Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
A friend and I were sitting around commiserating about the things that get to us: unloading small indignities, comparing thorns. "So there I was," she said, "sitting on the bus and this man across the aisle starts waving a copy of law professor Randall Kennedy's new book Nigger. He's got this mean-looking face with little raisiny eyes, and a pointy head, and he's taking this book in and out of his backpack. He's not reading it, mind you. He's just flashing it at black people."
"Don't be so touchy," I responded. "Professor Kennedy says that the N-word is just another word for 'pal' these days. So your guy was probably one of those muted souls you hear about on Fox cable, one of the ones who's been totally silenced by too much political correctness. I'd assume he was just trying to sign 'Have a nice day.'"
"Maybe so," she said, digging through her purse and pulling out a copy of Michael Moore's bestselling Stupid White Men. "But if I see him again, I'm armed with a 'nice day' of my own."
"That's not nice," I tell her. "Besides, I've decided to get in on the publishing boom myself. My next book will be called Penis. I had been going to title it Civil Claims That Shaped the Evidentiary History of Primogeniture: Paternity and Inheritance Rights in Anglo-American Jurisprudence, 1883-1956, but somehow Penis seems so much more concise. We lawyers love concision."
She raised one eyebrow. "And the mere fact that hordes of sweaty-palmed adolescents might line up to sneak home a copy, or that Howard Stern would pant over it all the way to the top of the bestseller list, or that college kids would make it the one book they take on spring break----"
"...is the last thing on my mind," I assured her. "Really, I'm just trying to engage in a scholarly debate about some of the more nuanced aspects of statutory interpretation under Rule 861, subsection (c), paragraph 2... And besides, now that South Park has made the word so much a part of popular culture, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. When I hear young people singing lyrics that use the P-word, I just hum along. After all, there are no bad words, just ungood hermeneutics."
"No wonder Oprah canceled her book club," she muttered.
Seriously. We do seem to have entered a weird season in which the exercise of First Amendment rights has become a kind of XXX-treme Sport, with people taking the concept of free speech for an Olympic workout, as though to build up that constitutional muscle. People speak not just freely but wantonly, thoughtlessly, mainlined from their hormones. We live in a minefield of scorched-earth, who-me-a-diplomat?, let's-see-if-this-hurts words. As my young son twirls the radio dial in search of whatever pop music his friends are listening to, it is less the lyrics that alarm me than the disc jockeys, all of whom speak as though they were crashing cars. It makes me very grateful to have been part of the "love generation," because for today's youth, the spoken word seems governed by people from whom sticks and stones had to be wrested when they were children--truly unpleasant people who've spent years perfecting their remaining weapon: the words that can supposedly never hurt you.
The flight from the imagined horrors of political correctness seems to have overtaken common sense. Or is it possible that we have come perilously close to a state where hate speech is the common sense? In a bar in Dorchester, Massachusetts, recently, a black man was surrounded by a group of white patrons and taunted with a series of escalatingly hostile racial epithets. The bartender refused to intervene despite being begged to do something by a white friend of the man. The taunting continued until the black man tried to leave, whereupon the crowd followed him outside and beat him severely. In Los Angeles, the head of the police commission publicly called Congresswoman Maxine Waters a "bitch"--to the glee of Log Cabin Republicans, who published an editorial gloating about how good it felt to hear him say that. And in San Jose, California, a judge allowed a white high school student to escape punishment after the student, angry at an African-American teacher who had suspended his best friend, scrawled "Thanks, Nigga" on a school wall. The judge was swayed by an argument that "nigga" is not the same as "nigger" but rather an inoffensive rap music term of endearment common among soul brothers.
Frankly, if Harvard president Lawrence Summers is going to be calling professors to account for generating controversy not befitting that venerable institution, the disingenuous Professor Kennedy would be my first choice. Kennedy's argument that the word "nigger" has lost its sting because black entertainers like Eddie Murphy have popularized it, either dehistoricizes the word to a boneheaded extent or ignores the basic capaciousness of all language. The dictionary is filled with words that have multiple meanings, depending on context. "Obsession" is "the perfume," but it can also be the basis for a harassment suit. Nigger, The Book, is an appeal to pure sensation. It's fine to recognize that ironic reversals of meaning are invaluable survival tools. But what's selling this book is not the hail-fellow-well-met banality of "nigger" but rather the ongoing liveliness of its negativity: It hits in the gut, catches the eye, knots the stomach, jerks the knee, grabs the arm. Kennedy milks this phenomenon only to ask with an entirely straight face: "So what's the big deal?"
