Conservative Activism II: Safe Spaces!


Conservative Safe Spaces: Conservative campaigns against Critical Race Theory (CRT) have the defensive dimension of creating safe space for white conservatives as American institutions become more multicultural and socially liberal. “Critical Race Theory” is a mostly a law literature that is studied in law school and focuses on the problem of white supremacy continuing in the law and society beyond the passage of Civil Rights legislation during the 60’s. Before being known as “Critical Race Theory,” much of this literature was known as “Critical Legal Theory” and I scheduled the Critical Legal Theory collection and several of the essays for my political theory classes at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Some of the essays like Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness as Property” were daring and innovative, but the underlying premise that white supremacy had continued beyond the Civil Rights Era was hardly a revelation and I stopped using the text for lack of contemporary interest.

However, much of the sentiment behind the anti-CRT legislation is to make public education safe and comfortable for white conservatives.

A reference to one of the authors of the Texas bill banning CRT, Rep. Steve Toth, in a KERA television story on the legislation, explained the issue:

Toth’s legislation takes on CRT without ever naming it. He says the new law is aimed at teaching complex subjects like slavery and racism without making white children feel guilty.“ You can’t teach that one race is better than the other,” Toth said, describing what’s outlined in HB 3979. “You can’t teach that one gender is better than the other. You can’t discriminate either… and say that one race or one gender is responsible for the ills of the past.”

The key to the Texas anti-CRT bill is on page 5 where it mandates against requiring or making part of a course anything that leads to a result that “(vii) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual ’s race or sex.” The bill also mandates that slavery not be taught as anything other than “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” This formulation also mandates against the concept of “systemic racism” accepted by the Democratic Party, liberals, and racial minorities and lashes out against the 1619 Project in particular. But the strictures on “discomfort, guilt, anguish, and distress” speak to an important motivation for conservatives–their discomfort at living in a society where white conservative views have been widely condemned and marginalized despite the fact that white conservatives are still more than 40% of the population. That sense of marginalization isn’t resolved by the anti-CRT education bill either. Outside the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers, there’s very little on which white conservatives can hang their hat in the history offerings cited in the bill. Whether it’s Frederick Douglass on slavery, Martin Luther King on segregation, the Declaration of Sentiments, or Chicano sources like Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, a very large chunk of the recommended curriculum is arrayed against the heritage of conservatism and white domination. The Texas anti-CRT bill huffs and puffs, but they still can’t get away from the fact that white conservatives in the United States have no honorable history.

Conservative Activism 1: Don’t Forget Us!

As the Ukraine war grinds into its fifth week, the American right is taking the Russian attack as an opportunity to restart, push, or bring to conclusion a number of their pet initiatives. It’s all disgusting and outrageous and I’m as outraged as anyone. But instead of just being outraged by the conservative minority’s “harrying” of the rest of America, I want to illustrate the right-wing ambitions that are operating simultaneously in the Trucker’s Convoy, the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida, and the recent attacks on LGBT people for “grooming.”

DON’T FORGET US. Imitating the recently disbanded Canadian truckers convoy, right-wingers in the U.S. tried to organize several convoys with the hope that they would converge on Washington, D.C. for President Biden’s State of the Union speech on March 1. The whole effort flopped, but protesting truckers and other right-wingers did set up camp in Hagerstown, MD, rebranded themselves as the People’s Convoy, and have been circling the district trying to disrupt traffic and drum up support. The original Canadian Trucker’s convoy was about protesting vaccine mandates while also harboring a core of fascists seeking to overturn the Trudeau government. Given that vaccine mandates have been lifted in the U.S., the American convoy no longer has that objective and is now mum about what their goals are.

So what does the People’s Convoy want?

The Convoy reminds me of a remark made after the 2020 election by Fox and Friend’s Ainsley Earhardt that conservative voters being concerned about being “forgotten— “they are confused and heartbroken that their candidate didn’t win and they don’t want to be forgotten.” In fact, people in the multicultural, socially liberal blue cities live as if conservatives don’t exist, have come to the conclusion that rural white conservatives are bigots if not fascists and traitors, and would just as soon forget “Left Behind America.” In many cases, the liberal and lefty types most hostile to rural conservatism are those who grew up in rural areas themselves and left for more liberal environments as soon as they graduated from college. That’s certainly true in my case.

In this light, there’s an element of the People’s Convoy that just wants rural white conservatives to be noticed, appreciated, and in some way respected by the denizens of a blue city like Washington, D.C. Certainly the People’s Convoy has been noticed while they drive around the city, but most of what they’ve gotten from D.C. commuters is middle fingers–lots of them.

Zachary Petrizzo, Daily Beast

Not being treated with any respect, the leaders of the trucker’s convoy are now talking about jamming the 911 lines with reports of people giving them the finger. Being very sensitive, they’re responding to local hostility by engaging in a “little” regional harassment of slowing down rush hour traffic, making noise in Washington streets, and making D.C. law enforcement work overtime.

A Very Short General Theory

This is my tweet length theory of the current moment in American politics:

The U.S. emerged as a multiracial, socially liberal nation during the Obama years and “attacks on democracy” emerged both as a form of backlash and a way to prevent the new and fragile American mainstream from coalescing into a stable governing coalition.

The Time Has Arrived for Blue Metro Statehood?

