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Five Steps to Tyranny

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2016

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:

But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.

Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.

But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.

Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:

For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.

We Work Remotely

Safety pins as a symbol of solidarity against racism

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2016

Safety Pin

Post-Brexit, people in the UK started wearing safety pins to show their stance against racism and their solidarity with immigrants.

In response to the open environment of hatred, people across the U.K. are now wearing safety pins — and tweeting pictures of themselves wearing them — in an act of solidarity with immigrants.

In the wake of the election and reports of racism incidents across the nation, some are advocating using the safety pin strategy here too.

We need a symbol like that in the United States now. These are vicious days in America. The deplorables are emboldened. The Washington Post reports that there have already been two attacks on Muslim women on college campuses. At San Diego State University, two men ranting about Trump and Muslims robbed a student wearing hijab.

I like this idea, that a subtle marker can denote a social safe space of sorts, a signal to someone who might feel uncomfortable that an ally is nearby. That’s not to say you can put a pin on your coat and *dust off your hands, job well done* but it may help. I’m going to try it.

Update: During the Nazi occupation of Norway in World War II, Norwegians took to wearing paperclips to signal their rejection of Nazi ideology.

The people of Norway also had to deal with German soldiers day in and day out for five years. By 1945, some 400,000 German troops were operating in Norway, controlling the population of about 4 million people.

It was in the autumn of 1940 when students at Oslo University started wearing paperclips on their lapels as a non-violent symbol of resistance, unity, and national pride.

Symbols related to the royal family and state had already been banned, and they wanted a clever way of displaying their rejection of the Nazi ideology. In addition to wearing a single paperclip, paperclip bracelets and other types of jewellery were fashioned as well, symbolically binding Norwegians together in the face of such adversity.

Of course, once the Nazis got wind of this, wearing paperclips became a crime. (via @ckrub)

Update: That co-opting thing I warned against above? Seems like it’s happening.

wear safety pin to fool people into thinking you’re a safe space, trigger them

If I had to guess however, this behavior will be short lived and they’ll move on to some other genius scheme. I’m not taking my pin off. (via @_McFIy & @pattersar)

Update: There’s no safety pin emoji, but some people are adding the paperclip emoji to their Twitter usernames as a virtual world counterpart to the safety pin.

SNL’s Black Jeopardy

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2016

This SNL Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks is as good as everyone says it is. And it’s not just funny either…it’s the rare SNL skit that works brilliantly as cultural commentary. Kudos to the writers on this one.

Update: Writing for Slate, Jamelle Bouie details why the Black Jeopardy sketch was so good; the title of the piece asks, “The Most Astute Analysis of American Politics in 2016?”

When Thompson reads a second clue for that category — “They out here saying that every vote counts” — Doug answers again, and again correctly: “What is, come on, they already decided who wins even ‘fore it happens.’” With each correct answer, Doug gets cheers and applause from Thompson, the black contestants, and the black audience. They all seem to understand the world in similar ways. “I really appreciate you saying that,” says Thompson after Doug praises Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, leading to an awkward moment where Hanks’ character recoils in fear as Thompson tries to shake his hand, but then relaxes and accepts the gesture.

By this point, the message is clear. On this episode of “Black Jeopardy!”, the questions are rooted in feelings of disempowerment, suspicion of authority, and working-class identity-experiences that cut across racial lines. Thompson and the guests are black, but they can appreciate the things they share with Doug, and in turn, Doug grows more and more comfortable in their presence, such that he gets a “pass” from the group after he refers to them as “you people.”

The Central Park Five

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2016

In the late 1980s, five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of raping a woman jogging in Central Park. The Central Park Five is a documentary film directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon which tells the story from the perspective of the those five teens. I’ve seen the film, it’s excellent, and it’s currently available to watch for free on the PBS website.

The five men and this terrific miscarriage of justice are back in the news because of Donald Trump. In 1989, just a few weeks after the attack in Central Park, Trump took out a full-page ad in the Daily News denouncing the crime and the teens in which he calls for bringing back the death penalty.

Perhaps he thought it gave him gravitas, that spring, to weigh in on the character of the teen-agers in the park: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

When NYC finally settled with the wrongly convicted men in 2014, Trump denounced the settlement, joining a police detective in calling it “the heist of the century.” And just before Trump’s crowing about sexual assault of women broke over the weekend, Trump reaffirmed that despite all evidence to the contrary, he believes that the five men are still guilty.

