Category Archives: Race

Are We Better Than This?

People waving to a train carrying 1500 persons expelled from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Suddently everyone seemed to be saying it. Often in reference to the current presidency and its supporters. My congressman, Elijah Cummings, said it to Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s“fixer,” after testifying to the oversight committee that Cummings chairs:

As I sat here and listened to both sides, I felt as if we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this. I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.

While Cummings was praised for his remarks, I wondered whether he, like me, recalled watching—both of us barely old enough to vote—John Dean’s televised testimony on the abuse of power by another president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1973 under the threat of impeachment. No doubt he had since he referred to Dean in calling for Cohen to appesr. Which meant that he knew as well as I did that there was at least one “watershed moment” in the relatively recent past when we were not much better than than we are today.

Something similar occurred when Senator Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign in California. “America, we are better than this,” she said, citing a slew of current problems. She repeated it in a message aimed at immigrants after Trump threatened mass deportation raids. As an immigrant myself, I wondered whether she knew that we illegally deported 600,000 US citizens in the 1930s because they had Mexican ancestry or simply had Mexican-sounding names. Families were separated and far worse. “In Los Angeles,” Professor Francisco Balderrama states, “they had orderlies who gathered people [in the hospitals] and put them in stretchers on trucks and left them at the border.” Moreover, as an undergraduate who faced the impossible choice of a dangerous, illegal abortion—some five years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade—and giving up her newborn for adoption—there was no respectable way to be what we now call a “single mother“—I wondered whether she had ever heard of the Jane Collective, which existed between 1969 and 1973 and taught ordinary women how to perform surgical abortions. An estimated 11,000, mostly for low-income women and women of color And, finally, as someone who lived in Boston during the violence of the school bussing crisis of the Seventies, I wondered whether she was too young to remember what that was like. Turns out, at least for this, she was not. And passionately said so to former Vice President Joe Biden during last week’s first televised Democratic debate.

While I respect Harris, there is also something to be said for a statement made by a less quslified debate participant, author Marianne Willioamson. “He [Trump] didn’t win by having a plan,” she claimed. “He just said, ‘Make America great again.’ ” I am convinced  that coming across as a policy wonk rather than an inspirational leader was a serious obstacle for the previous Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. And that this could trip up Senator Elizabeth—”I have a plan for that”—Warrenin the 2020 election. To the extent that congressional incumbents such as Cummings and presidential hopefuls such as Harris use “better than this” in an purely aspirational sense, they could have a winning way to connect with constituents. But it could also sound too much like Trump’s mantra, positing an idealized past that never existed. When I wrote “It wasn’t Always Like This” in response to the Parkland school shooting, I never meant that we were somehow better in the Fifties, simply that the civilian-use semi-automatic AR-15 was not yet for sale. At some point, even inspirational leaders need to produce plans. Addressing those times when we, as a nation, were not one bit better seems like a good place to start.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Monuments and Museums

One portion of a polarizing Soviet-Era war memorial in Riga, Latvia.

Like many people in the United States, I was appalled by the violence that erupted this weekend at the white supremacist rally ostensibly organized to protest the removal of a Confederate monument from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. And, like some of them, I could not believe that it was happening again. You see, my native land, Latvia, was invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II. And support for this and other atrocious acts was spread by similar torch-lit, flag-waving, slogan-chanting rallies—first small, then massive—that Adolf Hitler used to fan the flames of racism and nationalism.  Only then, it was the United States and its Allies that fought to restore sanity at considerable cost. Which few, I fear, tend to recall.

Which is why we do need concrete reminders such as monuments in public places. For me, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example. While the war and, initially, the memorial itself were divisive, the main section was designed in a way that provided a place for people of all persuasions to contemplate the past while considering the future. Composed of two walls etched with service member names, it was configured to represent a “wound that is closed and healing.” It was also given smooth surfaces that reflect people standing nearby, symbolically bringing the past and the present together.

