Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Fully understanding the rising wave of campus protests over racial injustice requires looking back centuries, explains Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wilder spent more than a decade researching the fraught racial history of America's colleges and universities—including their roots in one of the country's most ignominious eras. "It's difficult to celebrate diversity while standing in front of buildings that are named after slave traders," he says.
Wilder spoke to Mother Jones about how that history came to light, and how it informs current politics and the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mother Jones: What went through your mind when you first heard about the protests at Mizzou and Yale?
Professor Craig Steven Wilder. Courtesy of MIT
Craig Steven Wilder: I had just given a talk at Yale. One of the things that came to mind was the reemergence of a student activism that is increasingly important on our campuses and also in the broader social conversation about racial inequality and racial justice. If you look back at what's happened over the past few years, with both Occupy and Black Lives Matter, you'll see a heavy student involvement. The fact that they're now beginning to articulate a kind of common vision seems to me predictable.
MJ: In 2013, you published Ebony and Ivy, a book about the role slavery played in the founding of America's earliest colleges and universities, dating back to the 1700s. Do you see any connection between the racial injustices then and the protests we are seeing now?
CSW: It actually dates back to the early 1600s, to the founding of the very first English academy in the American colonies. I don't see a direct linear connection between those things, but there is a connection. Institutions are a product of their histories, like Georgetown has experienced. We have campuses that are filled with buildings named after founders and early participants in the founding and establishment of universities who both owned and traded human beings. It's difficult and awkward to celebrate diversity while standing in front of buildings that are named after slave traders.
An advertisement for a slave auction on a ship owned by a charter trustee of the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Gazette/Courtesy of Craig Steven Wilder
MJ: For those who haven't read your book, tell us more about how slavery played a significant role in the growth of American universities.
CSW: Every college that survived the American Revolutionary War did so by attaching itself to the slave economies of the Atlantic world. It's those economies that sustained them. Slavery wasn't just an aspect of their early history—slavery decided which colleges would survive. When Harvard was founded in 1636, it was founded just before the Pequot* war breaks out—the war between the Puritans and the native communities of southern New England which culminates in the massacre of several hundred Pequot, and the survivors are sold into slavery in the Caribbean. The ship that sells them is the first to transport slaves out of the British colonies. It returns with African slaves to New England. The year that it returns, Harvard gets its first slave on campus. Yale became a college that expanded in the 18th century by finding more intimate connections to slavery, including owning a small slave plantation in Rhode Island that it leased out to a series of slaveholding tenants. The rent from that estate helped Yale establish its first graduate program and its first scholarship.
Northern universities in particular have been terribly effective at hiding their relationship to the slave trade.
There's an academic revolution that happened in the quarter century just before the American Revolution. There are only three colleges in the British colonies until the 1740s. William and Mary in Virginia, Harvard, and Yale. Then, between 1740 and 1769, seven new colleges get established. That's the moment when the slave trade is peaking. New wealth is being produced in the Americas that allows the various Christian denominations to establish colleges to help cement their presence in the colonies. Engineering schools in the pre-Civil War period were largely funded by people who were making significant amounts of money off the products of slavery: cotton manufacturers, textile manufacturers in New England, and sugar refiners in places like New York.
You spend a whole bunch of time in the university archives and then you walk outside to put coins in the meter or to grab a sandwich, and you're walking past buildings named after the people who are in those records—the slave traders and slave owners. Those legacies are very real.
MJ: When did we first begin to see universities confront these legacies, and where?
CSW: It's just before 2003, when Ruth Simmons, an African American woman who had been president of Smith, is selected as the next president of Brown University. President Simmons decided to challenge the university and the trustees and the alumni body by establishing a commission to look directly at Brown's relationship to the slave trade, and to bring forth a report on it, to make it public, with suggestions of ways of addressing that history. Northern universities in particular have been terribly effective at hiding their relationship to the slave trade. So that was a moment of tremendous courage.
At Princeton, after the president died his slaves were auctioned off from the president's house.