The NY Times and the truth of profanity

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2016

When the story about Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women broke, the NY Times took the unusual step of publishing exactly what the presidential candidate said.

In the three-minute recording, which was obtained by The Washington Post, Mr. Trump recounts to the television personality Billy Bush of “Access Hollywood” how he once pursued a married woman and “moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there,” expressing regret that they did not have sex. But he brags of a special status with women: Because he was “a star,” he says, he could “grab them by the pussy” whenever he wanted.

“You can do anything,” Mr. Trump says.

He also said he was compulsively drawn to kissing beautiful women “like a magnet” — “I don’t even wait” — and talked about plotting to seduce the married woman by taking her furniture shopping. Mr. Trump, who was 59 at the time he made the remarks, went on to disparage the woman, whom he did not name, saying, “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” and saying, “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”

It was unusual because of the Times’ policy of not printing profanity, even if the profane words themselves are newsworthy. In this case, the editors felt they had no choice but to print the actual words spoken by Trump.

In piece published earlier the same day the Trump story broke, Blake Eskin, who has been tracking the Times’ non-use of profanity at Fit to Print, highlights the racial and classist implications of the policy.

As I’ve noticed over the years while documenting how the Times writes around profanity, a lot of the expletives the Times avoids come up around race: in stories about hip-hop, professional sports, and police shootings. (I’m getting all the data into a spreadsheet so I can back up this assertion.)

The Times seems compelled both to tell readers that people curse in these contexts and to frown upon it.

It’s as if profanity is like a sack dance or a bat flip, a classless flourish that the archetypal Times reader, who is presumably white, can take vicarious pleasure in without having to perform it himself.

You cannot tell authentic stories about people who are systematically discriminated against in our society without using their actual words and the actual words spoken against them related to that discrimination. Full stop.

Update: Eskin wrote a follow-up about his data analysis of the NY Times profanity avoidance for Quartz.

The “other” category includes faux-folksy formulations such as “a word more pungent than ‘slop,’” and “a stronger version of the phrase ‘gol darn,’” as well as the straightforward, “He swore.” When I began the Fit to Print project, I could enjoy the cleverness of some of these contortions. But after reading through hundreds of examples over several years, expletive avoidance no longer strikes me as an interesting puzzle for a writer to solve. The policy just seems prissy, arbitrary, and delusional.

The more I think about the Times’ policy, the more absurd it becomes. There seems to be a relatively simple solution: if the profanity does work in the service of journalism — particularly if the entire article is about the profanity in question — print it. It is doesn’t, don’t. I mean, are Times editors afraid their reporters will start handing in articles with ledes like “Well, this fucking election is finally winding down, thank Christ.”?

Albert Einstein, civil rights advocate

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2016

Einstein Lincoln University

In 1946, Albert Einstein, who had come to the US in 1933 and stayed to become a citizen due to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, wrote a magazine article titled The Negro Question. In it, he called the prejudice against black Americans a “deeply entrenched evil”.

What soon makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. I am not thinking here so much of the democratic political constitution of this country, however highly it must be praised. I am thinking of the relationship between individual people and of the attitude they maintain toward one another.

In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual. No one humbles himself before another person or class. Even the great difference in wealth, the superior power of a few, cannot undermine this healthy self-confidence and natural respect for the dignity of one’s fellow-man.

There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.

Recognizing the parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany in the 1930s with blacks in the US, Einstein put his efforts and his money where his mouth was. He was a member of the NAACP. In 1946, the same year that letter was published, he received an honorary degree from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the historically black school that was the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. In a speech at the school that was not covered by a mainstream American press that otherwise couldn’t get enough of him, Einstein called racism “a disease of white people”:

My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.

When singer Marian Anderson was denied a hotel room in Princeton for being black, Einstein hosted the singer at his home for this and several subsequent trips. He also came to the aid of W.E.B. Du Bois in his case against the US government:

Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.

These and his other activities in this arena are documented in a 2006 book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.

