When I was a child, world maps in American school classrooms showed the United States at the center of the world. It always confused me, as I couldn't figure out why those land masses on the far right and left edges of the map were cut off. For better or for worse, the days of centering the United States are over. We are living through the end of the American Century.
I just came across this book review I drafted in early March of this year, which I was going to publish in a local NYC literary journal — and then the pandemic hit with a vengeance, and it didn’t seem that relevant anymore, so I put it aside. I also felt a little bad about piling on criticism against the author, who already suffered more than her fair share of criticism, some of which was deserved, but much of which was really less about her than it was about the U.S. book publishing industry, and its penchant for paying multi-million dollar advances to white authors while barely giving authors of color a platform for their work.
Then Trump told lie after lie about immigration in last week’s debate — including his assertion that the U.S. government is doing everything possible to reunite separated children with the parents from whom the government snatched them, which we know simply isn’t true. Since I wrote this review, the Trump administration has managed to use the COVID-19 pandemic to virtually shut down the U.S.-Mexico border, even to refugees suffering terrible harm while being forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border for months while awaiting a chance to plead their case before a U.S. immigration judge.
So when I stumbled upon a draft of this review when doing some household decluttering this weekend, I decided it was worth dusting it off and putting it out into the world.
The story of the journey Mexican and Central American asylum seekers have been making (and are still making, despite the dangers facing them at the border) in search of safety still needs to be told. This particular book is a flawed vehicle for telling this story, but it did raise the profile of the migrant’s journey among some Americans who might not have been inclined to learn about it otherwise.
The New York Times has a lot to answer for regarding how it covered the 2016 presidential election. Its coverage of Benghazi, and especially of Hillary’s frigging emails, did a lot to sour voters on Hillary Clinton. (Case in point: according to the Columbia Journalism Review, “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”) If this weekend’s editorial extravaganza is a bit too late as a mea culpa, at least the NYT editorial board gave it the old college try.
The New York Times of Sunday, October 19, 2020 included a special editorial section consisting of thirteen separate essays explaining why Trump “is unfit to lead the nation.” Even if you don’t take the time to read every essay, the introductory editorial itself — which begins by saying, “Donald Trump’s re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since World War II” — is worth reading in its entirety. It concludes with this: “Mr. Trump is a man of no integrity. He has repeatedly violated his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…. Now, in this moment of peril, it falls to the American people — even those who would prefer a Republican president — to preserve, protect and defend the United States by voting.”
Of course, those among his “base” who could learn the most from this won’t ever read it. Indeed, they have been thoroughly brainwashed into thinking that the press is the enemy of the people, and that the New York Times in particular is some kind of radical, left-wing propaganda machine (spoiler alert: it’s not), run by Antifa, Inc. (which doesn’t exist) or by satanic pedophiles and cannibals (no parenthetical disclaimer needed here, methinks). These are the same people who believed the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was running a child-trafficking ring out of the back room of a pizza shop.
But the Republican elites are probably ready to accept the truth of what the Times lays out here. They got their tax cuts and their federal judges, but the rest of what Trump has to offer isn’t good for them, either, if it brings down the entire American experiment.
Here’s hoping that many Republicans, when they get into the privacy of the voting booth, will fill in the little bubble next to JOSEPH R. BIDEN, JR.
Last night, a neighbor called to say that she had received her absentee ballot in the mail—but when she opened up the envelope, the name on the return envelope was my husband’s, not hers. Hubby and I immediately opened up the ballots we had also received in yesterday’s mail, hoping it was a simple mix-up and that he had received her ballot. No such luck, however. He received the ballot for someone a couple of blocks away from us. I received the ballot for a neighbor living five doors up the block.
It turns out, of course, that we are not the only ones to whom this has happened. There are reports of this happening widely in Brooklyn, though it is not yet clear if it has affected literally all of the absentee ballots sent out in the borough of Brooklyn, or only some of them. Unfortunately, the New York City Board of Elections has a history of mismanaging elections. For example, in 2016 over 100,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls.
The NYC Board of Elections blames the snafu on the Board’s vendor, Phoenix Graphics, a commercial printing company that was hired to send out absentee ballots in Brooklyn and Queens. However, today a BOE executive said the problem was isolated to Brooklyn alone. There is no word yet on whether the vendor is also to blame for the typo that labeled the ballots “Absentee Military Ballot” (instead of Absentee/Military), which is also causing confusion among voters.
The Daily News is reporting that the 99,477 voters in Brooklyn who received flawed ballots will get a second mailing with the correct ballot, inner envelope and return envelope. That seems like an awfully precise number: how does the DOE know the number?
