The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
If you turn on your cable tonight, and you happen to have Turner Classic Movies, you’ll be able to watch, for one of the first times in broadcast, D.W. Griffith’s classic silent, The Birth of a Nation.
It’s an instructive film, in part because Griffith introduced so many innovations that we now take for granted. One of these, of course, is the wealth of racial stereotypes that run throughout it.
It’s also instructive that it’s happening now, because there seems to be a fresh wave of thinking out there that sees this whole ugly racism thing now as a thing of the past. We can sift through its bones and quaintly examine them, tut-tutting the primitives of a century before, smug in our certainty that of course it lives no more.
One of these is Shelby Steele, who wants to argue that "white guilt" over the depredations of white supremacy keeps us whites from doing what we need to do in places like Iraq and on our southern border:
To maintain their legitimacy, they practice the minimalism that makes problems linger. What but minimalism is left when you are running from stigmatization as a "unilateralist cowboy"? And where is the will to truly regulate the southern border when those who ask for this are slimed as bigots? This is how white guilt defines what is possible in America. You go at a problem until you meet stigmatization, then you retreat into minimalism.
Possibly white guilt’s worst effect is that it does not permit whites–and nonwhites–to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.
The notion that racism is dead has been a favorite theme of the right for awhile now. It began, probably, with the Thernstroms’ America in Black and White, and continued with Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism. In a similar vein, the new White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, suggested awhile back that he thinks racism a dead issue:
"Here’s the unmentionable secret: Racism isn’t that big a deal any more. No sensible person supports it. Nobody of importance preaches it. It’s rapidly becoming an ugly memory."
— Tony Snow, on an October 2003 edition of Fox News Sunday
What Snow is really doing, of course, is defining racism away. This is only true if "racism" is largely just the purview of the Ku Klux Klans and Silver Shirts, the David Dukes and Hal Turners and the National Socialist Movements of the world. It’s also only true if you believe that the only racism of possible significance is that which might be condoned by public officials — that racist acts by ordinary citizens are of no consequence.
The stark reality, however, is that racism not only continues to thrive in America both in less obvious, institutional ways, but also through the auspices of the conservative movement and its official wing, the Republican Party. The 21st-century American right has proven remarkably content not merely to let the embers of racism smolder away at the roots of our society, but to fan them in ways both subtle and unsubtle.
There is a long history of this: the long-running collaboration with neo-Confederates in the South, courtesy of the Southern Strategy and its transformative effects on the GOP, is only the best-known instance. The transmission of appeals from the far right in the 1990s, though less remarked upon, is certainly a piece of the picture.
Then there are the increasing numbers of overt white supremacists, clothed in seemingly normal personas, stepping up and running for public office as Republicans. The nice young man running for the Mosquito Control Board in Florida is also an avid member of the National Alliance. Out in Montana, another neo-Nazi announced his plans to run for the state Legislature.
And even though Republican officials there, appropriately, condemned the man’s candidacy, it does little to drown out the consistent drumbeat we hear from conservative quarters these days. The more common refrain from rank and file conservatives, especially when it comes to the immigration debate, sounds a lot more like Michael Savage when he calls pro-immigrant marchers "vermin."
Let’s take the most recent variant: the bizarre overreaction to the new Spanish-language version of "The Star Spangled Banner."
John Chuckman noted the weirdness of the reaction — and the underlying cause:
"This is evoking spirited revulsion on the part of fair-minded Americans," offered John Teeley, representative of one of innumerable private propaganda mills in Washington commonly dignified as think-tanks. Mr. Teeley continued, "You are talking about something sacred and iconic in the American culture. Just as we wouldn’t expect people to change the colors of the national flag, we wouldn’t expect people to fundamentally change the anthem and rewrite it in a foreign language."
A foreign language? There are roughly thirty-million Spanish speakers in the United States. The analysis here is interesting: an immigrant singing an anthem in his own language resembles someone changing the national flag. This argument does, perhaps unintentionally, reveal the real concern: Hispanics are changing our country, and we don’t like it.
The Star-Spangled Banner was translated into Spanish in 1919 by the US Bureau of Education. It has also been translated into a number of other languages. In 1861, it was translated into German (and is also on that page in Latin). It has been translated into Yiddish by Jewish immigrants and into French by Acadians of Louisiana.