Kevin Hernandez, Unsplash

Since Joe Biden’s inauguration, the white conservative apparatus has waged culture war through first the media, then the 2021 election in Virginia, and now through legislative attacks on abortion rights, public education, corporate diversity training, trans folks, and other LGBT groups. Texas and Florida have been particularly egregious with Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and Texas defining supportive trans parenthood as child abuse. However, the attack on minority rights, election fairness, urban self-government, and corporate self-governance is broad- based and likely to continue if not accelerate as long as the Trumpist GOP uses culture war to promote itself among rural white conservatives.

Lawsuits are underway, the Biden administration has condemned the new laws, there are school protests in Florida, and Democrats are mobilizing for the 2022 mid-terms. And these initiatives need to be continued and expanded. But for a more lasting solution to conservatives translating their culture wars into law, I believe it necessary to address the ability of rural white voters to exercise authority over racial minorities, sexual minorities, urban government, and the company culture of diverse corporations. That’s why I think the time is right for granting statehood to major blue cities located in red states. The metro areas I currently have in mind are Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville in Florida and Houston, Dallas/Ft Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso in Texas. If Blue Metro Statehood is approved, the U.S. would have 9 more states making 59 states with 59 governors, and 59 state governments. If Blue Metro Statehood came to pass, white conservative proposals to ban abortion,

Let me ask myself with some questions on the topic.

Is Blue Metro Statehood even possible? Ironically enough, creating states is not such a difficult task within the U.S. federalist system. Creating new states out of blue metros would only require majority in the current House and Senate as well as a presidential signature. That would still be tough, would require partisan Democratic majorities in Congress and also eliminating the Senate filibuster. But creating blue metro states might still be easier than pursuing years (decades?) of court appeals and overcoming vote suppression and gerrymandering.

Are Blue Metros big enough to be states? Indeed. In fact, almost all of the blue metros proposed for statehood have larger populations than any of the states with only 3 electoral votes. The only exception is is that South Dakota is a little larger than El Paso. The larger of these Blue Metros–Miami, Dallas/Ft Worth, and Houston–all have larger populations than Louisiana (4.6 mill) and Kentucky (4.5 mill) both of which will have 8 electoral votes in 2024.

Florida: Miami-6.1 mill; Tampa-3.1 mill; Orlando-2.6 mill; Jacksonville-1.6

Texas: Dallas/Ft Worth-7.5 mill; Houston-7 mill; San Antonio-2.5 mill; Austin-2.2 mill; El Paso-844,000

Small States: Wyoming-578,803; Vermont-645,570; North Dakota774,948; South Dakota-895,376;

The examples of Wyoming, Vermont, and the Dakotas are encouraging. Each is big enough to be a self-governing entities which supports state police forces, National Guards, public education, highway administrations, and environmental policies. The same is true of blue metros.

What would Blue Metro Statehood Accomplish?

Ending Red State Government Harassment. The populations, city governments and school systems of Blue State Metros hold mainstream American values on diversity, civil rights, the environment, and public health. Conservative governors in Florida and Texas are harassing city government and the diverse populations of blue metros precisely because the blue metros act consistently with national values but at odds with reactionary rural white populations. The core problem is that red state politicians and white conservative rural voters are egging each other on to become more extreme. Blue Metro Statehood which would allow cities to govern themselves without any reference to the increasingly extreme and anti-American politics of rural whites and the politicians who represent them. Blue Metro Statehood would make it possible for cities to address environmental issues, gentrification, police reform, and gun violence. It would also make it possible for urban areas to serve as civil rights refuges for women, gay people, the parents of trans kids, and immigrants being pursued by state law in what are now Florida and Texas.

Balancing the Electoral College. As rural whites become more extreme, the weighing of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College toward rural interests becomes more of a problem for social stability and functioning government. Blue Metro Statehood in what are now Florida and Texas would create at least 10 safe Senate seats for Democrats with another 5 seats or so being more competitive. There would be a 118 seat Senate with Democrats being elected closer in proportion to their actual votes. The Electoral College also would expand from 538 to 556 with 279 electoral votes needed to win. Such an arrangement would mean that more Democrats would be elected but does not guarantee Democratic majorities in either the Senate or the Electoral College. The Democrats would still need to win vote majorities but the GOP would also be required to win majorities if they want to win elections. Thus, Blue Metro Statehood would serve to balance representation in the Senate and voting in the Electoral College.

Stronger Federal Government. With the Democrats having a better chance of winning the Presidency and control of the Senate, there is also an opportunity to strengthen the federal government in a manner that is needed to meet the demands of the next fifty years. These include the extreme weather events and natural disasters associated with climate change, the likelihood of continued global pandemics, the still increasing wealth gap, the civil strife caused by white conservative backlash, and protecting the civil rights of women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, the disabled, and immigrants. One of the goals of the Republican Party has been to prevent the federal government from addressing national issues because they view effective federal government as a partisan advantage to Democrats (as the party of effective government). Although far from a panacea, Blue Metro statehood would help create a basis for a more effective federal government in the future.

Intersectionality, Recognition

(Here’s the presentation draft of my paper on Intersectionality for the Kentucky Political Science Association. It’s still pretty rough but the argument has a shape to it)

Kimberle Crenshaw, Ted Blog

Originally developed within black feminism, the concept of intersectionality addressed the issue of black women being discriminated against for both being black and being women. Intersectional ideas begin appearing in black feminism as early as the 19th century, but a black feminist literature featuring concepts of intersectionality coalesced in the 1980’s awith the writing of Angela Davis, the late bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Patricia Hill Collins. This paper examines intersectionality in relation to the work of John Locke, argues that the original black feminist literature entailed an imperative to recognize the full humanity of traditionally marginalized populations, and discusses Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility as an example of radical self-reflection.

