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Archive for the ‘Race’ Category

Teaching Racism and the Law at UCLA and Masaryk University


by: Paul Von Blum on February 19th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

For several years, I have taught a popular and successful course at UCLA on “Race, Racism, and the Law.”  This course systematically examines the racist fabric of the American legal system.  It explores how contemporary racist practices, including police killings and other misconduct against African Americans, are deeply rooted in the history of American legal decisions and the United States Constitution itself.  The course content addresses most of the major documents of U.S. law regarding race and shows how the legal system throughout our history has favored those with power and privilege, predominantly wealthy white men.  This course primarily focuses on how the law has abused people of African origin, but it also addressed how legal cases, statutes, and practices have discriminated against other minority groups including Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Mexican Americans.

Not surprisingly, much of the material is new to my students.  Even those who are aware that the United States has a deeply racist history that persist in the early 21st century are unnerved at the extent of legal racism from the founding of the nation to the present.  Any discussion about American racism requires an analysis of its institutional foundations.  The legal dimensions of those foundations need to be understood both because they are difficult to change and because they often remain hidden from many conventional critiques of racism, especially in educational settings.

In both 2015 and 2017, I was invited to teach a truncated version of this class, for one highly intensive week, to students at the Faculty of Law at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.  Both times I found the law students there remarkably knowledgeable, intellectually curious, and especially eager to learn about how the American legal system works to the profound disadvantage of its minority inhabitants and, very occasionally, how it moves in the opposite direction by actually implementing the deeper ideals of racial equality and social justice.  Like their American counterparts, of course, they had rarely if ever studied the underlying legal foundations of American racism.

Presenting a course on American racism and law in the Czech Republic presented some unusual challenges.  Some of these were historical and others were pedagogical; others were deeply personal.  The Law School at Masaryk University in Brno is housed in the same building used as the headquarters of Nazi killing units that contained offices and prison cells between 1939 and 1945.  This disconcerting fact inevitably conjures up the reality that the Nazi occupation government shipped most Czechoslovakian Jews to exterminations camps during the War.  As a second generation Holocaust survivor with many family members killed in Auschwitz, I felt occasionally unnerved when I realized that I was teaching an anti-racist course in a structure where countless Jews and others were tortured and murdered.  I mentioned this briefly at the outset and in some informal conversations with students.

For young law students in Brno, anti-Semitism is not a major concern.  The Jewish population in Brno and the entire Czech Republic is small and most anti-Semitic incidents occur elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.  My major challenge at Masaryk University was to link my material to the continuing problems of racism against the Roma population in the Czech Republic.  The students there are familiar with this problem, if not comprehensively so.  I found it easy and compelling to use examples of discriminatory treatment of Roma people with my examples of racism in the United States.  Especially valuable to me is the existence of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, the only institution in the world devoted to the history and culture of this persecuted population, including the attempted Nazi genocide against Romani people during World War II.

As I do in my UCLA course, I began with contemporary examples of racial profiling and killings of unarmed black people before I embark on a chronological survey of American law and race (and racism).   My examples include the well-publicized cases of Rodney King, Latisha Harlins, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and others.  The Czech students for the most part had heard of Rodney King, but knew little or nothing about the others.  Most American students, on the contrary, have heard of most of these recent African American casualties.

To underscore this course opening, I showed a brief video that my graduate student, Shey Khaksar, and I produced on the topic.  The video has graphic footage of some of these horrific incidents and even more: we start the film with a clip of the dramatization of the grotesque 1944 execution of 14 year old George Stinney, who was convicted of murder by an all-white jury in ten minutes and almost immediately executed in a South Carolina electric chair (and whose conviction was vacated in 2014).  The Masaryk students, in their final essays for the class, indicated that the Stinney case and the footage of Eric Garner being choked to death on Staten Island in 2014 by New York Police Department officers had the most visceral impact on them.  Still, all these cases revealed to them that egregious racism continues in the United States, contradicting strongly some of the misconceptions about American racial equality that they found on Czech media and American propaganda outlets.