The New Yorker recently featured a cartoon by Art Spiegelman that captures my concern: A young skinhead furtively spray-paints a swastika on a wall. In the last panel, someone has put the wall up in a museum and the skinhead is shown sipping champagne with glittery fashionistas and art critics. I do not doubt that hateful or shocking speech can be "mainstreamed" through overuse; I am alarmed that we want to. But my greater concern is whether this gratuitous nonsense should be the most visible test of political speech in an era when government officials tell us to watch our words--even words spoken in confidence to one's lawyer--and leave us to sort out precisely what that means.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
As Halle Berry elegantly strode to the podium to accept her best actress Oscar, the first for a black woman, she wept uncontrollably and gasped, "This moment is so much bigger than me." Just as revealing was Denzel Washington's resolute dispassion as he accepted his best actor Oscar, only the second for a black man, by glancing at the trophy and uttering through a half-smile, "Two birds in one night, huh?" Their contrasting styles--one explicit, the other implied--say a great deal about the burdens of representing the race in Hollywood.
Berry electrified her audience, speaking with splendid intelligence and rousing emotion of how her Oscar was made possible by the legendary likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. And in a stunning display of sorority in a profession riven by infighting and narcissism, Berry acknowledged the efforts of contemporary black actresses Angela Bassett, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox. But it was when Berry moved from ancestors and peers to the future that she spoke directly to her award's symbolic meaning. She gave the millions who watched around the globe not only a sorely needed history lesson but a lesson in courageous identification with the masses. Berry tearfully declared that her award was for "every nameless, faceless woman of color" who now has a chance, since "this door has been opened."
Berry's remarkable courage and candor are depressingly rare among famed blacks with a lot on the line: money, prestige, reputation and work. Many covet the limelight's payoffs but cower at its demands. Even fewer speak up about the experiences their ordinary brothers and sisters endure--and if they are honest, that they themselves too often confront--on a daily basis. To be sure, there is an unspoken tariff on honesty among the black privileged: If they dare go against the grain, they may be curtailed in their efforts to succeed or cut off from the rewards they deserve. Or they may endure stigma. Think of the huge controversy over basketball great Charles Barkley's recent comments--that racism haunts golf, that everyday black folk still fight bigotry and that black athletes are too scared to speak up--that are the common banter of most blacks. What Berry did was every bit as brave: On the night she was being singled out for greatness, she cast her lot with anonymous women of color who hungered for her spot, and who might be denied a chance for no other reason than that they are yellow, brown, red or black. Her achievement, she insisted, was now their hope.
At first blush, it may seem that Denzel Washington failed to stand up and "represent." But that would be a severe misreading of the politics of signifying that thread through black culture. Looking up to the balcony where Sidney Poitier sat--having received an honorary Oscar earlier and delivered a stately speech of bone-crushing beauty--Washington said, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney...." He joked with Poitier, and the academy, by playfully lamenting his being awarded an Oscar on the same night that his idol was feted. Washington, for a fleeting but telling moment, transformed the arena of his award into an intimate platform of conversation between himself and his progenitor that suggested, "This belongs to us, we are not interlopers, nobody else matters more than we do." Thus, Washington never let us see him sweat, behaving as if it was natural, if delayed, that he should receive the highest recognition of his profession. His style, the complete opposite of Berry's, was political in the way that only black cool can be when the stakes are high and its temperature must remain low, sometimes beneath the detection of the powers that be that can stamp it out. This is not to be confused with spineless selling out. Nor is it to be seen as yielding to the cowardly imperative to keep one's mouth shut in order to hang on to one's privilege. Rather, it is the strategy of those who break down barriers and allow the chroniclers of their brokenness to note their fall.
Both approaches--we can call them conscience and cool--are vital, especially if Hollywood is to change. Conscience informs and inspires. It tells the film industry we need more producers, directors and writers, and executives who can greenlight projects by people of color. It also reminds the black blessed of their obligation to struggle onscreen and off for justice. Cool prepares and performs. It pays attention to the details of great art and exercises its craft vigorously as opportunity allows, thus paving the way for more opportunities. The fusion of both approaches is nicely summed up in a lyric by James Brown: "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'/Just open up the door, I'll get it myself."
Black filmmakers seize the moment.
He says that what he said about the Jews
(They own and thus manipulate the news)
Is not, of course, reflective of his views.
So what part of the news did those Jews lose?
In my last column, I mentioned that most actual drug users are young white people, even though most of those "profiled" as drug users are people of color. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white.
But profiling is further vexed by the eternal question of how one determines who is white and who is not. In today's diasporic world, racial identity or "whiteness" is less determined by lines of "blood" or descent than it once was in certain Southern states. Today, whiteness is more dominantly a matter of appearance, based on malleable aesthetic trends.
