Dr. Seuss racist redux

One of the racist images in Dr. Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo.

A public reckoning with the racist imagery in much of Dr. Seuss’ work has actually been a long time coming. I’ll forgive you if you didn’t read my 2015 post on the topic.

In that piece I focused on the World War II propaganda cartoons he drew in support of the US war effort, and the dehumanized imagery he produced to depict our Japanese foes compared to his much more sympathetic portrayal of, namely, Adolf Hitler.

Those images were completely in line with the race thinking that serves as a foundational element of American foreign policy ideology, how we understood the world and our place and role in it. Anglo-Saxonism is its core, placing America and Britain as a single people standing atop a racial hierarchy in which Germany was a racial close cousin, separated from us only because it had “lost its love of liberty.” Asians fell far down the ladder at whose absolute bottom stood Blacks. As I wrote six years ago:

The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these [issues] on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins.  Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.

The point I was making then, and which I want to reiterate now, is that Dr. Seuss was no outlier in the way that he thought about race compared to other Americans. The racism visible in his work was part and parcel with the systemic racism of his times which we still struggle to acknowledge and overcome.

What has changed is our willingness to continue to overlook it.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the foundation that oversees the artist’s legacy and publishes his works, announced yesterday that it will no longer publish six of his books, most notably And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, and If I Ran the Zoo, from which the image at the top of this post is taken. Mulberry Street holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Seuss book I remember reading (or more likely remember being read to me). And I’ll acknowledge not being aware that, in the words of the announcement, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

But I can’t say that I’m surprised, and I can’t say that they’re wrong. While conservative culture warriors may race to the airwaves and Twitter to decry the decision as cancel culture run amok, reality isn’t so simple. Nor is Seuss’ legacy.

Because Seuss was on the right side of history on many of the issues of his day. He drew cartoons decrying Jim Crow laws and defending Black rights to equal employment. He drew cartoons lambasting Nazi policies and attacking the isolationism and anti-Semitism of Charles Lindbergh’s America First Movement.

And he drew a lot of things that were and are shockingly racist. We should be mature enough to acknowledge that even as we embrace the lessons of environmentalism in The Lorax and tolerance and acceptance in Horton Hears a Who!

Seuss’ liberalism, and his racism, are his legacy. And they’re our legacy too.

Our new old terrorism

Watertown, N.Y., Ku Klux Klan members, c.1870. (Library of Congress)

In April, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security released a report on domestic terrorism in the United States during 2018. They documented 32 terrorist attacks, disrupted plots, threats of violence, or weapons stockpiling by individuals motivated by a radical social or political agenda and who had not been influenced or directed by any foreign terrorist organization or movement.

All 32 cases were driven by far-right political or social ideologies. Thirteen of the 32 were perpetrated by race-based extremists, another 17 by right-wing anti-government extremists. African-Americans were targeted in 29 percent of all incidents, Jews in another 10 percent. Nineteen percent of incidents targeted law enforcement.

In short, what the NJOHS reported in April is perfectly consistent with what I have been asserting for nearly all of the four years that I’ve been writing this blog. The primary threat of terrorism in the United States comes not from wild-eyed jihadists but from the ranks of America’s anti-government and racist far right.

But lest we think this is some kind of recent development, a new dataset on terrorist organizations that formed between 1860-1969, compiled by University of Iowa Ph.D candidate Joshua Tschantret, reminds us that this is nothing new at all. It is, rather, the historical norm.

According to Tschantret’s data, 28 terrorist groups formed and were active in the United States between 1860 and 1969. Of those 28, nearly half, some 13 organizations, carried out acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations, in support of right-wing ideologies. All but one of these were motivated by white supremacist ideology. The lone exception was the Secret Army Organization, formed in California in 1969 and targeting the organizers of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All of the rest used violence in pursuit of explicitly racist goals.

