Straighten Up, or Stand in Fear?: Fact-Checking Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton on the KKK’s History

As published on the Huffington Post:

Last week Georgia General Assembly Representative Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group whose barbaric lynchings underpinned many generations of terror for Southern Blacks, “made a lot of people straighten up.”

Rep. Benton’s comments came after he introduced three pieces of controversial legislation: A bill to protect Stone Mountain as a memorial site, another to make Robert E. Lee’s birthday a public holiday, and a third to rename streets whose Confederate-era names changed after the Civil Rights movement.

In his efforts to justify the proposals–which Georgia Democrats have condemned as glorifying the institution of slavery–Benton defended his intentions, arguing that the Klan was not a racist institution, but “a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

Either Rep. Benton has confused his facts, or he is deliberately distorting history. To understand the severity of Rep. Benton’s misrepresentation, it is important to consider the Klan in the context of its direct ancestor: The Southern slave patrol.

Slave patrols were not the fruit of vigilantism; in many places, they were the law. Patrols in the antebellum South began almost a century before the Constitutional Convention to keep unsupervised slaves from organizing rebellions.

Beginning in 1704, patrollers could legally disperse “any gathering” of slaves, without warrant or warning. In the two decades leading up to the Civil War, one hundred of Charleston’s police officers were assigned the sole task of carrying out slave patrols. They checked passes and searched slave quarters, long maintaining a paramilitary occupation of the roads between plantations. For poor Whites who aspired to slave ownership, participation in patrols were the great equalizer: White people might be poor, but they could never be slaves.

Patrols had a long and vicious afterlife. With Reconstruction came the Black Codes: African-Americans still weren’t allowed in public places after dark; they still could not carry guns; and they still were barred from gathering without White supervision. Where slave patrols had long enforced these rules in the South, state militias assumed the role.

But the Black Codes ended, too. And when Civil Rights dawned and these practices became illicit in the light of day, the same men cloaked themselves in white sheets and lynched almost thirty-five hundred Black people between 1882 and 1968. They hanged them from trees and telephone poles, burned their bodies in town squares, and bombed their daughters in a Birmingham church. They called themselves the Ku Klux Klan.

The stultifying power of patrols–and then of the Klan–was not only in the physical injury they dealt, but also in the impact they had on a community’s sense of security. Above all else, as Kenneth Stampp wrote in his 1956 book The Peculiar Institution, patrollers sought to make Black people “stand in fear.”

The Klan picked up where patrols left off. The men of the Klan did not serve to make Blacks in the South “straighten up.” They lynched them that their sisters and uncles, wives and sons, husbands and daughters might stand in fear.

“A great majority of prominent men in the South were members of the Klan,” Rep. Benton told the AJC. “Should that affect their reputation to the extent that everything else good that they did was forgotten?”

The atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan, in all its forms, must be memorialized in public spaces throughout the South. But it is reprehensible for a member of the Georgia State Assembly to ennoble and exalt the “prominent men” who comprised its membership. Our legislators must pass laws that work to reverse the lasting impact of terrorism against Blacks in the South, not work to further institutionalize that legacy.

On Immigration, Conservatives Are Recycling a Slavery-Era Argument

As published on The Huffington Post:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
Etched into the Statue of Liberty

In 1845, the slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass published a memoir, in which he recounts  –  in rich and unprecedented detail  – the realities of living enslaved. Toward the middle of Douglass’s narrative, he tells the story of a brawl in a Baltimore shipyard with his white coworkers, who have refused to labor alongside a black man. The white carpenters:

“…said they would not work with free colored workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”

This racially motivated refusal wasn’t exceptional; it was woven into the social thought of the time. Segregation – in living quarters, in social interaction, and in employment  – was a mechanism of self-defense for the South’s white majority. Black mobility was a threat to White Supremacy, and White Supremacy was the Holy Grail.

Between the founding of the United States and the late 20th century, White Supremacy wasn’t a hidden aim. It was the aim, spoken of in a booming voice, with candor and pride, and enforced with mortal brutality. In 1935, when the Roosevelt administration began to extend New Deal programs to the black population of New Orleans, the city’s district attorney proclaimed, “At no time in the history of our State has white supremacy been in greater danger.”

As a strand of public and communal thought, this school has fallen out of the mainstream. But while our contemporary political discourse veils the uglier historic face of racism, it has done little to offset the mentality itself. It now extends to the way we treat our immigrants. Shortly after the tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco this summer, I was listening to a California talk-radio show. The host took a call that went something like this:

HOST: Good afternoon.

