Tag Archives: civil rights

About Charles Murray: Is a White man’s cross burning as disqualifying as blackface?

“People are saying” that we need to think about how to interpret, and possibly punish, past racism, relative to current racism. This is as much about the meaning of “past” as it is about the meaning of “racism.” It’s about individual suspected racists — specifically leading Virginia Democrats — and about the intersection of individual and institutional racism, as preserved and displayed in yearbooks, as in this photo of the University of Illinois KKK chapter in 1924, which included representation from each fraternity on campus:

Politicians are a special case, because their authority is in theory dependent on the legitimating consent of the governed. On the other hand are regular individuals, for whom being labeled a racist is among the harshest reputational penalties we have. More important than individuals is how they add up to groups, organizations, and institutions.

Then there are powerful individuals representing institutional interests, such as Charles Murray, who spent decades on the dole of non-profit organizations funded by the foundations of the rich (in other words, you). He built an extremely influential career blaming poverty on inborn deficiencies (“born lazy“) among the Black poor and providing scientific cover for dismantling government support for meeting their needs.

Why burn that cross

In the grand scheme maybe it doesn’t matter whether Charles Murray (now an emeritus at age 76) is, or was, racist in his heart — his work was racist in its effects (White supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof parroted Murray in his rationale for murdering Black people in church.) However, he and his defenders have always impugned those who assign racist motives to his work. He clearly believes in a biological racial hierarchy in genetic intelligence, which is an old-fashioned definition of racism. The new scientific racists, a coalition that includes Murray, defends itself from that charge by claiming it’s not racist if it’s true, and it has fallen to human geneticists to debunk their claims. The charge of racism has always weakened the legitimacy of Murray and his compatriots, and narrowed their reach. As I think it should — you don’t need to know what was in his heart to think his work was terrible, but it’s relevant.

Shawn Fremstad reminded me that Murray and his friends burned a cross in 1960, which seems like a good thing to dredge up during racist-yearbook week. Here is the very cursory story, in a 1994 New York Times profile for the release of his book The Bell Curve.

While there is much to admire about the industry and inquisitiveness of Murray’s teen-age years, there is at least one adventure that he understandably deletes from the story — the night he helped his friends burn a cross. They had formed a kind of good guys’ gang, “the Mallows,” whose very name, from marshmallows, was a play on their own softness. In the fall of 1960, during their senior year, they nailed some scrap wood into a cross, adorned it with fireworks and set it ablaze on a hill beside the police station, with marshmallows scattered as a calling card.

[Denny] Rutledge recalls his astonishment the next day when the talk turned to racial persecution in a town with two black families. “There wouldn’t have been a racist thought in our simple-minded minds,” he says. “That’s how unaware we were.”

A long pause follows when Murray is reminded of the event. “Incredibly, incredibly dumb,” he says. “But it never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance. And I look back on that and say, ‘How on earth could we be so oblivious?’ I guess it says something about that day and age that it didn’t cross our minds.”

This is a very incomplete story, which doesn’t even tell us who first told the tale of the cross burning, or what reason that person gave for it, or how they picked the location. But reading this, my sociological opinion is that “dumb” is likely a dodge; and my sociological question is, if they had no idea of the “larger significance” of cross burning, in 1960, why do it? There were lots of dumb things to do. My sociological approach to this question is to investigate the context in which this cross burning occurred, both in the social environment and in Murray’s life course trajectory.

The fall of 1960, the beginning of Murray’s senior year of high school, was when he would have been applying to Harvard, which he went off to in 1961 (he was a history major). It was also a time when cross burning was in the news a lot, including in Iowa.

The 1960 Census recorded 15,000 people in the idyllic cross-burning town of Newton, where Murray’s father was a Maytag executive. And there were only 22 Black people recorded in Jasper county (where Newton is the principal city). Does this mean race was not an issue in the minds of Murray’s gang? I’m very doubtful. Blacks were a noticeable, and noticeably growing, presence in Iowa cities, including Des Moines, just 30 miles from Newton. (The new Interstate 80 hadn’t connected Newton and Des Moines yet, but sections of it were already built west of Des Moines, and it was penciled in on the map.) During the 1950s the state’s nonwhite population increased about 70%, from 17,000 to 29,000. In fact, the 1950s were the biggest decade for Black migration to Iowa. Almost all of them lived in urban areas, including Des Moines. The city had 209,000 people, of which 10,700 (5%) were nonwhite (mostly Black) by 1960.

So, do you think a 1960 White executive’s family would have heard anything about the nonwhite population of the nearest city nearly doubling in the previous decade? Did aw-shucks Murray and his pool hall buddies know about all that big city stuff?

We have some other evidence from which to speculate. Murray traveled around the state, and even the country, in his high school years. He was on Newton High School’s “Crack Debate Team” that won several statewide tournaments, including one at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in April 1960. And that summer the debate team roadtripped to California, courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce, for a national tournament. (What did they debate, anyway?)