In contrast, the Charlottesville monument was never meant to have a unifying effect. Situated on a tall pedestal astride a spirited steed, a larger-than-life Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the Confederate states that seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a platform opposing the expansion of slavery, stares straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Rather, it serves as a constant reminder to African Americans, among others, that defenders of slavery are still revered, over 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Ironically, such a statue might have dismayed even Lee, who had presciently argued against erecting such monuments, writing:

I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,

Worse yet, data dug up by the Southern Poverty Law Center show that most of Confederate monuments did not exist until decades after the end of the Civil War. Installation peaked in the 1910s and 20s, when Jim Crow laws were being enacted, and the 1950s and 60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The Charlottesville statue, finished in 1924, might have been more a tribute to nationalism and racism than to a Southern soldier. The statue’s defenders underscored this by chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while on their way to Emancipation Park.

The question now is what to do next. For what it is worth, I offer my peculiar perspective. While I spent the first 35 years of my life in the United States north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I have also lived three years in Alabama, a former Confederate state, and the past 20 some in Maryland, a slave-holding state that stayed with the Union but played a complicated role. Moreover, I was born in Latvia, which has its own divisive history and, not surprisingly, a similar monuments problem. Putting all this together, I would like to make three points.

No monument tells the entire story

Consider the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army. Situated in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, it celebrates a win by Communist Russia over Nazi Germany. While Latvians were expected to love it, it did not have the desired effect. You see, this victory was accompanied by the Russians re-occupying the Latvian homeland, which, alas, lasted from 1944 to 1991. (The original name was “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist.”) Moreover, the monument was completed in 1985—some 40 years after the fact—during Perestroika, a reform movement that loosened the Soviet stranglehold on Latvia and strengthened the push for independence. So certain parallels with Confederate monuments can be drawn.

Which is why I can dismiss a suggestion that the  Friends of C’Ville Monuments made, stating Confederate statues could be improved simply “by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.” Apart from the fact it is unlikely that the real reasons monuments were erected would ever be included, attempts to summarize the complete story of the people and events being commemorated is way too much to ask of, say, a poor plaque. Historical context is best left to museums. Fortunately, there are two large ones that fill this need: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which opened its doors just last year, and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which has been around in Riga since 1993.

Removing monuments is about making, not destroying, history

For all the earnest talk about preserving the past, toppling statues that commemorate oppression is a time-honored tradition. In the United States, civilians and soldiers pulled down a statue of King George III in Manhattan a mere five days after the ratification of the Declaration of independence, an act depicted in a Johannes Adam Simon Oertel painting. Which is more or less what happened to a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Riga in 1991 once Latvian independence was restored. Except that engineers were involved and a video is  available. In fact, historians such as Sergei Kruk document both the rise and fall of monuments in scholarly works such as “Wars of Statues in Latvia: The History Told and Made by Public Sculpture.”

Knowing that the past is replete with missing monuments, those wishing to preserve particular ones put restrictions in place. This is often an imperfect deterrent. Officials in Riga reference a 1994 treaty with Russia as reason the Victory monument must remain, leaving it to radical nationalists to try—unsuccessfully—to burn it down, then blow it up. Much like officials in Durham, North Carolina, who cite a 2015 state law, then leave it to protestors to successfully— albeit with some arrests—pull down a Confederate statue and stomp on it. Officials also bring up cost and logistics considerations. According to one report, there are still over 700 Confederate monuments in public places. And monuments can be massive. The Victory memorial includes two statues and a 260-foot obelisk that some say resembles the Citadel complex from the video game Half-Life 2.

Of course, there is nothing quite like a crisis to grease the wheels of government. Unless, in the United States. it is being put to shame by a black woman. Citing public safety concerns in the wake of the domestic terrorism act that capped the Charlottesville rallyBaltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh—with no public notice, no fund-raising, no re-loction plan—”quickly and quietly” had construction crews remove all four Confederate statues. Which led University of North Carolina history professor David Goldfield to say that this could be part of a “rolling cascade” of cities and states ridding themselves of or relocating such statues. Which seems to be what is happening.