The white man in the photo of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics)

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2016

Tommie Smith and John Carlos

During the medals ceremony for the 200 meter race the 1968 Olympics, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both standing shoeless on the podium, each raised one black-gloved fist in the air during the playing of the US national anthem as a gesture in support of the fight of better treatment of African Americans in the US. It was an historic moment immortalized in photos like the one above.

The white man in the photo, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia, could be considered a sort of symbolic visual foil against which Smith and Carlos were protesting, but in fact Norman was a willing participant in the gesture and suffered the consequences.

Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.

The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you” — remembers John Carlos — “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”

Update: In 2011, Democracy Now! interviewed Carlos about the salute and the aftermath. He was joined by sportwriter Dave Zirin and the pair told a story about why Norman didn’t want to be represented alongside Carlos and Smith with a statue on the San Jose State campus:

DAVE ZIRIN: OK, just checking. Well, they made the decision to make this amazing work of art, these statues on campus. And they were just going to have Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with a blank space where Peter Norman stood. And when John heard about that, he said, “Oh, no, no. I don’t want to be a part of this. And I don’t even want this statue if Peter Norman’s not going to be on it.” And the people at San Jose State said, “Well, Peter said he didn’t want to be on it.” And John said, “OK, let’s go to the president’s office and get him on the phone.” So they called Peter Norman from the president’s office at San Jose State, and sure enough, they got Peter on the phone. I believe Peter said-what did he say? “Blimey, John”? What did he say?

JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, “Blimey, John. You’re calling me with these blimey questions here?” And I said to him, I said, “Pete, I have a concern, man. What’s this about you don’t want to have your statue there? What, are you backing away from me? Are you ashamed of us?” And he laughed, and he said, “No, John.” He said-you know, the deep thing is, he said, “Man, I didn’t do what you guys did.” He said, “But I was there in heart and soul to support what you did. I feel it’s only fair that you guys go on and have your statues built there, and I would like to have a blank spot there and have a commemorative plaque stating that I was in that spot. But anyone that comes thereafter from around the world and going to San Jose State that support the movement, what you guys had in ‘68, they could stand in my spot and take the picture.” And I think that’s the largest thing any man would ever do. And as I said, I don’t think that my co-partner, my co-heart, Tommie Smith, would have done what Peter Norman done in that regards. He was just a tremendous individual.

(via @unlikelywords)

OJ: Made in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2016

OJ Simpson Trial

Last night, I finished OJ: Made in America, ESPN’s 8-hour documentary series about OJ Simpson. Prior to starting the series, I would rather have poked an eye out than spend another second of my life thinking about OJ Simpson; I’d gotten my fill back in the 90s. But I’d heard so many good things about it that I gave it a shot. Pretty quickly, you realize this is not just the biography of a man or the story of a trial but is a deep look at racism, policing, and celebrity in the US. OJ: Made in America is excellent and I recommend it unreservedly. From Brian Tallerico’s review:

Ezra Edelman’s stunningly ambitious, eight-hour documentary is a masterpiece, a refined piece of investigative journalism that places the subject it illuminates into the broader context of the end of the 20th century. You may think you know everything about The Trial of the Century, especially if you watched FX’s excellent “The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” but “OJ: Made in America” not only fills in details about the case but offers background and commentary that you’ve never heard before. It is an examination of race, domestic abuse, celebrity, civil rights, the LAPD, the legal process and murder over the last fifty years, using the OJ Simpson story as a way to refract society. Its length may seem daunting, but I would have watched it for another eight hours and will almost certainly watch it again before the summer is over. It’s that good.

The only real criticism I have of the series is that the treatment of women in America should have been explored more, on the same level as racism and celebrity. A.O. Scott picked up on this in his NY Times review:

It is hard not to notice the predominance of male voices among the interview subjects, and the narrowness of the film’s discussion of domestic violence. This is not to say that the issue is ignored: Mr. Simpson’s history of abusing Nicole is extensively and graphically documented, as is the fact that most of his friends ignored what was going on at their Rockingham estate. But the film, which so persuasively treats law enforcement racism as a systemic problem, can’t figure out how to treat violence against women with the same kind of rigor or nuance.

A fuller discussion of domestic violence in the US and misogyny in sports would have provided another powerful, reinforcing aspect of the story.