CALLER: Yeah, do these Democrats in Washington hate America? Do they hate Americans? What do they think the illegals are going to do if we keep letting them in?

HOST: Do you have a comment?

CALLER: The illegals don’t have the right to be here. This is our country. Do you know how hard it is to live in this state with all of them coming in here?

HOST: Again, do you have a comment?

CALLER: Yeah, here’s my comment. Trump is the only one talking with some sense in this presidential race. He’s got it right.

That caller – laughable though she may sound  –  taps into the sentiments of a much broader faction. Let’s examine, for a moment, the words and ideas of the “only one talking with some sense” – the candidate holding the megaphone to the movement.

TRUMP: “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”

Applause. And lots of it. Here’s another:

TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.”

More applause. Massive, rapturous, toupee-curlin’ applause. And another:

TRUMP: “We’re the only place just about that’s stupid enough to do it.”

On that last one, Trump was referring to the 14th Amendment, and the clause that affords citizenship to children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. To this, an Alabama football stadium erupted in  –  you guessed it  – deafening applause.

This is not the hollow and eccentric rhetoric of a few. It is a mass movement rooted in antebellum thought.

Our discourse on immigrants would feel chillingly familiar to American history’s most famous slave. Douglass would recognize the patterns of thought and the atavistic political tropes. Two centuries later, he would be staring at a South that holds eerie resemblance to the one he fled.

Read his reflection again:

“[They] said they would not work with free colored workmen. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”

Substitute “white carpenters” and “poor white men” with “American workers.” Swap “free colored carpenters” and “workmen” with “undocumented immigrants.”

Now read it a final time:

“[They] said they would not work with undocumented immigrants. Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if undocumented immigrants were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, American workers would be thrown out of employment. They therefore felt called upon at once to put a stop to it.”

Do you see it now?

The argument being used by Donald Trump and the conservative base to justify the de facto social exclusion of immigrants in America is  – nearly verbatim  –  the argument that was used to justify racial segregation in the workplace during the antebellum South.

Do you realize what we’re doing, who we’re becoming? The era whose words we’re borrowing and whose thought we’re recycling?

Are you scared yet? How far we have fallen from the ethic of Ellis Island.

The tempest has cast the homeless from their homes. The tired have arrived, the poor are coming. The huddled masses gasp for air. But our lamp is out, and our door is closed.

And The New Colossus is dying.

On Leaving: Someone Else’s March

When I was preparing to come to South Africa at the end of first semester, my friends committed themselves to a stream of facetious comments that all sounded something like this: “Ami thinks he’s going to save Africa,” or “Can’t wait to hear about your African awakening.” The comments were no more than friendly chiding, and they made for amusing dinner conversation.

But the jokes were fair game because they touched on something real: The not-so-crazy idea that a white, liberal American student could spend some time in Africa to assuage his moral conscience and come back thinking himself the Great Deliverer of the destitute.

My time in South Africa has been illuminating. I’ve learned about the way people in townships live, about the reasons fifty-something Afrikaners think differently than I do, about the stalwart challenges—in education, mobility, resource allocation, racial progress—that still hold this country in their clutches and rarely tremble, or show signs of letting up. I know about a lot more now than I did five months ago.

But I don’t really know the way people in townships live. I don’t know why older Afrikaners think the way they do. And I certainly don’t know the history and its implications firsthand. I know about those things.

To know them, and to feel them—to claim an understanding that truly transcends theory and caricature—would require an experience bitterly more intimate and deeply more vulnerable than the one I’ve had here.

Nearly a thousand students each semester saturate the University of Cape Town with an intrusive foreignness. It’s called “cultural exchange.” But we’re a thousand tiny documentarians. Our being there changes the nature of the space and the candor of the people, and we’re looking through a window as tiny as ourselves.

I don’t “know” South Africa or the African continent. I don’t “get” it. After every afternoon in a township high school, I went home to a white suburb with air conditioning and a house full of ambitious American students trained on their studies. At the end of each cab ride, I paid the driver with whom I’d chatted about “the real South Africa,” and often never saw him again. And at the end of this semester—during which I did engage with the place, its people, its ideas, smells, bigotries, histories, and trenchant challenges—I’ll get on a Boeing 757 in Cape Town and step off 20 hours later, back in my own reality.

Let there be no ambiguity around this issue: This semester was for me, not for South Africa.