It didn't happen in a complete vacuum. A couple of years before Simmons became Brown's president, Yale had its 300th anniversary, during which they often commission a history. Yale's history focused heavily on its contribution to the abolitionist, anti-slavery movement. A lot of Yale graduates became abolitionists, but the university was actually anti-abolition in its official position. Even more important, Yale had a much longer history with slavery, like all of the universities did, than it did with abolitionism. A group of graduate students and staff pointed this out on a website, "Yale, Slavery, and Abolition." There was a huge backlash. People accused them of attacking the university by bringing up things that were uncomfortable to deal with at the moment when people should be celebrating.
But whatever the motivations, it's simply true that these universities have a much deeper relationship with slavery, which they've successfully avoided. Brown gave a template for how to wrestle with this history.
MJ: We've also seen a backlash against the protests at Mizzou and Yale. Where do you see this coming from?
CSW: I once gave a radio interview in which one of the callers accused me of digging up the past, which is a strange accusation to make against a historian—that's the job description. What that accusation really is, is the protest of someone who's uncomfortable with a certain historical truth. I think there's a fear of where this will lead.
When I was doing the research for the book, you have these references to enslaved people who are on campus. At Princeton, after the president died, his slaves were auctioned off from the president's house. The founder of Dartmouth showed up to New Hampshire with eight enslaved black people. He's got more slaves than faculty. He's got more slaves than active trustees. I'm not the first one to have seen this. But a lot of historians have made the decision that what they were seeing isn't all that important to the story they were telling.
Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, leased its slaves to bring in additional revenue. Library of Congress/Courtesy of Craig Steven Wilder
When these investigations first started, one of the fears was that any acknowledgement that slavery played in the histories of institutions would lead to calls for reparations. That's an extraordinarily cowardly position to take. The truth can't be held hostage to our fear of consequences.
MJ: Has the lack of diversity among university faculty and students had anything to do with the time it has taken to accept these truths?
CSW: I think in the past 25 to 35 years, the increasing diversity of American colleges and universities has created the conditions for beginning to unpack some of this history and to challenge it on campus. On historically white, predominantly white university campuses, we've developed a tendency to celebrate diversity and to talk about diversity as a positive good, particularly for marketing purposes, and how we should be ranked with competitors. But at the same time, there's been a reluctance to do the very difficult work of managing a diverse community of people and thinking about what it really requires to sustain a diverse community of people.
The business of dealing with diversity has gotten harder to do as colleges and universities have gotten more corporatized, as costs have inflated, and as we've turned to our upper administration to deal with the business of raising money, building campuses, expanding endowments, and primarily focus on the fiscal health of the institutions. One of the things we've created is a generation of higher education officials who don't necessarily have the skill set to manage diversity.
MJ: How do the ongoing campus protests tie in with the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged more than a year ago?
CSW: Actually, I believe that the campus protests are influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these students got their initial experience in organizing and political action from BLM. It is, unfortunately, not difficult to see how the social crises that produced BLM also play out on campus. These movements are grassroots reactions to social injustice.
I also think this is a moment where we need to look at the health of our university system more broadly—is it performing the role we think it's supposed to? And as the students come to experience their own campaign's successes and failures, their goals will evolve. The original Montgomery bus boycott had very modest aims. It wasn't until community action began to experience its own power that the aim of desegregating the transit system emerged. Even in a movement that broad and spectacular and historically significant, you have this evolution. So what I see happening with the students is that—much like the student athletes over the past several years who've been pushing for compensation and recognition of the roles they're playing, and the money that's being generated off their labor—their aims have been evolving over time.
Diversity is not disconnected from those broader conversations. It needs to be embedded in those broader conversations, which is how we hold ourselves accountable over time. It's how we avoid this habit of pretending to be surprised by things that we know are bubbling up on our campuses.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of the Pequot tribe.
"You demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons."
Jaeah LeeNov. 19, 2015 9:07 PM
On Wednesday, David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, piled onto the backlash against Syrian refugees led by state governors, in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people. Bowers requested that all local agencies "suspend and delay any further Syrian refugee assistance until these serious hostilities and atrocities end…and normalcy is restored." Then he attempted to draw this historical parallel:
I'm reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.
