Original Sin

American history is not simply the tales of presidents, generals and explorers — or of the many wars to which the U.S. has sent its children. History is not some abstract account of other people. Our own families and communities have created traces that demand to be viewed in the mirror of history. American history, then — our history — is both a personal story and a personal reckoning.

Almost twenty years ago I became interested in genealogy. My mother’s ancestors lived in the United States long before it became a republic. They can be traced back five or six centuries to little Welsh and English villages, and somebody somewhere has a book with all the dry details of begats, property transfers, and manumissions of slaves. Slave ownership among white families, even by Northerners, is a dirty little secret some would rather forget.

In among all the yellowing photo albums is a picture of my mother as a two month old, cradled in the arms of an old black woman. Below the photo, in my mother’s scrawl: Louisa was born a slave.

“Louisa was born a slave”

Of course, this was 1930, it was the South, and much has changed since then.

But, as Charlottesville reminded us not that long ago, a lot has not changed. Slavery may be gone, but it ended recently enough that we still find reminders in our family albums. For Louisa, the Jim Crow South kept her living in poverty, taking care of someone else’s children, her sons farming for someone else, and it placed incalculable obstacles before her grandchildren. For all the recent talk of flags and monuments and legacy, it is not so much Confederate (or Union) symbols but racist institutions that represent our true heritage. And like our family albums, these institutions persist to this day.

Many view white supremacy as dead and cold as Confederate statues. Yet the white supremacy on which slavery was based is hot and pulsing, alive and malign. White supremacy is such a major part of the national DNA that it has shaped our justice and economic systems, healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, policing, the prison system — every aspect of American life, North and South. It is the source of America’s great wealth, our expeditionary militarism, and a daily contributor to income inequality. White supremacy lies behind the doctrines of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. White supremacy has justified most of our wars of choice, not just the Civil War. And just like actual DNA, white supremacy seems to be transmitted across generations like a deadly gene.

My mother once told me an unflattering story about her own mother. It was 1940 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been president for eight years. Like Obama, Roosevelt was despised throughout the South and was accused of being a race traitor and a Communist. For all the epithets hurled at FDR by my grandmother and those like her, the New Deal had improved the lives of poor people of every race and America was changing — and for the better. On one particular day in April that year, a black census lady came to my grandmother’s front door. My grandmother told her crisply to go to the back. The census worker replied, “I can do it here, or not at all.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but my grandmother’s world had already changed — into something she would never accept. A genteel Sunday school teacher with Southern breeding, my grandmother would have despised today’s racists as so much “white trash” for mixing Southern “heritage” with the Nazism America was then fighting. But on matters of race my grandmother held exactly the same views as today’s white supremacists.

Tea Party Republicans now own the party and the presidency — and they warn us the gloves are off and the bare knuckles out. But so too are the white satin sheets and coarse brown shirts out of the closet. We now know exactly what these men and women are — and we shouldn’t hesitate to use the proper terms: fascists and white supremacists. A frighteningly large segment of white America no longer feels any shame about public expressions of their hate. Racism without consequence has become re-enshrined in law and Jim Crow is making a comeback. Worse, “mere” racism seems to be making the transition to fascism.

Adolf Hitler may never have been a member of the Confederacy but today’s white supremacists just as easily sieg Heil to a Nazi Hakenkreuz as they salute a Confederate flag or monument. Today it’s almost impossible to distinguish racism from fascism because, in the end, what’s the difference when dehumanization, deportation, ethnic cleansing and murder are shared objectives?

But the silver lining — if there is one — is that Charlottesville released a flood of essays, meditations and documentaries on our Original Sin, on the magnitude of our problem with white supremacy — and I must agree with Jamelle Bouie and others who identify it as a white problem.

Among the best pieces I read immediately after Charlottesville, in no particular order:

If all this is overwhelming and heartbreaking, it should be. We should be overwhelmed with shame and remorse and anger. We should be crying and we should be screaming. We can never fix what’s wrong with this country without acknowledging the deepest foundational injustice that almost every other injustice is based on.

And we can never change society without changing ourselves. It is not enough for Liberals to champion civil rights at home and deny them to others abroad. It is not enough for Liberals to ask for a minimum wage and family leave domestically, while ensuring that workers overseas work in horrific sweat shops to build iPhones and sew designer jeans. Besides white supremacy, liberal white America must firmly reject colonialism and militarism. Justice must be universal, equality must know no borders. No deity confers special blessings on the United States. We are simply one nation among two hundred and some others.