The earliest of these groups came together in the South during the early years of Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, groups like the original iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, and others such as the Southern Cross and the Knights of the White Camellia. The White Line would spring up a decade later, in 1874 in Mississippi, and the Klan would be reborn in Atlanta in 1915. A decade later would come the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group organized in Bellaire, Ohio by a doctor named William Shephard.

Atlanta would also see, in 1946, the emergence of the Columbians, a racist and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi organization. Edward Folliard of the Washington Post would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his reporting on the group. The 1950s would bring yet another rebirth of the Klan, this one still in existence today, along with more offshoots, like the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., followed by the United Klans of America in 1960.

The 1960s would spawn two more white supremacist organizations. The Silver Dollar Group emerges in Louisiana in 1964 as a Klan offshoot organizing in leaderless resistance cells which assassinated African-Americans and bombed the cars of NAACP organizers. The White Knights of Mississippi, another Klan branch, also organized in 1964 and continues in existence today.

The definitions of terrorism that scholars like me adopt when we study and teach about this phenomenon tend to point to 1860 as the birth of the modern era of terrorism. That brings us face to face with a sad but inevitable conclusion:

Our past history of racist, right-wing terrorism in America is consistent with our present reality of racist, right-wing terrorism in America. El Paso is just the bloodiest, most recent example.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

(Credit: Dave Granlund)

Way back in 2015, Donald Trump began his run for the White House with a naked appeal to fear rooted in racism. And for the last four years, as he first campaigned and then as he has governed, his tune has remained the same.

His tune has remained the same even as his words have given legitimacy to white supremacists and inspired the murderous acts of racist terrorists. All the while he denies the impact of the noxious bile that spews from his mouth and drips from his Twitter fingers. As he was leaving the White House en route to Dayton and El Paso yesterday, the president took issue with the very idea that his rhetoric might in any way be divisive:

I don’t think my rhetoric does at all. I think my rhetoric brings people together. 

As disconnected from reality as this seems, I think we have to take the president as his word here. His rhetoric really does bring people together. The key question, however, is which people?

We actually have a pretty good idea. As I wrote back in September 2016, the profile of many Trump supporters’ attitudes concerning Muslims and Islam, immigration and immigrants, racism, and their degree of racial resentment, is just as ugly as the president’s rhetoric. To review:

  • Nearly 60 percent of Trump supporters had somewhat or very negative views of Islam. More than 75 percent of Republicans favored Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States.
  • Trump’s supporters hold strongly anti-immigrant views, and are especially afraid of the cultural impact of Mexican immigration. These feelings are strongest amongst those who live the farthest from the southern border and in areas with fewer residents of Mexican descent.
  • Trump supporters are more likely to hold explicitly racist views, and to bear particular resentment toward African Americans.
  • Mandatory caveat — These attitudes do not necessarily describe every Trump supporter, so for those of you who take issue with these characterizations, or deny they apply to you, understand that this is the company you keep.

This is what the essence of the president’s base has been from the start, and what it remains. For these loyalists, Trump’s rhetoric isn’t divisive at all, but instead brings them together.

Just as the president said.

Annals of white privilege

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Here’s a new entry:

McAndrew, who voted for Obama in the two previous races, was intrigued by Trump, but decided eventually that “all he does is insult everybody … women, black people, white people, rich, poor. He’s an idiot.” He considered Clinton, but was concerned by the scandal over her handling of classified material on a private email server as secretary of state.

“I hated both of them, so I just said, ‘the hell with it,’” McAndrew said. His wife, also a life-long Democrat, went to the polls without him – and voted Republican.

“First time ever,” he said.

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, Shaun King, a reporter with the New York Daily News, has been collecting first-hand reports from people of color and other vulnerable members of society of life under the new regime. Things like this:

King’s timeline, only one day into the new reality of an America where people feel liberated from “political correctness” and empowered to harass, threaten, and abuse is sobering and heartbreaking.

Back in August of 2015 I tried to illustrate what white privilege means. My original list appears below.

But now add to that list the privilege of being able to stay home from the polls when you won’t be the one to suffer the worst consequences of that choice.

White privilege is …

That’s white privilege.