Picture of Newton debate team, including Charles Murray, in 1960Des Moine Register, June 15, 1960.

So in 1960 Murray was the son of an executive, and a debate team champion, traveling the state and country, and applying to Harvard, while living in the next county over from a city with a booming Black population. Oh, and it was 1960: the year civil rights protesters staged sit-ins in dozens of cities across the south, from February through April.

By my count there were 55 articles in the Des Moines Register/Tribune archives mentioning cross burning during his high school years, 1955 to 1960. In fact, there were a number of stories about an Iowa City incident, where in April 1960 (yes, that April 1960), eight Beta Theta Pi frat brothers burned a cross on the lawn of the assistant director of student affairs, whose office was “instrumental in the effort to remove race restrictions from the constitutions of several fraternities at the university.” After briefly suspending the men, the university declared it a “prank” and reinstated them on probation:

Clips from Chicago Daily Tribune and Des Moines Tribune, April and May 1960

Maybe it was a pure coincidence having nothing to do with race that the eight frat brothers burned a cross in their “prank.” But why a cross? Also, it was a few weeks after students picketed stores right there in Iowa City to support the sit-ins.

washington times herald article showing rash of cross burnings in south, and mentioning picketers supporting sit-ins in iowa city.

I see a possible parallel between the frat boys and the cross burning by Murray’s marshmallow gang. The story is they had no idea it was about race; decades later, this is the story they recite. Some key White adults helped keep the narrative from getting out of hand. I’d bet the incident didn’t make it into Murray’s Harvard admissions packet, either in his personal essay or in the form of a criminal record. Even though there was “talk” in town the next day.

And they went on about their lives. Murray isn’t an elected office holder, and may be retired. Maybe it’s water under the racist.


Incidentally, I noticed that one of the University of Iowa cross-burning frat boys, Joel E. Swanson, seems to have gone on to become a state district court judge. (I don’t know what happened to their disorderly conduct charge.) He was a freshman in 1960, got his law degree at the University in 1967, while serving in the National Guard, and worked as a lawyer in his home town of Lake City, eventually became a judge and then retiring in 2012. Also, they have recipes.

swanson

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Things are getting better/worse, and we’re not going to take it anymore

There is a whole social science to the optimal balance of victory and defeat in social movements and social change. Trying to sort that out recently reminds me of the time in 1980 when the Williams pinball machine company introduced Black Knight, which featured four flippers, 2- and 3-ball multiball™ play, and magna-save (don’t ask). And it talked. It was hard to get to sleep that week, with the ringing in my ears, the flashing lights burned into my eyes, and the endless strategic possibilities bouncing around in my head (though, looking at it now, I find this all hard to believe).

So, too, in the last week. Consider two political cartoons by Mike Luckovich. This from June 21:

Luckovich-slider

And this one from June 25:

luckovich

Did he really just demand the removal of the Confederate flag and then mock people who would celebrate its removal? Is that how much things change in a week? But in periods of social change, moving the goal posts is what it’s all about. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Charleston massacre was a horrific reminder of how it seems some things never change. But they do change. Dylann Roof was caught and may be put to death, legally. And it turned out that, not only had the Confederate flag only been flying at the South Carolina capitol for a few decades, but it actually could be taken down in response to public outrage. And yet, that’s not the end of racism. (Four flippers, three balls, magna-save.)

Anthea Butler, a religion and Africana studies professor at Penn, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, was on the On Point radio show last week. She was talking to host Tom Ashbrook, when she got this:

Tom Ashbrook: If you ask me, I understand that feeling and that vivid response. At the same time, I, and maybe you, Anthea Butler, Dr. Butler, don’t want to lose, or not recognize, or lose the progress that has been made. And this is nowhere near paradise…

Anthea Butler: But what kind of progress? What kind of progress? This is what we keep talking about. And I don’t understand, when you say, “We’ve made progress.” How have we made progress when the president of the United States has been constantly questioned because he is partially a Black man? And so you talk progress — and this is the kind of talk we’re going to hear all week long after this.

TA: But he’s president, madam.

AB: He is president.

TA: Well, that’s a pretty big deal…

AB: That is a big deal, but to some people in this country, like Dylann Roof, that is the end of this country. That’s why you had the kind of phrase that he said, that all your politicians, the right Republican politicians have been saying, “Take our country back.” And so, I want to talk about the rhetoric that’s happened…

Ashbrook has a point about progress, of course, but it’s just the wrong time to say that, days after a racist massacre that seems as timeless as a Black-church burning. At that moment there could be no progress.

For whatever reason, Ashbrook turned to progress on the interpersonal level:

TA: We did see White people in South Carolina, in Charleston, pour into the churches alongside African Americans over this weekend.

AB: Yes we did. But you need to understand the distinction here. I don’t doubt that there are well-meaning, good White people, good White Christians, who are appalled at this. I understand that. But when you have a structural system that continues to do this kind of racial profiling, the kinds of things that are going on with the police in this country, the kinds of issues that we’ve had. The problem becomes this: you can talk about progress all you want, but reality is another thing altogether.

