Some Things Are Worse Than Other Things: the Philosophy of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, six scenarios:

  • A Nazi punches a man walking down the street because he is a Jew; a Jew punches a man walking down the street because he is a Nazi.
  • A woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is Hispanic; a woman says to another “You’re the problem with America. Get out of this country, fucking bitch” because she is unabashedly racist.
  • A restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he is gay; a restaurant owner refuses to serve a man because he despises gay people.

The mind’s first temptation may be to construct creative contexts, but there are no ambiguities here. The Nazi is not just an ultraconservative; he believes in Nazism and wears the swastika. The Hispanic woman is a citizen born in Idaho and the racist woman knows it; the racist woman is not merely concerned with how unfair illegal entry is to those waiting their turn or that illegal immigrants are “stealing jobs,” but rather she does not like Hispanics — living in the same neighborhood as they, working with them, hearing Spanish, and so forth. The first restaurant owner and the second man denied service both go way beyond trust in biblical teachings about how homosexuality is an abominable sin — it disgusts them beyond words, they believe it should be a crime as it once was, they don’t value the life of a gay person equal to that of “normal” straight person. These being hypothetical scenarios of my own creation, there are no excuses nor saving grace available.

The question explored here isn’t which of these things are wrong and which are right. People have different ideas concerning when violence, extreme disrespect, or denial of service is acceptable, if ever. Sorting through all that, making a case one way or another, is not the point. Let’s proceed from the standpoint that all of these things are morally wrong. That is, after all, the typical premise of someone presenting a moral equivalence relevant to this discussion. The premise is: a racist attack is morally wrong and an attack against a racist is morally wrong. The moral equivalence is: an attack against a racist is as morally wrong as a racist attack.

Is it?

Are the scenarios above and their inverses truly equal in their “wrongness”? Or can two things be wrong, but one slightly less wrong?

Today, this debate arises constantly. We have open Nazis walking around the mall and white supremacists attacking or murdering people of color, unhinged riders unleashing racist rants on the bus, with medical institutions refusing to treat LGBT Americans and pastors wishing more gay people had died in the Orlando massacre. We also have Antifa and others sucker-punching Nazis and advocating we “Kill Nazis,” a gunman killing Republicans, business owners kicking out Trump supporters — and people attacking them physically or verbally. Opposing protesters brawl in the streets.

To reiterate, all of these things could be called morally wrong. After all, they do harm to others. But here we need to add an important point: to say a scenario is more morally wrong than its inverse is not to advocate for either. To conclude, for instance, that denying service to a bigot is less morally egregious than denying service to a gay person isn’t to automatically or necessarily advocate for denying service to bigots. One can still oppose both because he or she has determined they are both on the spectrum of immorality, even if at different points. Likewise, to say that some things are worse than other things, to believe a scenario worse than its inverse, is not to say this is always true for any other scenario and its inverse. As we will see, where motives are more equal the immorality of actions are more equal.

Turning back to our hypothetical situations and whether they involve false equivalences, we first have to agree upon the principle that some actions can indeed be morally worse than others — that a spectrum of morality makes sense. This shouldn’t even have to be argued, but there may be some religious fundamentalists or others who posit all “sin” is equally wrong. So lying about your age is just as wrong as rape. This sort of black-and-white thinking isn’t something most people, including people of faith, take seriously, so we won’t spend much time on it. (And we’ve already seen how morality is opinion-based even if God exists; see Where Does Morality Come From?The Philosophy of MoralityYes, Liberals and Atheists Believe in Absolute TruthIs Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?) Most people would conclude stealing money from a man’s wallet is not as wrong as killing him, and so forth. So some wrongs are more wrong than other wrongs.

Then we need to recognize that the same action, doing the same harm, can be less wrong — even morally right — if done for certain reasons. Ethics are situational. Motives matter. Again, most everyone accepts this. Take an action like killing. Killing a man because you want his wife or because he looked at you the wrong way is a bit different than killing in self-defense or in war. Those last two situations are often regarded as morally right, though there’s plenty of debate about it. That doesn’t matter — what matters is that the underlying principle is agreed upon: the same act will have a different moral status depending on why someone does it. A spectrum is easy enough to envision. Perhaps killing someone in self-defense is less wrong than killing someone in war, which is perhaps less wrong than killing someone because he or she used the “white” restroom, etc. Use your imagination.