Possible Impact on the Election
I have been spending a lot of time volunteering to help get out the vote. Among other things, I have been sending out texts on behalf of various nonprofits around the country urging people who are concerned about in-person voting during a pandemic to apply for absentee ballots and to return them promptly.
Many people have expressed skepticism about using absentee ballots, although the grounds for skepticism have tended to differ based on party: Republicans have said voting by mail is inherently fraudulent (“as opposed to voting by absentee ballot” I’ve heard from more people than you’d think, even though voting by mail is the same thing as voting via absentee ballot), while Democrats have been disturbed by reports about how the U.S. Postal Service may be deliberately slowing down mail delivery in an effort to prevent absentee ballots from being counted. But I have tried to allay those fears. Postal Service issues aside, mail-in voting is actually more secure than in-person voting, since there is a paper trail (and bar codes on the ballot or return envelope) that would prevent people from voting twice.
However, in the Brooklyn scenario I see several dangers. The most obvious one, of course, is that people who did not receive their absentee ballots will simply not vote. In the midst of a dangerous pandemic, many people will decide (not unreasonably) that it is not worth putting their lives—or the lives of family members—at risk by voting in person.
But what if someone sends in an absentee ballot without noticing the wrong name on the return envelope? Presumably if that person tries to vote in person, their vote will be invalidated. Moreover, in theory, I could vote twice: once using the absentee ballot in someone else’s name (preventing them from voting later), and once in person in my own name.
This almost looks like a Russian-funded Republican plot to disrupt voting in the largest Democratic city in America, doesn’t it?
I voted via absentee ballot in the primary this year, and obviously was planning to do so in the general election as well. Due to our age and underlying health conditions, both my husband and I would be at risk of an ugly death were we to contract COVID-19. Waiting in line for hours with other humans inside the gym in our local elementary school just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. There will be early voting available in New York starting on October 24, but even so there are likely to be large crowds.
Even with mail-in voting, I have been concerned about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver completed ballots in time, and I was planning on walking my completed ballot to the Board of Elections and submitting it personally (assuming the BOE has a secure process for receiving ballots). As a Democrat, I also know that my vote is unlikely to change Biden’s inevitable victory in New York. However, I refuse to be disenfranchised! I also think that even in New York, every vote counts in case there are Electoral College shenanigans—it needs to be clear and beyond doubt that Biden won the popular vote (by a landslide, I hope).
What Can You Do?
If you live in Brooklyn and you have also received the incorrect absentee ballot, there are a few things you can do:
Contact the Kings County Board of Elections at Apply4Absentee@boe.nyc, or call 718-797-8800, option 2, and they will send you a new ballot. (Email is better; nobody ever answered when I called the phone number.)
Please also contact Election Protection at (866-OUR-VOTE) and report that you received the wrong ballot. The more reports received, the clearer it will be that this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed globally by the BOE. Election Protection is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
Both my husband and I were able to deliver the ballots we received to their rightful owners. And just after I initially posted this, a neighbor came by with my ballot. We have heard of other neighbors running around the neighborhood delivering misdirected ballots. How nice that people care enough to do this! It’s a bit of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy election season.
My favorite U.S. political historian and pundit, Heather Cox Richardson, has repeatedly asserted that Fox News is not actually a news station. She mentioned it again today in her weekly Facebook Live video on The History of the Republican Party, when she also made the point that the so-called “liberal media” consists of journalists who believe in reporting news based on facts and verified sources. This, of course, is why the right wing is so critical of the “liberal media”—not so much for its purported bias, but for its reliance on verifiable facts.
In any event, “Fox News” is merely a name, not a description. This goes a long way toward explaining how they get away with presenting lies and distortions as “news”—and how successful they’ve been at fulfilling Roger Ailes’ vision of building a right-wing propaganda machine. But how is this possible? HCR wrote about this in some detail back in June 2018, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
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While lots of folks think they are getting news from Fox News, in fact, “Fox News” is not a news channel. It is an entertainment channel whose name is “Fox News Channel,” the way the name of ABC is “American Broadcasting Company” and NBC is “National Broadcasting Company.” “Fox News” is simply the brand name; it is not a description of content.
FNC does have some news shows: those are the ones featuring Shep Smith [now with NBC News] and Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. These shows do choose stories and arrange their material to slant to the right, and they do use loaded emotional language to influence viewers, but they also fact-check their stories (although they sometimes ignore evidence that does not support their views) and they identify themselves as journalists.
But this gets even more confusing. FNC is a cable channel, which means it does not have to get a license from the Federal Communications Commission, as ABC and NBC do. The FCC licenses channels that use broadcast frequencies because the airwaves are limited, but since cable is virtually unlimited, there is no similar requirement for it. To get an FCC license, owners of a station have to prove that they contribute to the public good, by airing public announcements, for example. FNC does not have to do that. But local TV stations owned by the parent company of FNC do use the public airwaves and do have to have an FCC license, and they produce news shows that are as real as any other.