Unless countered, missing monuments continue to exert influence

Just because a monument is gone does not mean it is forgotten. According to Kruk, communists still flock to the spot in front of the government building where the Lenin statue once stood, celebrating his birthday and the anniversary of his death as well as Revolution Day by laying flowers on an empty walkway and foiling plans for a new monument to fill the space. So even if the Lee statue is removed from Emancipation Park, I would not be at all surprised to see some strange combination of white supremacists and Lee devotees congregating there. And installing, say, a more acceptable version of the current Emancipation Memorial or something showing the release of Latvians from the Soviet yoke might only make matters worse.

You see, both the United States and Latvia are deeply divided nations for reasons that date at least as far back as the Civil War and World War II, respectively. According to some, the 2016 election revealed “two large coalitions, roughly equal in size but radically different in demographics and desires,” with “race and identity as the main political dividing line.” Similarly, there is a serious split in my native land between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, with the former constituting about 62 percent of the population and latter representing the largest minority at about 27 percent. Moreover, there was a drop in ethnic Latvians from 77 percent in 1835 to 52 percent in 1989, and this is attributed to the Russian occupation. As a result, Russian residents have been subjected to a range of discriminatory practices, including those regarding the granting of citizenship.

It seems to me that new types of monuments must be built that allow both sides to acknowledge past losses and heal old wounds that prevent them from moving forward. That would require honest national conversations from which a shared vision of the future could emerge. But even if that cannot occur anytime soon, there could  be some agreement to construct a few monuments, large and small, along the lines—but not in imitation of—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, providing both nations with places of temporary respite.

Note: Optimist that I am, I can see a day when people with different perspectives can, at least, smile at some of the inherent ironies. The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, for example, was created by the combined efforts of Henry Shrady, a New York sculptor better known for his memorial of Ulysses S. Grant, and Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant. And the Victory monument in Riga commemorating Nazi defeat was designed by Lev Bukovsky, who had once served in the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.

Migrants and Thugs

Baltimore poet Clarinda Harris at the launch of the 2013 Little Patuxent Review Music issue in Columbia, Maryland. (Photo: Linda Joy Burke)

One thing that Clarinda and I have a tendency to do is obsess about words. Understandable, you might say, since both write: one writes poetry, the other prose. Or, if you know us a bit better, you might say that, even for writers, we take it too far. Last autumn—or was it last fall?—we had a long discussion about how spelling could change the way that others perceive a description of, say, an overcast day. Revisiting that recently, Clarinda said, “And yeah, not only is ‘grey’ brownish and ‘gray’ bluish to me, but I have asked generations of writing students about the two spellings, and 100 percent have had a strong opinion.” So if such a neutral word can ignite such fervent feelings, then maybe everyone should obsess more about today’s overheated words. Particularly the important ones like “migrants” and “thugs.”

“Migrants” is my obsession since I once fled from conflict myself and am deeply concerned about the current global crisis. On the surface, it seems like a good word. Something all-encompassing that can be used while the specifics are sorted out. Even a word that taps into the basic tendency of populations to move from one location to another. Human beings migrateOther animals migrate, as well. Even plant life as rooted as forests migrates. The problem is that the word lumps together voluntary and forced population movement, which can be a fine distinction but often has profound implications. A better general term would be “displaced persons,” which was used for people like me during and after World War II and only refers to forced migration. Which makes me wonder whether governments now conveniently avoid the term because it has real meaning under international law.

You see, displaced persons who have crossed a border and fall under one of a number of international legal instruments are considered to be “refugees.” And, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they have the right to seek asylum in the nation that they enter and to enjoy all the rights and benefits that exist therein. They are also exempt from penalties pertaining to illegal entry, provided that they promptly declare their presence, and are protected from forcible return to their country of origin. “Asylum-seekers,” by the way, are DPs who could be refugees but whose claims have not yet been properly evaluated. So that would be another entirely appropriate term to use these days.