It has also been translated into Samoan:
O Roketi mumu fa’aafi, o pomu ma fana ma aloi afi
E fa’amaonia i le po atoa, le fu’a o lo’o tu maninoa
Aue! ia tumau le fe’ilafi mai, ma agiagia pea
I eleele o Sa’olotoga, ma Nofoaga o le au totoa
The whole uproar reminds me a bit of the outrage that followed Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock:
The creation of these effects was groundbreaking in its own right, far expanding the traditional techniques of the electric guitar. The rendition has been described by some as a generation’s statement on the unrest in US society, and others as an anti-American mockery, oddly symbolic of the beauty, spontaneity, and tragedy that was endemic to Hendrix’s life. It was an unforgettable rendition remembered by generations. When asked on the Dick Cavett Show if he was aware of all the outrage he had caused by the performance, Hendrix replied: ‘I thought it was beautiful.’
Jimi was so cool.
Unfortunately, the harpies of the nativist right are not.
You see, to them, it doesn’t matter that there have been other renditions of the National Anthem in other languages. For them, it’s the same thing as those dirty Mexicans who were waving Mexican flags: they polluting our culture. They’re taking away our lily-white, English-speaking past and replacing it with a multilingual, multiracial present.
Some of this is plain old ignorant provincialism. Americans are the only people I know who are positively insulted when someone tries to speak to them in another language. And some of it, frankly, is latent white supremacism: the belief that "traditional" white culture is innately superior, and any dilution of it is a bad thing.
The overarching narrative, though, is fairly clear: Latinos are the problem, and they should be sent back to Mexico.
The reality is that much of the demographic change fueling this anger is occurring in places that, previously, have been homogeneous white communities: rural and suburban communities in the West and Midwest and South. The kinds of places where, only fifty years ago, it was not uncommon to encounter signs on the city borders reading: "Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here."
These signs were particularly common in the Midwest, but also could be found out West and in the East as well. They were less common in the South, which dealt with its black population differently, through Jim Crow laws and segregation; the rest of the country simply ran blacks out of their communities and forced them into urban black neighborhoods. As James Loewen documents in his book Sundown Towns [more about which I’ll soon be writing] the direct effects of these policies have given us a legacy of racial separation that is still with us. And most of these privileged white communities, despite the changes in modern racial sensibilities, still continue to resist any demographic change.
One of the ways this resistance manifests itself is in the form of hate crimes, which as I’ve explained previously, are known to occur not in correlation with economic downturns, but rather with dramatic demographic shifts. (I go into this in some detail in Death on the Fourth of July.) Particularly in formerly homogeneous communities facing an influx of easily identifiable Others.
So it should not surprise us that, as the ADL recently reported, the levels of threats and actual violence directed against Latinos is rapidly rising in these precincts around the country. A sampling:
January 2006, California. Ryan Nicholas Newsome, a member of the Another Order white supremacist gang, pleaded no contest on January 20, 2006, to assault charges in Yuba County. He pleaded no contest to assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury with a criminal street gang enhancement as a result of an August 2005 incident, in which he and an associate allegedly assaulted a Hispanic man.
December 2005, Tennessee. A Blount County judge on December 1, 2005, sentenced Jacob Allen Reynolds and Thomas Matthew Lovett to four years in prison and six months in prison (and two and a half on probation) respectively after they pleaded guilty to vandalizing a Mexican food store in Maryville on May 7, 2005, causing over $17,000 in damages. The men allegedly broke windows and a refrigerator, vandalized a car, and spray-painted Nazi symbols on the store. Three others charged still await trial.
November 2005, Texas. Christopher Chubasco Wilkins, a prison escapee, was recaptured on November 5 and charged with murdering three men in the Fort Worth area during his month-long escape. Wilkins, who is according to police a self-proclaimed white separatist heavily tattooed with a variety of white supremacist tattoos, including a portrait of Adolf Hitler, is alleged to have killed two Hispanic men and one African-American man by gunshots to the head. Police are examining a possible racial motive. Wilkins had been living at a halfway house in Houston, after being released from federal prison, and left the house without permission.