If motives matter regarding the morality of some actions, might they for others?

The actions of our scenarios are the same, but the motives are not — which may alter the morality of the action.

Think of the possible motives, the driving forces, of the Nazi, the racist woman, the bigoted owner. What comes to mind? Conspiracy theories about the inferior Jews ruling and ruining the nation, discomfort with a country growing less white, preferring gays scared back into the closet — out of sight, out of mind. Whatever you envision, it likely isn’t good. It isn’t something you find morally right. And what of the possible motives of the Jew, the Hispanic woman, the gay man? Opposition to Nazi ideology, racism, and discrimination come to mind. These are likely stances you agree with and find morally right, even if you don’t approve of the action that followed.

How is it, then, that anyone can say these scenarios and their inverses are equally immoral? How are two identical actions equally wrong despite one having more moral motives and the other more immoral motives? This is like saying that killing in self-defense is just as bad as killing someone for looking at you the wrong way. It is saying that motives do not matter.

But most people believe they do. Why the double standard? Does it involve the severity of the action? Why do motives affect the morality of a more serious action like killing but not a less serious one like a punch, name-call, or refusal to serve? There is no logical reason that I can see. Lying is a less serious action, but we all understand that lying about someone raping you would be worse than lying about how late you were past curfew.

Again, there may be situations where X is as equally wrong as Y, but it seems like that would require motives that are more equally wrong. Lying to your spouse about losing the dog is roughly as wrong as lying to your spouse about spending vacation money on a new television. Killing over jealousy is about as wrong as killing over insults. But the motives of our situational pairs are much farther apart, polar opposites in fact. (One may insist they are the same because each attacker wants to exert power over the other, put him in his place, seize control, do what’s best for herself, express hate, intimidate, hurt, and so on, but that only takes one temporary step backward. Why are they doing those things? What are the motives behind those motives? Can all hatred be equally wrong — say, racist hatred versus hatred of a racist — if the motives are ethical polar opposites? Aren’t the motives morally different, even if you frown upon where they lead? Of course they are, as we saw above.)

(Now, folks will disagree over what motives are moral, but for each person there will always be an array of motives that include some more moral and some less. If you’re a Nazi sympathizer, you’ll think racist motives more right and opposition motives more wrong, and apply the same to the actions — but no one in his or her right mind can hold both racism and anti-racism as equally moral or immoral! Therefore the logical argument in this piece, finalized below, applies to everyone who accepts the premises with which we began, that not all sins are equally wrong and that the same action can have a different moral flavor dependent upon motives.)

Is the double standard topic-based? If our near-universal way of thinking about ethics involves an action having a changed moral character following a changed motive, there has to be some kind of justification for not applying this to matters of bigotry. I cannot think of any such justification. What possible reason could there be to exclude this topic, to create a new, special standard that doesn’t apply to anything else? None exists. (Imagine excluding matters of war — what could possibly justify doing that?) A racist attack therefore must be morally worse than an attack against a racist. (Or, if you’re a racist or one of their sympathizers with different views on the motives, as discussed above, it must be morally better! They cannot be equal.) Some may say it’s radically worse, others just slightly, but based on our premise of ethics it must be worse (or better, for you Nazis) to some degree — it’s a logical necessity. If they were equally wrong, we’d have to throw motives out the window, and there would be no reason to stop at matters of bigotry (just as there’s no reason to exclude it). Self-defense would be just as wrong as cold-blooded murder based on that new premise. Lying to save an innocent life would be just as wrong as lying to end one. And so on. With no justification existing to exclude actions related to a certain topic, one must hold all actions to the same standard — either motives matter or they do not. (Same for hatred and so forth.) Again, that’s what’s logically sound for each person regardless of his or her unique views on what’s ethical: you can’t logically think two identical actions equally wrong if you also think one motive is more moral than the other (which you will if in your right mind). If you think motives matter for other moral questions, that’s simply what makes logical sense.