Last December at Emory I marched in the campus protests after the Eric Garner decision. As our crowd entered the library and chanted “No justice, no peace” and a handful of other rallying calls for nearly twenty minutes, I couldn’t unhitch my eyes from the students on the other side of the turnstile. Hundreds of them lined the cavernous foyer, taking Snapchat videos and watching us, idle. It was a show, a spectacle to write home about but not—God forbid—to step into. I felt proud of myself, like I was standing on the right side of the turnstile and the right side of history.

And then, at the end of the protests, as we cleared out of a bustling intersection that we had blocked, my friend Joe—president of a black fraternity and a vocal participant in my American history classes—spotted me. He walked over, gave me a hug, and said, “Thank you for coming.”

That was an unsettling moment. What do you mean “thank you”? I’m here because it’s an issue I believe in. I’m here for civil rights. What gave Joe ownership over this protest?

Everything did: Two hundred years of slavery did. More than a century of a discriminating legal code did. The color of his skin and the skin of the men over whose deaths we were protesting did. It was his march; I was just there.

In South Africa, as in Atlanta, I’ve been walking in someone else’s march.

If I leave these months with one lesson, it will be this: It is the responsibility of people of privilege to create spaces where people who don’t share that privilege can express the way they see things, why they see things that way, and how they propose things ought to change.

The goal isn’t to capitalize on the opportunities when we happen upon them; it is to work with fervor to identify and create such spaces—in classrooms and civic centers, at dinner tables, in businesses and daily conversations—and then to listen.

This is not a novel idea, and I am not its paragon. I’m still learning how to do it. I suppose this probably reads as callow and ridiculous to those who have felt crowded out by white, liberal, assertive male voices that are just trying to make that last point—my own, all too often, included. But it’s the lesson I’ve begun to learn here.

I’ve learned it from sleepless Rhodes Must Fall activists, from cab drivers on the nineteenth hour of their shifts, and from black baristas with a cup of coffee and a cause.

I’ve learned it from teenage inmates with crude stick-and-poke tattoos, from UCT students who hear with intentionality and contribute with humility, and from American study abroad friends who decided to spend a night in Soweto instead of on a wildlife reserve.

And I learned it from the Cape’s immortal mountain, visible from every street corner and every angle in town—from the potholed avenues of Langa to the glinting coves of Bantry Bay—who started listening before we were talking, and will have the last word long after we’re gone.

I haven’t had an “African awakening,” and I don’t think I rescued anyone along the way. But I learned how to march and how to listen. For that, and for these five months, I am grateful.

‘You Can Just Say It’: What White America Can Learn From South Africa’s Blunt Race Talk [Talking Points Memo]

“You need to know that there are two sides to every story,” he said. “They fought us when we got here, so we fought back. That’s how things have always worked.”

By “they,” Pieter meant the native San and Khoi peoples displaced and killed off by early Dutch and British settlers in South Africa. I was jolted awake; I’d always understood the “story” as a categorical moral wrong. But I was also thrown by the remarkable openness he offered. There were no barriers. He just talked.

That was the first in a long string of candid encounters. At a high school in a black township where I work, 15-year-olds sparred over whether it should be compulsory to learn English even in their Xhosa-speaking community. “Maybe it’s not the way it should be, but we need it to compete in the rest of the world,” one student said. “But we were born into our own culture, and that’s all we have,” responded another.

And on a bus between Durban and Port Elizabeth, a tire salesman named Boyo—who identifies himself as a “coloured” (mixed race) South African—told me that whites still rule South African society, but that blacks, now reaping the prizes of land reform and affirmative action programs, have begun their ascent. Boyo and I had known each other for ten minutes when he suggested that coloured people are the real victims. “The white man raped the black woman and made us,” he said. “We don’t belong to anyone.”

In South Africa, race dances unafraid in the public square. It exists without the kind of stigma that tints and tilts conversations in the United States, when we talk about the latest Ferguson or Baltimore. South Africa’s past—drawn painfully in the colors of its people—allows little room for evasiveness. Everyone knows what’s happened; it’s too obvious too ignore. So instead of shutting their eyes to race, people look it straight on, and just talk.


I’ve been studying abroad at the University of Cape Town for three months. I’m Jewish, male, 20 years old, and white. Talking about race isn’t new to me. I marched in the #BlackLivesMatter protests at my college, Emory University in Atlanta. I have been involved in interfaith and cross-cultural dialogue initiatives, and will graduate next year with a minor in African-American Studies. When I decided to spend the spring semester here, I thought I’d arrive knowing the “rules of the game.”