Belonging Cuts Like A Knife


by: on February 16th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

I’ve heard it said that belonging sounds kind of soft, but to me, it’s a knife that cuts straight to the heart of our collective challenge. How do we cultivate a society that embodies the right to belong, that offers full cultural citizenship: justice and love, equity and compassion, the right to feel at home in one’s community, to feel safe in one’s school? To belong.

It’s not clear whether school shooter Nikolas Cruz actually trained with the white nationalist militia Republic of Florida (the group’s leader claimed Cruz, then said he’d mistaken him for someone else. But Cruz had been aligned for years with white supremacist views, according to a high school classmate and others: “He would always talk about how he felt whites were a bit higher than everyone,” Charo said. “He’d be like, ‘My people are over here industrializing the world and starting new things, while your people [meaning blacks and Latinos] are just taking up space.’”

When we debate who belongs—about how belonging must be earned and which categories of people are entitled to a say—we had better be ready to tussle with history.Consider a few scenes from the annals of belonging.


What to do, when they play during the Star Spangled Banner


by: Ron Seigel on January 10th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

In the very very olden days, when I was growing up, there was a popular song that declared, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

Those of us who share progressive values have to expose what is negative in our society.   As an investigative reporter, I have done so for nearly half a century and am proud of doing so.  All too often, though,  as progressives have uncovered what is negative, we all too often failed to communicate the positive values that are motivating us to do so.

One might see this in the incidents where football players protested the police shootings of Black people, including little children.  They did so by refusing to stand for our national anthem.

Many interpreted this protest as an attack on America.  It was actually an expression of basic American values, the exact same values expressed two centuries. ago in ‘The Star Spangled Banner.”

That song, as well as the very creation of this country in the American Revolution,   represented a protest against the centuries’ old abuses of the European feudal system and the tyranny of the kings.  It expresses feelings of Americans about  the denial of human rights in the Europe that they had  left, and their determination not to allow such things here.

However, it is clear that can not only result from foreign invaders but from authorities within.


Nonviolence in the Face of Hatred


by: on November 16th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

Anita was present at almost every one of the 34-sessions of my online course Responding to the Call of Our Times. I have sometimes wondered what this course would have been like without her steady willingness to explore the depths of nonviolence. I was counting on it as a thread tying us together, inviting others into more willingness, inviting me into more daring capacity to excavate, find truth, find love. I thought Anita could not surprise me any longer. Then, two weeks before the end of the course, she surprised all of us.

Anita was one of very few people of African descent in the group, and the experience she described was totally related to her background. Some weeks before, her one remaining sister shared with her for the first time that years ago, when she was living in the South, there were a few times when the Ku Klux Klan broke into her house and dragged her out into a field towards a burning cross.

Probably 1958, from the North Carolina State Archives

Anita was bringing this up for a very specific reason, fully fitting with the focus on leadership that the course was on. Although this was very tender for her, she wasn’t bringing it up for empathy or sympathy. She was bringing it up because she wanted to find a way to transform her thinking about what her sister had shared with her, so she would know what to do with the violent thoughts that were populating her mind and challenging her commitment. Out of respect for her dignity and choice, I never asked for the specific nature of the thoughts.


Discrimination Against Black Workers


by: Los Angeles Black Worker Center on October 25th, 2017 | Comments Off

Los Angeles Black Worker Center
October 5, 2017

Discrimination has created a crisis in the Black community. Although the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids racial discrimination in the workplace, black workers continue to face higher rates of discrimination in the workforce than white workers do. ‘Whether working full-time or part-time, Black workers earn only three-quarters of what white workers earn,’ as stated in the introduction of the brief.

Dear Friends and Allies: The Los Angeles Black Worker Center (LABWC) and National Employment Law Project (NELP) demonstrates the need for California to explore expanded anti-employment discrimination to better protect workers in the era of Trump.

You can read the white paper here.