John Locke (1630-1704),

In Locke, “men” were obligated to recognize other men both as having the same original freedom in the state of nature and as also being created equal to them, “there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank … should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.” Locke expresses the strongest version of this obligation through a lengthy quote from theologian Richard Hooker:

“my desire therefore to be loved of my equals in nature as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to them-ward fully the like affection; from which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn, for direction of life, no man is ignorant.” (Locke, Vol. 1, section 11)

The power of Locke’s concept of obligation should not be underestimated. Those who fail in that obligation can be seenas a kind of ontological failure, analogized to predators like lions, tigers, and wolves, and thus as legitimately punished up to the penalty of death. The combination of men’s obligation to recognize others as equal beings and the right to punish those who refuse animates the rest of Locke’s analysis and is one of the cornerstones of the Second Treatise. The idea of humanity being anchored in freedom and equality was taken up by the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and others with black writers framing their advocacy for those principles in relation to the racial tyranny exercised by whites. King wrote in particular that civil rights demonstrators were “bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Of course, there are stark differences between Locke and concepts of intersectionality. Black feminists assume that society exists before individuals and portray people in terms of social positions and structures. For any category of people, their “position” is defined in terms of the “intersections” created by a confluence of structures. In the example from Crenshaw, black women are subject both to a racial hierarchy in which they are subordinate to whites as black people and a gender hierarchy in which black women are subordinate to black men as women. The situation of black women is analogous to a traffic intersection in which white supremacy intersects with patriarchy to doubly disadvantage black women. In this simplified model, black women would have a position at the intersection of race and gender hierarchies.

Where Locke’s theory attributes a universality to individuality, the universality would be about “positions” in intersectionality. According to Collins:

 ”Intersections draw attention to both the position and the positioning of individuals – position refers to the multiple categories with which one is identified and positioning refers to drawing on multiple identities to construct oneself and engage with others. This construction occurs in the context of the matrix of domination which has few “pure” victims or oppressors (Collins, 2000).”

The early writing on intersectionality was motivated by the concerns for social justice that came out of the black Civil Rights movement and Second Wave Feminism. In relation to a Civil Rights Movement and antiracist politics that had prioritized black men over black women, Crenshaw’s ideal was for black women to be fully recognized by black men as black people.

In the context of antiracism, recognizing the ways in which the intersectional experiences of women of color are marginalized in prevailing conceptions of identity politics does not require that we give up attempts to organize as communities of color. Rather, intersectionality provides a basis for reconceptualizing race as a coalition between men and women of color.

In advocating that race being reconceptualized as a “coalition between men and women of color,” Crenshaw’s idea is for the position of black women to be recognized equally with black men. Within the black feminist literature, patriarchy and gender hierarchy are addressed more broadly by bell hooks who viewed patriarchy as a powerful mode of domination within the overall system of “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.”

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

hooks relates a story of her father beating her severely to put her in her place after she insisted on competing with her brother against her father’s orders. In patriarchy, men are defined as having authority, power, and rights, and women are seen as subordinate and not fully human. In Beauvoir’s Second Sex, (patriarchal) concepts of sex were portrayed in terms of identifying men as the human and women as the “other” against which men are defined. if women are assumed to be equal, the logic of Locke’s argument would define all this abusive conduct not only as a crime against individual women but also an attack on humanity as a whole that would obligate the rest of humanity to intervene. But intersectionality implies more than just stopping the abuse. Indeed, men would be obligated to give up the orientation toward domination cited by hooks and internalize values of equality instead. Indeed, men would need to give up the sense of male identity based on opposing masculinity as the self, the normal, or the human to women as “the other,” and articulate a sense of masculine selfhood oriented toward equality. In other words, men would be under an obligation to dramatically recast male identity if they were to treat women as naturally free and equal beings.

These kinds of imperatives require thinking about male identity in a way that’s quite different from Locke. Where Locke viewed freedom, equality, and the rational capacity to recognize those qualities in others, the ability of males to routinely think and treat women as equal would require a process of reflection in which patriarchal ideas of gender and their derivatives are identified and rejected and egalitarian ideas adapted and internalized. Given the historical depth of patriarchy, the obligation to be egalitarian would involve a radical change in masculine identity.    

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo (pittsburgh lectures cultural

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility illustrates the demands for self-recognition implicit in concepts of intersectionality. Though not necessarily an intersectional work, White Fragility’s encompassing approach to whiteness illustrates what intersectionality requires in the way of recognizing one’s own position and the implications of that recognition. Thus, White Fragility is a searching example of what such reflection would be, in her own words an example of “challenging the work that is uniquely ours, challenging our complicity with and investment in racism.” (33)

Like black feminists, DiAngelo implicitly adapts Lockian “freedom” and “equality” as her standard for racial attitudes and behavior of the white progressives encountered. As the title indicates, DiAngelo’s issue is the racial fragility of whites. White progressives are consistently resistant to diversity training, engage in predictable patterns of denial and excuses, and routinely become get upset over the idea that they might need the training. White progressives view racism in terms of a moral opposition between “good people” and “bad people” where good people like themselves would not think of being racist and the open racists engage in racist behavior because they are bad or evil. (2-3) Because office progressives think of racism in these kinds of terms, they are also obsessively worried about being perceived as racist “bad people. Such worries also create a toxic environment for black colleagues. This brings DiAngelo to her first attempt to prod white self-recognition and reflection. She views white fragility as so toxic that it’s “white progressives [who] cause the most daily damage to people of color” (emphasis in text)instead of open racists. DiAngelo wants white progressives to recognize themselves in the harm they do.