November 2005, Tennessee. A federal judge sentenced former Klansman Daniel James Schertz to 14 years in prison for selling pipe bombs to a person he thought would use them to kill Mexican and Haitian immigrants. The person turned out to be an undercover informant. Schertz, a former corrections officer and member of the North Georgia White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, pleaded guilty to making five pipe bombs to be used to blow up a bus carrying Mexican workers. Later, Schertz expressed gratitude that the government had stopped him, but said, "We should have people here who know how to speak English. They are over here illegally and nothing gets done to them."
October 2005, California. A Sacramento man and two other suspects who allegedly attacked and injured six people in a hate-crime spree at two local parties were arrested in the early morning of October 16, 2005. Ryan Marino, 22, posted bail from El Dorado County Jail later Sunday after being charged on four counts of assault with a deadly weapon with an extenuating circumstance of a hate crime. He allegedly used brass knuckles after shouting epithets against Hispanics and proclaiming "white pride" at a home Sunday evening. Party attendees later identified Marino, who police said crashed the parties with the intent of "beating up Mexicans."
September 2005, Utah. A federal judge on September 27, 2005, sentenced Lance Vanderstappen to 20 years in prison for trying to kill a Hispanic man while in a holding cell in July 2005 awaiting sentencing for a racketeering charge. The victim had stab wounds to his neck, throat and chest. In court, Vanderstappen, a member of the notorious Soldiers of Aryan Culture white supremacist prison gang, admitted that he targeted the victim because he was Hispanic, saying "I intentionally tried to kill him." Vanderstappen pleaded guilty to attempted murder.
September 2005, New Jersey. Joseph Schmidt of Little Egg Harbor received a sentence of three years’ probation in September 2005 after pleading guilty in June to two counts of bias intimidation, two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of criminal mischief, two counts of possessing weapons for an unlawful purpose, and simple assault. The charges were related to a string of attacks on minorities, primarily Hispanics, in Ocean County in 2003. Schmidt, a member of the white supremacist skinhead group East Coast Hate Crew, received a light sentence because he had cooperated with authorities in prosecuting other members of the group. Three others involved in the incident pleaded guilty and one was acquitted. Others have yet to go to trial.
July 2005, California. Four people, three men and one woman, were arrested in Riverside, California, on July 11-12, 2005, charged with making terrorist threats with a hate crime enhancement. Some of the people arrested had "white pride" tattoos, according to authorities, who also seized a variety of white supremacist items. According to police, the suspects drove to a home and challenged several Hispanics there to a fight, threatening them and using racial slurs. A similar episode occurred the next night. According to police, the people arrested claimed no particular group affiliation but said they were proud to be "members of the Aryan race."
May 2005, Arizona. White supremacist Steve Boggs was sentenced to death on May 13, 2005, for murdering three fast-food workers in Mesa, Arizona, in 2002 during a robbery. He had been convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and various robbery, burglary and kidnapping charges. Boggs shot the victims, a Native American and two Hispanics, then stuffed their bodies into a freezer at the store. Boggs wrote to a Mesa police detective that he had wanted to "rid the world of a few needless illegals. I don’t feel sorry." Another defendant still awaits trial. According to prosecutors, the two men were members of a small hate group they called the Imperial Royal Guard.
May 2005, Texas. Two racist skinheads pleaded guilty on May 5, 2005, to a racially motivated beating of a Hispanic man in January 2003. Douglas Brannan of Hockley and Mark Fletcher Smith of Spring, both sporting many white supremacist tattoos, were convicted of civil rights violations. The two men, and a teenager, had attacked a Hispanic customer at a gas station, beating him and kicking him with steel-toed boots until he was unconscious while shouting "border jumper," "spic," and "we kill people like you." Brannan received a five year sentence and Smith a three year sentence.
December 2004, California. Ten racist skinheads from Redlands and Riverside attacked three Hispanics in the parking lot of a topless bar on December 29, 2004. According to police, they assaulted the men while yelling racial slurs at them and identifying themselves as members of skinhead groups. No arrests have yet been made.