This point--the malleability of how we assign "race" to people--is certainly illustrated by the example of Noelle Bush, to whom I referred as white. I received much mail insisting that she is not in fact white but Latina "because her mother is." It's an interesting question, this: the potential tension between "actual" and actuarial determinations of race. But first, let us agree that although there is no biological reality of race, the force of race is a powerful if constantly negotiated sociocultural construction, and has been since colonial times. Second, allow me to sidestep for now the complex anthropology of whether being Latina is determined matrilineally, thus canceling out her conspicuous Puritan patrimony. Third, let us also agree that recent migrations from Latin America have increasingly complicated national demographics as historically inflected by Jim Crow laws. And so, while "Latina" seems to be used as a racial category when it comes to most compilations of criminal justice statistics (meaning brown people from south of the border, of mixed Spanish, African and Native American descent), the reality is that not all Latinos are people of color. Indeed, "Latino" is perhaps more accurately understood as a broad linguistic, regional and cultural category rather than a racial one.
In any event, I called Ms. Bush white because, in photographs, that's what she looked like to me, admittedly through all the filters of my particular geographic and generational prism. At the same time, a number of letters pointed out that Noelle Bush and her brother are the grandchildren whom George Bush the Elder once described as "the little brown ones." This underscores the essential irrationality of profiling by appearance alone: If old George and I (just let your imagination wander here) were working as airport screeners, side by side and in accordance with the logic of most racially based profiling guidelines, he'd have stopped her, and I'd have waved her through. "But she's really..." has no fixed meaning in such profiling. This is not a new aspect of racial scrutiny; in generations past, perhaps, Noelle Bush's status might have been familiar as that of Tragic Mulatta. In today's more global context, I re-examine her picture and note how she resembles supermodel Christy Turlington--herself endlessly exploited for the vaguely "exotic" racial ambiguity that her mother's Ecuadorean "blood" supposedly lends her. But however one may or may not want to classify Ms. Bush, the existence of a confused limbo of those who can "pass" does not alter the fact that once classified as "suspect," as are too many of the unambiguously dark-skinned, the license of heightened investigation significantly colors the fundamental counterpresumption of innocent until proven guilty.
Let me shift topics here. One striking feature of virtually all the letters I received was the application of the word "smug" to my description of "Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle." This attribution was attended by detailed accusations, all starting with the word "impliedly." I impliedly took delight in the Bush family's suffering. I impliedly reveled in her getting what she deserved. I impliedly used the daughter to make fun of the father.
A little clarification is perhaps in order. When I said "poor Noelle," I meant it, with no irony attached. Whether fueled by biological predisposition or depression, substance abuse knows no political, class or ethnic boundary. Poor Prince Harry, poor Betty Ford, poor Robert Downey Jr., poor not-a-few Kennedys. I don't find a single bit of enjoyment in what is clearly a pervasive modern crisis. If one must project, let me provide some guidance. I see our crisis of drug dependency as a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal cause. This stance obviously places me at odds with the Prohibition-era policies of Jeb and both Georges. It doesn't mean I doubt that Governor Bush is less desperately concerned about the fate of his daughter than any other father. He believes the war on drugs is to the greater good; I think it woefully misguided. Asserting such disagreement about the efficacy of policy is democratic, not inherently disrespectful.
I also agree with those who counsel against publishing the unruly actions of children, whether their parents happen to be in the limelight or not. I believe minors, defendants or witnesses, deserve protection from the media. But Noelle Bush is well over 21, has had five traffic violations, seven speeding tickets and three car crashes and was convicted of impersonating a doctor in order to fraudulently obtain a prescription. The actions of adults who are brought before the criminal justice system are appropriately the subject of public record. Noelle Bush was given probation and referred to a drug treatment center. Who's to say if that's what she "deserved," but most likely it's what she, and so many others like her, needs. Where her example might be of continuing public interest is in contrasting her fate with that of poorer women, who, if convicted of drug offenses, are ineligible for welfare benefits for life. And in a case recently before the Supreme Court, an elderly woman whose retarded granddaughter smoked a joint three blocks away from her house was evicted from public housing based on her "relation" to drug use or sale. If such rules were applied across the socioeconomic spectrum, we'd have to ask Jeb Bush to give up the governor's mansion. It is, after all, public housing. I know--some of you will be affixing meanspirited, giggling gratuity to that image, but my point is rather the sad absurdity of it.