Los Angeles, California, October 5, 2017 – The National Employment Law Project and the Los Angeles Black Worker Center released a white paper today that offers analysis on why anti-discrimination laws must be strengthened to protect communities of color in the workforce as national civil rights enforcement agencies are threatened with cuts and elimination.  The report is published as a broad coalition of unemployed, underemployed and union workers call on Governor Brown to sign Senate Bill SB 491- The California Anti-Employment Discrimination Action of 2017- a bill that would begin the process of expanding anti-discrimination enforcement authority to local governments to fill the enforcement gap.

Titled, “Ensuring Equality for All Californians in the Workplace: The Case for Local Enforcement of Anti-Discrimination Laws,” this white paper points out the decline in federal investments into civil rights protections comes at a time of by increased civil rights complaints, making imperative that local governments join federal and state agencies in helping to enforce anti-discrimination legislation.. It explores the complexity of 21st century workplace discrimination and how and why local enforcement in California could provide greater opportunity to address  civil rights  violations faced by Black workers and other groups in the workplace.

“The moral and economic crisis of racism affects our entire State,” said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, co-founder of the LA Black Worker Center. “It has caused a crisis in the Black community.  We know Governor Brown recognizes that CA must commit to resist the attack on Californians by national forces. Expanding anti-employment discrimination enforcement is needed now more more than ever. We need to build infrastructure to effectively protect workers where the discrimination happens.”


A Surprising Realization in America


by: Richard Zimler on September 21st, 2017 | 4 Comments »

I’ve lived in Portugal for the last 27 years and generally visit America – the country where I was born and grew up – only once a year.  I recently had my annual visit, and for three weeks I stayed at a beachfront condominium on Sanibel, a tranquil and beautiful island off the west coast of Florida that is part of Lee County.  In that county – which includes the nearby city of Fort Myers – 59 percent of the population voted for Donald Trump. And he won the statewide vote as well (as most Tikkun readers will remember only too well!)  I mention the President’s popularity in that area of the country because it made me feel constrained and uncomfortable. And yet, at the same, time, his victory made me want to find a way to make it clear to shop owners, waitresses, cashiers and other strangers that I met that I regarded him as an ignorant bully and wretched human being.

After a few days, I began to notice that I had no problem mentioning my contempt for Trump to African-Americans but kept silent with whites.  The reason?  88% of blacks voted for Hillary Clinton, so airing my views about him with them was relatively safe (I do not like to get into quarrels with strangers!). Nationwide, only 37 percent of whites voted for Clinton, and 58 percent of them voted for Trump.

I confess that this comfort I felt discussing politics with African-Americans – and not with whites – is new to me, probably because I grew up in suburban community in New York with very few blacks.  In my high school on Long Island, we had 1600 white students and two African-Americans. I only began making black friends when I went to college. And yet I was always aware of the gap of experiences and perspective between us.


Moving from Fault to Cause: Looking for Systemic Solutions to White Supremacy


by: on September 14th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Downtown Charlottesville, by Bob Mical

The recent events in Charlottesville have brought even more attention and public conversation to the growing phenomenon of visible, explicit calls for white supremacy. Much of what I have since read and heard is horror and disgust at what has happened, and an intense inquiry about what can be done to make a dramatic shift, and quickly.

Although I experience myself as entirely separate and different from the torch-marchers, from their slogans, actions, and hatred, I consciously choose to maintain the discipline of remembering that they were not born this way; they are not in any special category. There are reasons why more and more people are drawn into such groups, and I want to know the causes, not what’s wrong with the people. Like many who’ve been writing recently, I am confident that fighting back, name calling, shaming, denouncing, and other similar tactics I’ve seen used recently are feeding rather than quelling this upsurge.

Clearly, we are facing a huge problem here; one of many that are challenging our overall ability to sustain ourselves as a species. One of the benefits that our very large brains give us is that we are, as a species, amazingly capable of responding to major challenges by solving complex problems. We know, without having to learn it very much, that to solve a problem we need to understand its cause and then look for solutions based on understanding the cause.