If it’s still difficult to see our scenarios as false equivalences, it may help to consider others, perhaps from other time periods, where gaps between “wrongness” seem bigger, more obvious. The way humans observe history is always less morally confused than the way we observe the present. Hindsight and all. Note these also could unwisely be labeled identical attempts to exert power over someone, hurt someone, lash out in hate, and so on:

  • Would a slave killing his master be as wrong as a master killing his slave? Isn’t one about liberation, the other subjugation?
  • Would a rich woman stealing from a poor woman be just as wrong as the reverse? Might one motive be greed, the other need?
  • Were the Allies just as wrong to invade France in 1944 as Germany was a few years earlier? Is there any side in any war less wrong than another?

Motives matter, always. That is why some things are worse than other things.

As a last word, while I don’t believe this fact affects the logic, it’s important to note that in our scenarios, and real-world ones that spark the equivalence debate (one truly wonders why it’s difficult to see that the alt-right, full of people who advocate a “White Ethno-State,” is generally evil, whereas Antifa, full of people who advocate standing against “racist and fascist bigots” is generally not), attacks against bigotry are a reaction to bigotry. Bigotry comes first; the only “reaction” it entails is one against who people are: their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. Reduce bigotry and there will be fewer reactions; but reduce reactions and bigotry will crush people per usual. Again, this isn’t to necessarily advocate for violent or hurtful reactions. It’s simply to recognize the worse problem, the root problem — and focus our energies on obliterating it in ways ethically acceptable to each of us personally.

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Conservatives Are More Likely to be Racist

One early morning at Salem State University in Massachusetts, students stumbled upon vandalism of benches and a fence at the baseball fields. Spray paint had been used to write “DIE NIGGERS,” “Whites Only USA,” and “Whites #1.”

What are your first thoughts concerning who did this? You’re a reasonable person, so you know this might be a hoax. That happens from time to time. But if this was done in earnest — by someone who sincerely wanted to degrade and threaten black people and extoll the white race — who seems most likely? It seems likely the culprit was white. Gun to your head, it was probably a man, or more than one, just a couple buddies out having some “fun.” Perhaps someone younger, a student; this is a school, after all. Now, was this person more likely liberal or conservative? Who would be more likely to write “Whites Only” or “DIE NIGGERS”? Left or Right, quick.

If this was no hoax, and if we were all to be honest with ourselves, the probabilities might increase as we move along the political spectrum. In other words, the far Left seems least likely (recall we’re focused on content here, not the act of vandalism itself, which some on the far Left do happily partake in), the mainstream Left still unlikely, the center perhaps somewhat likely, the mainstream Right more likely, and the far Right most likely. At no spot on the spectrum is the act impossible, but such a probability scale shouldn’t be all that controversial for anyone with a handle on reality.

In this particular case, we needn’t wonder long, as the vandals included “Trump #1” in their graffiti. This was part of the hate crimes that swept the U.S. after Trump’s election, as Trump supporters gleefully attacked, verbally and physically, Hispanics, Muslims, blacks, Jews, gays, and women — weeks of terror.

But, one protests, the answer to the theoretical was biased and the anecdotal is weak argument. True enough. Conservatives and liberals always dig up examples, point at each other, and insist the other ideology is more prone to racism. (Here we mean against people of color; conservative whites who think anti-white hate from liberals is a bigger problem will have to educate themselves elsewhere). How can we know who is right?

One way is to simply ask people their views.

In 2014, Nate Silver and Allison McCann looked at Americans’ answers regarding race in the General Social Survey, which has been issued for decades. Self-described Republicans were, from 1990-2012, 5-10% more likely to object to a close relative marrying a black person, 5-20% more likely to believe blacks “lacked the motivation” to get out of poverty, and 2-10% more likely to say blacks are more lazy than hardworking. 2-5% more Republicans thought blacks were more unintelligent than intelligent, until things evened out between liberals and conservatives in 2009.

Things have been about even regarding comfort with living in a diverse neighborhood, with only occasional spikes in conservative opposition, and even concerning voting for a black president, except between 1994 and 2007, when in fact white Democrats expressed stronger opposition.