In all this, the bottom-line concern is whether fundamental fairness remains the measure of how we treat anyone--rich or poor, white or Latino, anonymous minor or poor Noelle.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson says it's like this: If judicial nominee Charles Pickering is confirmed by a Democratic Senate, the Bush Administration will have a green light to pack the federal courts with judges openly hostile to basic principles of equal justice under the law. "It amazes me that in 2002 a man who has a questionable record of support for 'one man, one vote' is seriously considered for a federal appeals court judgeship--but that's what we've got with Charles Pickering," Thompson says of the Mississippi federal judge nominated by Bush to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. "If he is confirmed, the message will be that there are no expectations left, no standards for selecting judges."
Harsh words, especially from a judicial nominee's home-state representative. But the Pickering nomination has inspired the sharpest debate yet regarding the President's judicial nominees. Republican Senator Arlen Specter says Pickering displays "a curious ambivalence" about using the court to protect voting rights, while NAACP board chair Julian Bond says "a vote for Pickering is a vote against civil rights." That's a particularly dramatic charge regarding a nominee to the Fifth Circuit, which oversees civil rights protections in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any circuit.
The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP and the predominantly black Magnolia Bar Association are working to block Pickering's nomination. "We hope to God that he doesn't make it," explains L.A. Warren, chair of the state NAACP's Legal Redress Committee. "We know his past." As a law student, Pickering penned a 1959 law review article that showed legislators how to tighten Mississippi's ban on interracial marriage. In the 1960s Pickering established a law practice with one of the state's most outspoken segregationists. He joined white business elites in his hometown of Laurel in opposing the worst excesses of the local Ku Klux Klan, but he also signed an open letter declaring he was working along more genteel lines to maintain "our Southern way of life." As a state senator in the 1970s, Pickering repeatedly advocated election "reforms" that the Justice Department knocked down as assaults on African-American empowerment, and he supported funding the notorious Mississippi Sovereignty Commission's efforts to block desegregation. As a federal judge since 1990, Pickering has described the "one person, one vote" principle as "obtrusive," attacked moves to draw legislative districts that could be won by African-American candidates as "polarization" and repeatedly attempted to limit application of Voting Rights Act provisions in Mississippi. In lawsuits before him involving racial discrimination in the workplace, Pickering has griped that courts "are not super personnel managers charged with second-guessing every employment decision regarding minorities."
At least eleven of the two dozen Pickering decisions overturned by the Fifth Circuit were rejected for violating well-settled principles of law involving civil rights, civil liberties, criminal procedures and labor rights. In 1994 Pickering intervened with the Justice Department to try to get the government to soften charges against a man who had burned an eight-foot cross outside the home of an interracial couple, claiming the defendant had merely engaged in a "drunken prank."
After Pickering stumbled badly in Judiciary Committee hearings--which raised ethics concerns about his role in the cross-burning case, his solicitation of letters of recommendation from lawyers and groups that might face his court, and his deceitful testimony about his ties to the Sovereignty Commission--his nomination was in trouble. But it was revived by conservative groups, which recognize that confirmation of such a nominee would ease the way for later Bush picks, and by antiabortion activists who have championed Pickering since he led the fight at the 1976 Republican National Convention for a platform opposing reproductive freedom. Pickering has a powerful ally in Senate minority leader Trent Lott, who says conservative Southern Democrats will help him confirm Pickering if a full Senate vote is scheduled. Lott charges that Pickering is the victim of a "smear" campaign.
That spin was aided by a New York Times article asserting that the African-Americans who know Pickering best "admire his efforts at racial reconciliation" and "overwhelmingly" support his nomination. Based only on interviews with African-American residents of Laurel, the Times article claimed that a disconnect between national groups' opposition to Pickering and Mississippi blacks' support for him "reflects the distance between national liberal groups and many Southern blacks in small towns." Newspapers with a better sense of the South dismissed this view; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized, "US jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering's prejudices reigned." But the claim that critics have focused unfairly on Pickering's record on race was picked up by conservative newspapers. The Wall Street Journal highlighted a pro-Pickering column by Mississippi's most prominent black Republican, Charles Evers, and the Washington Times wrote, "Liberal organizations have tried to label Judge Pickering as a racist, but black leaders in Mississippi are vocally backing the nominee as a friend of their community."
In fact, it was Mississippi blacks who first raised the alarm about Pickering's nomination. "I wish the New York Times would ask people like me what we think of Charles Pickering," says Kathy Egland, who joined the 1960s civil rights movement in Hattiesburg at the age of 10. "I have been involved in civil rights in Mississippi for forty years, and I'll tell you this: No one in the Mississippi NAACP who knows this man's record is saying that he has ever been a supporter of civil rights."
Race riot victims still wait for promised reparations.
A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.