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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 5 - 1963 - Today by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 5 - 1963 - Today.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 168 - 244.

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CHAPTER 21

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When Death Comes

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CYNTHIA WESLEY. CAROLE ROBERTSON. CAROL DENISE McNair. Addie Mae Collins.

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These were the names of four girls killed in a church bombing.

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It’s September 16, 1963. The Herald Tribune. Angela Davis was a college student, a junior at Brandeis University, when she read these names in the newspaper—four girls killed in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Angela Davis was from Birmingham. She knew these names. Her mother, Sallye, had taught Carol Denise in the first grade. The Robertson and Davis families had been close friends for as long as she could remember. The Wesleys lived around the block in the hilly Birmingham neighborhood where Angela grew up. Angela’s mother wasn’t deterred by the bombings. It was a frightening and painful moment, but the Davises were active, and by “active,” I mean activists.

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Sallye Davis had been a leader in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an antiracist organization that protested racial and economic disparities. On Dynamite Hill, where Angela Davis grew up, Sallye and her husband trained their daughter to be an antiracist. And so most of her childhood was spent wrestling with the poverty and racism around her. Why didn’t her classmates have certain things? Why were they hungry? Why weren’t they able to eat in school? She even decided early on that she would never—despite the pressure—desire to be White.

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She fought and spoke out all the way up until she got to college at Brandeis—a predominately White institution—where she didn’t agree with the kind of activism going on. An activism laid out by White people who couldn’t see that they weren’t the standard. But she found her outlets. She found a place to put her activist energy.

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James Baldwin, one of Davis’s favorite authors, came to Brandeis in 1962, just before the release of his activist manifesto, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin crafted a collection of essays that encapsulated the Black experience with racism. The book contains a letter to his nephew, warning him of the oppression coming his way, and another letter addressing the centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which he charges both Black and White Americans to attack the nasty legacy of racism. It’s a macro- and microexamination of the American race machine, and ultimately a master class in antiracism.

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Malcolm X also came, and though Davis didn’t agree with his religious leanings, she really fell in line with his political ideas. She was fascinated by the way he explained the racism Black people had internalized, an inferiority complex forced on them by White supremacy.

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But during Davis’s junior year, while studying abroad in France, she was emotionally transported home when she read the four names in the Tribune. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Carol Denise McNair. Addie Mae Collins. Back to Dynamite Hill.

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Davis didn’t see this moment as a special event, a one-off incident, no. She had grown up fully aware of American racism and its deadly potential. All she could do was swallow it and use it as fuel to keep fighting. President

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John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, had to figure out how to fix it. Well, there was no fixing it, but at least he had to do something to snuff out what could become a complete explosion on Dynamite Hill. He launched an investigation, which, by the way, caused his approval ratings to drop. Can you believe that? Four children were killed. Bombed. And because the president tried to get to the bottom of it, his southern constituents and supporters were actually upset. Kennedy tried to rebound. Tried to boost his ratings back up in Dallas two months later. He never made it back to the White House.

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Two days after Kennedy’s burial, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was now president, proclaimed that the civil rights bill that Kennedy had been working on would be passed.

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But what did that mean?

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On paper it would mean that discrimination on the basis of race was illegal. But what it actually meant was that White people, even those in favor of it (in theory), could then argue that everything was now fine. That Black people should stop crying and fighting and “get over” everything, because now things were equal. It meant they’d argue what they’d been arguing, that Black people’s circumstances are caused solely by themselves, and if they just worked harder and got educations, they’d succeed. It meant they’d completely ignore the hundreds of years of head starts White people had in America. And the worst part, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would’ve caused White people to rethink White seniority and superiority, and instead of dealing with it, they’d turn it on its head, flip it around, do the old okey-doke and claim that they were now the victims. That they were being treated unfairly. Unjustly. So, even though the act was supposed to outlaw discrimination, it ended up causing a backlash of more racist ideas.

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Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first important civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Hours after President Johnson signed it into law, on July 2, 1964, he hit the TV screen to play up the whole American ideal of freedom. His appearance on television may as well have been a sitcom. A show, fully cast with the best actors, complete with smiling faces and a laugh track. And Black Americans, at least those who’d seen the show before, looked on, entertained, but fully aware it was all scripted.

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And… cut!

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Malcolm X, full of distrust for America, spoke out not against the bill but about the likelihood of its actually ever being enforced. Who was going to make sure the laws would be followed if the law, lawmakers, and law enforcers were all White and racist? Angela Davis felt the same way. And Angela and Malcolm weren’t wrong. This was a political play. President Johnson knew that since he’d made it about Kennedy, this bill wouldn’t hurt his position as president or his potential to get reelected. At least, that’s what he thought. But George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and ultimate racist, threw a major wrench into Johnson’s reelection plans. Wallace had taken a public stand for segregation the year before, and received 100,000 letters of support, mostly from northerners.