Within hours, Bowers's statement drew fierce criticism from several Roanoke city council members—who called his remarks "narcissistic" and "unrepresentative" of the local community. And then actor and social media sensation George Takei weighed in. The Star Trek cast member has long been outspoken about his family's history inside American-held Japanese internment camps, a story chronicled in his Broadway musical, Allegiance.
In a searing open letter to Bowers on Wednesday afternoon—posted to Facebook—Takei called the remarks a "resort to fear-based tactics" and a "galling lack of compassion for people fleeing from these same terrorists." The post received more than 9 million likes in one day.
Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:
1) The internment (not a "sequester") was not of Japanese "foreign nationals," but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.
2) There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected "enemies" then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the US already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.
3) If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing.
Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.
-- George Takei
For more Takei greatness, read our 2012 interview with him, here.
It also concludes that a 911 call taker ignored key details, and offers new info on the controversial location of the cops' car that day.
Jaeah LeeNov. 12, 2015 8:40 PM
Screen shot taken from surveillance footage of the shooting.
A newly released report examining the actions of the Cleveland police officers involved in the November 2014 shooting death of Tamir Rice concludes that the call taker who handled a 911 call about Rice failed to relay significant details to the officers about the 12-year-old boy. The report also offers new information on why the officers pulled their car to within 10 feet of Rice, just seconds before he was fatally shot. And similar to two other reports made public from the ongoing grand jury investigation, it reaches a conclusion sure to continue stoking controversy about the case—that officer Timothy Loehmann, who fired the fatal shots, made "the only objectively reasonable decision" possible in gunning down Rice point-blank.
The independent analysis, released on Thursday afternoon by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office, is part of ongoing grand jury deliberations on whether Loehmann should face criminal charges. It was authored by W. Ken Katsaris, a Florida police officer and training instructor tapped by the prosecutor's office.
"The dispatcher should have provided additional information to the officers, including details that the 'guy with the gun' is 'probably a juvenile,'" wrote Katsaris. He added that while the caller described the weapon as "'probably a fake,' he also clearly reported 'I don't know if it's real or not.'" Yet Katsaris also notes that the call taker "did gather sufficient information from [the caller] and handled the call appropriately."
The county sheriff's investigation revealedin June that a call taker at the Cleveland police dispatch center entered the 911 caller's information into a computer system and assigned it a "code one," the highest priority emergency. But, as Mother Jonesfirst reported in June, that call taker never entered the additional details about Rice probably being a juvenile and the uncertainty about his gun, and that information was not relayed by another dispatcher to the officers headed to the scene.
Katsaris says that while these additional details should have been provided to the officers, they "would not be very helpful to the officers in terms of decision making," because they do not "in any way diminish the threat potential, and the statements about the firearm are far too ambiguous to be taken as relevant unless the circumstances were clearly different than this situation unfolded." He concludes, "the only objectively reasonable decision to be made by Loehmann was to utilize deadly force and deploy his firearm."
The report also focuses on the actions of officer Frank Garmback, who drove the squad car directly up to Rice: "It appears that the officers were heading for the area of the swings, where the 'guy with the gun' was last reported being seen." When the officers instead spotted Rice under a nearby gazebo, this sighting "was not expected," according to Katsaris, "causing Officer Garmback to apply the brakes suddenly, and hard, skidding for forty feet and ten inches." Katsaris adds that "it is obvious to me, from the totality of the circumstances, that the vehicle stop position was not by choice, but by necessity."
Policing experts including former officers have told Mother Jones that the officers' actions leading up to the shooting of Rice was "a use of horrible tactics" and that they warrant further investigation.
Katsaris's report marks the fourth one made public by county prosecutor McGinty. The release of various analysis ahead of a grand jury decision suggesting that the officers may not be charged has drawn criticism and prompted Rice's family and supporters to demand a special prosecutor.
