I contributed this essay on ACT UP’s political funerals to Nursing Clio’s #powerofprotest series—check it out!
Read this now: Maya Rupert’s criticism of Barney Frank for using of the phrase “Uncle Tom” in his rebuke of openly gay Republicans’ continued support of a party that seems increasingly retrograde on just about everything, but especially on social issues, like, I don’t know, gay marriage.
I share much of Frank’s confusion as to precisely why members of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud stay in a party that clearly does not seem to like them very much. My best guess is that they’re relatively affluent, as white gay men and lesbians tend to be, and their party membership reflects their pocketbook politics. More broadly, perhaps their support for the GOP comes out of a dissatisfaction with the liberal welfare state and those perceived to be its “undeserving” beneficiaries. Indeed, this feeling reverberates across both sides of the aisle in post-industrial America, from Reagan’s attacks on phantasmic “welfare queens” to Clinton’s welfare “reform” to the everyday stigma that attaches to folks receiving food stamps or Section 8 vouchers.
Contempt for the “undeserving poor” has the kind of political currency that it does in part because it’s very hard to confront one’s own privilege, whether it owes to skin color, gender, heterosexuality, class, or any number of other factors. To begin with, our national mythology is premised on the notion that we are always already free and fundamentally equal. On top of that, the African American civil rights movement effectively removed the legal architecture maintaining forced inequality in the Jim Crow South. Without laws on the books banning interracial marriage or mandating “separate but equal” public facilities, it’s much harder for many Americans to grasp the myriad reasons for persistent racial inequality, from vastly disparate public school funding to the mass(ively disproportionate) incarceration of people of color to straight-up unconscious individual prejudice.
This is a very roundabout way of suggesting an uncomfortable symmetry between Frank and the “Uncle Toms” on the other side of this political war of words–all are, in spite of their political differences, more or less blind to their own privilege. As Rupert points out, Frank’s comments suggest that all forms of marginalization are essentially the same, which is admittedly different from minimalizing them or arguing that the federal government should have no role in mitigating them. But Frank’s use of “Uncle Tom” (not to mention Dan Savage’s similar use of the phrase “house faggots”) shows a remarkable disregard for both the past and present of black people in this country. The fact that he defended his comments in Huffington Post without any mention of their racial dimension underscores his blindness.
While drawing strong parallels between the black freedom struggle and the gay rights movement may be tempting and at times politically opportune, it’s a problematic move that (again, pace Rupert) flattens differences between the ways that racism and homophobia operate in American society, and puts black LGBT people in a strange liminal position between camps commonly–and errantly–understood as being totally separate. To boot, it (along with the very name of the popular gay rights blog The New Civil Rights Movement) also consigns the Civil Rights Movement–and along with it, racial oppression in this country–to the past. To say that we can have a new civil rights movement suggests that the old one is over. Complete. This is simply not true.
There’s no doubt in my mind that between the Democratic and Republican parties, Barney Frank represents the one whose vision will do the greatest good (or even just the least bad) for people of color in the United States, but that doesn’t give Frank license to throw around racially charged epithets like this one. As Avenue Q reminds us, everyone’s a little bit racist.
(apologies for the scratchiness of the audio)
The ACT UP/TAG documentary How to Survive a Plague, which has a theatrical release set for September 22, has an official trailer…
…as well as a tumblr of ACT UP images that also invites users to submit their own artwork about current issues. 25 years later, the posters that ACT UP and the associated art collective Gran Fury put together are not only arresting, but sadly still relevant.
All signs point to this film being an out-and-out tearjerker; the trailer alone made me cry. But the larger point seems to be not just to elegize a movement and the millions lost to AIDS, but to inspire a new generation of activists to address their own social justice concerns. In his review, Frank Bruni testifies to the film’s sense of hope for the potential of mass action to effect real change. Indeed, last year’s Occupy movement seemed to echo ACT UP in its tactics and targets, if not in the precision of its message, and the two groups collaborated on an action in April and one over the Fourth of July, and members of ACT UP Philly helped train Philadelphia Occupiers in direct action methods when the encampment was in place late last year. While ACT UP has largely faded outside of a few strongholds in the urban mid-Atlantic (ACT UP Philadelphia being the only continuously active chapter, by their own claim) the growing economic inequality in the United States coupled with the energy of Occupy protesters has some hoping that a new truly progressive politics might be possible in this country. Whether it will materialize, and whether it will in the end look anything like ACT UP or Occupy remains to be seen.