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Wait. What? Yep. Northerners. Sending in letters in support of Wallace’s stance for segregation. This proved, painfully, that everyone—the North and the South—hated Black people.

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Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, was also running. Goldwater was ushering in a new kind of conservatism. His platform was that government assistance, which White people had been receiving for a long time, was bad for human beings. That it turned people into animals. Of course, this racist epiphany hit Goldwater once Black people started receiving government assistance, too. Funny how that happens. Yet not funny at all. It’s like someone telling you they hate your shoes, and then a week later, once they’ve put you down and made you feel insecure, they start wearing them. This strange game of whatever’s good for the goose not being good for the gander. A gander is a male goose. But for this example, a gander is a whole bunch of Black people.

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But Goldwater, despite the support he had from well-to-do Whites, didn’t worry Johnson, either. Johnson was concerned about the Black political movements, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who weren’t satisfied with what Johnson was doing for them. The northern activists had been dealing with and protesting police brutality and exploitation. The southern activists had survived, and were continuing to survive, the Klan. And what did Johnson offer them? What leverage did he grant the SNCC and MFDP? Two seats at the Democratic National Convention, which was basically nothing. No power. And without power, all the protesting in the world meant nothing. The shift went from fighting for civil rights to fighting for freedom. The difference between the two is simple. One implies a fight for fairness. The other, a right to live.

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Malcolm X’s empowerment philosophy of Black national and international unity, self-determination, self-defense, and cultural pride started to sound like music to the ears of the SNCC youth. At the end of 1964, Malcolm X returned from an extended trip to Africa to a growing band of SNCC admirers and a growing band of enemies. Unfortunately, a few months later—February 21, 1965—at a Harlem rally, Malcolm would be gunned down by those enemies.

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When James Baldwin heard the news in London, he was devastated.

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When Dr. Martin Luther King heard the news in Selma, Alabama, he was calm. Reflective. Acknowledged that, though they didn’t always agree on methods—much like Du Bois and Washington, and Du Bois and Garvey—they wanted the same thing.

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Malcolm X’s death rocked the Black antiracist followers, especially the ones populating urban environments. He’d instilled a sense of pride, a sense of intellectual prowess, a sense of self into many. He’d made street guys feel that they had a place in the movement. He gave athletes like Muhammad Ali a higher purpose than boxing. He’d debated and deconstructed racism with a fearlessness many people had never seen, and his ideas evolved into a more inclusive Constitution just before the end of his life.

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The media, however… well, the media did what the media had been doing for decades… centuries. They spun his entire life into a boogeyman tale, devoid of context. “Malcolm X’s life was strangely and pitifully wasted,” read a New York Times editorial.

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But antiracists honored him and would have something to hold on to forever to reference his ideas. Alex Haley had been working with Malcolm on his autobiography, and the book would be published after his death. His ideological transformation, from assimilationist to anti-White separatist to antiracist, inspired millions. He argued that though White people weren’t born racist, America was built to make them that way. And that if they wanted to fight against it, they had to address it with the other racist White people around them. He critiqued Black assimilationists. Called them puppets, especially the “leaders” who had exploited their own people to climb the White ladder. Malcolm X stamped that he was for truth—not hate—truth and truth alone, no matter where it was coming from. His autobiography would become antiracist scripture. It would become one of the most important books in American history.

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President Johnson, still dealing with the hate (from White people) and the distrust (from Black people) around the Civil Rights Act, decides to go even further than that bill. Decides to double down. Dig his heels into the antiracist mud. After the Civil Rights Act came the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And though it would cause what every bit of progress caused, White rage and resistance, the Voting Rights Act would become the most effective piece of antiracist legislation ever passed by the Congress of the United States of America.

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CHAPTER 22

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Black Power

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DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR THE MUTATED RACISM TO SHOW up, but it also didn’t take long for the mutated rebellion to meet that racism and look it square in the eye. Actually, it was met with a little more than a mean look. See, five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, a social bomb exploded in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles when a police incident set off six days of violence. This became the deadliest and most destructive urban rebellion in history. Enough. Enough! There was no more picketing. No more marching. The squawking mockingbird had stopped its pecking and had transformed into a panther, brandishing teeth.