Fox News Channel officials appear to deliberately muddy the waters between their different programming. If you google “Fox News news programs,” you get them all jumbled together, and there is no easy way to figure out which are news and which aren’t. But when someone like Sean Hannity, for example, is called out for violating an obvious rule of journalism—like repeatedly attacking the federal raid on Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s office without revealing that Hannity, himself, was implicated in that raid, or by reporting so positively on Donald Trump when the two are personal friends—he claims [he] has no such journalistic responsibility because he is not a journalist.
[In February 2018], Shep Smith explained the difference between the news side of FNC and the entertainment side: “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion. I don’t really watch a lot of opinion programming. I’m busy.”
Watch the opinion programming on FNC if you want, but recognize that it is not informed by facts or real investigations; it is designed purely to hold audiences by ginning up outrage. (Rupert Murdoch, who began FNC, always said it was just a business, and likened it to Dairy Queen.) If someone is repeating a story that seems crazy […] it probably is, and you would be crazy to believe it.
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By the way, have you noticed that the Fox News Channel quietly dropped its slogan, “Fair and Balanced”? They’re not even pretending any more.
Until the rise of talk radio in 1987 and the establishment of the Fox News Channel in 1996, we honored the Enlightenment values on which our government was founded: politicians had to attract voters with fact-based arguments or be voted out of office. But talk radio and FNC pushed a fictional narrative that captivated viewers who felt dispossessed after 1954, as women and people of color began to approach having an equal voice in society. That narrative—of a heroic white man under siege by a government that wants to give his hard-earned money to black and brown people and grasping women—has led us back to where we started in 1776: a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.
Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his prospective Vice President has Republicans all in a tizzy because they clearly fear that she will be a very effective running mate. Harris checks so many diversity boxes—female, African American, South Asian, Jamaican, child of immigrants and more—that Republicans are right to be scared of how successfully she is likely to appeal to multiple demographic groups who will identify with her personal story. And this is not even to mention that she is whip-smart, an experienced campaigner, and a skilled former prosecutor who will clearly and effectively lay out the case against four more years of Whiney Donny and Sycophanty Mikey.
So naturally, Republicans are questioning both the legitimacy of Harris’ claim to be African American, and even whether she is a “natural-born citizen” (or even a citizen at all!) who is eligible to be Vice President. Because after all … what else they got besides racism?
So let’s set the record straight.
Is Kamala Harris African American?
In immediate response to the announcement of her selection as Biden’s running mate, the right-wing blogosphere went crazy with suggestions that Harris is somehow falsely assuming the identity of African American because her Black father was born in Jamaica, not in the United States.
Nowhere has it been decreed to my knowledge that to be African American you must be a direct descendant of persons held in chattel slavery in the United States. (Okay, there is an American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement that advocates for a narrower, lineage-based identity based on the experience of having descended from Africans who were enslaved in the United States, but Harris has never claimed to be ADOS.) You may recall that Barack Obama, too, was sometimes criticized (by both Blacks and whites) for not being “black enough.” But let’s get real. We still operate under the “one-drop rule” in the United States. Harris is at least partially descended on her father’s side from people who originated in Africa, and she is an American. If she herself has decided that this makes her an African American, then that’s the end of the story.
Interestingly, Harris wrote in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, that her Indian mother (who basically raised Kamala and her sister alone after her parents divorced when Kamala was eight years old) “understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”
For this reason, her mother made a point of embedding herself and her daughters in the Black community in the East Bay area of California where they lived in the 1960s and early 1970s, including participating in civil rights marches, attending a Black Baptist church in Oakland, and being active members in local community organizations in the predominantly Black neighborhood where they lived. When it came time to choose a college, Harris decided to attend Howard University, the famous historically Black university in Washington, D.C. So to the extent that being African American is also a cultural identity, there is no doubt that this is where Harris has always lived. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”
What if Harris is a Descendant of Slave Owners?
Critics have also sought to undercut Harris’ African American bona fides by claiming that she is a descendent of “Jamaican slave owners.” Specifically, the infamous Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-born, far-right political provocateur, said on Fox News on August 11, 2020 that “Kamala Harris seems to be descended less from the legacy of, let’s say, Frederick Douglass, than she is from the legacy of the plantation itself.”
Seriously? Let’s take a closer look.
In 2018, Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote an article in 2018 for Jamaica Global (a website for the global Jamaican diaspora) in which he disclosed that he was descended from a prominent slave owner in Jamaica. Though it has not been definitively confirmed, there is indeed evidence to suggest that Kamala Harris had an Irish great-great-great-great-great grandfather named Hamilton Brown who owned slaves in Jamaica. Harris’ father wrote about his roots going back, in his lifetime, to his paternal grandmother, Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown) and his maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan).