The good news is that for both groups racist views are in general declining. Majorities today do not have (admit) explicitly racist views; this article is not intended to posit all conservatives are racist. The bad news is that for both groups today over 20% dislike the idea of living in a neighborhood that isn’t majority-white, over 20% oppose interracial marriage in their family, over 30% think blacks are lazy, over 40% that they lack motivation, and 15% that they are unintelligent. And that’s just the Americans that will admit to extreme (conscious) racism, as this is a survey. So while this article is indeed intended to settle a recurring debate, it is also a condemnation of (and call for reflection from) us whites on the Left. Our scores, while better, are hardly anything to celebrate.

The aggregate of all responses looked like this:

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The 2012 American National Election Studies survey revealed similar answers. 18% more white Republicans saw black people as lazy than white Democrats, with an 8% lead concerning belief in lack of intelligence and an 18% lead in thinking blacks had too much influence in politics (at the time, there was a black president, one black Supreme Court justice, and no black senators; the country had seen a single black president, six black senators, and two Supreme Court justices since 1776). Nearly 35% more white Republicans thought blacks would be just as well off as whites if they’d try harder — a belief requiring a racist premise about black laziness.

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But the data from these two surveys, and others, can be a bit misleading — and not in a way that will comfort the Right. By lumping together Democrats of all sorts (centrist, Left, far Left), and doing the same with Republicans, the data reflects more timid differences in ideological views of race. As we move further to the right, views grow increasingly racist; as we move further to the left, views become decidedly less racist:

Among strong Democrats and strong Republicans, the numbers [concerning who thinks blacks are lazy] become even more stark, 20 percent compared with 46 percent. Furthermore, 41 percent of whites who say they are extremely conservative believe black people are lazy, compared with 14 percent of whites who say they are extremely liberal. On the question of whether black people are unintelligent, it’s 30 percent for extremely conservative whites versus 11 percent for extremely liberal whites. This clearly suggests that racial animus is more prevalent among conservatives and Republicans.

That is significant. It also mimics the probability scale envisioned above.

A 2016 YouGov survey asked white people if they thought black people typically “give more to society” or “take more.” For a large majority of conservative respondents, no amount of good black people do for society — teaching students, creating art, running a business, waving hello, nothing — could outweigh the racist laziness myth.

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In an article called Trump Did So Well Because Many Conservatives Are Just Like Him, I collected surveys and studies to show how a significant portion of Trump supporters (though not all) hold extremely bigoted views. But the article didn’t dive into how much worse these views were compared to Clinton supporters. A 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll of 16,000 Americans found that

In nearly every case, Trump supporters were more likely to rate whites higher than blacks [concerning positive traits] when their responses were compared with responses from Clinton supporters.

For example, 32 percent of Trump supporters placed whites closer to the top level of “intelligence” than they did blacks, compared with 22 percent of Clinton supporters who did the same.

About 40 percent of Trump supporters placed whites higher on the “hardworking” scale than blacks, while 25 percent of Clinton supporters did the same. And 44 percent of Trump supporters placed whites as more “well mannered” than blacks, compared with 30 percent of Clinton supporters.

Trump fans were also more likely to dislike minorities compared to other, more sane, Republican voters.

There is a wealth of other surveys that show comparable results to the four included here; they are not difficult to find.

Moving on from surveys, there are also scientific studies that indicate conservatism is deeper in the racist mud than liberalism. Research shows that dislike of government services and spending, especially welfare, increases as racial animosity does. A 2014 study from Northwestern University showed that whites with no political affiliation more strongly favored conservative policies when distressed over increasing racial diversity in the U.S. In fact, even those with a political affiliation — any — who became distressed moved to the right. A 2012 study of the U.K. showed social conservatism is linked with greater prejudice. Conservatives were less likely to agree with statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races.” Other studies link antiracism and social liberalism. A 2013 study found that American conservatives had less favorable views of black people than liberals, unless black people had conservative values and attitudes (liberals also favored persons of color who thought like them). As with Trump, greater anti-black attitudes among citizens more strongly predict votes for the Republican candidate, even when he’s not running against a black man, for example with Bush. Areas of the South with histories of strong Klan activity correlate with stronger Republican loyalty. And so on.