More Charlottesville’s To Come – UNLESS!


by: Rich Cohen on September 6th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Condemning white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia or anywhere else is how we honor ourselves as human beings. We condemn it by naming it, speaking, mobilizing, demonstrating, legislating, educating against it, and by prosecuting hate crimes wherever they occur. However, unless we want to wake up at age 90 witnessing more of the same we must take a new and deeper look at this endless tension, anger, and hatred by too many whites toward too many non-white people.


I believe that material depravation and low self-esteem occurs before racism is triggered. To reverse racism we must understand that original distress. To ignore it is asking for more pain.


“Racism follows a feeling of unworthiness, of being socially, economically, and politically ‘victimized’… and of being a failure. Someone has to pay for such low feelings and self-perception. This means a need for scapegoats in order to feel superior and to exercise personal power over others. Racist people tend to feel insignificant, isolated, wronged and unloved and they remedy that feeling of exclusion by blaming (and hurting) someone else for it” This is meant to be more than empathetic! It is to understand the roots of racism in order to end it.


Nazis, Jews, and African Americans at Charlottesville


by: Jonathan Wiesen on August 25th, 2017 | 1 Comment »

On August 11 and 12thof this month, a cadre of white supremacists – made up of alt-rightists, Ku Klux Klan supporters, and ethnonationalists – converged on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee commanded an army that fought to maintain the slave system. Like the confederate flag, his statue and those of other confederate leaders and slaveholders celebrate a history that is a source of collective grief and anguish to African Americans. The statues symbolize a living commitment to “the Old South,” a legacy of white rebellion against the North, and the extraordinary violence that accompanied white political, social, and economic control over the black population. Yet throughout the protest in Charlottesville, the white supremacists spent little time calling for a return to a segregated South or chanting anti-black slogans. Instead, they indulged in vulgar anti-Jewish invective. Swastikas were on prominent display, protesters chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil,” and they held signs that read “the Jews are Satan’s children,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Make no mistake: these were the watchwords of the rally.

While the ubiquity of Nazi sloganeering in Charlottesville may seem surprising to some, this was hardly the first time that a defense of the confederate legacy found expression in Jew-hatred. During the organization’s revival in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan made African-Americans and Jews the objects of their fury. It was common during that decade and beyond to explain the origins of the moniker KKK by its targets: “Koons, Kikes, and Katholics”. African Americans who challenged entrenched racial, economic, and political hierarchies throughout the South were often met with white violence and terror. But fears of black power often went hand-in-hand with the claim that African Americans lacked the capacities to act on their own. Instead, they were cast as the dupes of Jewish conspirators who exerted outsized political and economic influence. This claim undergirded all sorts of theories in the early decades of the twentieth century: that Jews were a kind of “fifth column” within black political organizing, whether in the Communist Party, the NAACP, or what anti-Semites derisively called the “Jew Deal.” On the other side of the Atlantic, Nazis developed their own internally contradictory theories of African American-Jewish relations. In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis assiduously studied the model of Jim Crow segregation, which they simultaneously admired from afar and linked to Jewish power structures. In their convoluted reasoning, segregation was at once a defensible white response to the threat of racial intermixing and growing black self-assertionandthe result of trickery by a powerful Jewish “plutocracy” that had used their considerable wealth to repress African-Americans. The Jews, according to one Nazi political cartoon from the 1930s, even took special pleasure in consuming images of lynching. The cumulative effect of such theories was to cast Jews as the secret, clandestine agents behind both white dominationandblack protest.


Oh Crap! I’m Triggered Again, Part One


by: on August 20th, 2017 | 2 Comments »

Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade.People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.

But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.

Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.

I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.

Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor?Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.

I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.

When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:

Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.

Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.

Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:

What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.

It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.

None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.

In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.

I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.

And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.

From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?

What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.

But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.

I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.

When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.

My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”

Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.

Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.

Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”