Hugh Hamilton

Executive Summary

As a new wave of elected officials are sworn into office, many are vowing to make “austerity” a top priority for 2011. Austerity is described by Congressional Republicans as “tightening the belt” of government. In concrete terms, this means reducing public investments, cutting public benefits and rolling back government services. In this report, we ask: under such an austerity plan, who wins and who loses?

In 2009, months after President Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first African American president, the Tea Party stormed onto the political scene. With the financial backing of the Koch brothers, the movement gained energy and momentum through 2010, helping the Republican Party seize the House of Representatives. While the Tea Party’s energy may be new, its policies are not. If implemented, they will continue a thirty-year trend that began in the 1970s when a political backlash began to widen the economic divide and retard America’s progress toward racial equality.

After Blacks made significant economic gains in the 1950s and 1960s, progress began to stall in the 1970s. This trend is evident in a new time-series analysis of income data provided in this report. Four decades after the Civil Rights movement, Blacks still earn only 57 cents and Latinos earn 59 cents for each dollar of White median family income. The contrast is even starker for net wealth; that is, the total value of investments, savings, homes and other property minus any debt. Blacks hold only 10 cents of net wealth and Latinos hold 12 cents for every dollar that Whites hold.

Closing this vast economic divide was a core objective of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his supporters in the final years of his life. But the agenda of the Congressional Republicans today and their Tea Party allies threatens to take the country in the opposite direction. Behind the Republican agenda is a sinister logic. First, they use tax cuts to starve the federal government. Then they point to the deficits that their tax cuts helped create and claim that we cannot afford the programs most Americans need.

The GOP austerity program will ratchet down the standard of living for all working Americans, and ratchet up the racial economic divide.

  • While the unemployment rate for Blacks and Latinos remains at Depression levels, Republicans consistently block meaningful job creation proposals. The official unemployment rate is 15.8 percent among Blacks and 13 percent among Latinos as of December 2010. The White unemployment rate is 8.5 percent.  Including discouraged and under-employed workers would push these unemployment numbers up significantly. Despite these facts, the GOP’s Congressional leadership has consistently opposed broad-based stimulus and public job creation programs that have the best projected economic returns.  While their stance hurts millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans, they drag down Black and Latino workers the farthest and fastest.
  • With fewer assets to fall back on in hard times, Black and Latino families rely more heavily on unemployment insurance, Social Security and public assistance in times of need. For example, a new analysis shows that well over half of older Blacks (59.1 percent) and Latinos (64.8 percent) depend on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their family income, as compared to only 46 percent of Whites.  Republican opposition to these programs pushes people of color who are struggling — and other low-wealth households — further down the economic ladder.
  • Blacks will be disproportionately affected by the attack on public sector workers. New analysis in this report shows Blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to work in public sector jobs as teachers, social workers, bus drivers, public health inspectors and other valuable roles, and they are 70 percent as likely to work for the federal government.  Public sector jobs have also provided Black and Latino workers better opportunities for professional advancement. The GOP hostility toward government and government employees will, if translated into policy, have a devastating effect on Black and Latino workers, while eroding our nation’s capacity to carry out the important work of the public sector.
  • Republican tax breaks disproportionately flow into the hands of high-income and high-wealth Whites. The recent income tax extension heavily favors Whites, who are three times as likely as Blacks and 4.6 times as likely as Latinos to have annual incomes in excess of $250,000, according to original analysis in this report. In the short term, the extension of Bush-era income tax cuts for households earning $250,000 or more per year deprives the federal government of the necessary revenue to create jobs and revive the economy. In the longer term, these cuts will do even greater harm by widening racial income and wealth divides.
  • The Republican tax cut agenda rewards wealth for those who already have it, and limits opportunity for those who do not. Recent efforts to weaken the estate tax will help to ensure that the wealth inequalities of generations past are carried forward indefinitely. Additionally, the preferential treatment of capital gains and dividend income further exacerbates the racial wealth divide by rewarding wealthy Whites with dramatically lower tax rates. Original analysis provided in this report shows that Blacks earn only 13 cents and Latinos earn eight cents for every dollar that Whites receive in dividend income. Similarly, Blacks have 12 cents and Latinos have 10 cents of unrealized capital gains for each dollar that Whites have.

This report starts in Memphis on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. It builds on King’s call for economic equality in a “second phase” of the Black Freedom Movement. Section 1 explains why progress has stalled in recent decades, opening the door for a new era of growing inequality. Section 2 looks briefly at how inequality has played out within the Black and Latino communities at the point where class intersects with race. Section 3 analyzes the racial impact of Congressional Republicans’ economic agenda, documenting how the proposed policies will retard progress toward closing the racial economic divide. Section 4 explores positive policy directions that can begin to close the racial wealth divide and promote economic justice for all Americans.