It is bitterly ironic that anyone could believe that this somehow “discredits” Harris’ claim to self-identify as African American. (Whose permission does she need, anyway?) I’m not sure what the Irishman Hamilton Brown looked like, but I’m guessing his complexion was somewhat fairer than those of Harris’ two great-grandmothers on her father’s side, who both appear to be of mixed African and European ancestry. Did Republicans miss the memo about white slave owners routinely fathering mixed race children through coerced sex with enslaved African women? Have they not heard of Sally Hemings?
This ridiculous argument doesn’t deserve another second’s attention.
Birtherism Again? Really?
As an immigration lawyer whose day job is spent interpreting, arguing and applying U.S. immigration and nationality laws, the “birtherism” argument waged against Barack Obama (largely by none other than Donald Trump) would get me especially incensed. Well, birtherism is raising its ugly head again, this time wielded against Kamala Harris.
In an opinion piece published in Newsweek on August 12, 2020, John C. Eastman, a California law professor who really should know better, raised the question of whether Kamala Harris is a “natural born citizen” (a requirement for holding the position of either President or Vice President) since her parents were both immigrants, and it was unclear whether they had naturalized as U.S. citizens before she was born. For the record: their immigration status at the time she was born on U.S. soil is irrelevant, unless they were diplomats who were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. government. (Spoiler alert: they were not diplomats. Her mother was a cancer researcher and her father is an economist.)
Newsweek subsequently published an “Editor’s Note” in response to readers having complained about this apparent attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory, writing, “Dr. Eastman was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya.” No, of course it doesn’t.
In any case, the damage was done. In fact, a few days earlier, a Facebook post along the same lines had already gone viral.
Facebook did not take the false claim down, but it did add links to a number of fact-checking articles to clarify that there is no truth to the claim that the fact of having foreign-born parents disqualifies Harris from serving as Vice President or President (since the VP’s first job is to be ready to serve as President if the President dies or is incapacitated).
To be clear: the United States recognizes two forms of birthright citizenship: jus soli (Latin for “right of the land”), meaning citizenship by right conferred on anyone born on U.S. soil, and jus sanguinis (“right of the blood”), or citizenship by descent, i.e., by virtue of the U.S. citizenship of one’s mother or father, regardless of one’s place of birth. Even if Harris’ parents were not yet naturalized citizens at the time of her birth, she was born on U.S. soil—in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964—and was thus a U.S. citizen at birth.
Barack Obama, of course, was relentlessly attacked by the right wing on “birtherism” grounds, even though he, too, was born in the United States and was therefore a U.S. citizen at birth, end of story. (See the Fourteenth Amendment.) The idea was to suggest that our first Black president was somehow an “illegitimate” president—and these similar attacks against Harris reveal a similar discomfort (no, a better word is rage) among some white people at the fact that a person who is not white can ascend to the highest office in the land. It’s despicable and it’s racist.
On a final note, I’ll just mention that the closer call when Obama was running against John McCain in 2008 was always McCain himself, who due to an odd gap in the law was actually not a U.S. citizen at birth, but acquired U.S. citizenship retroactively thanks to Congressional action granting citizenship to certain children born of U.S. citizen parents in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone before it was an official U.S. territory. I actually think this was part of the genesis of the birther movement against Obama: it was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from McCain’s potential ineligibility for the presidency by pointing to the Black guy with the Muslim middle name and the Kenyan father.
On Saturday, August 8, Donald Trump signed four new executive orders (actually, threeseparatememoranda and one order) by which he purports to solve the Congressional deadlock on extending COVID-19-related relief. He claims he can do so by, unilaterally, providing executive authority for extended supplementary unemployment payments, an eviction moratorium, a further suspension of student loan payments and, while he is at it, a suspension of the payroll tax for certain taxpayers.
Trump asserts that, as president, he has the authority to do these things simply through the power of the Sharpie. But these orders are (1) evil, and (2) little more than political theater designed to shore up his support in the upcoming election. In other words, it’s all another big lie, dressed up in the pomp and circumstance of a presidential signing ceremony.
Let’s start with my second contention. I say that this is all nothing but political theater because Trump doesn’t actually have the authority to do what he is pretending to do.
Under the U.S. Constitution, only the House of Representatives has the power to tax and spend money for the federal government. (We know the president hasn’t read the Constitution, but you should. See Article I, Section 7, Clause 1: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.”) Similarly, the president is not permitted to draw money from the Treasury unless Congress has specifically passed a law allowing him to do so for a specific purpose. (See Article I, Section 9, Clause 7, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”)
The House of Representatives actually has tried to appropriate funds that would, among other things, extend the $600 supplemental unemployment payment. Way back in May (seems like a lifetime ago), the House passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would have provided billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief, but Mitch McConnell has not allowed the Senate to consider it, much less to vote on it.