For DiAngelo, the ability of white liberals and progressives to understand their own racial fragility entails an understanding of both the social structures of American society and the dominant ideology of individualism. In her remarks about society, DiAngelo emphasizes the economic and political dominance of whites. When DiAngelo wrote White Fragility in 2018, the major institutions of government, the corporate world, and culture were all controlled by white people at a time when wealth and power were increasingly concentrated at the top levels. Within this context, the primary locus of white privilege is viewing whiteness as “the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation.” DiAngelo believes that whites can’t see black people as fully human beings as long as “we” refuse to see ourselves as white. “Thus, reflecting on our racial frames is particularly challenging for many white people, because we are taught that to have a racial viewpoint is to be biased.” (11)  

With white dominance being pervasive, American institutions are characterized by what Joe Feagin calls a “white racial frame” (34) in which white dominance is taken for granted, white achievement continually communicated, and “negative stereotypes and images of racial others” constantly in circulation.  DiAngelo also stresses the implication of middle-class white progressives in the everyday stereotyping of black people and highlights the extent to which office progressives live and work in in environments with a continual stream of racist jokes and stereotypes (65-66). Many white progressives thus combine a strong belief that they can’t be racist with participation in settings where open racism is routine.  (58)

The other phenomenon through which progressive, middle-class whites are located is the ideology of individualism. For DiAngelo, white fragility is all about exempting the speakers as unique individuals from issues of race and racism in the workplace. However, DiAngelo viewed such responses as the farthest thing from unique individuality. As a diversity trainer, DiAngelo found white responses “so predictable that I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script.” Thus, she wants office progressives to recognize that ideological individualism leads to a monotonous sameness that was sapping the distinctive individuality of the white people.

DiAngelo also presses white readers to recognize the ways in which the ideology of individualism functions to conceal racial hierarchy.

We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, our intensions (always good) and what we are supposed to acknowledge (seeing nothing). Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization, messages, beliefs, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions and emotions. (42)

In writing on White Fragility, DiAngelo is calling on white progressives to recognize the extent of racism in their own behavior while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which their individualism provides support for racial hierarchy. While individualism has roots in the philosophy of Locke, it is employed to extend a system of racial hierarchy which is anathema within the logic of Locke’s argument as soon as black people are recognized as born free and equal with a full set of human rights.

Mysteries of the Democrats II: Three Tiers

When people think of American political parties, they usually think of the big names–Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, and less so Ronna Romney McDaniel as the chair of the Republican National Committee and Jaime Harrison the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

But it’s really more encompassing than that.

When I taught poli sci (1987-2010), I portrayed the Democratic Party in terms of office holders, the national and state party apparatus, the various civil rights, women’s, immigrant, climate, and LGBT activist groups, relevant corporate entities, AND Democratic voters. Given Dem control of the White House and majorities in the House and the Senate, the “Democratic Party” is now top heavy with President Biden, the White House staff, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer at the summit of party leadership.

That’s not a criticism. The Democrats have suffered setbacks but the Biden administration and Congressional leadership have provided expansive, aggressive, and patient leadership. Unlike the Obama administration, top-level Democrats have not let their daily agenda be set by Fox News and Republican critics, refrained from offering compromises before elaborating their original position, and haven’t been boxed in by Mitch McConnell. The only real criticism I have of the top leadership is that they’re not taking the initiative in the propaganda wars with the right-wing apparatus. It’s a bad mistake but still doesn’t negate all the ways they’ve exceeded expectations.

The effectiveness of top-level Democrats has been under-estimated, but the virtues of the Dem voting base are almost completely ignored. No one in the media is visiting diners, entrances to work places, or meetings of Democrats to find out why they’re voting for Democrats rather than Republicans. I haven’t seen anything on Democratic voters resembling Tim Alberta’s 2020 essays on white conservatives in Michigan. Why is that? Unlike the GOP, the Democrats are an extremely diverse coalition. The Democratic vote is about 60% white but white Democrats are divided between Sanders-oriented progressives and a civil rights-oriented/center-left that’s allied with 90% of black voters and large majorities of LGBT, Hispanic, Asian-American, Muslim, and Jewish voters. The Democratic Party also has a strong set of activist LGBT, women’s, abortion rights, climate, immigration, human rights, Native American and civil rights groups that are in continual engagement with their own constituencies, Democratic members of Congress, and the Biden administration. The women’s group EMILY’s List recently made news by withdrawing support from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema over her refusal to support filibuster reform. Of course, the influence of activist groups can increase or decrease over time. As a result of the difficulties of addressing immigration issues, immigration activists have lost influence compared to Biden administration “moderates.” But that could change again in the future.

What holds such a diverse coalition together? Without information or well-informed commentary, we might never know. The media and many Democratic consultants still view Democratic voters through the progressive vs moderate dichotomy of 2016, but the dominant faction of the Democratic Party is to the left of Barack Obama and much less invested in the kind of big structural change advocated by the Sanders faction. The Democrats are also much more of a voter driven party than the media or Democratic politicians are willing to acknowledge. The 2020 Democratic strategy of nominating Joe Biden for president and appealing from a minority base to college-educated suburban voters was worked out first by the black voters who formed Biden’s voting base and put him in the lead throughout the nominating process. It not only worked in 2020 but will be the core of Biden’s re-election campaign in 2024.

Another side of Democratic voters is that they’re rejecting bullshit, specifically Kyrsten Sinema’s bullshit.