No, not every survey nor study will fit into this pattern, but most do. That consistency across sources deserves serious consideration.

All this makes sense in light of what “conservative” and “liberal” actually mean at the conscious and subconscious levels — and how their adherents opposed or supported the civil rights movement, and other social movements, based on those meanings (see Which Broadened Freedom For the Oppressed? Liberalism or Conservatism? and Why Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently, From Someone Who’s Been Both), regardless of ideological changes within America’s parties, a topic conservatives who insist “Liberals are more racist because the Democratic Party supported slavery and the KKK” desperately need to study (see Republicans Used to be Liberal, Democrats Conservative). While not all conservatives are racist by any means, the evidence suggests that, while both sides have work to do to master true racial tolerance, more conservatives lag behind.

The Ethics of the N-Word

When I wrote “Why Black History Month Isn’t Racist But White History Month Would Be (and Other White Conundrums),” I summarized and closed with the following sentence: “Because you know your history and because you are a decent person.”

Of all white conundrums, “Why is it OK for black people to say the N-word but not white people?” is probably the most embarrassing. The answer to this question is of course identical to the conclusion of the prior article, but I did not include the infamous racial slur because it seemed like the topic deserved its own piece. Further, while the answer is the same the question is a bit different. The last article concerned why white people shouldn’t celebrate their race the way many black people do. That had something to do with whiteness — what should white identity really entail? White people being able to freely say racial slurs has nothing to do with whiteness. Only blackness.

Asking why it’s “not OK” for whites to use the N-word is really asking why it isn’t socially acceptable. Asking why something isn’t socially acceptable is asking why a majority opinion exists that this something is immoral. What’s socially acceptable is always rooted in ethics, from slavery to the age of consent, and thus the question is actually “Why is it immoral for whites to say the N-word but not blacks?”

Morality concerns what does harm to others. Our answer is thus self-evident. Whites who use the slur do more harm (psychologically, emotionally) to black folk than other black people who use it.

“It’s like a knife,” Ice Cube told Bill Maher after Maher used the slur. “It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people.” Maya Angelou described it as a “poison.” Human beings, she said, “are worth everything. Women are better than being called the ‘b’ word, and blacks are better than being called the ‘n’ word… You are better than being called the word that would deny your humanity.” It is astonishing that some white people seem confused that a term historically used to mark blacks as subhuman, worthy of oppression, rape, and murder, might cause emotional distress, from embarrassment to rage. (It’s not actually astonishing; white people have a long history of lacking basic empathy and critical thinking skills.) The slur causes such pain that physical dangers like knives and poison often accompany its description.

While some African Americans use the N-word and others despise it so much they do not (Ice Cube and Angelou, respectively), in either case the word coming from a white person has a different connotation because of our history. That is obvious and hardly complex. Even if the user considers himself or herself an antiracist or speaking without racist intent, the impact needs to be considered as well. It’s what ethical people do. They think about how their actions affect others; for the N-word, the impact of a white user is simply not the same as that of a black user, even if some black people are also bothered when fellow blacks use the term.

If what’s immoral is based on what causes harm to others, we know then that varying amounts of harm translates to varying degrees of wrong. Ethics exist on a continuum, a sliding scale; they are not black and white. A poor man who steals $25 from a rich man to buy a meal because he is hungry has not committed a wrong as grave as a rich man who steals $25 from a poor man because he is greedy. The intents are quite different, and while the financial loss is the same it hardly has the same impact. A woman who kills a rapist in self-defense has not committed so grave an immoral act (in fact, none at all in my view) as a woman who kills her husband to cash in a life insurance policy. Different intent, even different impact: though the loss of either man may cause pain to their family and friends, one scenario rids the world of a rapist.