Police racism: a tale of two justice systems

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2016

In 1974, Studs Terkel published a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. One of the people he talked to for the book was Chicago police officer Renault Robinson. Robinson is African American and offered up his views to Terkel on how blacks are policed differently…here are the relevant bits of the interview. On traffic stops:

“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. It’s easier to stop a person on the pretext of a traffic violation than to stop him on the street. It’s a lot easier to say, “Your tail light’s out.” “Your plate is dented.” “You didn’t make that turn right.” You can then search his automobile, hoping you can find some contraband or a weapon. If he becomes irritated, with very little pushing on your part, you can make an arrest for disorderly conduct. These are all statistics which help your records.

Certain units in the task force have developed a science around stopping your automobile. These men know it’s impossible to drive three blocks without committing a traffic violation. We’ve got so many rules on the books. These police officers use these things to get points and also hustle for money. The traffic law is a fat book. He knows if you don’t have two lights on your license plate, that’s a violation. If you have a crack in your windshield, that’s a violation. If your muffler’s dragging, that’s a violation. He knows all these little things….

So if they stop the average black driver, in their mind the likelihood of finding five or six violations out of a hundred cars is highly possible…. After you’ve stopped a thousand, you’ve got 950 people who are very pissed off, 950 who might have been just average citizens, not doing anything wrong - teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people. The police don’t care. Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree.”

And on the type of young white male that the job was attracting at the time:

A large amount of young white officers are gung ho. It’s an opportunity to make a lot of arrests, make money, and do a lot of other things. In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty. So the black people don’t cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they’re begging for more police service. They’re over-patrolled and under-protected.

The young white guys turn out to be actually worse than their predecessors. They’re more vicious. The average young white policeman comes from a working-class family, sometimes with less than a high-school education. He comes with built-in prejudices. The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate niggers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. So what? They could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work.”

Reading about this stuff, I keep going back to the 9 principles of policing drawn up by London’s Metropolitan Police in the 1820s in which the power of the police comes from the people, force is to be used minimally, and the efficacy of policing is judged on the absence of crime, not on the number of arrests or people sent to jail.

Redditt Hudson served as a police officer in St. Louis during the 1990s. He shared his perspective on race and policing with Vox last year: I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing.

It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.

And no matter what an officer has done to a black person, that officer can always cover himself in the running narrative of heroism, risk, and sacrifice that is available to a uniformed police officer by virtue of simply reporting for duty.

(via @tonyszhou)

How discrimination feels

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

I posted a short video earlier today featuring Jane Elliott. She’s a noted anti-racism activist famous for her blue eyes/brown eyes exercise, featured in the video above.

White people’s number one freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white. And our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant.

In the exercise, Elliott divides the class into two groups based on their eye color: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. The brown eyed group is instructed to treat the blue eyed group as inferior because of their eye color — they are to be called “bluey” or “boy” or “honey” but not by their names.

At the beginning of the session (which starts at about 1:30 (but don’t skip the intro!)), Elliott calls herself “the resident bitch for the day” and does she mean it…she does not let up because, as she says in the video, society doesn’t let up on people of color either. (via @dunstan)

Freedom for some is not freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

Jane Elliott asks an audience a very simple question about being black in America. (via @carltonspeight who says “No BS, I wish every white person on Twitter could see this. Maybe it’ll help”)

Dorothea Lange’s photos of Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during WWII

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2016

Lange Japanese Internment

Lange Japanese Internment

In 1942, the US government hired Dorothea Lange (of Migrant Mother fame) to take photos of the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although Lange quit after a few months because government censors wouldn’t let her shoot images of barbed wire and the bayonets on guards’ guns, she took hundreds of photos documenting this shameful moment in American history.

Famous for her forlorn images of Dust Bowl America, this pioneering female photographer was hired by the War Relocation Authority in 1942 to document the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Although her skill at candid portraiture was unparalleled, “Lange was an odd choice, given her leftist politics and strong sympathy for victims of racial discrimination,” writes scholar Megan Asaka. The position was a challenging one for Lange as well. “Appalled by the forced exile, she confided to a Quaker protestor that she was guilt stricken to be working for a federal government that could treat its citizens so unjustly.”

The WRA initially gave Lange little instruction about where and what to shoot, but controlled and censored her while she was at work. When documenting life inside the assembly centers and concentration camps, she was prohibited from taking shots of barbed wire and bayonets. Unable to tolerate this censorship and her own conflicted feelings about the work, Lange quit after just a few months of employment with the WRA.