Update, November 13, 2015 12:34 a.m. ET: In a statement to Mother Jones, Subodh Chandra, an attorney for Rice's mother and sister, said that the family "has lost confidence in the prosecutor," calling his handling of the case "a charade." The family did not know about the report released on Thursday until learning about it from media reports, Chandra said. "And this report is just as flawed as the previous ones. The report assumes non-existent facts—like what the officers were thinking when the officers have never testified, and it ignores other critical facts—including the fact the officers rushed up to Tamir and fired immediately, the fact that Ohio is an open-carry state, and that the officers left a 12-year-old boy bleeding and dying on the ground without administering first aid. Judge Ronald Adrine has held that probable cause to charge the officers exists. Law professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich has opined that a jury must decide the issue of guilt or innocence. Yet the prosecutor has not committed to sharing their opinions with the grand jury."
Quentin Tarantino at a New York City protest against police brutality, October 24.
Amid the continuing national debate about policing, Thursday brought the latest batshit PR move from police union leaders. Their current target, Quentin Tarantino, found himself on the receiving end of a veiled threat when Jim Pasco, the head of the national Fraternal Order of Police, told reporters that "something is in the works" against the Hollywood filmmaker. The union's plan, Pasco said, "could happen any time" between now and the premiere of Tarantino's upcoming film, The Hateful Eight, on Christmas Day. Just what exactly did he mean? More from the Hollywood Reporter:
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, would not go into any detail about what is being cooked up for the Hollywood director, but he did tell THR: "We'll be opportunistic."
"Tarantino has made a good living out of violence and surprise," says Pasco. "Our offices make a living trying to stop violence, but surprise is not out of the question."
The FOP, based in Washington, D.C., consists of more than 330,000 full-time, sworn officers. According to Pasco, the surprise in question is already "in the works," and will be in addition to the standing boycott of Tarantino's films, including his upcoming movie The Hateful Eight.
"Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element," says Pasco. "Something could happen anytime between now and [the premiere]. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable.
"The right time and place will come up and we'll try to hurt him in the only way that seems to matter to him, and that's economically," says Pasco.
A boycott against filmmaker Quentin Tarantino launched in late October by the New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has been gaining steam with police unions across the country, with groups from Philadelphia to Los Angeles urging the public to reject the Hollywood director's movies. "New Yorkers need to send a message to this purveyor of degeneracy that he has no business coming to our city to peddle his slanderous 'Cop Fiction,'" PBA president Patrick Lynch said at the outset. The campaign is a response to remarks that Tarantino made while participating in a peaceful march against police brutality in New York City on October 24. "When I see murder I cannot stand by," Tarantino told reporters. "I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers."
As of November 2, the national chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police is onboard with the boycott, and the National Association of Police Organizations, which represents more than 1,000 unions, has also joined in. On Tuesday, Tarantino responded in the Los Angeles Times: "All cops are not murderers. I never said that. I never even implied that," he said, adding, "What they're doing is pretty obvious. Instead of dealing with the incidents of police brutality that those people were bringing up, instead of examining the problem of police brutality in this country, better they single me out."
He's just the latest. Ever since officer-involved killings became a major national issue, police union leaders have gone on the warpath, using odd boycotts and over-the-top incendiary statements to defend the ranks and push back on rising pressure for reforms. Tarantino joins a colorful list of people and places under fire from the unions. Here are six others:
Screenshot of Fairfax Fraternal Order of Police Facebook page Washington Post/Facebook
A pumpkin patch. In October, Brad Carruthers, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter in Fairfax County, Virginia, called for the boycott of a local pumpkin patch after he spotted a Black Lives Matter sign in the business's window. "This is a time in which law enforcement is the target for criticism for almost everything they do and officers are constantly questioned by the public and the media without the benefit of all the facts," Carruthers wrote on his Facebook page, calling the display a "slap in the face" to the Fairfax County police. "The presence of this sign at Cox's Farm helps perpetuate this kind of behavior and judgment. I know you have heard it all about a million times but the truth is that 'All Lives Matter.'" Carruthers later took down the post, explaining that it misrepresented his intent. He told the Washington Post that he felt the Black Lives Matter movement had been "hijacked" by anti-police activists.