Incidentally, my goal in undertaking the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project and African American AIDS History Project is also to inspire, as well as to inform. Of course, the interviews that I conduct are a critical piece of the research for my dissertation. But beyond that, by recording voices that have been left out of many popular and academic accounts of U.S. AIDS activism and collecting digital copies of materials through the African American AIDS History Project site, we’re creating a repository of materials that will not only be available to scholars, but will hopefully inspire people to get involved with important issues at a grassroots level.
Cross-posted at the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.
Since Monday, my Twitter feed has been blowing up with (brief) commentaries about Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s group blog, Brainstorm. Riley attacked the discipline as a whole based on the brief profiles of five Northwestern University doctoral students that ran alongside a longer article on the changing nature of black studies as a new generation of African American scholars comes up through ranks amid reaching budget cuts, broadside attacks on the humanities, and the so-called “post-racial” moment of Obama’s presidency. She called their dissertation topics “so irrelevant no one will ever look at them,” and singled out (by name) specific students for engaging in “sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery,” all because they’re investigating topics like the racial dimensions of the subprime lending crisis and the history of black conservatives in the post-Civil Rights era. To the contrary, Riley pointed out, the president is black*, lots of white people lost their homes when the housing bubble burst, and “there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people,” ergo racism isn’t really a big problem in the country today.
The original post predictably touched off a whole lot of negative response, including a call by some Twitter users (e.g. @tjowens) for the popular CHE group blog ProfHacker to issue a statement disavowing Riley’s original post. Riley herself responded to critics, specifically addressing the charges (among others) that she is racist, and has no business attacking graduate students since she does not have a Ph.D. and has not read their dissertations. On the point of racism, I would like to direct you to the quote at the end of the above paragraph–’nuf said. On the other points, she says:
there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it. And the same holds true for the others that are mentioned in the piece.
Just off the top of my head, at Temple we have the wonderful Susan Klepp, who built her career on writing about women healers in early America, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwive’s Tale was the kind of cross-over history book that academics of all disciplinary stripes yearn to write, so I wouldn’t go counting out a dissertation on black midwifery. I would also guess that more than twenty people would be interested in reading about the deep roots (racial or otherwise) of the economic crisis that led us into a seemingly intractable recession, but don’t quote me on that. (Okay, do.)
I don’t doubt, however, that Riley herself would never read them. That would take the kind of intellectual curiosity that pursuing a career in the academy requires, a trait that she herself clearly lacks. That does not however, justify a sweeping attack on an entire field. Although she interprets her critics as responding from a place of personal injury, I would argue that many are equally, if not moreso, offended by the way she deploys pernicious arguments that are often trotted out to discredit the humanities in general. Thus, the problem is not just personal–it’s professional as well. Our job is not to produce work that appeals to everyone, although many of us do think about ways to present our research to audiences beyond the ivory tower, an endeavor greatly aided by people doing excellent work in the fields of public history and digital humanities. Our job is to create new knowledge, and yes, that does mean producing monographs that can seem hopelessly narrow and specific. However, good scholarship always tacks a focused narrative to broader historical trends and can illuminate connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. Not only does the field move forward, but new research (including our own research) pushes us to reformulate the ways we teach our students about the past, providing the kind of “broad liberal-arts education” that Riley thinks we “never get trained to do.”