The baby in the picture was born into a narrow, racist world. Things she’d say would provoke tears and winces. Until the day she died it was obvious where she had grown up, and in what kind of world. But like all of us my mother was a work in progress and she ended up a kinder and more compassionate person than the generations that preceded her.

I must believe we all are works in progress — and so is the country each of us loves and hates with alternating passion and despondency. But if we really mean to repair it in earnest — it means not fearing to look squarely into that mirror of history.


Mainstreaming white supremacy

On Thursday morning the SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce had Bristol County sheriff Tom Hodgson and Helena DaSilva Hughes to breakfast at the Wamsutta Club to discuss immigration. During his presentation the sheriff cited questionable statistics from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), claiming that illegal immigration costs taxpayers $116 billion a year. The CATO Institute calls FAIR’s new study “fatally flawed” and “even more sloppy” than their previous one.

It would have more appropriate for Hodgson to speak about opioids, recidivism, or suicides. He actually knows something about the latter since his own jail accounts for a quarter of all county prison suicides. But there he was – again – acting as a spokesman for FAIR’s white supremacist immigration policies and conveniently avoiding trouble in his own backyard.

In 2015 Tom Hodgson appeared with Dennis Michael Lynch at an Islamophobic venue in Stoughton which had previously hosted Dutch neo-fascist Geert Wilders. Lynch is an Islamophobe, a white supremacist, a supporter of the Constitutional Sheriff Movement and of sovereign citizen Cliven Bundy, about whom he made a film.

That same year Hodgson appeared with a representative of the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) at the Fisherman’s Club in New Bedford. Despite the name, FAIR has little to do with reform. Instead, its goal is assuring White Anglo-Saxon dominance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, FAIR has links to white supremacists and eugenicists. Its founder, John Tanton, wrote to one eugenicist: “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”

In 2016 the Sheriff was one of three speakers at a “Patriots Unity Day” rally in Randolph. The second speaker was Jessica Vaughan, of the nativist organization Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Like FAIR, CIS was founded by John Tanton and publishes dubious statistics on immigration. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, CIS also maintains links to white supremacist and anti-semitic groups. CIS executive director Mark Krikorian quipped after the deadly 2010 Haitian earthquake: “My guess is that Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough.” The third speaker was Raymond Hanna with the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America, which also has white supremacist ties. In Arkansas ACT’s “March Against Shariah” events were organized by a Nazi and publicized on Stormfront.

In June this year the Sheriff appeared with Dan Stein and Michelle Malkin at an annual “Hold their feet to the fire” broadcast with anti-gay bigot Sandy Rios. Stein is executive director of FAIR, and characterizes America’s immigration laws as an effort “to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance.” Stein describes Central American immigrants as engaged in “competitive breeding” and asks: “Should we be subsidizing people with low IQs to have as many children as possible, and not subsidizing those with high ones?” Malkin too has links to white supremacist groups, including VDARE, and to Islamophobic groups. Malkin opposes the 14th Amendment, which gave citizenship to slaves.

According to FAIR’s 2011 annual report, that was the year the organization began cultivating sheriffs like Hodgson. “In 2011, we identified sheriffs who expressed concerns about illegal immigration.” FAIR staff “met with these sheriffs and their deputies, supplied them with a steady stream of information, established regular conference calls so they could share information and experiences, and invited them to come to Washington to meet with FAIR’s senior staff.” Since roughly that time Hodgson’s main job has been as a FAIR spokesman.

It’s hard to believe that the avuncular fellow who sends Thanksgiving turkeys to deportees in the Azores could really have such horrific views. But when the sheriff keeps consorting with white supremacists, singing and quoting their lyrics in the original German – well – it’s hard to reach any other conclusion. Tom Hodgson is a white supremacist.

It was disappointing that the Chamber of Commerce gave this hater a mainstream platform, and worse, an opportunity to skip another day of work – taking care of the business Bristol County voters actually elected him to do.

Just a game?

Puerto Rico is rapidly turning into another Katrina, and North Korea may have justifiably construed Donald Trump’s reckless threats to “totally destroy” its 25 million citizens as an act of war. But as Rome burns the president is doubling down on his favorite pastime: race-baiting.