I was wrong.

I walk down Cape Town’s Main Road every day, and each time I’m solicited for food or money. Once, the person asking was white. I take about five cabs each week. Twice, my driver was white. I write my history papers and blog articles where it smells of espresso, and eat brunch where they serve poached eggs on rosewood planks. The wait staff is black, and the clientele looks like me. The managers are also white.

There are smatterings of exception. But only smatterings.

I coach debate at a high school in the township of Samora Machel. A township in South Africa is an informal settlement—a slum, really—where the houses and markets, restaurants and nail salons, barbershops and bank stalls are all boxes of quilted sheet metal, told apart only if you can read their painted Xhosa signs.

The white people in townships, volunteers like me, are bussed in and out. The black people have been there for generations, since the National Party government put their parents and grandparents there.

There are no white people living in South African townships. Parliament passed the Group Areas Act in 1950, shunting people of given racial designations out of their longtime homes and into assigned settlement zones. Just like there are few white people in the housing projects of American urban areas because decades of redlining (more than a hundred years after Lincoln) left African-Americans without valuable property and unable to compete for land in the housing market.

It’s still harder to be born a person of color in South Africa than it is to be born white. Only about nine in every 100 South African nationals are white. That nine percent owns eighty percent of all wealth in the country. White people hold nearly all senior management positions in South Africa. Black people are five times more likely to be unemployed than are whites.

It’s equally hard to be a person of color in the United States, but these proportions tell the story of a minority group that has remained perennially stuck: Just 13 percent of Americans are black. Nonetheless, they make up nearly 40 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses. They are 33 percent more likely to be detained while facing felony charges. They receive 10 percent longer sentences than white people facing identical charges and, with Latinos, are the majority of the inmates in the American prison system—the largest in the world. The net worth of white households is six times that of non-white ones. Those non-white families earn about 60 percentof what the white families do.

In the United States, black people were granted nominal civil rights in the 1960s, and slaves shed their masters a century earlier. Those memories—slavery, de jure racial segregation, Jim Crow—are pockmarks on our past. That was then, this is now. If we separate the two, we don’t have to talk about it.

In South Africa, where 1994 is still raw in the collective memory, there is no such disconnect. The people still remember where the scars came from. That’s why they deal with them.


Back at my college in Atlanta, over spaghetti in the kitchen of our fraternity house, Hugh, a white, liberal Episcopalian who graduated from a prestigious prep school, told me he had been brought up to believe that you could call someone “Jewish,” but that you should never refer to anyone as “a Jew.” He couldn’t tell me why, exactly. Just that the “ish” seemed less accusatory. “It’s just what you’re supposed to do,” he said. I grew up in a Kosher-keeping home; I’d never thought twice about calling myself a “Jew.”

But that’s how we talk about ethnicity and race in the United States, each of us on our own personal set of eggshells. The white Americans I’ve met in South Africa have a tendency to lower their voices when they say “black” and are referring to people whose ancestors lived here (or near here) before the mid-17th century. It’s my own instinct, too. Early on in the semester I asked Menzi, a law student from the Soweto township, whether “people who aren’t white” are still at a disadvantage in higher education. He smiled.

“It’s okay, mate, you can just say it here. Black people.” He pointed to his arm. “You mean people who look like me.”

He was right. My instinct is fairly absurd: It’s rooted in the idea that black people have a monopoly not just on the notion of blackness, but also on the word used to denote it; that it’s insulting to even mention someone’s racial identity; and that when we do use the terms that don’t apply to us in a full and unself-conscious voice, we should construct inane rules around them. It’s evasion; Menzi was onto something.

Conservative American commentators often lambaste the regime of “political correctness” that we’ve mounted in contemporary political life. Don’t mistake this point for that one. Sometimes our reticence is justified. We’ve reached for a heightened sensitivity around language to shield vulnerable identities from abuse and to make sure that we’re treating human beings as human beings. We say “developmentally disabled” because “retarded” has become an exploited slur and isn’t an accurate descriptor of all neurological disabilities. We say “undocumented immigrant” because “illegal alien” breeds a vicious stigma against people who, in many cases, are seeking refuge in sordid desperation.

In those cases, specific and affirming language isn’t a vehicle for dodging the conversations that matter; it often identifies the way things really are. But when sensitivity comes at the cost of honest conversation, it’s time for us to reconsider the way we’re doing things.