Riley certainly wouldn’t be interested in reading my dissertation in progress, which deals with African American AIDS activists as they connected the disease to the multiple political, social, and economic problems facing their communities. No doubt, she would see this as more “left-wing victimization claptrap,” evidence that the academic disciplines are becoming too specialized and too liberal in their political outlook. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that my work is political. I write about politically active people to whom I am admittedly sympathetic, although I try very hard not to let that get in the way of my analysis. But for Riley to pretend that her seemingly intended provocation was not political would be either disingenuous or totally self-unaware, and I’m not sure which would be worse. In any case, maybe she’s right (far right, hyuk) about the academy being very left-wing, because I can’t think of a better way for a publication like the Chronicle to discredit conservatism than to elevate such an anti-intellectual hack as that movement’s mouthpiece. Incidentally, I have a similar theory about Ross Douthat and the New York Times.
*One might forgive Riley for trotting out the Obama presidency as evidence that racism is no longer a big problem in America if she had fallen into a coma on November 4, 2008 and reawoke five minutes ago, but this does not seem to be the case.
UPDATE: ProfHacker has indeed put up a long post commenting on the Riley piece, and it’s definitely worth a read.
I’m watching this installment of Mark Anthony Neal’s Left of Black, in which he interviews Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson about her forthcoming book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. Although my copy of the book hasn’t yet arrived (I pre-ordered it!), I saw Nelson speak at Temple last spring about her work on genealogical testing and African American identity, and her thinking on race, medicine, and the human body is really interesting, and speaks to my own work on black AIDS activism. Check it out, and when the book arrives I’ll try to write more about it here.
Here’s a major WTF item to go with your Labor Day barbecue: the U.S. Postal Service is so badly in debt that it soon may have to stop service altogether. As internet traffic levels have increased over the past decade, the volume of mail delivery has plummeted, which means diminishing revenue for U.S.P.S. even as they lack the cost-cutting flexibility of a private company–meaning that they can’t slash employee benefits, lay off their unionized workforce, or jack up shipping rates. Well, they’re not supposed to be able to do so–Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is still asking Congress to let him lay off over 15% of his workforce. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wants to let him, because the role of government in conservative orthodoxy is to enforce contracts… unless they’re union contracts?
Many of the solutions on the table are unattractive, even dystopian in nature. Partner with FedEx and UPS! Open post offices in Wal-Mart stores! Rent out ad space on mail trucks! It all points to a disturbing fusion of public and private of which we’re going to see more, not less, in the future. At the same time, Robert Reich has an op-ed in this weekend’s issue of the Times in which he argues that strengthening the middle class will lead to job growth. Not tax cuts for the super-rich. Not giveaways to big business. Not letting the financial sector run amok. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that income inequality in this country hasn’t been this bad since before the Great Depression, and that bodes really, really poorly for all of us. Incidentally, organizing labor is a pretty good avenue for mitigating that inequality, and it’s no accident that the years of labor’s ascendancy in this country coincided with the strongest middle class we’ve ever known.
Except you know who’s almost certain to be pinned with the blame for the postal service’s shortfall? The post office’s “powerful unions” that have extracted “decades of contractual promises,” of course! Happy Labor Day, everyone!
Major congratulations to my friend and haphazard femme idol, Jacqui Shine, whose article, “‘Open to the People for Their Free Assembly’: Tompkins Square Park, 1850–1880,” was just published in the Journal of Social History. She’s a fantastic thinker and writer, and her work is especially timely considering the recent unrest in London’s poor and immigrant neighborhoods, and what the response says about national identity, and the kinds of political speech and speakers that we authorize as a public. Oh yeah, and last year she started Write Your Principal, which is now part of the Make It Better Project, to combat anti-gay bullying in schools, so she’s kind of a big deal. Congrats, Jacqui!
This month, University of Chicago Press is offering David K. Johnson’s excellent The Lavender Scare for free download as an e-book. You’ll need Adobe Digital Editions to view it, which you can also download for free. Links to both can be found on UCP’s site.