While chaos swirls all around, the White Supremacist-in-Chief seems unusually miffed this week by insufficient displays of patriotic fervor at NFL games. Actually, I should have been more precise — insufficient patriotism by black players.

Trump called NFL players who “take a knee” to protest systemic racism in the United States “sons of bitches” and wants them to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights. Teresa Kaepernick, the mother of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, who started taking the “knee,” quipped, “I guess that makes me a proud bitch.” But when pressed on why black athletes were protesting Trump denied it had anything to do with race; it was all about patriotism and respect, he said.

Meanwhile, Trump World echoed their Dear Leader. Any criticisms of the country were fireable and deportable offenses. Former NASCAR champion Richard Petty told the Associated Press that anyone on his team protesting during the national anthem would be fired. “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.”

But regardless of how Trump chooses to frame the controversy, protests in the NFL — and now also basketball and baseball leagues — most certainly are about race. Especially under the presidency of a president ESPN anchor Jemele Hill unapologetically labeled a “white supremacist.” While approximately 75% of both NFL and NBA players are black, NASCAR fans are 80% white — and apparently unfamiliar with the First Amendment.

Politics: not for those with grievances

Former NFL player John Elway, now head of operations for the Denver Broncos and a Trump supporter, attempted a more conciliatory tone: “Hopefully as we go forward we can start concentrating on football a little bit more. Take the politics out of football. But I think that last week was a good show of unity by the NFL and hopefully this week we can move forward.”

Elway’s lament was widely echoed by many in White America: sports are sports and players have no business taking political positions on or off the field. Football is just a game.

But players lead lives off the field. Just ask Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who “just happens to be black.” Three weeks ago, in Las Vegas for the McGregor-Mayweather fight, Bennett was walking back to his hotel when he fled from the sounds of gunfire — along with a stampede of other pedestrians. But the Las Vegas police singled out Bennett, threatened to “blow [his] f*cking head off” and used excessive force. Bennett was lucky. He wasn’t killed.

And the sordid tale of Donald Sterling reminds basketball players and their fans how inseparable sports can be from real life.

CBS commentator Rob Long expressed a typical sentiment when he wrote: “Recently political topics have invaded sports. Athletes have used their celebrity to voice their political agendas. They’ve used the sports forum to speak out against political and social issues as well as race. This is a growing trend that isn’t losing momentum. The networks are looking for content and as long as athletes provide them with it, they will use it. It’s the gift and the curse.”

But Long (and Elway) are way off the mark. Since the Olympics were first celebrated 2600 years ago, sports have always been political. Ancient Sparta and Nazi Germany certainly approached competitions seriously. National pride and dominance is always at stake. And anything that drowns out the nationalist narrative — for example, a player making his own statement — is unacceptable. Recall the 1968 Summer Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in black gloves, wearing black socks.

The two were ejected from the games for protesting institutional racism, and they were booed by American fans and fellow Olympians: “It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro.”

Not much has changed since then.

The unforgivable sin that Smith and Carlos committed was eclipsing a nationalistic show of the Stars and Stripes and the playing of the American national anthem. And nationalism can’t tolerate even quiet criticism.

Sports, nationalism and militarism

We often talk about the police being militarized, but since 9/11, especially, professional sports teams and Hollywood have lined up as well to serve the U.S. military in unexpected ways.

Two years ago Arizona senators McCain and Flake published a report on how the Pentagon pays sports teams tens of millions of dollars for patriotic displays. Stadium-sized flags, military flyovers, parachuting into the stadium, color guards, anthems, and jumbotron reunions with servicemen have become the norm for the NFL.

You’d be hard-pressed to describe the difference between one of these hyper-patriotic events and a similar North Korean spectacle. But these are engineered by the Pentagon and not simple acts of patriotism by franchise owners. As Jeff Flake explained, “What we take issue with is the average fan thinking teams are doing this on behalf of the military.”

McCain’s and Flake’s 145-page report lists contributions to 18 NFL teams, 10 MLB teams, eight NBA teams, six NHL teams, eight soccer teams, as well as NASCAR, Iron Dog and several college football programs. The Atlanta Falcons pocketed $879,000, Trump Donor Robert Kraft’s New England Patriots received $700,000 and the Buffalo Bills $650,000. And all this represents only a fraction of the amount the DOD has spent on sports marketing. “In all, the military services reported $53 million in spending on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams between 2012 and 2015.” The Army alone spends $10 million on the NFL.