Less ashamed at what they’d done and more worried about PR backlash, the government embargoed Lange’s photos until 1972.

If this all makes you think of some recent comments about Muslims from a certain Republican presidential candidate, history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

Update: Ansel Adams also took dozens of photos of the Japanese American interment camp at Manzanar.

Adams Japanese Internment Camp

So did photographer Toyo Miyatake, who was among the prisoners at Manzanar.

Miyatake Japanese Internment

The exclusion order forced Miyatake, his wife and four children, to the concentration camp at Manzanar. He was able to store his photographic equipment but managed to smuggle a camera lens and film plate holder into the camp against government orders. Miyatake told his son Archie that he felt it was his duty to document camp life. An Issei carpenter in camp constructed a box to house the lens, and Miyatake was able to get film into camp by way of a hardware salesman and former client. The photographer eventually asked camp director Ralph Merritt if he could set up a photo studio, and Merritt, who learned about Miyatake from Edward Weston, consented with the provision that Miyatake only load and set the camera, and a Caucasian assistant snap the shutter. Eventually, that restriction was lifted, and Miyatake was designated official camp photographer, and granted the freedom to take photos of everyday life at Manzanar.

Miyatake and Adams met at the camp and began a collaboration. Lange and Adams were friends — he printed Migrant Mother for her — and she was instrumental in convincing Adams to document Manzanar. But she was also critical of his detached approach:

In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.”

(thx, @gen and samuel)

The Birth of a Nation

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 18, 2016

Written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation is a film about Nat Turner, the man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The movie won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and will be out in theaters in October.

P.S. If the name of the movie sounds familiar, it was deliberately given the same name as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, which dramatized the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In an interview, Parker said:

When I endeavored to make this film, I did so with the specific intent of exploring America through the context of identity. So much of the racial injustices we endure today in America are symptomatic of a greater sickness - one we have been systematically conditioned to ignore. From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

(via trailer town)

The making of Zootopia

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2016

From Fusion, a 45-minute documentary about the making of Zootopia.

Fusion spent two years with the production team of Disney’s smash hit film. In ‘Imagining Zootopia,’ you will travel with the team to Africa to explore the animals in their natural habitat and find out how the storytellers and animators dealt with the very real themes of prejudice and bias.

I found this via Khoi Vinh, who writes:

A lot of careful thought went into how to render the emotional truth behind experiencing racism, and the documentary takes a detailed look at the filmmakers grappling with that. However, it also betrays one of the unfortunate truths of the production; the movie is commendably bold about addressing prejudice, but it’s evident from watching the documentary that of the five-hundred plus people who contributed to the film, hardly any were non-white, and even fewer were African-American.

For a criticism of Zootopia’s racial allegory, read Devin Faraci’s A Muddled Mess of Racial Messaging… And Cute Animals.

Racial equality and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2016

Actor and singer François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons for 30 years on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, talks about how and why Fred Rogers chose a black man to be a police officer on TV.

To say that he didn’t know what he was doing, or that he accidentally stumbled into integration or talking about racism or sexism, that’s not Mister Rogers. It was well planned and well thought-out and I think it was very impactful.

NPR also recently shared Clemmons’ story.

He says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.

Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”

“Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.”

“It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being,” Clemmons says. “That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.”

Mister Rogers always hits me right in the feels.

Chris Rock’s opening monologue from the Oscars

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 29, 2016

Chris Rock opened his monologue at the Oscars last night with “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” and for the next ten minutes, talked about racism in Hollywood.

Update: As much as I enjoyed Rock’s monologue, I also agree with Stacia Brown’s piece, Chris Rock, Justice for Flint and why we still have ‘real things to protest’.

We still have real things to protest. If water contamination in a U.S. city due to alleged negligence doesn’t call for “real” protest, what does? Disinvestment in the Oscars — especially for DuVernay and Coogler — isn’t a frivolous undertaking. And black performers don’t want equal opportunity just to be considered for awards. In this country, celebrity has always afforded people the platform and the capital to push forward the issues that are important to them. There couldn’t have been a Justice for Flint fundraiser on the scale that they were able to mount without star power. Black celebrity — its acknowledgement and its compensation — is significant.