In 1995, South Africa began a long conversation with itself. Through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, Nelson Mandela’s nascent government invited surviving victims of apartheid to tell their stories to a curious globe and, more important, to the people who’d committed the crimes. Many race-related programs held in South Africa today are still sculpted in the spirit of the TRCs.

I met Sara—American, Jewish, and white like me—in a history class at the university. She’s here on one of the other study abroad programs. When I told her about an event at UCT called the “White Privilege Project,” she was genuinely perplexed.

“Why would I go to that?” she said. “It sounds like they’re going to get a bunch of people together and make them feel bad about being white. I have no interest.”

Translation: Why would I want to be part of a conversation intended to make me feel guilty about something that isn’t my fault?

That same week, amid student protests for the removal a campus statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, I read an unsigned comment on a student feedback board: “To white people: sit down and shut up. For once, this isn’t about you.”

I sat with the comment all day, and brought it up at dinner with Nqobani, a friend from KwaZulu Natal who calls himself a “black conscious man” in the image of Steve Biko. His response was quick and fluid, spoken as if it were conventional wisdom: “When white students get involved in that movement—especially progressive whites who supported the cause—it ‘legitimizes’ the wants and needs of black people,” Nqobani told me. “If a white person says ‘this is a problem,’ then it’s a problem.” Point taken.

Still, the two comments might be read in tandem: Sara wanted no part in a conversation that might implicate her as a wrongdoer. And the anonymous student—to whom Sara might be the wrongdoer—didn’t want her there, either. Both approaches shut out the very people who ought to be in conversation. They are insular and provincial and resigned to the status quo. The comments aren’t just defeatist; they’re a fatalistic stalemate.


If talking about race makes us queasy, we have two options. The first is to ignore race altogether, to consider all political questions—housing, abortion, social welfare, voting—outside of a racial context. Or we can acknowledge the uncomfortable nature of race conversations, and get over it.

I was born in a hospital room overlooking West Los Angeles. As a teenager, I was only pulled over for driving errors I had actually made. My nearest “minority” status—my Jewishness—has served me with a network of professional connections and a community that won’t rest until I’ve found academic and professional success. My parents, grandparents, and some of my great-grandparents went to college, and so do I.

So am I allowed to talk about the institutional stumbling blocks that lie in front of black folks in America? Have I license to suggest policing alternatives for majority-Latino neighborhoods after careful and thoughtful research? Do I get to share my thoughts on the deaths of Mike Brown or Walter Scott or Freddie Gray—or, for that matter, on the officers who murdered them?

On the brittle racial terrain of the United States, not always.

But during my time in South Africa, I’ve learned that it’s possible—and necessary—to reframe the way white people talk about race in the United States. Where the wounds are deep, the conversation should be open and frank.

It’s a goal that will require white people in the United States to suspend the contrived and conflicting sets of rules by which we’ve been playing; that will ask us to say “black” when that’s what we mean, and say “Latino,” “white,” “immigrant,” or “impoverished” when those are what we mean. It will mean not letting feelings of insult by someone’s unfamiliarly toward our preferred terminology be the end of a conversation, but instead insisting that it be the beginning.

It will also mean reading studies and events for their trends and patterns, not scouring them for their incendiary outlying exceptions—not falling into the trap that Ta-Nehisi Coates has calledthe “erroneous comparison of the average American white family and the exceptional first family.”

For the nameless author behind “sit down and shut up,” it will mean acknowledging that in spite of very real, trenchant and systematic injustice, an approach built on rigid insularity—that regards its own social protest as a stand-alone piece of performance art—will fall short of accomplishing meaningful change.

And for me, and those who look like me and benefit from a built-in advantage, it will mean knowing and saying that people born nonwhite begin their lives at a structural disadvantage, and that upward social mobility is harder to come by for people with darker skin and features different than our own.

It will mean committing to the notion that the realities of racial inequality are not a condemnation of whiteness. We are not the victims.

South Africa has much left to solve, but its people are at least willing to face the recent past. In New York City, police officers turn their backs to a mayor who sees things differently. In Charleston and Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, black men turn their backs and bullets fly. What would happen if we turned around and faced each other?

Whatever sentiment exists, we should let it dress in plain clothes, not lurk hidden in the practices of employers, law enforcement officials, and our American institutions. Last April, in the wake of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s bigoted remarks about African-American fans, I marched into the office of my U.S. History professor—a black man—and asked whether he was angry. He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “No, Ami,” he said. “Light is always good.”