This gave Trump the opportunity to swoop in and appear to show that—in the infamous words he uttered in his Republican nomination acceptance speech in July 2016—“I alone can fix it.” Moreover, in doing so he and the Republicans are trying to convince the public that executive action was needed because “Congress” didn’t act to help suffering Americans, when in fact the Democratically-controlled House did act, while the Republican-controlled Senate decided to go on vacation.
One of the other memos extends the deferment of student loan payments through December 31, which is a good thing, as far as it goes (the CARES Act deferment would have expired on September 30). As for evictions, Trump issued an executive order which basically says, yeah, the relevant federal agencies should see what they can do to help. Which is probably nothing.
Why Are These Actions Evil?
So how does Trump say he will pay for all these things? This is where the evil comes in.
Trump proposes to use his emergency powers to divert $70 billion from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) to provide unemployed workers with $300 per week on top of what they receive from the state in which they live. But for expenditures from the DRF, states are required by law to contribute 25%, so he is depending on already cash-strapped states to find that money. States also have to provide an additional $100 per week from the money they already received pursuant to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, assuming it has not been spent already. (Note that even in the unlikely event all of these stars were to align, the total would only be $400, as opposed to the $600 per week the unemployed received under the CARES Act.)
Whether this will actually result in any additional payments to the unemployed is an open question. Many states, which are losing tax revenues and are precluded by law from running deficits like the federal government can, may simply be unable to come up with the money. (Or perhaps this is the Senate’s evil plan, since McConnell has floated the idea of allowing states to file for bankruptcy, presumably because he assumes this would affect mostly blue states.)
Trump is also directing the Secretary of the Treasury to defer payroll taxes as of September 1 on taxpayers making less than $104,000 per year. Though not stated explicitly in the memo, this is clearly meant to put more money in the pockets of those lucky enough to have jobs. (To make this clear: this does nothing for the more than 50 million Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since March.) The Secretary is also ordered to “explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred pursuant to the implementation of this memorandum.” In other words, though payroll taxes are only being “deferred” for now, the medium-term plan is to eliminate the requirement that such deferred taxes ever be paid. (See below for the long-term plan.)
Why are these presidential acts evil? First, because they set the stage for what Trump hopes to do in his second term.* One major goal is to get rid of the payroll tax altogether. Remember, the Social Security system is funded by the payroll tax! Those are your tax dollars (plus tax payments from employers) that are supposedly being put away for future retirement. It has long been a Republican goal to get rid of Social Security. This is a step toward achieving that long-term plan. Moreover, Medicare is partially funded by payroll taxes as well. Would you like to have reasonably affordable health insurance once you’re retired? Then you might want Medicare to survive a few more years.
I would also contend that diverting disaster funding is foolhardy, especially during hurricane season in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
The real danger—the real evil—lies precisely in the political theater surrounding these “orders.” The White House surely knows that all of these directives will be challenged in the courts. As such, they are unlikely to have any practical impact. The real impact, to my mind, is the fact that Trump issued these orders at all. By doing so, he is going well beyond the “unitary executive” theory so beloved by Attorney General William Barr, under which the president has expansive powers to control all aspects of the Executive Branch. Here, he is also seeking to extend his power over a key function of the legislative branch, which is to make laws deciding how our tax dollars are to be spent. This is a dangerous, perhaps unprecedented, power grab. Don’t forget: Trump has (falsely) said that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want”.
If you read the actual documents, they are replete with rhetoric about how the virus that is the cause of all this trouble began in China (which is relevant to … what, exactly?), and how the Trump administration has been such a raging success in every way. But they do little to accomplish the goals Trump claims to be solving with the flick of a pen. All they do is take us one step further down the road of autocracy.
As always, I recommend the informative daily newsletter by historian Heather Cox Richardson for more depth and detail (available on Facebook, on BillMoyers.com or via email subscription). She wrote about these presidential orders in her newsletter of August 8, 2020.
* But please, dear god—no, I should say “dear voters”—don’t let Trump win a second term!
These last few months have been a wake-up call for white people about the pervasiveness of our society’s structural racism. (I say “for white people” because for Black people and other people of color, this is not news.) There is a lot to think about in terms of how even—or perhaps especially—those of us white folks who consider ourselves to be progressive and nonracist can help dismantle barriers that may have been invisible to us. It’s not enough not be racist. We need to become actively antiracist.