In The Lavender Scare, Johnson details the largely hidden history of the gay men and women fired from federal employment for being “security risks” during the Cold War. He begins during the 1930s, when Roosevelt’s New Deal drew many young men to Washington, giving rise to a gay subculture in the capitol. Moving on to the well-worn territory of the McCarthy-era red scare, he describes the close association in the public’s mind between the State Department and homosexuality, and the purges of federal employees who moved somewhat openly in gay Washington, sought out same-sex partners at the city’s cruising spots, or were merely suspected or accused of having same-sex desires. Although the ostensible reason for their firing was that they would be susceptible to blackmail by foreign agents, Johnson unpacks the anxieties about gender, sexuality, and invasion that inhered in the gay panic on Capitol Hill. In this atmosphere, simply having been fired from the State Department cast aspersions on one’s sexual proclivities (see above cartoon). Furthermore, he shows that this “lavender scare” outlasted what we think of as the red scare by about a decade, lasting well into the 1960s, and that this persecution in part fostered the homophile activism that predated the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.
If you like Johnson’s book, you might also want to check out Lee Edelman’s playful essay “Tearooms and Sympathy, or, the Epistemology of the Water Closet,” which offers a more cultural studies-inflected take on the meanings behind police surveillance of gay cruising spots in Washington, D.C. The PBS website also has a copy of a committee report on the employment of homosexuals in federal government from 1950, which gives you a sense of officials’ slippery reasoning for the firings.
From Tenured Radical, a particularly troubling development in the race to replace Chris Lee, the Republican former House representative from New York’s 26th District who resigned recently after being caught soliciting sex from women on Craigslist. (Between him and Aaron Schock, the House Republicans these days seem to have a crippling shirt allergy. It’s not often that I find myself to have something in common with the Grand Old Partiers in Congress, but there you go.) Jack Davis, a independent candidate seeking Tea Party endorsement for Lee’s seat, suggested in a recent endorsement interview with local Republican leaders that unemployed African Americans be brought from the inner city to farms as agricultural laborers, replacing Latin American immigrants whose legality is sometimes in question. Davis gets to have his xenophobia and eat his culture of poverty, too!
Of course, for many people, Davis’ suggestion recalls Parchman Farm, convict leasing, and slavery itself, vile practices and institutions that are anathema to the basically free and equal society in which we supposedly live today. However, as I like to remind my students, when we talk about the past it’s important not to fall into the progressive idea of history in which things always get better. If you haven’t read Heather Thompson’s excellent article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of American History, it’s definitely worth your time. One of her arguments is that mass imprisonment has contributed to the decline of organized labor by providing a cheap and literally captive workforce in states that have prison work laws on the books. My point is that although we might want to consign this kind of rhetoric to a less enlightened past, or to the representatives of a fringe political movement, we do so at the ignorance of injustice in the present.
Wanna see something offensive?
If you, like me, practically live inside the internet (or “cloud” or whatever it’s being called now), you’ve probably already watched this horrendous video of a white undergraduate bashing her Asian peers (but not her Asian friends, you guys, of which I’m sure she has loads) in explicitly racist terms. She even throws in some “Asian” dialect à la Rosie O’Donnell and a reference to the recent earthquake in Japan, because that’s where all Asian people come from. Duh.
As my friend Jenny pointed out, this is why they have an American Cultures requirement at Berkeley–in the university’s words, “to introduce students to the diverse cultures of the United States through an intergrative and comparative framework.” This part of the curriculum turns twenty this year, and although/because it seems as though it’s been fashionably rebellious to be “politically incorrect” for just as long, I would guess that many of us think it’s worth preserving. For my part, I witnessed a lot of casual racism (not just against Asians) while I was at Berkeley, and to be sure, I said things in the past that would offend my present self. So in a way I feel sorry for this girl. She’s young, and young people do dumb things–that’s how they learn. In fact, my Berkeley education played an important role in sensitizing me to the ways in which various forms of difference have determined who gets social power and material wealth throughout human history.
This girl said deplorable things (into a camera, which was beyond foolish) but hopefully she learned from the mistake.* That’s what college is all about.
*The saying bad things part, not necessarily the camera part, although I hope for her sake she’ll use more discretion as far as what she films herself doing in the future.