© 2015 Ami Fields-Meyer, as first published on

Lost in the Dyson-West Debate: Obama Hasn’t ‘Ideologically Cheated On’ African Americans

As published on The Huffington Post:

If you missed Michael Eric Dyson’s grating takedown of Cornel West in The New Republic last week, let me offer a synopsis: The piece is more than eight thousand words of name-dropping and self-congratulation in service of the argument that West engages in too much name-dropping and self-congratulation. Somewhere near the end, tucked into a personal feud that’s spilled too far into the public square, there’s a point about President Barack Obama and his black constituents. But you have to squint to see it.

There’s a lot we don’t — and won’t — know about the falling-out of Dyson and West. We aren’t sure to what degree Dyson’s piece is a personal squabble parading in the costume of intellectual critique. (Even in his cutting condemnation of West’s vanity, Dyson manages to mention that West thinks the author a “rare kind of genius.”) We can safely assume that this isn’t a debate about public intellectualism, but about two towering academics who’ve become entangled in each others’ egos. The whole thing reeks of self-importance.

The essay falls regrettably short of making a substantive point about President Obama or his policies on race. But it does hedge an issue worthy of discussion. West is a symbol of a larger question: whether African Americans ought to feel “betrayed” or “ideologically cheated on” by the nonracialism of the first black president.

Many commentators and community leaders (both black and white) criticize Obama for keeping the black population at arm’s length. In his piece, Dyson gives voice to the African American community’s essential love for the president, but chides him for “not always loving us back.” The argument is that Obama owes unique attention to the community that shares the part of his identity that has etched his name in history.

It’s true that Obama has chosen to wear the persona of a president who is black, rather than that of a black president. Consider Ferguson — perhaps the defining racial event of Obama’s tenure, and one that burns with personal attachment for many African Americans. After a Grand Jury opted not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson, Obama spoke with detached impartiality about the “distrust (that) exists between law enforcement and communities of color” and set the country’s sights on “change that makes the St. Louis region better.” His comments weren’t steeped in his black identity, but in a desire to act the role of reconciler-in-chief.

Here’s the thing: Any serious political thinker with an ear to history and a finger to the pulse of Obama’s career knows that the president, the senator, and the man has never allowed his racial identity to be the primary motivator in the way he leads.

The cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates called Obama’s dispassionate comments after Ferguson “an even-handedness exercised to a fault.” Perhaps the president’s response was too tepid, but such even-handedness is Obama’s calling card on race.

Obama has written two memoirs — nearly a thousand bestselling pages — painting in vivid detail a narrative self-portrait and the role his racial identity plays in it. We can track his evolution, from the raw brio of his coming-of-age in Dreams from My Father to the refined centrism of his political ascent in The Audacity of Hope. Obama is not an enigma on race.

We know that Obama is drawn — hypnotically, it seems — to the center. His orientation toward race has never fit neatly into any historical paradigm. On the South side of Chicago, he grew partial to one-size-fits-all economic policies, favoring them over solutions tailored to individual racial groups. By his first campaign for public office in 1995, Obama preached a socioeconomic vision rooted in the intertwined fate of Chicago’s middle class, irrespective of race.

We know that he walked that line through the echelons of the Harvard Law Review, where he appointed a handful of conservatives to high editorial positions during his tenure as its first black president. “(Obama) was a non-combatant,” a classmate remembered in 2012. “He was mature and held himself above the fray. He was courteous, decent, and respectful.” Obama set the Review‘s direction, but he didn’t wield his influence to thrust the publication decidedly leftward. He conceived of his election as symbolic, but not as a racial mandate.

And we know that as he scaled the American political establishment and earned the confidence of a nation and the attention of a mesmerized globe, Obama situated himself as the heir to a particular political legacy. He was a son of Chicago’s great organizing legacy: Saul Alinsky had made him a listener; William Julius Wilson had forced him to reconsider whether black identity should dictate social policy for the black urban poor. The 2008 election neared, and Obama wanted to be everyone’s president. We know that on issues of race, he settled at the intersection of the populist and the pragmatic and has lived there ever since.

I wish Obama had gone to Ferguson and issued a stinging critique of the Grand Jury. I wish he’d raised hell after the killing of Trayvon Martin. I wish he’d make endemic racial inequality the centerpiece of his final years in office. But that Obama has never been. Candidates make promises, but it’s our burden as voters to check their facts, to sift through their pasts, and to make independent decisions about their intentions. Obama’s even-handedness on race issues isn’t “betrayal;” it was hiding in plain sight all along. We just weren’t paying attention.