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As Watts burned, Angela Davis boarded a boat headed for Germany to get her graduate degree in philosophy. Shortly after she arrived, in September 1965, an international group of scholars gathered in Copenhagen for the Race and Colour Conference. Davis didn’t attend. But if she had, she would have heard lectures on the racist role of language symbolism. Scholars pointed out everyday phrases such as black sheep, blackballing, blackmail, and blacklisting, among others, that had long associated Blackness and negativity. Two other words could’ve been included—words that still exist today: minority, as if Black people are minor, making White people major; and ghetto, a term first used to describe an undesirable area of a city in which Jewish people were forced to live. But in the racist context of America, ghetto and minority became synonyms for Black. And all three of those words seemed to be knives.

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That is, until people like Stokely Carmichael showed up.

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Carmichael was born in Trinidad in 1941 and moved to the Bronx in 1952, the same year his idol, Malcolm X, was paroled from prison. In 1964, Carmichael graduated from Howard University. By then, Malcolm’s disciples, including Carmichael, were saying that the word Negro was to describe Black assimilationists, and Black was for the antiracist, removing the ugliness and evil that had been attached to it. They were now passionately embracing the term Black, which stunned Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Negro” disciples and their own assimilationist parents and grandparents, who would rather be called “nigger” than “Black.”

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Carmichael was the kind of guy who’d rather be called dead than afraid. He was the new chairman of the SNCC. And a year after the uprising in Watts, he and the SNCC found themselves at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, called the March Against Fear. It was at this rally that Carmichael would exclaim a culture-shifting phrase. “What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”

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Black Power. And when Black people—especially the disenfranchised but also antiracist ones—caught wind of this phrase and married it to Malcolm X’s autobiography (Black Power basically sums up the book), Black Power became a red fire burning in the Black community and burning down the White one. Well, maybe not burning it down, but definitely heating its butt.

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What Stokely Carmichael meant by Black Power:

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BLACK PEOPLE OWNING AND CONTROLLING THEIR OWN NEIGHBORHOODS AND FUTURES, FREE OF WHITE SUPREMACY.

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What (racist) White people (and media) heard:

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BLACK SUPREMACY.

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And once again, the mere notion of antiracist ideas got purposely jumbled into hateful extremism. There were even Black civil rights leaders, such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, who were against the Black Power mantra. Wilkins thought it was “reverse Mississippi,” and “reverse Hitler.” He would’ve been one of the Black people Malcolm X referred to as a Negro.

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Despite all the assimilationist vomit coming from the Black elites and the racist vomit coming from White segregationists, Carmichael and his Black Power mantra pushed on. He traveled around the country, speaking, building the movement. But another movement was sprouting up at the same time.

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Oakland, California. Two frustrated young men started their own two-man movement. They called themselves the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

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I’m sure you’ve seen the photos. These days they’re on T-shirts and posters, randomly plastered around places as if the Black Panthers were Disney. They weren’t. The black hats and leather jackets, the sunglasses and guns all were real. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale weren’t characters. They were men, fed up. So they composed a ten-point platform of things they were fighting for in the newly founded Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

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The Ten-Point Platform (paraphrased):

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  1. Power to determine the destiny of our Black community.
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  3. Full employment.
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  5. An end to the robbery of the Black community by the government.
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  7. Decent housing.
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  9. Real education.
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  11. For all Black men to be exempt from military service.
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  13. An immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
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  15. Freedom for all Black prisoners.
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  17. For all Black people on trial to be tried by a jury of their peers.
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  19. Peace, and Black representation in the United Nations.
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In the next few years, the Black Panther Party spread in chapters across the country, attracting thousands of committed and charismatic young community members. They policed the police, provided free breakfast for children, and organized medical services and political education programs, among a series of other initiatives.

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And with the Black Panther Party growling, and the Black Power movement howling, Angela Davis was in Germany reading about it all. Finally, when she couldn’t take being outside the action any longer, she packed up and moved back to America.

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It was the summer of 1967, and Angela Davis was bound for California. The University of California, San Diego, to be exact. And as soon as she got there, she settled in and ramped up the Black Power movement, immediately starting a Black Student Union (BSU) on campus. Wherever there were Black students, they were building BSUs or taking over student governments, requesting and demanding an antiracist and relevant education at historically Black and historically White colleges.

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All sorts of different minds engaged with Black Power. Separatists, pan-Africanists, and everything in between. Black Power even appealed to the face of the civil rights movement. That’s right, even Dr. King, in 1967, was turning away from assimilationist thought in the same way W. E. B. Du Bois had later in his life. Dr. King had now realized that desegregation was good only for elite Black people, while everyone else was harmed by it. It left millions drowning in poverty. So King switched gears and started planning the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign. His goal was to bring poor people to Washington, DC, in order to force the government to pass an “economic bill of rights” committing to full employment, guaranteed income, and affordable housing, a bill that sounded a lot like the economic proposals in the Black Panther Party’s tenpoint platform.