While this report focuses on the negative policy implications of the GOP agenda on Blacks and Latinos, we also hold out hope for greater progress in the years ahead. History has demonstrated — as with the great Civil Rights victories of the 1960s — that when Americans come together across lines of race and class to forge a new and equitable path, we can achieve positive and lasting change. More than 40 years after Dr. King was assassinated, we must continue the cause of his life and ensure that his belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is proven true.

Download a complete copy of State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom? here.

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Recommended Reading: Confederate Reader Illuminates the “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause” By Hugh Hamilton

January 3, 2011

To paraphrase yet again that most familiar of observations from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: the past is not dead and buried; in fact, it’s not even past. Expect to hear multiple variations on that theme over the next year and then some, as Americans grapple with the commemoration and legacy of the Civil War begun 150 years ago this April.

This sesquicentennial anniversary of our nation’s bloodiest conflict will unfold in countless commemorative exhibitions and re-enactments over the next four years, with nearly half of all states having formed special commissions and official committees dedicated to that purpose.  And while many of the public portrayals and pronouncements will traverse well-worn and undisputed historical terrain, you can be just as sure that the events will also revive dueling historiographies of precisely what happened, and why. Indeed, we were already treated to a taste of things to come last October, when The Washington Post “outed” the Virginia Education Department for its approval of a fourth-grade textbook claiming that thousands of African Americans had fought for the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War – a claim rejected by most professional historians as a bald-faced lie and a gross misrepresentation of history.

Nor was this the first such controversy to embroil the state. As Post staff writer Kevin Sieff recalled:

“Virginia, which is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, has long struggled to appropriately commemorate its Confederate past. The debate was reinvigorated this Spring, when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), introduced ‘Confederate History Month’ in Virginia without mentioning slavery’s role in the Civil War. He later apologized.”

Sieff specifically fingered the Sons of Confederate Veterans who, in addition to promoting the myth that thousands of Black soldiers had fought for the South, also dispute the widely accepted conclusion that the struggle over slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Instead, the group claims, the war was fought by secessionists “to preserve their homes and livelihood.”

This particular perversion of history has long been a point of bitterness for James W. Loewen, a Harvard-trained sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Vermont whose books include the runaway best-seller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. For the better part of the past two decades, Loewen has been consumed by an almost compulsive crusade to set the record straight by stripping American history of its most persistent and misleading myths. Now, together with fellow researcher Edward H. Sebesta, he is co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause,” published by the University Press of Mississippi. This exceptionally timely work is a hefty collection of key historical documents from the Civil War era, illuminating the reasons why South Carolina, followed by 10 other Southern states, seceded, as well as the debates, letters, speeches and other public pronouncements that ensued.

As Loewen told me when we discussed his book on Talkback!, nearly two-thirds of all Americans, including history teachers, mistakenly believe and perpetuate the myth that the Confederate states seceded for “states’ rights.” But the historical record clearly shows what everyone knew at the time: that the South seceded because they wanted to preserve the institution of slavery. Loewen places the entire blame for that grave historical revisionism squarely on the shoulders of the neo-confederate ideologues who have been busy re-writing the story of what happened and why ever since the collapse of Reconstruction. And as he further explained to me when I asked why any of this even matters:

The very fact that most teachers and most schools across the United States continue to mis-teach the history of the Civil War shows the continuing power of the neo-confederates because they, rather than historical fact, are determining   what we teach about what is certainly the most important thing that ever happened in this country after its formation”.

The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader seeks to right that wrong. It brings together dozens of the most important primary documents of the Civil War era into a single, comprehensive volume that should be an indispensable resource in every home and library. Particularly over the next four years, this reference text will require repeated visits in the search for answers that set the record straight about this most momentous, yet widely misrepresented period in American history.

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NPR Stumbles in Juan Williams Affair by Hugh Hamilton

October 22, 2010

NPR, which no longer wishes to be addressed as National Public Radio, is under no obligation whatsoever to keep Juan Williams on its payroll. So when the veteran journalist — who functioned as a senior news analyst for NPR by day and a commentator for Fox News Channel by night — admitted to feelings of nervousness and worry whenever he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane, the radio network did not break any laws by letting him go. In a statement, NPR said Williams’ remarks were “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst” on its airwaves.