That’s definitely what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is learning. Campaigning as much as an independent as a Democrat when she won her Senate seat in 2018, she’s now being massively rejected by Democratic voters in Arizona as she jerks around the Biden administration and widely supported Democratic Party priorities. Even at the peak of her Democratic approval in Oct. 2020, Sinema’s partisan support was pretty weak at only 70% and started slipping even before it was cut in half by her self-dramatizing March 5 vote against raising the minimum wage. What’s interesting here is that Arizona Democrats weren’t cutting her any “moderate” slack as soon as Sinema indicated her complete “independence” from them. Democratic voters believe in raising the minimum wage and if Sinema wasn’t going to flaunt her opposition, half of them were going to stop supporting her right off the bat.

Sinema’s remaining 30% support also proved to be soft and her support fell once again to around 20% when she missed the vote for the Jan. 6 Commission. Polling on Sinema has been sporadic as her numbers have fallen and I haven’t seen any interviews of Democratic voters concerning her declining support. But it was clear by late May 2021 that Arizona Democrats had little good will for Sinema and were becoming intolerant of her refusal to support a Democratic Party agenda which was also their agenda. It didn’t particularly matter that the polling didn’t break down Sinema’s support along ideological, racial, ethnic, or regional lines. Opposition to Sinema was almost complete as her disapproval number rose to 70 and her approval sunk to 20% and would become yet more of a consensus as her disapproval rose to 80% after she helped scuttle Democratic legislation on voting rights.

A graph showing Kyrsten Sinema's favorability rating over time among Arizona Democrats.

Democratic voters helped initiate the winning strategy in the 2020 election and have been supporting the Biden agenda even as the administration struggled to get any of it through Congress. As Arizona Democrats kill the career of Kyrsten Sinema, they’re showing the decisive role that Democratic voters play in the party.

“Lucy Long” and the Blackface Female Phallic

Advertisement for J. W. Sweeney performance of “Lucy Long,” London, undated in 1840’s.

Historical context. The proliferating phallicism that can be seen in the Virginia Minstrels had a pre-history in the representation of black men and women before the emergence of T.D. Rice and “Jim Crow.” Two years before Rice put on blackface, Edward Williams Clay, a Philadelphia artist, published a series of lithographs satirizing black men and women and their middle-class aspirations. In many of his plates, Clay portrayed black men and women as having exaggerated over-sized feet in which the heels extended far back. Much of the effect was to represent black men and women as animalistic and not “really” belonging in human society. It was a bitter and bigoted gesture on Clay’s part. He was willing to acknowledge the reality of black people visiting a milliner’s shop, promenading, drinking tea, or belonging to the Masons, but he forced them to pay the symbolic price of being represented as monstrous, out of place amalgamations of human and animal.

Edward Williams Clay, “Life in Philadelphia,” 1830

In particular, Clay’s portrayal of the feet of black men and women gave them a phallic dimension. In plate 14, Clay represents “Frederick Augustus” and his lady friend as having over-sized, boat-like feet among their other dehumanizing characteristics (his ape-like face in particular). The phallicism Clay attributes to black feet is partly about portraying black men and women as having a “bigness” about them that Clay viewed as not fitting into human society. Thus, Clay portrayed black feet as having a phallic monstrousness that extended to the whole being of black men and women. From Clay’s perspective, phallic blackness was part of what made black people so absurd and rendered them as “comic substance,” i.e., people whose primary significance was to be laughed at.

Clay’s representation of black men and women as having phallic feet is even more pronounced in “Dark Conversation” (1833) which portrays black feet as enlarged with extremely high arches and extending from the heel as well as far in the front. Compared to Frederick Augustus and his lady friend, the feet of the black men and women of “Dark Conversation” are given more of an animalistic quality as part of the racial hostility seen in the portrayal of “de Blacks flying about as make it Polickly Disagreeable.”

Edward Williams Clay, 1833

“Lucy Long” was first published in Philadelphia in 1842 but Billy Whitlock claimed that he and T. G. Booth (who later formed the Kentucky Minstrels) co-wrote “Lucy Long” In 1838. There are also reports that Whitlock performed the song as early as 1835. It is likely that “Lucy Long” was already a popular song when it was published by George Willig. Indeed, black bandleader and composer Frank Johnson probably thought so when he published his own instrumental version of “Lucy Long” in 1842 as well. Billy Whitlock was a founding member of the Virginia Minstrels and the song would have become even more popular as the finale for the band’s 1843 concerts in New York, Ireland, and England. “Lucy Long” continued being widely performed through 1850 and was the second most frequently published blackface song after “Mary Blane.” In the 1842 version, the comic monstrosity of “Lucy Long” was built up through the representations of blackness where the character as portrayed as being even more grotesque than the feet of black people in the Edward Clay lithographs. If Clay represented black feet as ridiculously over-long and animal-like, the 1842 version of “Lucy Long” extended the character’s feet to even more enormous, disabling, and ridiculous length.

Lucy Long

I’m just from old Warginny,

To sing a little song,

‘T is all about my sweetheart,

De lubly Lucy Long, 

Oh take your time, Miss Lucy,

Miss Lucy, Lucy Long,

Rock de cradle, Lucy,

And listen to de song

De way dey bake de hoe cake,

In warginny neber tire,

Is to stick de dough upon de foot,

And hold it to de fire.                     

Take your time, etc. . . .

Yes Lucy is a pretty girl,

Such lubly hands and feet,/

When her toes is in de market house,

Her heels is in Main Street,                     

Take your time, etc.

Miss Lucy’s berry witty,

Miss Lucy’s berry smart;

It makes me feel all over so,

It e’en most busts my heart,                      

Take your time, etc.