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Of course King was criticized. By his own people.

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Of course White rage and fear sparked up. Too many protests. Civil rights. Poor people. Vietnam War. Too. Many. Protests.

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Of course there was a moment in the media, a pop culture phenomenon like The Birth of a Nation or Tarzan, to send a message to White people to take up arms and be afraid, and also to send a shock through the confident backbone of Black America, to remind them of their place. This time, in 1968, the movie was called Planet of the Apes.

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Here’s the basic plot:

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  1. White astronauts land on a planet after a two-thousand-year journey.
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  3. Apes enslave them.
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  5. Turns out, they’re not on a faraway planet at all. They’re on Earth.
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  7. (Noooooooooooooooooo!)
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While Tarzan put the racist conquering of Africa and Africans on the screen, Planet of the Apes stoked the racist fear fire by showing the dark world rising against the White conqueror. And just like with Tarzan, Planet of the Apes went boom. Became a megahit, complete with sequels and comics and merchandise. And just like that, the conversation coming from the American government shifted to protect their “planet.” Black Power was met by a new slogan, one spat out like a racist slur. Law and order.

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A week later, on April 4, Angela Davis was at the new office of the SNCC in Los Angeles. The newly organized SNCC chapter was her new activist home as she shuffled back and forth between Los Angeles and her doctoral studies at UC San Diego. That afternoon, she heard a scream. Following the scream came the news. Dr. King, after giving a speech that referenced a “human rights revolution,” had been shot dead.

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King’s death transformed countless doubly conscious activists into singly conscious antiracists, and Black Power suddenly grew into the largest American antiracist movement ever. There was a shift happening.

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James Brown made a song that insisted everyone “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Black people started to move away from colorism, and some reversed. The darker, the better. The kinkier the hair, the better. The more African the clothing, the better.

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From 1967 to 1970, Black students and their hundreds of thousands of non-Black allies compelled nearly a thousand colleges and universities spanning almost every US state to introduce Black Studies departments, programs, and courses. The demand for Black Studies filtered down into K–12 schools, too, where textbooks still often presented African Americans as subhuman, happy slaves. Early Black Studies intellectuals went to work on new antiracist textbooks. Black Studies, and Black Power ideas in general, also began to inspire antiracist transformations among non-Blacks. White hippies, who had been anti–Vietnam War, had now begun pledging to (try to) strip the influence of racism from White Americans. Puerto Rican antiracists and the emerging Brown Power movement, which also challenged the color hierarchy. And while the movement continued to grow, Angela Davis was dipping her toe in different waters.

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See, the Black Power movement wasn’t perfect, of course. And though it had a righteous cause, it was still sexist. Men ran it all. Women were pushed to the back, like they’d been in every racial liberation movement in history. So, Davis started seriously considering joining the Communist Party, which at the time was feared by the American government, who thought the Communists (and communism, which was rooted in ending social classes) would overthrow democracy. Davis, a subscriber to the Communist ideals of revolution, felt the Communist Party hadn’t paid enough attention to race. But there was a collective of Communists of color that did. The Che-Lumumba Club. They were all it took to push her over the edge and join the Party. Her first role was working on the campaign for the first Black woman to run for the US presidency, the Communist Party candidate Charlene Mitchell.

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In the 1968 presidential election, Mitchell squared off against Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon ran on the Republican ticket. His innovative campaign would reveal the future of racist ideas.

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CHAPTER 23

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Murder Was the Case

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RICHARD NIXON AND HIS TEAM LOOKED AT THE WAY George Wallace had run his campaign (Vote for Hate!) and felt like it was a good idea to follow in his footsteps. Nixon believed the segregationist approach was a good one because it would lock down all the true-blue segregationists. Like, the varsity squad of racists. Along with those, Nixon figured he could also attract the White people who were afraid of… everything Black. Black neighborhoods. Black schools. Black… people. And the brilliant game plan (ugh) Nixon used to drive an even bigger wedge and get racists on his side was to simply demean Black people in every speech, while also praising White people. But the magic trick in it all—the “how did you hide that rabbit in that hat?” part—was that he did all this without ever actually saying “Black people” and “White people.”

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It goes back to things like the word ghetto.

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And today, maybe you’ve heard urban.

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Or how about undesirables?

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Oh, and my favorite (not), dangerous elements.