Two stories about taxis

Writing from Cape Town, South Africa

It’s Tuesday morning. We’re not supposed to take “unmarked” cabs—that is, the ones without names of trusted companies painted on their sides. I’m on Main Road, near UCT’s campus, and a driver catches my eye and waves me over. But he’s standing next to a white sedan, without any company name on it. It’s just a car. The ones that scam you and, you know, sometimes kidnap you. When I give the guy a polite wave and turn in the other direction to find a marked cab, he looks confused and flustered. I feel as confused by his confusion. Until I get to see the moment of realization: arm through the open passenger-side window, he reaches into his car and grabs something from the glove compartment. I look away for a second, then back, and surprise! He’s stuck a shiny yellow “taxi” decal on the top of his car. Now he’s a taxi.

It’s Saturday evening. The big annual Carnival parade is happening in town, about 20 minutes away. I meet three friends on Main Road and we hail a cab. (A marked one.) All three of my friends play women’s soccer for top American universities. They’re hard core, shin-guard-wearing, “don’t-talk-to-me-I’m-at-the-gym” varsity athletes. And then, of course, there’s “I-think-I-went-to-the-gym-once” me. But that doesn’t matter, right? We’re just taking a drive into town. Wrong. Three minutes in, our cab stalls out at a traffic light. Our driver panics. There’s a lot of shrugging and neck-turning going on. He looks to the backseat, his expression grave: “You need to push the car.” Ha! He keeps staring. Oh, okay. We all get out and push our driver down Main Road. Minibus drivers are hurtling past and shouting expletives (I think) out their windows. A guy in a red station wagon makes sure we know that we’d “better not pay that guy a cent!” As we push the car into a gas station, another taxi is there waiting. “I can accommodate you,” its driver says. But we’re far too invested to opt out now. When we finally get the cab moving, our driver won’t stop apologizing. It’s not professional, he says. He can’t believe we’d had to push the car. “No worries,” I assure him. “Three of us are varsity athletes.” He never asks which three.

That’s what it’s like a lot of the time here: makeshift, shaky, and endearing. The power goes out in a crowded bar and all you can do is laugh and wait. The Netflix home page keeps telling me that it “hasn’t come to this part of the world yet.” When the hot water doesn’t work in the shower, the landlord says, “Yep, this isn’t America.” Last night the internet wasn’t on. This morning, it was. I have no idea why. And I won’t ever know. But I’m learning.

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My Taxi Driver Reads Chomsky: Reclaiming the Liberal Arts in South Africa

As published on the Huffington Post:

If you have to get lost, I recommend doing it at the top of Table Mountain. That’s what I did. In the few minutes I’d sat down to jot down some thoughts, my group had hiked on. I didn’t have a map, and my sense of direction has long been the butt of jokes in my immediate family. So I just started walking.

Eventually I found a path, and next to it a view, and with it a twenty-something South African engineer named Stefano. He was with friends—two Canadian college students who were Couchsurfing in his apartment—and asked me what I was doing here. I told him I was studying history. He scoffed.

That happens a lot. About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about being a liberal arts student in the pre-professional milieu of my university, and getting the sense that people think me a lost puppy with no way home. (In a word, I think American pre-professionalism is the result of tunnel-vision and a blind drive toward “success” that are leaving the young workforce without a broader understanding of our place in the social and historical narrative.) When I talk about my history major, it often feels like speaking to a wall of derision: Good luck with that, man. So Stefano didn’t faze me.

But Stefano’s was a different kind of scoff.

I’ve come to understand South African pre-professionalism as being of a different flavor than its American counterpart. It is motivated not by gross opportunism, but by necessity. (Or at least what feels like necessity.) The push to send a steady flow of CPAs, engineers, and number crunchers down the higher-education conveyor belt isn’t the result of narrow-minded expediency; rather, it’s the reflection of a nation who sees itself as many decades behind developed economies and in desperate need of catching up. This era of doing is the panacea to a century of waiting.

That seems a more noble rationale for unbridled pre-professionalism than the one we’re often given in the United States. The South African argument makes sense: There is no place in a developing economy (and a country just beginning to recover from its marred past) for history or historians, philosophy or philosophers, ivory-tower intellectuals who gaze with sanctimony upon the plebeians below. As Stefano put it, South Africa doesn’t yet have time for “vocations of leisure.”