(via @anildash)

“Robert Moses Is A Racist Whatever”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2016

Christopher Robbins recently interviewed Robert Caro (author of The Power Broker, perhaps the best book ever written about New York) for Gothamist. The interview is interesting throughout. (I lightly edited the excerpts for clarity.)

Caro: If you’re publishing on the Internet, do you call them readers or viewers?

Robbins: Either, I think.

Caro: How do you know they’re reading it?

Robbins: There’s something called Chartbeat — it shows you how many people are reading a specific article in any given moment, and how long they spend on that article. That’s called “engagement time.” We have a giant flatscreen on the wall that displays it, a lot of publications do.

Caro: What you just said is the worst thing I ever heard. [Laughs]

That exchange makes a nice companion to Snapchat like the teens.

Caro: Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.

I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.

Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.

We used Jones Beach a lot, because I used to work the night shift for the first couple of years, so I’d sleep til 12 and then we’d go down and spend a lot of afternoons at the beach. It never occurred to me that there weren’t any black people at the beach.

So Ina and I went to the main parking lot, that huge 10,000-car lot. We stood there with steno pads, and we had three columns: Whites, Blacks, Others. And I still remember that first column — there were a few Others, and almost no Blacks. The Whites would be go on to the next page. I said, God, this is what Robert Moses did. This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations.

That’s something to remember the next time someone tries to rehabilitate Moses’ legacy. Not to mention this excerpt from The Power Broker:

Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.

The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.

And now I am filled with regret at never having read The Power Broker. I started it a couple times, but could never find the time to follow through. I wish it was available on the Kindle…a 1300-page paperback is not exactly handy to carry about and read. The unabridged audiobook is 66 hours long…and $72.

The symbolic President

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2016

Laura June likes Bernie Sanders in many ways but is going to vote for Hillary Clinton because Clinton is a woman.

As with many issues that stem from the fact of my motherhood — breast-feeding, co-sleeping — I speak only for myself, and cannot generalize my experience from “I am” to “you should.” I only know in my heart that I simply don’t want my daughter to grow up in a world where a woman has never been president. And if not now, when?

I’m a woman, and a mother, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton for my daughter, and for her future.

If I had a vote to cast in the upcoming NY Democratic primary, I would also vote for Hillary Clinton and also because she is a woman. I believe the most important and longest-lasting effect of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 is that tens of millions of kids (of all racial backgrounds) got to experience an African American being President. Those kids are going to grow up knowing, and not just theoretically, that a non-white person can be elected (and even re-elected) President of the United States. Clinton’s election would send a similar message to those same kids (both girls and boys): a woman can be elected President. I think it would have a huge future effect, more than any of the policy differences between her and Sanders, especially back-to-back with an Obama presidency.

The undefeated South

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2015

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann writes about “the Southernization of American politics”. In 1865, the United States won the Civil War against the South, but the current US has been significantly shaped by the ideals, politics, and values of the South.

In order to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States had to include the South, and its inclusion has always come at a price. The Constitution (with its three-fifths compromise and others) awkwardly registered the contradiction between its democratic rhetoric and the foundational presence of slavery in the thirteen original states. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase-by which the U.S. acquired more slaveholding territory in the name of national expansion-set off the dynamic that led to the Civil War. The United States has declined every opportunity to let the South go its own way; in return, the South has effectively awarded itself a big say in the nation’s affairs.

(via @jimray)

The Warmth of Other Suns

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 07, 2015

Warmth Suns Cover

I read a lot of books by and about white men, many of them dead. So when a friend enthusiastically recommended The Warmth of Other Suns, I jumped at the chance to expand my reading horizons. I’m so glad I did…this is an amazing book.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the Southern US to the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970. During that time, roughly 6 million African Americans moved north and west to escape Jim Crow laws, discrimination, low wages, the threat of physical violence & death, and everyday humiliation & lack of freedom in the South. In the North, they found freedom, new opportunities, and better lives for their families, but they had less success escaping poverty, racism, and discrimination.

Wilkerson tells the story of the entire Migration by focusing on the paths of three people leaving the South:

Warmth Suns

Ida Mae Gladney, a Mississippi sharecropper pictured above with flowers in her hair, moved to Chicago with her family in 1937 and lived to cast a vote for Barack Obama.