Again, it’s progress, but focusing on it at that moment is basically #AllLivesMatter. President Obama also tried to keep his eyes on the prize, in his appearance on the WTF podcast:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

Outrage ensued about his use of “nigger,” but White House Press Secretary Josh “earnest non-racist white guy” Earnest doubled down:

The President’s use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast.  The President made clear that it’s not possible to judge the nation’s progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country’s manners.  The fact is that we’ve made undeniable progress in this country over the last several decades, and as the President himself has often said, anyone who lived in this country through the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s and the ‘80s notes the tremendous progress that we’ve made.  That progress is undeniable. But what’s also undeniable is that there is more work that needs to be done, and there’s more that we can do.  And the fact is everyone in this country should take some inspiration from the progress that was made in the previous generation and use that as a motivation and an inspiration to try to make further progress toward a more perfect union.

Now is no time to talk about progress, some say. With Black church members being gunned down and churches burning, and one appalling, outrageous video after another showing the abuse of Black citizens by police, having a Black president is not a victory. So much so that maybe he’s not really Black at all. Frank Roberts writes of Obama’s “Amazing Grace” moment:

With Obama … blackness has been reduced to a theatrical prop; a shuck-and-jive entertainment device that keeps (black) audiences believing that the President “feels their pain” — at precisely the same time that he fails to provide a substantive policy response to black unemployment, over-incarceration, and/or racialized state violence.

The social scientist in me objects, because the rate of progress is not determined by the victory or tragedy of the moment, or by the blackness of a man. And Obama probably has done more than any other president (at least recently) to address Black unemployment, incarceration, and racialized state violence. That’s not a moral or political statement — and it doesn’t imply “enough” — it’s an empirical one.

Movements use good news for legitimacy, and bad news for urgency.  When something goes well, they need to claim credit and also make sure their supporters know there is more work to be done. When something awful happens they place the troubles in the context of a narrative of struggle, but they don’t want to appear powerless because that saps support as well, and undermines morale.

Case in point, marriage equality

In that old psychology study of lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims, the researchers concluded that we put too much weight on the fleeting reactions of others to good or bad events, falsely assuming that these events will define them permanently. Since gay marriage will not actually make their lives worse, I have to assume that the doom-and-gloom gang on pathetic display in a mordantly morose, delightfully depressive, symposium on the Supreme Court decision at the religious conservative First Things site will soon again return to being their sunny selves.*

And these people will go back to being miserable soon enough. (Photo by James Buck)

And these San Francisco Pride marchers will go back to being miserable soon enough. (Photo by James Buck)

In the meantime, the family right will use SCOTUS to stoke their movement — after an oh-so-dramatic display of what Jeffrey Toobin called a “religiously themed retreat into victimology.”

But the anti-equality right has to be careful, or their nattering negativity will undermine their appeal, especially among young people who haven’t yet given up all hope of being the change they want to see. For Ted Cruz to call this — that is, people getting married — “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” to declare a “day of mourning,” or to see a vision of Jesus weeping, all may be a little much for the youth vote. (Not that kids these days know how to spell anymore, but I think they’ll get the difference between “morning” and “mourning” in America.) It’s one thing for religious conservatives to entice others to join them on the holier-than-them side of the fence with a little martyrdom (after all, whole religions have been built on it). But who wants to join a movement — much less have Thanksgiving dinner — with a guy who wallows in his own defeat like this?

While many have pointed to the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade as an obvious historical analogue for the Obergefell decision, to my mind, the insistence that all must conform to the new, official definition of marriage that no civilization has ever endorsed until yesterday seems to be more aptly compared to life under Communism. … The “monopoly of violence” possessed by the State is now a main weapon in perpetuating this lie, and will be used mercilessly and without cessation against those who persist on pointing out that it seeks to perpetuate a lie. But violence will serve as a last resort, merely backstopping the education system, the economic players, and even family members who will work to correct wayward thinkers.

That poor persecuted soul, by the way, is a tenured professor.

Four flippers, three balls, magna-save.

* The First Things symposium was linked without explicit endorsement by Ross Douthat, who on marriage equality day did not pause to congratulate a gay couple (whose wedding he would rather not attend anyway) before mean-spiritedly besmirching the movement by speculating on the coming legalization of polygamy.

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Black-White Polls on Race

DSC_0706

Photo by Philip Cohen (for my other pictures from the march, see here).

I attended the 50th anniversary March on Washington march the other day. It looked to me like the majority of the crowd was Black, though I haven’t seen any estimates.

Here are a few recent polls on race relations and inequality, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

la-times-race-pollSource: Pew Research Center in LA Times.

virginia-race-poll

Source: Quinnipiac University Poll of 1,589 Virginian adults, August 14-19.

gallup-race

Source: Gallup poll, June 13-July 5.

gss-race

Source: General Social Survey (RACDIF1).

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