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Which would eventually become thugs.

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My mother would call this “gettin’ over,” but for the sake of this not history history book, let’s go with what the historians have named it: the “southern strategy.” And, in fact, it was—and remained over the next five decades—the national strategy Republicans used to unite northern and southern racists, war hawks, and fiscal and social conservatives. The strategy was right on time. With the southern strategy in full tilt, and with the messaging being all about law and order—which meant doing anything to shut down protests, or at least to paint them as bloodbaths—Richard Nixon won the presidency.

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In the fall of 1969, with Charlene Mitchell’s campaign behind her, Angela Davis settled into a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But the FBI had other plans. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had launched a war to destroy the Black Power movement that year. And all they needed to cut Davis down was to know that she was part of the Communist Party. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California at the time, had her fired from UCLA. When she tried to plead her case, it set off a media storm. Hate mail started filling up her mailbox. She received threatening phone calls, and police officers started harassing her. And even though the California Superior Court would overturn her firing and allow her to go back to work, Reagan searched for new ways to get rid of her.

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And he would succeed. The next time, he fired her for speaking out in defense of three Black inmates in Soledad State Prison who she felt were detained only because they were Black Power activists. Here’s what happened. George Jackson was transferred to Soledad from San Quentin after disciplinary infractions. He had already served some years, after being accused of robbing a gas station of seventy dollars. His sentence for that crime—one year to life in prison. In 1970, a year after arriving in Soledad, Jackson and fellow Black inmates John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo were accused of murdering a prison guard in a racially charged prison fight. Whatever chance he had at freedom was now locked up with him behind bars.

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Angela Davis had become friends with George Jackson’s younger brother, Jonathan, who was committed to freeing his brother. They had been rallying. Angela Davis had been speaking. They had been fighting the good fight. But it wasn’t enough for Jonathan Jackson, brother of George. He decided to take the freeing of his brother into his own hands.

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This is real.

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Pay attention.

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It’s gonna go quickly.

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August 7, 1970.

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Jonathan Jackson walked into a courtroom in California’s Marin County.

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He was holding three guns.

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He took the judge, the prosecutor, and three jurors hostage.

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He freed three inmates who were on trial.

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He led the hostages to a van parked outside.

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Police opened fire.

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The shoot-out took the lives of the judge, two inmates, and also Jonathan Jackson.

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He was seventeen years old

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A week later, Angela Davis was charged with murder.

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Record scratch. Repeat.

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A week later, Angela Davis was charged with murder. Because police said one of the guns Jonathan Jackson used was actually hers. If found guilty, she’d be sentenced to death.

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Angela went on the run. She was caught months later on the other side of the country. New York. October 13, 1970. She was arrested and brought to the New York Women’s House of Detention. While she was in there, around so many other Black and Brown incarcerated women, she began to develop her Black feminist theory.

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On the other side of the prison walls, organizations were fighting and rallying for her freedom. And this rallying cry continued after December 1970, when Davis was sent back to California, where she spent most of her jail time in solitary confinement, awaiting trial. She read the letters—thousands of letters—from activists and supporters. She also studied her case. Studied it and studied it and studied it. A year and a half later, her trial finally began.

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She represented herself. And won.

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On June 4, 1972, Angela Davis was free. But not. Not free in her own mind until she could help all the women and men she was leaving behind bars get free. There was no value, to her, in her own exceptionalism. She was an antiracist. She knew better than to beat her chest when there was a much bigger challenge to be beaten. Much stronger chains to break.

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Three years later, Angela Davis returned to teaching. Nixon had resigned from office after a scandal he wasn’t punished for (no surprise) and Gerald Ford was president. Just telling you that because you’d probably be wondering what happened to Nixon. Turns out, he was… a liar and couldn’t, as my mother would say, get over. Anyway, Davis had taken a job at the Claremont Colleges Black Studies Center in Southern California, and she realized quickly that not much had changed since she’d been gone. Segregationists were still arguing some kind of natural-born problem with Black people. And assimilationists were still trying to figure out why integration had failed. And the one thing that Black male assimilationist scholars kept arguing about was that Black masculinity was what was frightening to White men. That it was sexual jealousy that spawned systemic oppression, which is ridiculous, because it buys into the racist idea that Black men are sexually superior (making them superhuman, making them not human) and also continues the narrative that Black women just don’t matter. Black women didn’t have a place in the conversation, though they’d been the steadying stick from the moment the conversation began. All this is in line with decades—centuries!—of racist propaganda. Centuries of White men, and White women, and Black men, all working to erase or discredit who they thought posed the greatest threat to freedom, even if it’s only—in the case of Black men—the freedom to pretend to be freer than they actually are.