Warmth Suns

George Starling, pictured above on the left, worked in the citrus groves of Florida before leaving for New York in 1945. He found a job as a baggage handler (and unofficial welcoming committee member) on a train, working the north/south lines that ferried millions of black Southerners to their new homes in the North.

Warmth Suns

Robert Foster, the gentleman above in the bow tie, became a surgeon and moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1953. There, he rose to the upper ranks of black society and became personal physician to Ray Charles. Foster left the South so thoroughly behind that his daughter didn’t know many of the details of his Louisiana childhood until she read it in Wilkerson’s book.

Through her compelling straight-forward prose, wonderful storytelling, and diligent journalism, Wilkerson more than convinces me that the Great Migration is the greatest untold, misunderstood, and largely unknown occurrence of the American 20th century. I don’t say this often, but The Warmth of Other Suns is a must-read, particularly if you want to begin to understand the racial issues still confronting the US today.

Why America Needs a Slavery Museum

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2015

The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana is the only US museum and memorial to slavery. The Atlantic has a video about the museum and its founder, John Cummings, who spent 16 years and $8 million of his own money on it.

The Problem We All Live With

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2015

Oh man, this episode of This American Life on desegregation and the Normandy School District (aka the Missouri district that Michael Brown attended) just totally wrecked me. Tears of sadness and rage.

Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.

America likes to pride itself on its focus on the importance of education and everyone getting a crack at living the American Dream, but as this story makes clear, neither of those things are actually true. See also part two of the series and Hannah-Jones’ series on segregation at ProPublica.

Highlighting Hollywood’s race problem

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2015

On his YouTube channel, Dylan Marron is cutting down films to only include dialogue spoken by persons of color. Under those conditions, Moonrise Kingdom is 10 seconds long. Her is about 40 seconds. Noah is 0 seconds.

(via @riondotnu)

Take down the Confederate flag. Now.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2015

Atop the South Carolina statehouse, both the national and state flags flew at half mast yesterday. But not the Confederate Flag. The symbolic reasons loom large. The literal reason was uncovered by a reporter.

The flag is part of a Confederate War Memorial, and is not on a pulley system, so it cannot be lowered, only removed.

That actually sounds like an ideal solution. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues we should take down the Confederate Flag.

That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it.

Nine dead in Charleston shooting

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2015

From the NY Times, Nine Are Killed in Charleston Church Shooting; Gunman Is Sought.

An intense manhunt was underway Thursday for a white gunman who opened fire on Wednesday night at a historic black church in this city’s downtown, killing nine people before fleeing.

The police chief, Greg Mullen, called the shooting a hate crime.

Chief Mullen said that law enforcement officials, including the F.B.I. and other federal agencies, were assisting in the investigation of a shooting that left six women and three men dead.

Chief Mullen said the gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended the meeting for about an hour before open firing. Among the dead, according to reports, was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

America’s 1.5 million missing black men

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2015

Missing Black Men

In Ferguson, for every 100 black women between the ages of 25 and 54, there are 60 black men. While Ferguson is extreme, it’s not exceptional. Across America, we see similar numbers. So the question arises: What happened to all the black men? The short answer to that question is incarceration and premature death. The longer answer is equally upsetting. From Upshot: 1.5 Million Missing Black Men.

Progress, but Eyes remain on the Prize

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 10, 2015

President Obama delivered two key messages during his speech in Selma over the weekend. One, it’s a mistake to suggest that racism is banished in America.

We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true.

And two, we’ve made a lot of progress:

If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

It’s worth putting politics and cynicism aside long enough to consider that on Saturday, a black President spoke at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. There’s a long way to go, but that’s a hell of a 50 years.

How Peanuts got its first black character

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2015

Franklin Peanuts

Franklin, the first black member of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, made his debut in July 1968. His presence came about through the efforts of Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman, who wrote Schulz several letters in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination arguing that the inclusion of black characters in the most popular comic strip in America would be a positive thing. Here is her initial letter to Schulz:

Franklin Peanuts Letter

After some back and forth between Schulz and Glickman, Franklin made his first appearance in the strip.