Today, as part of my own journey toward becoming antiracist, I’m going to share some commonly used words or phrases that have racist origins or connotations. No, not the obvious words (the N-word, “uppity,” or the like) that no self-respecting liberal would ever dream of uttering. But there are numerous words and phrases in English that turn out to have deeply racist roots, or that have developed racist connotations over the years. I discuss a few of them here. Some of them I’ve long known, and some I have just learned about recently.
When a word or phrase may not have had a racist origin but has taken on racist undertones through usage over the years, I think white people have to follow the lead of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color): if they say the word is racist and hurtful, we must take them at their word.
Please feel free to let me know of other troublesome words or phrases I may have missed by leaving a comment.
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Articulate. The word itself is not racist. But using it to describe a well-spoken Black person is racist. It implies surprise at the fact. Just don’t say it.
Blackball, blacklist, black magic, blackmail, black mark, etc. All of these terms racialize the use of “black” to describe things that are bad or wrong. They reinforce the notion that black=bad and white=good.
Cakewalk. This term refers to something that is an easy victory, but it originated as a dance that enslaved Black people performed on plantations, where owners would hold contests in which slaves would compete for a cake. The dance, and the phrase, was later popularized through minstrel shows
Cat got your tongue? American slave owners often used a whip called a “cat-o’-nine-tails” to flog victims. The pain was so intense that those on the receiving end couldn’t even speak. Asking the victim “cat got your tongue?” was thus an especially cruel taunt.
Eskimo. European settlers in North America used this word—thought to come from the French word esquimaux (referring to a person who makes the nets for snowshoes)—for the indigenous people living in the Arctic region, who mostly called themselves Inuit. Many colonists used it in the mistaken belief that it meant “eater of raw meat,” connoting barbarism and violence, which means it was deliberately meant to be offensive.
Fuzzy wuzzy. This was originally a term used by British colonial soldiers in the 1800s to refer to members of an East African tribe, and later became a derogatory way to refer to African people’s hair texture.
Gyp or jip. To be “gypped” is to be shortchanged or swindled. But the word comes from “gypsy,” which itself is an offensive term referring to the Romani people, who face widespread discrimination across Europe.
Grandfather clause or grandfathered in: According to a decision recently published by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, “‘grandfather clause’ originally referred to provisions adopted by some states after the Civil War in an effort to disenfranchise African American voters by requiring voters to pass literacy tests or meet other significant qualifications, while exempting from such requirements those who were descendants of men who were eligible to vote before 1867.” I can’t believe I didn’t know this before.
Long time no see. This is a common phrase in American English—I’ve used it myself when meeting up with someone I haven’t seen in a long time—but it may have originated as a way to mimic Chinese or Native American speech patterns in English.
Lynch mob. The literal meaning is fairly obvious, but when not used literally this term can be offensive when used to describe situations that fall far short of the murderous, racist violence that lynch mobs actually perpetrated. Think, for example, of Clarence Thomas describing the congressional hearing in which Anita Hill testified about how he had sexually harassed her as a “high-tech lynching,” or Donald Trump likening his impeachment to a “lynching.”
Master bedroom/bathroom, master/slave. While it’s not clear whether the owner’s bedroom in southern plantations during the slavery era was called a master bedroom, the real estate industry is gradually retiring the term, using the word “primary” instead. Similarly, many tech engineers in computer technology, who have used “master/slave” terminology to describe software and hardware components where one process or device controls another, are now replacing that with “primary/replica.”
Mumbo jumbo. Typically used to suggest that someone is talking nonsense, this derives from contempt for the religious rituals that enslaved Africans brought with them to America—in the Mandinka language, Maamajomboo describes a masked dancer in a religious ceremony. (Note, too, that Little Black Sambo’s parents were named Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo.)
Nitty gritty. This phrase may have its origin in the slave trade, referring to the detritus found in the bottom of slave ships once the enslaved people had been removed from the hold. “Nit” may refer to the parasitic insect of the same name that would likely have been abundant in the abhorrent conditions in the ships making their way across the Middle Passage. Grits, of course, are the inexpensive, coarse-ground grains that were used to feed enslaved people.
No can do. Meaning “I can’t do that,” this is a 19th-century phrase that mocked Chinese immigrants’ speech patterns in English.
Off the reservation. Commonly used to describe someone who is deviating from the norm, this phrase originally referred to Native Americans who refused to accept the limitations on their mobility caused by the creation of reservations where the government forcibly moved them. Historically, Native Americans who were found “off the reservation” were often killed.
Paddy wagon. This was 19th-century slang for the horse-drawn vans police used to round up drunk Irish immigrants. I hadn’t heard this phrase for a long time, until Donald Trump used it when he was exhorting police to be rough when throwing “thugs” into the back of a “paddy wagon.” (See also thug below.)