But setting aside the legalities for a moment, in what way precisely did Williams violate the “editorial standards and practices” of  NPR? Was it:

(a)  by failing to exercise sufficient or appropriate control over his visceral impulses, thereby permitting himself to become “worried” and “nervous” whenever he sees people in Muslim garb on an airplane? or

(b) by verbalizing the aforementioned anxieties? or

(c) by giving voice to these sentiments on the Fox News Channel and, in particular, the notoriously incendiary O’Reilly Factor?

Maybe the correct answer is (d): all of the above. Still, it is troubling that a journalist and public commentator of Williams’ stature could be let go on so flimsy a basis as any or all of these pretexts would provide. Does NPR maintain a list of protected constituencies about whom employees are not permitted to experience certain anxieties? And if so, is one at greater risk of detection from the thought police or the speech patrol?

The truth is that what Williams confessed to last Monday was an all-too-common case of your everyday, garden-variety prejudice: an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or without sufficient knowledge. And it goes without saying that prejudice of any kind is always wrong, whether it be directed at Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, immigrants or any of the myriad groups who get targeted as “other” for whatever reason. Unfortunately, prejudice is also a ubiquitous affliction in our society, and there is no reason to expect or believe that public citizens are any less susceptible to its pernicious deceptions than anyone else.

Indeed, sometimes that prejudice can be directed against one’s own group, as when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was widely quoted in November, 1993 as having told a meeting in Chicago:

There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved…

Few would argue that Jackson’s comments undermined his credibility as a civil rights advocate, or called into question his commitment to the African American cause. In firing Williams for confessing to a similarly visceral anxiety, NPR set itself up for much of the criticism that has followed and appears much less high-minded an institution than it otherwise purports to be.

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“Tim Wise, Colorblind, and The Rise of Post-Racial Politics” by Hugh Hamilton

June 25, 2010

This is not so much a review as an appreciation of Tim Wise’s latest polemic on the perpetual conundrum of race in America  — Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. My good friend Roy Eaton presented me with a copy of the book as a birthday gift  just over two months ago and I have been unable to put it down ever since. It’s not a big book, mind you: at just over 200 pages (including endnotes), it does not require heavy lifting; I was able to complete my initial reading within a week. But the arguments are meticulously crafted and tightly wound, drawing on an impressive compendium of popular as well as scholarly research and references to elucidate the highly fractious history and enduring legacy of racial inequity in America. This volume demands repeated visits and I have found it to be immensely useful as a quick and handy  reference guide.

Readers of his previous works will recognize some familiar terrain as Wise illuminates our nation’s long and sordid history of “race-based injury, inherited disadvantage and ongoing discrimination.” But this is a necessary revisiting of the past in order properly to understand and contextualize the present. As he explains:

“Though they do not deny the weight of past oppression, [the proponents of color-blind liberalism] tend to minimize the extent to which past injustice determines the current status of blacks and other people of color in the United States. Rather, they claim to find the source of much inequity in race-neutral macro-economic developments, such as the decline of manufacturing employment and a shift to service-sector jobs. Yet a careful examination of both the weight of past racial injustice and current evidence of ongoing racial bias and discrimination calls into question the veracity of the post-racial narrative. As such, the rhetoric of racial transcendence is dishonest, in that it obscures the power of racism and its impact on present-day communities of color…”

Wise credits for his use of the term “color-blind racism” the work of sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for whom the phrase signifies “the dominant white racial ideology of the modern era, in which whites, under the guise of being color-blind, refuse to acknowledge the reality of racism and reject any consideration of how their own racial identity provides them with privileges vis-à-vis people of color.” The ostensibly color-blind public policy that flows conveniently from this perspective is then combined with a form of race-neutral rhetoric to comprise a brand of left-of-center politics that Wise calls the ideology of  post-racial liberalism.

He points to the election of President Barack Obama as “the ultimate triumph” of this post-racial liberalism, “dependent as it was on a rhetoric of racial transcendence and a public policy agenda of color-blind universalism.” But he warns that it is this very avoidance of race issues that now leaves the president hamstrung in his ability to push back against ongoing racial bias and opposition to his agenda, “even when that opposition is framed in blatantly racist ways.” (See, for example, my April 19 blog  post on Tea Party Politics and Racial Disparity).

This is Wise’s second book since Obama’s election to the White House. In his earlier work, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, he introduced us to the concept of Racism 2.0 or, as he further explained,

a type of “enlightened exceptionalism — a form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing, even pathological black or brown rule. If whites come to like, respect and even vote for persons of color like Barack Obama but only because they see them as having ‘transcended’ their blackness in some way, to claim that the success of such candidates proves the demise of racism makes no sense at all.”