November 2004, Wisconsin. Mark Lentz of Sheldon, Wisconsin, received a three-month sentence and two years of probation, as well as 40 hours of community service, after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor hate crime. Lentz was the last of four racist skinheads to be sentenced for luring a Hispanic man outside a bar in Waukesha, then hitting him on the head with a bottle and repeatedly kicking him. Mark Davis II of Watertown earlier received a 3 ï¿½ year sentence and two years of extended supervision, Kasey Bieri received an 18-month jail term and three years of probation, and Jeffrey Gerloski received four months in jail and two years probation.
June 2004, Texas. Ranch Rescue member Casey Nethercott was convicted by a Texas jury of felony firearm possession in connection with an attack on two illegal immigrants from El Salvador outside of Hebbronville, Texas, in 2003. He was sentenced to five years in prison. The two immigrants (now in the U.S. legally) successfully sued Nethercott and others involved in the incident for a total judgment of $1,450,000.
November 2003, Idaho. Aryan Nations member Zachary Beck was arrested for felony malicious harassment as a hate crime for attacking a Hispanic male in the parking lot of a supermarket after asking if the victim was Mexican. While awaiting trial on that charge, he was later re-arrested after allegedly shooting at a police officer in Longview, Washington, during a standoff. He still awaits trial on the alleged crimes.
June 2003, California. Two racist skinheads, Waylon Kennell and James Grlicky, were convicted in separate trials for the brutal beating of a Mexican migrant worker in San Diego in the fall of 2003. Grlicky was convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy, robbery, assault and battery, with a hate crime enhancement. Kennell was convicted of assault causing great bodily injury and battery with serious bodily injury. According to the prosecutor in the case, the two went hunting for a "beaner" to beat and rob. They kicked the victim in the head around a dozen times, including "curbstomping" himï¿½kicking down on the back of the head when the victim’s open mouth is placed against a concrete curb (emulating a scene in the movie "American History X"). The victim suffered brain damage as a result of the attack.
May 2003, New Hampshire. Aryan Nations member Russell Seace, Jr., of Hampton Beach, pleaded guilty on May 27 to being a felon in possession of a firearm as part of a plea bargain with the federal government. In exchange for money, Seace had agreed to kill a Hispanic inmate after he was released, in retaliation for an alleged attack by the Hispanic man on a white prison inmate.
February 2003, Oregon. A Mexican landscaper in Beaverton was beaten with a baseball bat, robbed, and told to "go back home," by a man with a shaved head and a coat with "KKK" on it. Baseball bats are one of the weapons preferred by racist skinheads. Authorities posted a reward but were unable to make an arrest in the crime.
The most recent, and horrifying, such case occurred recently in Texas, where two shaved-headed young men with a history of racial epithets and brawling attacked a 16-year-old Hispanic youth, sodomized him with a broomstick, carved him with a knife, poured bleach over him, and left him near death. (Somewhat predictably, prosecutors are declining to file hate-crime charges at this time.)
And, as the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, there has been a regular onslaught of racist, clearly white supremacist ugliness floating around the anti-immigration forces recently, almost certainly whipped up by the pro-immigrant marches. This includes death threats against public officials.
There’s no reason to be surprised by this, though. Anyone watching the anti-immigration agitation carefully — particularly the semi-official celebration of violent viglantism known as the Minutemen — can hear for themselves the old embers of racial hate crackling back to life.
So while Minuteman founder Chris Simcox works steadily to deny the presence of any kind of white-supremacist element in his ranks, you can hear one of his early fellow border patrollers expounding:
No, we ought to be able to shoot the Mexicans on sight, and that would end the problem. After two or three Mexicans are shot, they’ll stop crossing the border and they’ll take their cows home, too.
At an anti-immgrant rally in Tennessee four days before the marches, this proposal drew applause:
On Apr. 27 — four days before a mass movement that includes undocumented workers, legal immigrants and U.S. citizens refused to go to work or school in observation of the "Great American Boycott" — more than 1,000 people attended an anti-immigrant meeting called "Demagnetise America" in Franklin, Tennessee.
Those in attendance heard Nashville radio talk show host Phil Valentine say that he thought that U.S. Border Patrol Agents should consider shooting undocumented immigrants as they come across the border.