The manifest theme of “Lucy Long” is that she was very attractive but also shy and determined to take her time before committing to a suitor. However, the song begins to build up an image of comic monstrosity in the second verse when the singer portrays slave women in Virginia as baking hoe cake by sticking “de dough upon de foot/and hold it to de fire.” In a way, the song conveyed a basic fact of slavery where black bodies could be casually tortured, but “Lucy Long” also viewed black women as delighting in suffering (“in warginny neber tire”) and volunteering to renew the pain themselves. Black people could pretend to look human and engage in “civilized” activities, but such pretense was deconstructed in blackface lyrics to reveal a comically deformed “essential blackness.” When Black women were represented in “Lucy Long” as sticking “de dough upon de foot/and hold[ing] it to de fire,” they were seen as having a mix of careless stupidity and superhuman endurance that made them both less and more than human. Lucy might have romances, dance, and cook, but she was heedlessly masochistic about putting her own feet in the fire. From the song’s point of view, that masochism is what made Lucy Long and other slave women black.

“Lucy Long” cooking with her feet leads to further characterization of her feet. Whitlock began with sarcastic testimony to Lucy Long’s beauty (“Yes Lucy is a pretty girl”) but states his main point by claiming that Lucy had such large feet that they extended all the way from the market house to Main Street. Far from being “pretty,” Lucy was portrayed as laughably ugly because her feet were extended to such extreme length. Given that stereotypes of the exaggerated heels and feet of black women had been established, the enormousness of Lucy’s feet would have revealed her “blackness” as comically deformed, degraded, and monstrous. With feet that big, “Lucy Long” could not have been functional in human society and would have been just as a target for target for bullying and abuse as someone sitting in the stocks. Having an appendage extending so far out from her body was also rich in phallic connotations which created another dimension of monstrousness and absurdity.

The preponderance of blackface songs songs from the 1840’s were about black women and many of them engaged in the same comic portrayals of phallic body parts as “Lucy Long.” Heel stereotypes were especially common. Juliana Johnson “got fast in a ditch/and couldn’t get out/for the largeness of her heels.” In “Yaller Corn” by the Congo Melodists (later the New Orleans Serenaders), “Diana” had “the biggest foot in all the country round/and when she stamps it on the floor/the niggers hear de sound.” In one version of “Mrs. Tucker,” the “darkie lady from New Orleans” had such long heels “she ploughs de street as she goes along.”[i] Several verses of J. P. Carter’s “Boston Gals” were devoted to the misadventures of one black woman’s heel.[ii] 

“Boston Gals”

White folks I come from Arkansaw

To see the sites that can be saw

But none ob dem wid de bozum swell

Can come up to de Boston Gals

As I was coming down de street

A pretty gal I chance to meet,

I stroll’d wid her and had some talk

Her ole heel cubered de hole side walk

           Boston gals, &c . . .

De ole hoss he did rare an pitch,

He nock de nigger in de ditch;

She got up in a debil ob a flutter

She walk six rod wid her heel in de gutter

                  Boston gals, &c

Minstrel songs contained phallic images of black women with “corn cob teeth,” “gum elastic lips,” and over-sized noses as well as heels of fantastical size. Much as the performances of the Virginia Minstrels and other blackface bands involved extended play by male blackface performers, the blackface songs about women also involved a considerable amount of phallic play. In many ways, blackface minstrelsy was an extended and prolific racial penis dance.

Did Hal Rogers Come Out as a Bigot?

“Coming out” is usually a term for a person either recognizing or revealing that they’re LGBT to other people. But the incident between Rep. Hal Rogers of my district in Kentucky (KY-5) and Rep. Joyce Beatty a Congresswoman from Ohio and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, makes me wonder if Rogers is coming out as a bigot.

Or if he’s always been one.

Here’s the incident in Beatty’s telling.

Poking Rep. Beatty in the back and demanding that she MOVE!–that’s the kind the kind of rude, aggressive manner behavior that’s reserved for someone a person holds in contempt. I’ve stood in thousands of lines at airports, fast food places, grocery stores, and pharmacies and don’t remember that kind of petty violence in any of them. Given the extra rage, the behavior of Rogers automatically registers as racist. How dare Beatty as a black woman ask Rogers to put on a mask? For that matter, how does Rep. Beatty have a career that still ascending while Rogers has been in eclipse ever since his uneventful 2011-2017 tenure as chair of the Appropriations Committee. And just in case Beatty didn’t understand how much Rogers despises her, he told her to “kiss my ass” when she objected.

Rep. Beatty’s response was imperious. While still on the train, Beatty lectured Rogers on being a “member of Congress,” demanded an apology, and told Rogers that he picked “on the wrong woman” as they got off. When she posted on twitter, Beatty continued by letting Rogers know what he had to do next:

And that’s what Rogers did. He later went to her office and apologized.