In this latest work, Wise now advances a theory of Illuminated Individualism: A Paradigm for Progressive Color-Consciousness. It is a somewhat more cumbersome concept than the more user-friendly Racism 2.0, and one that is unlikely to become a household term. But the underlying rationale that animates this theory is fairly straightforward:

It means that we must resolve to consider race and the impact of racial identity on the lives of others and on ourselves,” he writes. “We must weave into our personal thinking and our institutional settings practices, procedures and policies that take account of race and its meaning, and in recognition of that meaning, resolve to do everything possible to minimize the likelihood of discriminatory treatment. Only by having open and honest conversations about race and racism, and our own internalized preconceptions, can we hope to keep implicit biases at bay and create real equity of opportunity.

As a white, male anti-racist writer and activist, Tim Wise stands in the forefront of a lonely vanguard that dares to challenge publicly the foundations of white privilege and the systemic disfranchisement of our nation’s black, brown and other communities of color. With Colorblind, he builds upon a body of work that remains indispensable to our understanding of America’s complex past and potential future as a profoundly racialized society.

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Tea Party Poll Exposes Widespread Disregard for Deadly Disparities….. by Hugh Hamilton

April 19, 2010

Most followers of the Tea Party movement believe that too much has been made of the problems facing African Americans, according to one recent CBS News/New York Times poll. Nearly three-quarters of Tea Partiers also claim that Blacks and whites enjoy equal opportunities for getting ahead in America. And while a majority of members concede that the Obama administration is even-handed in its treatment of Blacks and whites, one of every four Tea Partiers believes that the administration actually favors African Americans over their white counterparts.

Not surprisingly, Tea party supporters have been roundly excoriated for the patent absurdity of these purported beliefs. Some critics even suggest that such a distorted view of the African American experience is itself dispositive of an endemic racism within the movement. What else can you expect, they ask, of a self-described “grassroots movement” that is 89 percent white and just 1 percent Black?

But not all Tea Partiers are racists; some are merely victims of ignorance, compounded by the blatant  disinformation propagated in much of our mainstream media. These are the hapless followers who rely on selected corporate media as their primary, principal and often only source of information and have not been well served by this dependency. They have been victimized not so much by the deliberate misreporting of  facts as by the media’s failure to contextualize the information they report in a manner that infuses data with meaning and relevance.  Consider, for example, the treatment accorded to one recent and widely reported study of global maternal mortality rates published this month in the Lancet medical journal.

According to the study, the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes had dropped by some 35 percent globally over the past 30 years, but remained “surprisingly high” in the United States, Canada and Norway. In fact, not only had maternal mortality rates risen in the three countries but in the United States, the increase easily outpaced that of others in the group. Although this country spends more on its health-care industry than any other nation in the world, researchers reported, maternal deaths in the United States were double the rates in Britain, triple the rates in Australia and four times the rate in Italy.

Most corporate media dutifully reported the distressing news with all the requisite sobriety befitting the subject. But few bothered to contextualize that finding by examining more closely the actual incidence and distribution of maternal mortality rates within the United States. Had they done so, they would have been led to another recently published report – this one by Amnesty International — which found that although the United States spends more on maternal health than any other type of hospital care, American women have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than those in 40 other countries. And further, according to this study, African American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women; in high-risk pregnancies, the disparities are even higher, with African American women five-and-a-half times more likely to die than their white counterparts.

The report, titled Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, describes its findings as “not just a public health emergency but a human-rights crisis.”

Among other revelations:

  • Women of color account for 32 percent of all women in the United States but more than half of all uninsured women;
  • African American and Latina women are two-and-a-half times, and Native American women are three-and-a-half times more likely than white women to receive late or no prenatal care;
  • Caesarian sections in the United States are twice as high as recommended by the World Health Organization, and African American women have the highest C-section rate of any group; the risk of death following C-sections is more than three times higher than for vaginal births.

I spoke with Nan Strauss, a researcher with Amnesty International and co-author of the report who spent more than two years working on the study.

“It is unfortunately old news that we see these great health disparities in this country,” she told me, “but in the area of maternal mortality the disparities are even greater than in other very troubling areas like infant mortality and other infant outcomes like low birth weight and rates of pre-maturity.”

According to the report:

Discrimination profoundly affects a woman’s chances of being healthy in the first place. Women of color are less likely to go into pregnancy in good health because they are more likely to lack access to primary health-care services. Women of color are also less likely to have access to adequate maternal health-care services [and] more likely to experience discriminatory and inappropriate treatment and poorer quality care. And because women of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those who receive publicly funded care, they are most affected by barriers to accessing health-care services through these programs.”