Knowing ethics are situational, it’s easy enough to imagine a continuum for the immorality of the N-word, from least wrong (or perhaps not wrong at all) to most wrong, such as:

  • A white person quoting a black person criticizing the word or a white racist using the word (as a means of education)
  • A white person using it when singing hip-hop alone in a car (only potential harm exists: frequent use of the word privately could lead to public use)
  • A white person using it in a joke or mimicking its use as a term of endearment among black people (these contexts cause emotional and psychological harm)
  • A white person using it to degrade, vilify, oppress (overt racism, extreme emotional and psychological harm)

Other scenarios could be conjured. While some will object, insisting these are all equally immoral (or disagree on the order — perhaps the first and second could be switched, as the first one is public and might cause more harm), emphasizing that the use of the N-word is on an ethical continuum is key to demonstrating why it’s not OK for white people to use it, why it isn’t a double standard, hypocritical, all that intellectual laziness.

Imagine the scenarios we would put before those above. These would be situations even less unethical, perhaps morally acceptable. For example, a black person singing along to hip-hop, using the N-word as a term of endearment with a friend, writing a song that includes it, etc. None of these carry the harm or potential harm that the examples featuring white folk do (even though they may carry some, such as upsetting other African Americans who do not use the term, influencing white folk, and so on).

So we see how different contexts and different speakers cause varying degrees of harm, which changes the immorality accordingly. To be moral, we whites must be cognizant of the pain we can cause. You do not use the N-word because you know your history and because you are a decent person.

(Here I must acknowledge my bias. As a white writer interested in race, I often am in the first category for whites above, quoting others word-for-word so as to preserve the full power, whether wickedness or wisdom, of the N-word. I do not censor the words of James Baldwin:

What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears, and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me… I didn’t invent the nigger… I’ve always known that I am not the nigger. But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?… You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.

Nor do I censor — whitewash — the true wickedness and hatred of whites who use the slur to tear down and demean black people, such as when a Baltimore teacher, in addition to calling her black students “idiots” and “stupid,” screamed that if they didn’t take schoolwork seriously each would end up a “punk-ass nigger who’s going to get shot.”

There are times when the N-word is redacted not to protect black people but to protect white people. Not all readers will agree, but I think there are moments when quoting the word — in writing; verbally falls elsewhere on the moral continuum — can remind whites of its evil, its pain, in the same way exposure to the true barbarism of our racial history can deeply impact white people and change them in positive ways. In a time of white denial, such an education of the word’s full power may be helpful.)

But even after understanding the moral difference between users of different colors and accepting that whites should not use the term, whites may yet have a remaining conundrum: “Why do black people use the term when it’s hate speech targeting them?”

While again emphasizing that many African Americans detest the word no matter who says it and would never say it themselves, we need to understand that appropriating derogatory labels is a very human thing to do, almost to the point of being predictable. Victims often seize the hate speech of perpetrators and adopt it because it strips the latter of their power.

There are many examples in world history of this. “Yankee Doodle” was originally a song used by the British to mock the American troops during the Revolution (yankee itself was likewise a term of derision). The song was quickly appropriated by the Americans. Next, observe what the GLAAD Glossary of Terms notes of queer: “Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.” Impressionist was created to mock Monet and others who didn’t paint in an ultra-realist fashion. If a sneering art critic inspires the reclamation and redesign of insults, why wouldn’t white supremacists? A jesuit was originally someone criticized for using the name of Jesus too often. Suffragette was first intended to mock militant women. Nasty woman became a badge of honor in 2016, as did deplorable. For many African Americans, “black” used to be a pejorative, “negro” respectful, but now it’s the reverse. There are countless other reappropriations, varying in their degrees of popularity, from tree hugger to bitch. Parents even teach children to handle bullies in a similar manner. Adopting words meant to attack and insult you is a human trait that speaks to our resiliency, feelings of self-worth, and deep appreciation for irony and tragicomedy. Understanding this should erase white people’s assumptions that black people who use the N-word are expressing nothing but self-loathing.

Petition Against the Militia

On the weekend of August 19, 2017, leftist activists organized two events in Kansas City, Missouri: a rally against prisoner abuse and a march against white supremacy. Though successful, these rallies were stalked by men dressed in camouflage and armed with knives, handguns, and rifles — members of a right-wing “militia” group called the “Three Percenters.”