Phallic Play, Theft, and Ownership in 1840’s Blackface

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Virginia_Minstrels%2C_1843.jpg

The appearance of the Virginia Minstrels represented a signal shift in early blackface minstrelsy.  The members of the band—Dan Emmett, Billie Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower—were all well-known blackface performers before joining forces in New York. Brower had been performing in Philadelphia since arriving from Baltimore as a 13 year-old dancer in 1836 and had travelled with Emmitt, a Mount Vernon, Ohio native, in the Cincinnati Circus. Billy Whitlock was established as a co-author of the popular “Lucy Long” along with T.G. Booth while Pelham was known for composing and performing “Massa is a Stingy Man” with his brother Gilbert. The Virginia Minstrels mostly sang established songs like “Lucy Long” and “Jenny Get Your Hoe Cake Done,” but also added new numbers like Dan Emmett’s “Ol’ Dan Tucker.”  What made the Virginia Minstrels distinct from T. D. Rice’s “Jim Crow” and the other solo acts and duets was the way they combined music and comic antics.  When in their classic semi-circle, Whitlock and Emmitt played the banjo and fiddle in the middle while Brower and Pelham performed as comedians and play the bones castanets and tambourine. Brower and Pelham were known primarily as dancers but it was their jokes, commentary, stunts, and pratfalls that infused the Virginia Minstrels with the manic energy for which they became famous.  After a sensational first run at the Chatham theater in New York, the group sailed east for tours of Ireland and England where they were joined by J.W. Sweeney for several performances while also splitting off with duos of Brower and Emmett and Sweeney and Emmett performing on their own. The Virginia Minstrels broke up in 1844 but their success inspired other blackface performers to form bands like the Virginia Serenaders, Ethiopian Serenaders, and New Orleans Serenaders.

The above picture of the Virginia Minstrels had a pervasive phallicism. The phallicism wasn’t limited to the little penis showing between the splayed legs of Frank Brower on the group’s left, Brower’s feet are also portrayed as erect penises. So are Emmett’s feet and Dick Pelham has a penis foot showing as he prepares to punch his tambourine. The Edward Clay lithographs portrayed the feet of black men and women as phallic with their exaggerated size and extra-long heels also giving black feet an animalistic effect. But it would be more accurate to say that the the cover illustrator substituted erect penises for feet with the Virginia Minstrels. That is except for one of Emmett’s feet where the front of the penis foot is deflated as if it is going flaccid. There is also a flaccid penis effect with the tongues of Emmett and Whitlock as they play their fiddle and banjo which imparts somewhat of an opposition between erect and flaccid penises to the whole picture with the erect penises including one of the castanets held by Brower and Emmett’s banjo. Eric Lott noted in Love and Theft that banjos were often pictured in phallic ways and argues that blackface had an obsession with “the black penis.” Such an obsession could be there but it would be part of a general play of penises in the picture. The Virginia Minstrels were white men performing as black men and the pictures could also be seen as representing white penises through the vehicle of blackface performance. By picturing penises as feet, the picture also represents penises as being detached from their ascribed place on male bodies. There’s a sense of endless play with penises in the picture of the Virginia Minstrels but also a kind of vulnerability that can be seen in the picturing of Brower’s blackface penis with his legs being splayed.

Penises being detachable raises another possibility in relation to early blackface minstrelsy, the historical literature on blackface minstrelsy portrays white blackface performers as stealing black folk figures, dance styles, clothes, skin, hair, musical instruments, and dialect for the purpose of entertaining white audiences and enabling white men to sustain a functional identity during the hard times of early industrialization. It might be that the Virginia Minstrels were aiming to take black penis as well and that the fascination with “the black penis” was something that accompanied a determined effort by white performers and audiences to steal black penises and use them for white purposes.

A general thesis from this consideration would be that the Virginia Minstrels viewed white identity as demanding that whites possess everything blacks have, everything blacks are, and everything whites could ascribe to them. In other words, they demanded an insanely high level of cultural ownership.

Civil Rights and the Biden Tough Model

National Center for Civil and Human Rights Opens in Atlanta - The New York  Times
National Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, photo from NY Times

The stereotype of Democrats among GOP operatives and the media is that they don’t have the provocative, norm-breaking, don’t give a shit “toughness” of Republicans like Trump, McConnell, and Newt Gingrich. According to the stereotype, Dems are constantly being rolled by the latest new GOP procedural trick, deceit, or bit of race-baiting demagoguery and can only respond with impotent “outrage” and more futile calls for bipartisanship. Where Republicans and the media identify the GOP as tough, they see the Democrats as “weak” because Dems want government to function, care about things like education, public health, and social security, and are oriented toward making rules and playing by them.

As always, there are racist themes and variations woven into the fabric of these stereotypes. Black Democratic politicians and media figures are branded as “angry” and “extreme” anytime they show or are even rumored to show aggression. For example, Michelle Obama was famously branded as an “angry black woman” for things she was rumored to have said before her husband was nominated by the Democratic Party. When John Lewis hugged it out with Republicans, it was a magnificent gesture but it was also the only kind of behavior the mainstream media finds admirable in Black Democrats. Stereotypes of Black Dems work as a form of racial control because Black Democrats have to assume the damage the stereotypes can cause as they work out their courses of action. The stereotypes also function to control the behavior of white Democrats and keep them in a kind of rhetorical subordination to their GOP peers. The expectation is that GOP bullies will always pull the football away from the weak, gullible Democratic Charlie Browns and there’s a disturbance in the force any time a white Democrat like Chuck Schumer comes out with full throated partisanship.

The flip side of this exercise in GOP/media racism is that white Democrats are viewed as “tough” or “strong” when they put down their own minority constituencies. This notion of Democratic strength was racialized into the idea of a “Sister Souljah” moment after Bill Clinton putting down rapper Sister Souljah for sounding like a black activist version of David Duke at an event sponsored by Jesse Jackson, thus humiliating both Jackson and the rapper. Over the 2020 campaign and beyond, Joe Biden has been urged by Dave Weigel and Never Trumpers like Matt Lewis, George Will, and Bret Stephens to “show strength” by renouncing George Floyd demonstrators, Critical Race Theory, or White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo. Whether the target for the Sister Souljah Moment campaign is black, white, Ilhan Omar, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the idea is for Biden to use the renunciation to solidify a “personal domination” over the Democratic Party by conducting himself on the model of racial domination.