Peanut gallery. In the days of vaudeville, cheap seats—in the back of a theater, or on a balcony—were called the “peanut gallery.” These were the seats where Black patrons were forced to sit.
Picnic. Some have contended that the word “picnic” has racist origins, but the story is a bit more nuanced. Folk etymology suggests that the word comes from “pick-a-nig,” referring to racist lynchings where a Black person was randomly “picked” and hanged for the entertainment of whites. However, etymologically the word is much older and derives from the French pique-nique, referring to a social gathering where each attendee brings food (from the verb piquer, “to sting” or “to bite,” which may have referred to a leisurely style of eating). Nonetheless, the fact that African Americans were often lynched in settings that were picnic-like, for the entertainment of white people, means that the word “picnic” carries racist connotations for many Black folks in the United States.
Sold down the river. Referring to some kind of devastating betrayal, the origin of this term was literal, not metaphorical. It was commonly known during the slavery era that conditions for enslaved people were increasingly brutal the farther south one went down along the Mississippi River. Thus a person who was “sold down the river” was being sold into inhumane, brutal conditions that often ended in death.
Thug. The word itself—meaning a violent criminal—may not be inherently racist. It comes from a Hindi word, thuggee, derived from ṭhag (ठग), which means deceiver, thief or swindler. (Thugs were professional thieves and assassins who operated in India from the 14th through the 19th centuries.) However, given how the word is now being used by right-wing media and politicians to describe just about every Black victim of racist violence, let’s assume it is being used as a substitute for the N-word, and never use it to refer to any person of color.
Trump has unleashed his secret federal police onto the streets of American cities. Ever since this president’s inauguration, many horrified American critics who could foresee what was coming have nonetheless been reluctant to use the “F” word (Fascism), much less compare Trump and his supporters to the “N” word (Nazi). But just as individuals (and countries) go bankrupt—in the words of Ernest Hemingway—“gradually, then suddenly,” so, too, do democracies slide into fascism gradually, and then suddenly.
Trump’s “secret” police force isn’t so secret anymore, since it has now been reported in multiple credible media outlets that he has been deploying paramilitary officers domestically from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), two components of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He has done so by reassigning these officers to the Federal Protective Service (FPS). However, they remain anonymous on the streets, bearing no official government insignia or identification on their uniforms. When they confront protesters, they do not identify themselves. When they make arrests, the vehicles in which they take people away are unmarked.
All of these actions are signs of creeping fascism.
Though by their very nature, these paramilitary operatives are unnamed, they do in fact constitute a new kind of secret federal police. Where have we heard of this before? Let’s see. Remember something called the Gestapo? Yes, I’m going there. It may not be evident to most Americans, but Gestapo is not a German word. Instead, it is an acronym. GE stands for “geheime” which means “secret.” STA stands for “staats” which means “state” or “national” (which we would be more likely to term “federal” in the United States). And PO stands for “polizei” or “police.” So Gestapo stands for secret federal police.
The German Gestapo was created by Hermann Göring in 1933. It became a national agency in 1936, under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler. The Gestapo engaged in extralegal and extrajudicial repression of any activity the Nazi Party considered unacceptable. You’ll recall that the Nazis weren’t defeated until 1945.
I shouldn’t have said “creeping” above. Fascism has long since crept its way into American daily life. We’ve moved beyond “gradually” and have arrived at “suddenly.” Anyone who is not terrified is not paying attention.
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“How did you go bankrupt?” a fictional character named Mike is asked in a well-known American novel. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Often misquoted, and misattributed, this quote comes from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises.
As I wrote in my post yesterday (July 21), the law enforcement personnel Trump has deployed on the streets of Portland, Oregon (and has promised to deploy in Chicago, New York and other cities “run by liberal democrats”) come from two sub-agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These are two of three new immigration agencies (the third being U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS) that were created within DHS when it absorbed the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which had been part of the Department of Justice.
Evident in the very names of these two agencies is the fact that their mandates are to enforce immigration and customs-related laws—both at the border (CBP) and in the interior (ICE) of the United States. So why are two immigration agencies being used to patrol the streets in a city that is not on an international border, and to make arrests having nothing to do with immigration or customs enforcement?
As I mentioned yesterday, I think the main reason is that Trump has been rebuffed in his desire to use the military for these types of operations. So he turned to a politicized agency that, by the way, is already the country’s largest federal law enforcement organization, with more than 60,000 law enforcement officers on its payroll. Moreover, unlike other federal law enforcement agencies—such as the FBI, the DEA or the ATF, which have specific domains of authority defined by federal statute—DHS’s statutory authority includes the discretion to transfer agents from one component of DHS to another. The administration is taking advantage of this loophole to second CBP and ICE officers to the Federal Protective Service (FPS), a federal agency whose job is to protect federal property.