These men were inspired by the “militia” that protected the neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Confederates in Charlottesville, Virginia, the week before. They were not present to protect the Kansas Citians gathering for justice for prisoners and people of color, as they absurdly implied in the press and to passersby. They came to intimidate, no doubt with some hope a protester would break a window or step out of line in some fashion so they could murder said protester and call it justified. The Three Percenters circled the protesters during speeches and then followed them on their march.

The Kansas City Police Department allowed this. It could have kept these counter-protesters behind a police line, cornered off away from the crowd, as it did during a June 10, 2017 protest/counter-protest. But instead the “militia” was allowed to stalk the crowd. Videos even surfaced of a disturbingly friendly police-“militia” relationship, in which one Three Percenter says the KCPD asked them to come and another tells police they’d “keep you in the loop” concerning any altercations (highlighting what they were there for, to take matters into their own hands, the police a mere afterthought).

Because the Three Percenters were there to intimidate, because weaponry readied against unarmed protesters is both unnecessary and enormously increases the risk of altercations, violence, or death, because protesters felt unsafe, and because (as with a car mowing down protesters) it is only a matter of time before a “militia” kills a protester for no reason, we demand the following:

1. During future events, “militias” and other counter-protesters will be kept at a safe distance behind a police line. The police will not allow them to leave their area, circle the crowd, enter the crowd, follow the crowd, or harass or terrorize or intimidate the crowd in any way.

2. The KCPD will immediately release a public statement declaring the above is official policy and will be followed to the letter.

https://www.change.org/p/kcpd-keep-the-militia-on-a-leash

It Can Happen Here

The chilling hatred white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-nazis displayed in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12, 2017, was an affront to human dignity — and at multiple times a literal attack upon it. On Friday night on the University of Virginia campus, students standing up against the “Alt-Right” were surrounded and assaulted. At the “Unite the Right” rally the next day at a city park, a rally participant ran over and killed Heather Heyer, a paralegal and anti-racist activist. He injured 19 others in the attack. Others severely beat Deandre Harris, an anti-racist protester and hip-hop artist, in a parking garage. Fistfights broke out elsewhere.

Symbols of white supremacist violence, genocide, and oppression were prevalent. Swastikas and Nazi salutes, Ku Klux Klan hoods and crosses, Confederate flags and burning torches. Chants like “Proud to be white,” “You will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” and “Blood and soil” (an old Nazi slogan) filled the air. Many enjoyed the privilege of walking around with heavy weaponry and acting provocatively without fear of swift and painful police retribution.

Yet standing against them, arm-in-arm and singing, were local clergy. People of all colors, genders, orientations, and beliefs worked together — truly, the American ideal — to show with their bodies and voices that white supremacy has no place in a decent society. Residents and visitors from around the nation, youths and workers, radicals and civil rights activists, they all marched through the streets together in the name of justice. Not all went home unscathed. One did not go home at all. But all did the right thing in that moment. History will look as admirably upon them as it looks upon the souls attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday 1965.

It is their example that Kansas City must follow. With our words and with our bodies, Kansas Citians must confront racial hatred in all its forms. What happened in Charlottesville can happen here.

Kansas City is still scarred by its history of oppression of people of color: from where we live to how long we live to how much wealth we have. Events in 2017 alone have left an open wound in our present. As documented, swastikas, nooses, slurs, vandalism, threatening phone calls, declarations of “white power,” Alt-Right literature condemning a diverse America, beatings, and a shooting by a man hunting Arabs have all been experienced in our city in the past eight months alone. The past few years is an even darker story. There is no question the same elements that made this weekend’s horrific events possible exist in Kansas City.

We will confront daily the legacy of Kansas City’s white supremacy, working for equality and prosperity for all people. All of Kansas City — especially white people, who have turned away in the face of injustice for too long — must address racial and other mistreatment or stereotyping wherever they see it and at the moment they hear it. All of us must be fearless in the face of danger. We must confront hatred with our words and our bodies. We will speak up and show up. Justice expects nothing less. History expects nothing less.

The Racism of Dr. Seuss

In the 1920s through the 1940s, Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel worked as a political and advertisement cartoonist, his work appearing in publications such as Life, PM, Judge, and Vanity Fair. He started writing and illustrating children’s books in 1936, but most of the popular works we know today, like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, weren’t created until the 1950s and 60s.