However, President Biden has broken away from “Sister Souljah Moments.” Much has been made of President Biden’s empathy, but he’s also a feisty guy who isn’t interested in taking a lot of crap. Here’s Biden at an auto plant in March 2020.

Joe Biden at Michigan Auto Plant, The Guardian,

As the transcript below demonstrates, Biden has no tolerance for the disinformation on what this man is saying and calls him out immediately and personally. Fox News, GOP commentators, and right-wing conspiracy channels devote most of their time to lying, stereotyping, gaslighting, and purveying other forms of disinformation in relation to public issues, the Democratic Party, and Democratic constituencies. All too often, Democrats and liberals respond by being “offended” and “outraged.” But Biden breaks out of that rhetorical box. Instead of being “insulted” or “outraged,” Biden tells his antagonist “You’re full of shit” and reinforces that message at the end of that part of the discussion by also telling him to “stop being a horse’s ass.” An interesting thing about this incident is that white conservatives work hard at provoking “emotional” reactions from Democrats as a way to demonstrate control over political encounters. But in this case, it is Biden who dominates through his angry insults over the right-wing auto worker’s lying and stupidity.

Man: “You are actively trying to end our Second Amendment right and take away our guns.”

Biden: “You’re full of shit. I did not—no, no, shush. Shush. I support the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment — just like right now if you yelled fire, that’s not free speech. And from the very beginning, I have a shotgun, I have a 20-gauge, a 12-gauge. My sons hunt, guess what? You’re not allowed to own any weapon, I’m not taking your gun away at all. You need 100 rounds?”

Man: “You and Beto say you’re going to take our guns –“

Biden: “I did not say that. That’s not true. I did not say that.”Man: “

“It’s a viral video.”

Biden: “It’s a viral video like the other ones you’re putting out that are simply a lie. Wait, wait wait, wait, take your AR, your AR-14, Don’t tell me anything about (inaudible)”

Man: “You’re working for me, man.”

Biden: “I’m not working for — gimme a break man. Don’t be such a horse’s ass.”

That wasn’t all. In his Jan. 11 speech on the “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021,” President Biden employed black history to pose the need for voting rights reform in a starkly dichotomizing manner. Beginning with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Biden opposed the Insurrection to the entire weight of the 1950’s-1960’s Civil rights movement. Biden started with a reference to Atlanta as the “cradle of the Civil Rights Movement and builds further by citing Atlanta’s historical black colleges (Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman), the Ebenezer Baptist Church headed Martin Luther King and his father before him and then Birmingham, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights of 1965. The Civil Rights Movement was both a monumental exercise in anti-racist public morality and a massive struggle for social and political power that overturned the legal structure of white supremacy against the determined efforts of Southern political institutions and opposition from the white public. For this occasion, Biden emphasized the bipartisan, multiracial character of the Civil Rights Movement with references to the willingness of white liberals to participate in the cause and Republican support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, he also portrays the movement as anchored in black institutions like Morehouse College, black leadership in Martin Luther King, jr. and black courage and determination of Black activists. In Biden’s portrayal, it was primarily black activism that made the Civil Rights Movement such an exemplary moral moment, had results in such monumental historical change, and came to represent everything that was good about America as a nation.

During his Jan. 11 speech, President Biden was speaking as President of the United States as a nation, head of the Democratic Party, and long-time politician. That’s one of the reason why the sense of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement, the anchoring of those accomplishments in the Black population, and the function of Civil Rights as representative of the United States as a nation flowed together so well in Biden’s rhetoric.

Adding to the moral and political aggression of Biden’s speech was his identification of the Jan. 6 Insurrection and Trump with the worst aspects of American history and culture—the 250 years of slavery, the Southern segregation system, Ku Klux Klan, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, and Strom Thurmond. For Biden, the Jan. 6 Insurrection as had historical depth because of the links between Trumpian politics and the kind of evils that marked the conservative traditions and personalities that opposed the Civil Rights Movement. One of the weak points of U.S. conservatism is that there is NO honorable tradition with which white conservatives can identify. This is implicitly recognized by President Biden when he nails the Jan. 6 Insurrection and Trump to the cross of violent white opposition to Civil Rights. response to the Civil Rights Movement. Much of what made Biden’s opposition between Civil Rights and the whole of white supremacist tradition such a power move was that conservatives have so little in the way of American history with which they can defend themselves.

Having constructed such a strong historical sketch, President Biden moved to the main event which was advocating the John Lewis Voting Advancement Act against Republican opposition. GOP state legislatures had passed a wide variety of voter suppression acts all of which were aimed at reducing voting rates among Black voters in particular and Democratic constituencies in general. The John Lewis Voting Advancement Act was designed to counter-act this wave of vote suppression by making states once again get pre-clearance from the Justice Department for changes to their voting laws. Relying on his previous account of the dichotomy between Civil Rights and white supremacy, President Biden then poses a stark choice for Senate Republicans.

At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the si- — on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

Given that there was no chance for the voting rights bill to pass over a GOP filibuster, the underlying purpose of President Biden posing the vote in these terms was to bully the Republicans morally by associating them with many of the great evils of American history. And it worked. The Democrats should use President Biden’s Jan. 11 speech as a template for attacking the Republicans on all kinds of civil rights, cultural, and social issues. The Republican Party has been rooted in white supremacy and race-baiting ever Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be stronger in the political trenches if they keep reminding the Republicans what side they’re on.