Arby's. In September, police unions in Florida called for a nationwide boycott of the fast-food chain, after an officer in Pembroke Pines claimed that she was denied service while going through an Arby's drive-thru. According to a police report on the incident, a manager told the officer that she was denied service because she was a cop. "In this case, after the clerk refused to serve the officer, the manager came up to the window laughing and said that the clerk had the right to refuse service to the officer," John Rivera, the president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, said in response. "This is yet another example of the hostile treatment of our brave men and women simply because they wear a badge." Another local union leader added, "I think the president needs to get to a podium and say 'This needs to stop,' that we need to put Ferguson behind us, Baltimore behind us, and we need to start treating officers with dignity and respect." The Arby's employee, Kenny Davenport, later explained to local reporters that he couldn't serve the officer because he was busy with other customers and had asked for his manager's help. The manager had made the remark as a joke. "We don't hate cops," Davenport said. "We don't hate anybody. We're just trying to get people out of the drive-thru."
New York City. In July, the Sergeant's Benevolent Association lambasted the city comptroller's office after it announced a $5.9 million payout to settle the wrongful death case of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a NYPD officer last December when police confronted him on the street for illegally selling cigarettes. Union head Ed Mullins called the settlement "obscene" and "shameful," arguing that a jury would have awarded a lower figure. "In my view, the city has chosen to abandon its fiscal responsibility to all of its citizens and genuflect to the select few who curry favor with the city government," Mullins told the New York Post.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Last December, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer who choked Garner to death, de Blasio extended his sympathy for Garner's family and protesters, adding that he worried about the safety of his own mixed-race son. His comments were met with outrage from Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "What police officers felt yesterday after that press conference is that they were thrown under the bus," Lynch told reporters. The group then encouraged officers to sign a waiver it posted on its website, entitled "Don't Insult My Sacrifice," asking de Blasio and a city council member to not attend the funerals of fallen officers. Tensions further escalated after two NYPD officers were shot execution-style by a gunman in Brooklyn that month. Speaking from the hospital where the officers died, Lynch again railed against de Blasio: "There's blood on many hands tonight," he said. "Those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest to try to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. It cannot be tolerated. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor." During de Blasio's visit to the same hospital, and the subsequent eulogies he gave at the officers' funerals, hundreds of NYPD officers famously turned their backs to the mayor.
The Cleveland Browns. Ahead of a Sunday football game in December 2014, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins entered the field wearing a shirt with the words "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford," two young black men who were shot and killed by police in Ohio last year. During a pre-game warm-up a week earlier, Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi had worn a shirt that read "I Can't Breathe" in protest of the Eric Garner decision. Cleveland Police Patrolman Union president Jeff Follmer sent a letter to a local TV station demanding that the team apologize: "It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium, and the Browns organization owes us an apology."
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, December 14, 2014. Tony Dejak/AP
The St. Louis Rams. During team introductions at a game last November, five Rams players ran onto the field with their hands up, in a sign of support for Ferguson protesters and Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in August 2014. The St. Louis Police Officers Association condemned the display, demanding that both the Rams and the NFL apologize, and calling for the players to be disciplined. "It is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over and over again," the association's business manager Jeff Roorda said. "I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters."
St. Louis Rams players, November 30, 2014. L.G. Patterson/AP
Cory Shaffer, Northeast Ohio Media Group
Police unions have also worked to raise money for officers involved in deadly shootings, but some of those campaigns have stirred controversy for their insensitive tone and management. After then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was put on paid administrative leave for the shooting death of Michael Brown, Shield of Hope—a charity arm of the local Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15—launched a GoFundMe campaign to accept donations from supporters. The page raised more than $234,000 before it was shut down due to a series of offensive comments posted by donors. In July, the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association launched a similar campaign for an officer who was placed on restrictive duty after shooting an unarmed 18-year-old over an attempted burglary. A flyer for the fundraiser advertised several raffle prizes, including a television and a Glock 26 pistol.