While such books are beloved, Dr. Seuss’ cartoons in the newspapers often contained vilely racist imagery. Depictions of black Americans and Africans played on white notions of black savagery, inferiority, and animalism. His drawings of the Japanese and Japanese Americans served propaganda functions important to the United States, namely presenting them as treacherous and evil to stoke support for the war effort and justify discriminatory barbarism like the illegal imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in what U.S. officials called “concentration camps.”

To his credit, Dr. Seuss did change his tone over time–it is believed he looked back on his racist fear-mongering with regret. His cartoons about blacks changed first, transforming during World War II to encourage the eradication of anti-black prejudice and support for equal opportunity in the workplace, to unite the nation in its fight against racist, fascist regimes abroad.

Yet at the same time, he was creating cartoons featuring Japanese monsters you see. He wrote to readers that complained:

Right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battlecry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs… We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.

Dr. Seuss visited Japan in 1953 to study the effects of the war on Japanese children, an experience that changed him. He dedicated Horton Hears a Who! to Mitsugi Nakamura, a university dean he befriended there. Horton and books like The Sneetches are widely viewed today as apologies for past racist sentiments and artwork.

One example of his early anti-black racism were ads for Flit, a bug spray. Dr. Seuss’ drawings of Africans strongly resembled apes, a popular comparison of that era–not to mention earlier and later ones.

Another example was a cartoon playing on popular American figures of speech. The setting is a store. Shoppers are looking to buy things one would never buy: a needle for a haystack, a fly for your ointment, a wrench to throw in your machine to make it stop. In the final panel, with their massive red lips, are “n—–s for your woodpile” (a saying that meant something seemed suspicious, likely derived from escaped slaves hiding at Underground Railroad locations). A white sales clerk shows off his black merchandise to a white buyer.

During World War II, the Japanese were widely considered racially inferior, unintelligent, treacherous, savage, and murderous. The majority of the American populace, media, and governmental bodies characterized them as mad dogs, yellow monkeys, cockroaches, vipers, and vermin. Dr. Seuss did his part to feed the bigotry and fear, portraying the Japanese as monsters, as pig-nosed, squinty-eyed, devilish little fiends. Dr. Seuss’ “Japs” were an infestation of street cats, large insects, or terrorists waiting for word from Tokyo to begin blowing up Americans.

Educators Crafting Curriculum on Kansas City’s Racial History

On Wednesday, June 29, 2016, about 40 Kansas City high school teachers, college professors, and public librarians gathered for an educator summit at the Central Resource Library of Johnson County to begin creating a curriculum on Kansas City’s racial history.

The library’s Race Project aims to “facilitate intentional dialogue about the structural forms of racism in America and Kansas City. We focus on the American education system in particular, attempting to conduct a sincere investigation into the history, causes, and potential solutions to systemic, structural racism.” The project has several important partners, including high schools in Blue Valley, Raytown, Wyandotte, and Shawnee Mission, Rockhurst University, and author Tanner Colby (Some of My Best Friends are Black), who has spoken at more than one event.

Wednesday’s summit sought to

create meaningful curriculum on racial inequalities in the KC area, and to promote social justice initiatives that encourage community and student engagement incorporating We are Superman, Our Divided City, Racism in Kansas City: A Short History, and Some of My Best Friends are Black. Participants will engage in active dialogue about the difficulties embedded within “race talk,” practice the use of “classroom tools” to enhance classroom conversations about race, develop grade-level appropriate curriculum that fosters critical thinking, research skills, and that address local social justice issues in the Kansas City area.

Of importance to the group was teaching high school and college students current inequities between blacks and whites in Kansas City — in wealth, education, healthcare, police stops and searches, and so on — and then researching the historical causes, all in a student-led manner. Various proposals were offered after this, including having students go to grade schools or middle schools to teach the next generation, having students design feasible ideas on how to address the inequities and social ills and then competing for grant or scholarship funds in the spirit of a “science fair,” or taking students on bus tours to important places in Kansas City’s racial past.