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And what about the LGBT community? Were they not to be included in this conversation? Fortunately there was… media. But not another Tarzan or Planet of the Apes. Not another Uncle Tom’s Cabin, either. This time, just like with novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who had in the past written southern dialect into the mouths of strong women characters (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Black women were screaming with Black feminist, antiracist work.

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Audre Lorde produced essays, stories, and poems from the perspective of being Black and lesbian. She pushed back against the idea that she, as a Black person, woman, and lesbian, was expected to educate White people, men, and/or heterosexuals in order for them to recognize her humanity.

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Ntozake Shange used her creative, antiracist energy to produce a play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, portraying the lives of Black women and their experiences of abuse, joy, heartbreak, strength, weakness, love, and longing for love. Some people were afraid it would strengthen stereotypes of Black women. Some were afraid it would strengthen stereotypes of Black men. Both fears are code for the fear of an antiracist truth.

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Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple, a novel that presents a Black woman dealing with abusive Black men, abusive southern poverty, and abusive racist Whites. The tired argument about the Black male stereotype arose again. But… so what?

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And Michele Wallace wrote a book called Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Wallace believed sexism was an even greater concern than racism. She was loved, but she was hated just as much.

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And while the idea of Black masculinity was being challenged by Black women, White masculinity was being threatened, constantly, by Black men. So, once again, White America created a symbol of hope. Of “man.” I mean, MAN. Of macho. Of victor. And plastered it on the big screen. Again. This time his name was Rocky.

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I’m sure you’ve seen at least one of the movies, even if it’s one of the new ones. And if you haven’t, you know the fight song. The song playing while Rocky runs up a set of museum steps, training, tired, but triumphant. Yeah.

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Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone, was a poor, kind, slow-talking, slow-punching, humble, hardworking, steel-jawed Italian American boxer in Philadelphia, facing off against the unkind, fast-talking, fast-punching, cocky African American world heavyweight champion. I mean, really Rocky’s opponent, Apollo Creed (the new movies are about his son),
with his amazing thunderstorm of punches, symbolized the empowerment movements, the rising Black middle class, and the real-life heavyweight champion of the world in 1976, the pride of Black Power masculinity, Muhammad Ali. Rocky symbolized the pride of White supremacist masculinity’s refusal to be knocked out from the thunderstorm of civil rights and Black Power protests and policies.

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Weeks before Americans ran out to see Rocky, though, they ran out to buy Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley, who was known for working with Malcolm X on his autobiography, had now basically written the slave story of all slave stories. It was a seven-hundred-page book, then made into a miniseries that became the most watched show in television history. It blew up a bunch of racist ideas about how slaves were lazy brutes, mammies, and sambos, and how slave owners were benevolent and kind… landlords. But as much as antiracist Black Americans loved their Roots, racist White Americans loved—on and off screen—their Rocky, with his unrelenting fight for the law and order of racism. And then, in 1976, their Rocky ran for president.

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CHAPTER 24

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What War on Drugs?

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NOT LIKE ROCKY, ROCKY. LIKE, NOT THE CHARACTER or the guy who played the character, Sylvester Stallone (though that would’ve been funny—or not). But it was, in fact, an actor. One who had already done damage to Black people. The one who’d been gunning for Angela Davis. Who kept her from working. That’s right, Ronald Reagan was running for president.

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He’d lose the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976 but would come right back in 1980 with a vengeance. He’d use an updated version of law and order politics and the southern strategy to address his constituents and talk about his enemies without ever having to say White or Black. He dominated the media (Angela Davis was running against him, for the vice president seat, and couldn’t get any coverage), created false narratives about the state of the country, and won.

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And lots of things unfolded. New, shaky propaganda that many people took seriously, about genetics coding us to be who we are. As if there were a gene for racism. New antiracist feminist thought coming from writers like bell hooks and, of course, Angela Davis. But nothing could prepare anyone for what was coming.

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Two years into Reagan’s presidency, he issued one of the most devastating executive orders of the twentieth century. The War on Drugs. Its role, maximum punishment for drugs like marijuana. This war was really one on Black people. At the time, drug crime was declining. As a matter of fact, only 2 percent of Americans viewed drugs as America’s most pressing problem. Few believed that marijuana was even that dangerous, especially compared with the much more addictive heroin. But President Reagan wants to go to war? Against drugs?