According to the news story posted at the website of the Centre for New Community’s Building Democracy Initiative, Susan Tully, the national field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — present at the event — "chuckled at the idea, while the large crowd erupted into applause".
At the immigration marches themselves, pro-Minuteman agitators showed up and shouted racial hatred:
The Minutemen were doing their best to incite the Mexican protesters to violence, with shouts of "you motherfuckers" (from the black woman pictured above) and "go home, Mexicans", not to mention the skinny guy (pictured above, middle finger extended) who kept flipping them off and grabbing his crotch (really!). There were several people who did a wonderful job keeping the marchers away from the line of cops and the Minutemen, telling them that there was no need to sink to that level and that "we’re better than that". There was never a point where I thought violence was imminent, to the credit of the police and the rally organizers.
You see, everyone knows that being a racist is bad. That’s why no one ever admits to being a racist, even when they’re rather nakedly so.
But that doesn’t mean that people actually stop being racist. It just means that it goes on under the surface, when people think they aren’t looking.
So the Minutemen loudly proclaim that they’re weeding out any white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But then former organizers come forward and tell quite a different tale:
Neo-Nazis volunteered for Jim Gilchrist’s recent congressional campaign and distributed racist propaganda at Gilchrist rallies with the full knowledge of the Minuteman Project co-founder and his campaign managers, according to a former Gilchrist campaign volunteer whose account is supported by photographs, video footage and postings on the white supremacist Web site Stormfront.
"They were basically allowing Skinheads and white nationalists to work the phone banks and do IT [computer work] and distribute National Alliance fliers targeting non-whites," Cliff May, a dance instructor in Orange County, Calif., told the Intelligence Report. "When I told Mary [Gilchrist’s finance manager] and Eldon [Gilchrist’s grassroots coordinator] that I didn’t want to work for a campaign that was tainted by white supremacy in any way, they told me not to cause a stir.
"When I kept bringing it up, they kicked me out."
Photographs taken at an Oct. 29 Gilchrist rally in Sacramento show a man outfitted like a Nazi Skinhead distributing propaganda from the neo-Nazi National Alliance. "I talked with Gilchrist about it and he said they’d decided to, in his words, ‘let it go,’" May said. Three weeks later, May says he spotted two neo-Nazis among a crowd of Gilchrist campaign volunteers at a City Council meeting in Lake Forest, Calif. May recognized the young man and woman from photographs of neo-Nazis giving seig-heil salutes in front of swastika banners at an anti-immigration protest in Laguna Beach four months earlier, in July. May said he videotaped the neo-Nazis at the November meeting in Lake Forest and immediately afterward played the footage on a big screen television at Gilchrist’s campaign headquarters.
"I identified the couple on the tape as white supremacists and started asking everyone if they’d actually been working the office, and the front desk person and other volunteers said they had," said May. "Gilchrist was there and stated that he didn’t want to deal with it and he left." May said he later learned from Gilchrist’s campaign managers that some neo-Nazis were told they could work for the campaign as long as they kept their ideology quiet. "Gilchrist had assured the media several times he had a zero tolerance policy toward white supremacists. But from what I saw from the inside, it was more like, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’" May said.
At Thursday night’s hearing where Simcox spoke, the Minutemen were treated to a long series of harangues against them, including some that entered the realm of inaccurate hyperbole.
But the real prize came from Simcox:
Also, I take great pride in being part of the Civil Rights Movement — Martin Luther King. And of course I admire the original border Minuteman, Cesar Chavez, who warned us about illegal immigration 25 years ago and actually marched to the border to protest illegal immigration and predicted the problems we have today.
It’s factually true, but distorted; Chavez would never have condoned an operation so clearly aimed at demonizing Latinos as the Minutemen. Nonetheless, some of the Minutemen’s supporters sounded similar notes. One in particular chastised the crowd for exhibiting its "prejudice" against the Minutemen, and wondered aloud, at numerous points, "What would Martin Luther King say?"
Human Rights commissioner Ellis Casson, a Seattle pastor who actually knew King, piped up at the end in response.
"I knew Dr. King," he said. "I know what he would say:
"’Here we go again.’"
[Hat tip to Gene Lyons for the Steele piece.]