This is not the kind of report likely to have made headlines in Tea Party circles. It does not complement the fictional narrative that too much is being made of the problems facing African Americans. Or that Blacks and whites in America enjoy equal access to opportunity. To the contrary, it calls renewed attention to the persistent and deadly disparities that confound our modern-day pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

We ignore them at our own peril.

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Behind the Debate on Temporary Protected Status….by Hugh Hamilton

January 16, 2010

Having evaded the issue for almost a full year since taking office, the Obama administration finally relented this week in granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to undocumented Haitian nationals currently in the United States. There wasn’t much of a choice, really, since Tuesday’s devastating earthquake leveled the Haitian capital, leaving tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced in a catastrophe of historic proportions. Days earlier, the administration had announced a decision to suspend deportations of up to 30,000 Haitians with orders to leave the country. But given the magnitude of the disaster, advocates correctly insisted that while a halt to deportations was welcome, nothing less than TPS would do. They finally got their wish on Friday.

TPS is a discretionary procedure authorizing undocumented nationals of a designated country to remain and work legally in the United States for up to 18 months at a time. To qualify, the Department of Homeland Security must determine that the affected nationals are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country due to ongoing conflict, environmental disaster or other extraordinary emergency conditions posing a serious threat to personal safety.

If the measure were fairly applied, advocates say, Haitians long ago should have been designated for beneficiary status; by any relevant standard, Haiti has long been a textbook case for TPS.

For example, following back-to-back hurricanes that swept the country in late 2008, some 800,000 people — including 300,000 children – — were either displaced or otherwise adversely affected. According to one United Nations humanitarian report, Haiti had been “plunged into one of its worst humanitarian situations over the last decade, making it even more dependent on external aid to preserve the already fragile social and political stability.” Yet, when a beleaguered President Rene Preval officially requested of the Bush administration that Haitians in the United States be granted TPS, our then- Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff – acting on behalf of the President of the United States – turned him down. Until now, the Obama administration has been similarly unsympathetic to the plight of the undocumented Haitians. Or so it seemed.

Administrative Amnesty or Humanitarian Response?

One reason the administration may have seemed so reticent on the issue of TPS for Haitians could be the sheer size of the affected population. There are thought to be at least 100,000 undocumented Haitians in the United States; some officials — including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — speculate there could be twice as many. If Napolitano’s estimate is correct, her department has just granted a form of temporary amnesty to an undocumented population equal in size to that of Des Moines, Iowa. That’s four times as many people as there are in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From a political standpoint, absent a catastrophe of the magnitude witnessed in Haiti this week, that’s not an easy sell.

But the numbers swing both ways. According to the Center for American Progress, Haitians at home received a whopping $1.87 billion in remittances from U.S.-based friends and family in 2008 – an amount equal to nearly one quarter of that country’s gross domestic product. By comparison, the country received a mere $279 million from USAID during the same period. In other words, granting Haitian nationals legal work permits through TPS would increase their opportunities to work and earn wages, thereby yielding even higher rates of remittances back home. Those remittances can go a long way in Haiti toward the reconstruction effort and since they’re sending after-tax dollars, it would be at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

Still, there are other political anxieties to be acknowledged and assuaged — among them the question of whether TPS designation comes with an actual expiration date. Technically, the designation is granted for 18 months at a time, with the government reserving the option to renew. But critics of the program complain that once granted, the designation seems impossible to withdraw. As evidence, they point to nationals of Honduras and Nicaragua, who were first granted TPS more than a decade ago. Their status has been periodically renewed ever since and they are currently designated through 2010.

Moreover, from its inception, Temporary Protected Status has been a particular target of the nativist right. The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, contends that TPS policies are dictated by politics rather than exigent circumstances. Dan Stein, who heads the organization, describes the program as a form of “administrative amnesty to illegal aliens.” Time and again, he says, Temporary Protected Status has proven to be “anything but temporary … repeated abuses have turned [it] into a backdoor immigration program.”

Some may say it’s difficult to take seriously the protestations of an organization like FAIR, whose leadership, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center,  has also warned that certain immigrant groups have engaged in “competitive breeding” aimed at diminishing white power, and argued that aiding starving Africans will only “encourage population growth.” Still, such groups do have a following, and they offer a window if not a platform to the extremist and xenophobic views that all too often infiltrate the public discourse..

We ignore them at our own peril.

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