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If you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, Was he on drugs? Yes. Yes, he was. The most addictive drug known to America. Racism. It causes wealth, an inflated sense of self, and hallucinations. In this case, it would unfairly incarcerate millions of Black Americans. And in 1986, during his second term, Reagan doubled down on the War on Drugs by passing the Anti–Drug Abuse Act. This bill gave a minimum five-year sentence for a drug dealer or drug user caught with five grams of crack, the amount typically handled by Blacks and poor people, while the mostly White and rich users and dealers of powder cocaine—who operated in neighborhoods with fewer police—had to be caught with five hundred grams to receive the same five-year minimum sentence.

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Let that sink in.

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Same drug. Different form.

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One gets five years in prison

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The other gets five years in prison for five hundred grams (the size of a brick).

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The results should be obvious. Mass incarceration of Black people, even though White people and Black people were selling and using drugs at similar rates. Not to mention police officers policed Black neighborhoods more, and the more police, the more arrests. It’s not rocket science. It’s racism. And it would, once again, tear the Black community apart. More Black men were going to prison, and when (if) they came home, it was without the right to vote. No political voice. Also, no jobs. Not just because of felony charges, butbecause Reagan’s economic policies caused unemployment to skyrocket. So violent crimes rose because people were hungry. And, according to Reagan and racists, it was all Black people’s fault. Not the racist policies that jammed Black people up.

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Mar 22
cristin t (Mar 22 2021 8:42AM) : Summary more

Of course it racism cause even if white people sell drugs the police don’t see anything wrong with that but if a black person do that it will be a problem with them.

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Aug 20
Jessica H (Aug 20 2020 8:41AM) : It’s not even rocket surgery.
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Mar 22
cristin t (Mar 22 2021 8:44AM) : Opinion more

It’s wasn’t their fault it the community.

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And the media, as always, drove the stereotypes without discussing the racist framework that created much of them. Once again, Black people were lazy and violent, the men were absent from the home because they were irresponsible and careless, and the Black family was withering due to all this, but especially, according to Reagan, because of welfare. There was no evidence to support any of this, but hey, who needs evidence when you have power, right?

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Mar 22
cristin t (Mar 22 2021 8:45AM) : Summary more

What power do they have? They just saying that because of their skin tone, not all black people are lazy and violent.

The worst part is that everyone believed it. Even Black people. And to offset that image, or at least attempt to, another television show was created portraying the perfect Black family.

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The Cosby Show.

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A doctor and a lawyer with five children, in the upscale section of Brooklyn Heights. Upper middle class. Healthy marriage. Good parents. The father, Heathcliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby, even has his office in his home so that he never has to risk not being there for his children. There’s the older, responsible daughter; the rebellious second daughter; the goofy but endearing son; the awkward and nerdy third daughter; and the cute, lovable baby girl. And their collective role as a family of extraordinary Negroes was to convince White people that Black families were more than what they were being portrayed to be. Which of course was racist in and of itself, because it basically said that if a Black family didn’t operate like the Huxtables, they weren’t worthy of respect.

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And, of course, the Cosbys did nothing to slow Reagan’s war. If anything, the show helped create a more polarizing view, because in 1989, a Pulitzer Prize–winning, Harvard medical degree–holding Washington Post columnist named Charles Krauthammer invented the term crack baby. It was a term used to blanket a generation of Black children born from drug-addicted parents, saying they were now destined for inferiority. That they were subhuman. That the drugs had changed their genetics. There was no science to prove any of this. But who needs science when you have racism? And that term, that label, crack baby, grew long arms and wrapped them around Black children all over the inner cities of America, whether it was true or not. Krauthammer and racists had basically figured out how to create a generation of criminals in their minds.

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But Black people, as always, fought back. And this time, in the late eighties, after the election of George H. W. Bush (who of course used Reagan’s racist ideas to win), they would beat racism back with… a beat.

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CHAPTER 25

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The Soundtrack of Sorrow and Subversion

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1988.

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My mic sounds nice. (Check one.)

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My mic sounds nice. (Check two.)

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Hip-hop had arrived. It had been about a decade since it was born in the South Bronx. BET and MTV started airing hip-hop shows. The Source magazine hit newsstands that year, beginning its reign as the world’s longest-running rap periodical. But it was the music itself that was driving change and empowerment.