But how people are seen can be as important as their legal status. Call displaced persons “migrants” and you run the risk transforming them into an invasive subhuman species that must be herded into pens and grudgingly tossed some food, as has happened in Hungary. Or, when granted human characteristics, turned into illegal immigrants that deserve to be beaten, arrested and deported, as has occurred there and in Slavic states. Even in the United States, where “migrant” is not only a noun but also an adjective, as in “migrant worker,” the word can be disparaging. Thus, someone as caring as Clarinda has to admit, “‘Migrant’ has taken on a specific class-related meaning for me. A ‘refugee’ can be a surgeon, a poet, a ballet dancer. A ‘migrant’ will be cleaning your toilets if there’s not enough fruit-picking to go around.”

Therefore, given how wrongly “migrants” are viewed and treated in a number of nations, it comes as no surprise that a dispirited Syrian student would sum it up for a reporter from The Guardian by saying:

You know Tupac? You know his song “Thug Life“? That’s us right now,” he laughs. “We’re living the Thug Life—we have sleeping bags, and we sleep on the floor.

Which brings me to Clarinda’s word, “thugs.” It has great relevance for her since she lives a few miles from Mondawmin Mall, where, earlier this year, protests of Freddie Gray’s death had turned sufficiently violent to receive international coverage. But both of us should have been more alert from the outset to the role that words played in the accompanying commentary. You see, a substantial number of people in leadership positions, including President Barak Obama, attributed the mayhem to “criminals” and “thugs.” I thought nothing of it, given his taste in music tends toward Etta James, except to note that the latter word was redundant and rather quaint. And sloppy for someone with a law degree who usually chooses words with great care.

It did not occur to me that “thugs” was possibly being used as a code word until I learned that it was the subject of considerable discussion in Clarinda’s neighborhood online chat room. “I weighed in several times on the meaning of ‘thug,’ she said, “which has regrettably taken on ‘black’ coloration. I knew from my father that it originated from the ‘Thuggee’ fraternity in India—highway robbers who worshiped Kali in the ‘goddess of murder’ guise. I always used it to mean cheap lower-tier criminals, white; it came in handy for skinheads. However, with my lifelong fascination with language, I understand that language changes, and you cannot make a word un-mean something it has come to mean. So yeah, in 2015 Baltimore, ‘thug’ is a racial slur.”

It is not so surprising that a word that started with one negative meaning would end up with another one. But it did come as a shock when “displaced person,” shortened to “DP,” was used pejoratively against my family and me and fellow Latvians after we arrived at our final destination, Grand Rapids, Michigan, since that term had no inherently negative connotations. It seems that when people are prejudiced against any segment of society, any word will do. Still, America has changed enough that I now proudly use DISPLACED PERSON as my website name. Perhaps that will also occur with some variant of “thug.” (But not the way it has with the likes of Thug Kitchen, mistakenly considered as cool.) Because there was a time when, through the artistry of the late Tupac Shakur, it was a word that filled a real void.

You see, Urban Dictionary defines “thug” as “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them.” It makes a point of differentiating “thug” from “gangster,” citing Shakur: “That boy ain’t a gangsta, fo’ sho.’  Look at how he walks, he’s a thug.  life. That’s the saddest face I’ve seen in all my life as a teen.” Viewed this way, a thug could be a kid from Sandtown who showed up to support Gray and took it too far. He could be that kid from Syria, who might soon retaliate for how he is being treated. Both could say what Shakur did in a 1996 interview:

I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me. All I’m trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me.

Note: For more on the current refugee crisis, see my two previous pieces, “Debt of Honor” and “Were You Ever a Refugee?” For more on the people that America calls “criminals,” see the piece that I wrote with Clarinda, “On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Incarcerated,” for Little Patuxent Review.