But there is another, more insidious reason why it should not surprise us that Trump is using armed border patrol and other immigration enforcement officers as his storm troopers. As Dina Haynes, Professor at New England Law, writes, “Racist, regressive leaders around the world have been instrumentalizing racism, discrimination, and ‘othering’ to further their nativist goals.” Immigrants were Trump’s first scapegoats, but it’s an easy next step to scapegoat anyone who challenges his authority by suggesting that they, too, are somehow “others” who seek to destroy our country. The administration has been quite successful in instrumentalizing anti-immigrant sentiment to justify expanding administrative authority. (This in an administration that purportedly wants to “deconstruct the administrative state.”) The result is the sort of authoritarian crackdowns we are now seeing, including in Portland, where the administration is using national security rhetoric to justify letting DHS operate far beyond its jurisdictional limitations.
In a Facebook post where Angelo A. Paparelli, a highly respected immigration lawyer, posted without comment a New York Times opinion piece about what’s happening in Portland (see Michelle Goldberg’s great column, “Trump’s Occupation of American Cities Has Begun”), a contrarian commenter started right in by suggesting that Angelo must “love anarchy” and “hate America.” Nothing in his post, or in his history, would suggest anything of the sort. Why do Trumpers so often resort to this kind of rhetoric? And it rarely helps to respond with facts and figures. These Kool-Aid drinkers have long since absorbed the Orwellian dictate, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Remember, Trump himself said in 2018, “Just remember what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Yes, it’s all fake news—except when it suits him. Then it’s all the Democrats’ fault.
My friend and fellow immigration law warrior Rebecca Eichler recently posted the image I am sharing here. It’s a relevant update of the famous prose poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. Fascism is here. In America. Today. The question is: will you resist, or will you collaborate?
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SOURCES AND FURTHER READING (more or less in the order in which the related topics are discussed above):
If you aren’t already reading Heather Cox Richardson‘s daily newsletters, I highly recommend them. She is a professor of American history who brilliantly puts current US events into historical context. She also broadcasts live on Facebook twice a week, and in today’s video she connects the dots to demonstrate how Trump is using the Department of Homeland Security to create a false narrative about violent anarchists on the streets in Portland (and soon other cities as well) in order to scare people into voting for him in November.
Keep in mind that to date, the worst the protesters in Portland have done is spray graffiti on some government buildings and deface a statue commemorating the Confederacy. Meanwhile, unmarked, heavily armed federal officers have cracked skulls and swept peaceful protesters off the streets into unmarked vans. Is this the kind of country any of us wants to live in? A place where the government engages in extrajudicial violence and disappearances?
The military, for all its faults, is an essentially apolitical (not to mention disciplined) institution. After the debacle where Trump manipulated the military into clearing the streets near the White House of protesters so that he could pose with a bible in front of a nearby church, military leaders made it clear that they would not let themselves be used like that again.
So now Trump is using law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security — especially two of its sub-agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — to serve as his storm troopers. DHS is a thoroughly political institution, created by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, and CBP and ICE, which are both full of virulently right-wing white supremacists, are more than willing to do Trump’s bidding.
In 2016 (and again in 2018), it was caravans of supposedly violent immigrants who were said to pose a national security threat to our country. (Funny how news of the caravans essentially disappeared after the elections.) In 2020, it will be purportedly violent anarchists in — wait for it — Democratically-led cities who allegedly pose an existential threat to our democracy. The language to this effect that 45 used in his recent “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence” is extraordinarily deceptive, incendiary and dangerous. When has a nation’s government ever gone to such lengths to protect monuments to traitors? The so-called violent left-wing extremist is just a straw man. The real threat comes from the government-sanctioned brown shirts on our streets.
Richardson also makes the point that although most presidents want to be re-elected (except for the few, like LBJ, who chose not to run for a second term), the lengths to which Trump is going to gain re-election is unprecedented in American history. After all, what’s the worst that can happen if a president is not re-elected? That he (or, someday, she) is condemned to a life of too much golf and millions of dollars in lecture circuit earnings? It’s not a bad gig.
But in Trump’s case, something worse awaits him, as it is almost certain that once he leaves office, he will be subject to multiple criminal charges. The only thing protecting him from indictment now is a Department of Justice policy (it’s not even a law) that a sitting president cannot be subject to criminal charges. So he is using all of the government resources at his disposal to distract the populace from his disastrous lack of leadership that has allowed a virulent coronavirus to kill thousands of Americans, and to convince the electorate that only he can save us from the violent overthrow of the US government.
It’s all utterly despicable, and leaves me in deep despair. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is stripping the country for parts while they have the chance. We are living through the end of the American Century, brought to you by our sponsor, Trump Inc.