Franklin’s introduction was part of a five-day sequence featuring Sally tossing away Charlie Brown’s beach ball and Franklin rescuing it. In some ways, this seems an aggressive bit of integration — many American public beaches, while no longer legally segregated, were still de facto segregated at the time. In other ways, the strips suggest what might be seen today as an excess of caution; of the twenty panels of the series, Franklin is in ten panels and Sally is in eight, but never is Franklin in the same panel as the white girl. Franklin would not reappear for another two and a half months, when he came for a visit to Charlie Brown’s neighborhood. He was somewhat lighter skinned here, which seems to be less a matter of trying to make him acceptable to the readers and more a matter of cutting back on shading lines which were overpowering his facial features. Franklin’s job in this series was to react to the oddness of the neighborhood kids, and that was a precursor to what would be his primary role in the strip as a whole. Perhaps due to excessive caution, Franklin was never granted any of the sort of usual quirks that define a Peanuts character, the very sort of mistake that Glickman was warning about when she called for one of the black kids to be “a Lucy.”

His inclusion made news nationally and upset many people, particularly in the South. Schulz had a conversation with the president of the comic’s distribution company:

I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin — he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

(via @essl)

Ex-racists explain their conversions

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2013

A fascinating thread on Reddit asks why & how ex-neo-Nazis, skinheads, and racists changed their minds regarding racism.

I was sitting on the bus on my way home one day. I was listening to some good music in my headphones. It was a cloudless autumn day and everything was a healthy yellow and orange color and blue sky. At a stop a african man and a young boy, maybe 5-6 years, got on. The man was tall and had bad clothes, he looked like he did not have much. They sat in front of me. I immediately became annoyed and started to think about how I hated them, fucking immigrants coming to my country, he is poor and I pay taxes so he can get welfare. I thought about how his son is going to become a lousy shit and rape white women. I started to get mad and decided to beat him up, I was going to follow him when he got off the bus.

I saw him press the button and got ready at the next stop, and just before we stopped I was about to get up and the man turned to his son and said something in a heavy accent that I will never forget in my life.

“I love you my son, be good.”

He then gave him a big, hard hug and the boy got off the bus alone. He waved good bye and sat back down, with his hands on his face. I just stared out the window where his son had been standing. My world view came crashing. He was just a father who wanted his son to be good, he loved him just like my father loved me. For some reason this changed everything for me. I know this is a very small thing but I started to think about how he wanted a better life for his son. He was a man that had changed everything for his family.

I sat on that bus for hours, it kept going around. I thought about how wrong it was to do the things I had done. I left that city the next day and started over. I am much happier now. I dont feel the hate in my heart every day anymore.

Curious use of the word “Africans” in several of the comments…is that a socially acceptable term in Europe or a vestige of the commenters’ racist pasts? Or are they simply referring to recent immigrants from Africa? (via digg)

Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk initiative found unconstitutional

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2013

A federal judge ruled this morning that NYC’s controversial stop-and-frisk practice violated the rights of “tens of thousands” of New Yorkers.

In a decision issued on Monday, the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, ruled that police officers have for years been systematically stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. Officers often frisked these people, usually young minority men, for weapons or searched their pockets for contraband, like drugs, before letting them go, according to the 195-page decision.

These stop-and-frisk episodes, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, according to the ruling. It also found violations with the 14th Amendment.

To fix the constitutional violations, Judge Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan said she intended to designate an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor the Police Department’s compliance with the Constitution.

This is good news. Treating every young black male in the city like a criminal is not a policing strategy and it’s embarrassing it has gone on this long. This kind of thing, along with the recent NSA revelations and other issues, make me wonder if “innocent until proven guilty” is still something the US citizenry and its law enforcement agencies still believe in. (via @beep)

Update: Using data from the last half of 2013, the NY Times says ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Is All but Gone From New York.

Many who live and work in the neighborhoods say they see scant evidence of change, and some say the police are simply not reporting some or all of their stops. The police did not respond to requests for comment.

But something is clearly different: Misdemeanor drug and weapon charges, the most common arrests to result from a stop, are down considerably. Advocates say misdemeanor marijuana charges, which require that the drug is in plain sight, are a bellwether, because the police ordered thousands to empty pockets, and arrested them.

I’ll reserve judgement until the numbers from 2014 are in, particularly those post-Bloomberg.