That seems about right. Until you read the newspaper here.

This country is still bleeding from gashes that are historical in nature: President Jacob Zuma is finding an all-too-convenient bedfellow in Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and many fear that Beijing will suck up South Africa’s abundant natural resources; there’s an energy crisis going on; there’s an education crisis that’s been going on for about four hundred years; and the country’s social institutions are still largely segregated de facto, even if they’re legally integrated. Many of these wounds remain as raw as they were in 1994, and the ones that have been ignored have become infected. (At the risk of irritating some of my Emory professors, I use the passive voice here because the list of neglectful parties is too long for this piece.) Math and science and the impulse toward “real-world skills” will be meaningless in South Africa without social context.

Two encounters last week proved to me that the will to actively seek out that social context exists here, despite the perhaps more powerful will toward the purely-“practical”:

The first was with a taxi driver named Paul. Within a minute of stepping into his van, Paul had told me that he was in a mixed marriage; that he’s white and his wife is coloured (a separate racial designation than black in this country). By the highway on-ramp, he’d also given me a concise history of military conscription in South Africa. And by the time he dropped me off, Paul had delivered a soliloquy on ANC corruption through the prism of Noam Chomsky’s 2006 Failed States. “You’re going to write home and say that you met a white taxi driver who reads Chomsky,” Paul said. He was right.

The second was with a group students at a high school in the Philippi township, where I’ve started to coach after-school debate. Another coach (a year-round UCT student) posed the question of whether black South Africans should have to learn English, or whether the rest of the country should learn their own “indigenous” languages. (There are 11 official languages here.) I flashed with foreboding to my own high school: students would have tuned out at the mention of such an esoteric topic.

But not these kids. This group of students—each of them black, originally Xhosa-speaking, and between the ages of 13 and 20—argued with vigor (and in English). “Of course we need to know English today,” said one young man in a flat cap. “Maybe it’s not the way it should be, but we need it to engage with the rest of the world.” One of his female classmates took issue with that: “But we were born into our own culture, and that’s all we have. We need to protect where we came from.” I was struck by one thing in particular: they were listening to each other and responding, not just unilaterally spewing their own thoughts. I wasn’t surprised because it was happening in a township; I surprised because it was happening with teenagers. And if was happening with teenagers (most of whom who will—statistically—finish their formal education after senior year), it can happen with college students.

They knew it mattered. And intellectual history agrees. In the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment, Matthew Arnold—considered one of the founding fathers of modern social theory—wrote that people and societies would be on the road to prosperity if they were “possessed by the scientific passion as well as the passion of doing good.” He was talking about the balance between Rationalist thought and Romantic zeal; ambition and morality; the flow of UCT engineers and UCT history students. About 150 years later, the leading developmental psychologist and Harvard Professor Howard Gardner said in a video for The Atlantic’s website: “An education devoid of arts and artistic and humanistic endeavors is a half-brained, empty kind of education.” An eminent and successful culture lives in the spaces between those dichotomies. Advocates of a purely technical South African future would do well to read Arnold and listen to Gardner.

South Africa had (and in some places still has) a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The country aired out its dirty laundry in Town Square, with cameras rolling and the world watching. That was a formal, top-down attempt at reclaiming context and understanding historical realities. It was the liberal arts swallowed as a pill.

But here’s my point—and please remember that these are just observations, pieces I’ve picked up along the way, not financial calculations or deeply researched theses:

I think that if this country wants to make real economic, political, and social progress—if it wants to see true racial healing and substantive social change—its critical engagement with the past needs to come from the bottom up. Shouldn’t all the taxi drivers have a critical understanding of whom they’re driving and why they’re not the ones being driven? Shouldn’t all the schoolchildren—across the racial gamut—know why they’re learning calculus in English, but speaking Xhosa across the dinner table? We know that the will for these conversations exists at the humblest echelons; why not encourage them with dynamism in the high school and university setting?

South Africa needs engineers and people who know how to run businesses. It needs doctors and architects and land developers. But I think South Africa needs more taxi drivers like Paul, and kids like the ones in Philippi. I think it needs more sociology and international relations majors. Because if you don’t know why things are the way they are, it’s going to be difficult to push with any impact toward the way they ought to be. Stefano told me that this country can’t afford more people who take on careers of reflective inquiry; I wonder whether it can afford to exist without them.