Is it patriotism when you’ve been manipulated?

But NASCAR took in the biggest haul, $1,560,000 in 2015. This included personal appearances by Aric Almirola and [the aforementioned] Richard Petty, as well as 20 Richard Petty Driving Experience ride-alongs. In 2011 NASCAR presented the largest USO “Military Village” Expo ever in Dover, Delaware — incidentally (or perhaps appropriately) home to the largest military mortuary in the country.

Who says that the U.S. government can’t do anything right? When it comes to militarism and jingoistic propaganda, no one does it better. Andrew Bacevich describes how all the moving parts of an “authentic” patriotic experience come together — and it’s enough to make anyone take a knee:

Fenway Park, Boston, July 4, 2011. On this warm summer day, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays. First come pre-game festivities, especially tailored for the occasion. The ensuing spectacle — a carefully scripted encounter between the armed forces and society — expresses the distilled essence of present-day American patriotism. A masterpiece of contrived spontaneity, the event leaves spectators feeling good about their baseball team, about their military, and not least of all about themselves — precisely as it was meant to do.

In this theatrical production, the Red Sox provide the stage, and the Pentagon the props. In military parlance, it is a joint operation. In front of a gigantic American flag draped over the left-field wall, an Air Force contingent, clad in blue, stands at attention. To carry a smaller version of the Stars and Stripes onto the playing field, the Navy provides a color guard in crisp summer whites. The United States Marine Corps kicks in with a choral ensemble that leads the singing of the national anthem. As the anthem’s final notes sound, four U. S. Air Force F-15C Eagles scream overhead. The sellout crowd roars its approval.

But there is more to come. “On this Independence Day,” the voice of the Red Sox booms over the public address system, “we pay a debt of gratitude to the families whose sons and daughters are serving our country.” On this particular occasion the designated recipients of that gratitude are members of the Lydon family, hailing from Squantum, Massachusetts. Young Bridget Lydon is a sailor — Aviation Ordnanceman Airman is her official title — serving aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, currently deployed in support of the Afghanistan War, now in its 10th year.


Tuesday was a dark day for everyone except the white supremacist regime that currently runs this country. Almost a million young Dreamers — Americans in every sense except for documentation — will be expelled with the stroke of a presidential pen unless Congress throws them a lifeline. While 2017 is certainly not 1933, it probably feels like it if you’re a Dreamer.

Maybe we should be looking at German history to see how quickly a country can run off the rails. The same history tells us how deeply expulsion hurt Jewish refugees, how painfully friendships, love, and social bonds between Jews and non-Jews were destroyed when an entire group was legislated out of existence. German history also reminds us of the enduring national trauma that white supremacist policies caused — now going on a century later.

We should remember.

In 1933 Hitler’s National Socialists passed a law for the restoration of German jobs. The whole purpose of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums was to make Germany great again for white protestant civil servants.

The gesetz protected German jobs from “foreigners” — non-Aryans. How easily economically-insecure lower and middle class Germans turned on Jews who had lived among them — centuries before Germany was even a nation. German Jews were Germans in every sense — but how easily and arbitrarily they were re-defined as aliens, separated from friends and family and German society with the stroke of a pen.

The president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, a military man with the gravitas of John McCain, was offended that Jews who had served at the front during WWI were included in the bans, and he wrung a concession from the Nazis. But Hindenburg died the following year and with him so did the concession. Dismissals from the civil service were swift and severe, and expulsions began. People like Albert Einstein, for example, saw the writing on the wall and fled.

In total, 340,000 Jews of lesser fame and resources than Einstein were forced to flee as refugees, often with little time to uproot an entire lifetime in Germany. And after all they were Germans with few connections to any of the foreign lands to which they had to escape. These were among the first victims of Nazi policies and almost a third of them perished in the Holocaust.

Then in 1938 the night known as Kristallnacht occurred. It was a nightmare of shattered glass and shattered lives. It was the beginning of the end for German Jews. The gloves were off. Germany would be a nation for Germans. Germans didn’t know it at the time, but it was also the beginning of the end for Germany.

The nightmare had started only five years earlier with the expulsions.