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Here are a few songs from that year (check them out!):

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Slick Rick: “Children’s Story”

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Ice-T: “Colors”

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N.W.A.: “Straight Outta Compton”

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Boogie Down Productions: “Stop the Violence”

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Queen Latifah: “Wrath of My Madness”

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Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype”

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It would be Public Enemy that really set the tone the following year. In 1989, they wrote a song that was placed in Spike Lee’s Black rebellion movie Do the Right Thing. The song was a forceful mantra. An updated version of Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power!” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” For the new generation of hiphop heads and rebellious Black teenagers angry about racist mistreatment, it was Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

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And with all the Black feminist thought, including the work of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who focused on the intersection between race and sex, women rappers like MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa took their place on the hip-hop stage. Actually, they fared better than women in Hollywood because at least their art was in mass circulation. Aside from Julie Dash’s pioneering Daughters of the Dust, Black men were the only ones producing major Black films in 1991. These included illustrious films like Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City; John Singleton’s debut antiracist tragedy, Boyz N the Hood; and Spike Lee’s acclaimed interracial relationship satire, Jungle Fever.

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Black men produced more films in 1991 than during all of the 1980s. But a White man, George Holliday, shot the most influential racial film of the year on March 3 from the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment. He was filming a twenty-five-year-old Black man, Rodney King, being brutally beaten by four Los Angeles police officers.

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The public—the Black public—broke open. The levees holding back the waters of righteous indignation crumbled under the sight of those officers’ batons.

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How much more can we take?

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profile_photo
Mar 23
cristin t (Mar 23 2021 2:31PM) : Summary more

It’s sad how they can’t take it no more.

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How much more?

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President Bush danced around the issue. Appointed a Black Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, to replace Thurgood Marshall, as if that were supposed to pacify an angry and hurt Black community. And to make matters worse, Clarence Thomas was an assimilationist in the worst way. He saw himself as the king of self-reliance. A “pick yourselves up by the bootstraps” kind of guy, even though his work as an activist got him into his fancy schools and landed him this fancy job. And to add the racist cherry on top, Clarence Thomas had been accused by a woman named Anita Hill of sexual harassment when she served as his assistant at an earlier job. Nothing was done. No one believed her. In fact, she was persecuted.

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So, in 1991, Angela Davis was reeling. Her year had started with the brutal beating of Rodney King (the cops were on trial at this point) and ended with the verbal lashing of Anita Hill (Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice anyway). As if the reminder that being Black and being a woman weren’t enough of a double whammy, the year also ended for Davis in an unfamiliar place. She had taken a new professorship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and stepped away from the Communist Party after spending twenty-three years as the most recognizable Communist in America. The Party refused to acknowledge the issues that Davis had fought so hard to bring to light. Racism. Sexism. Elitism. All things the Communist Party ultimately took part in perpetuating. So she left. But she didn’t jump from Communist to Democrat. Or rather, a New Democrat, as the
party was going through a bit of an overhaul. A remix. A revamp. Fiscally liberal, but tough on welfare and crime. And the man leading this new Democratic Party was a dazzling, well-spoken, and calculating Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

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It was 1992. And by the time the cops who had beaten Rodney King were found not guilty, Clinton had already run away with the Democratic nomination. But who could think about that when America had just told millions of people who had watched the Rodney King beating that those officers had done nothing wrong? So, Black people hit the L.A. streets in rebellion. It would take twenty thousand troops to stop them. Bill Clinton blamed both political parties for failing Black America while also blaming Black America and calling the people in the midst of the uprising—people in immense pain—lawless vandals.

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About a month later, Clinton took his campaign to the national conference of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Though Jackson was widely unpopular among the racist Whites whom Clinton was trying to attract to the New Democrats, when Jackson invited the hip-hop artist Sister Souljah to address the conference, the Clinton team saw its political opportunity. The twenty-eight-year-old Bronx native had just released 360 Degrees of Power, an antiracist album so provocative that it made Spike Lee’s films and Ice Cube’s albums seem like The Cosby Show.

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And Clinton’s response to Sister Souljah was that she was being racist. It was a political stunt, but it thrilled racist voters, and catapulted Clinton to a lead he’d never lose.

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By the end of 1993, rappers were under attack. They were being criticized from all sides, not just from Bill Clinton. Sixty-six-year-old civil rights veteran C. Delores Tucker and her National Political Congress of Black Women took the media portrayals debate to a new racist level in their strong campaign to ban “gangsta rap.” To her, rap music was setting Black people back. She felt like it was making Black people more violent, more materialistic, more sexual. To Tucker, the music was making its urban Black listeners inferior, though she never said anything about its suburban White listeners.

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While Tucker focused on shutting down gangsta rap, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Evelyn Hammonds mobilized to defend against the defamation of Black womanhood. More than two thousand Black female scholars from all across the country made their way to MIT’s campus on January 13, 1994, for “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894–1994.” Among them was Angela Davis. She was the conference’s closing speaker. She was certainly the nation’s most famous Black American woman academic. But, more important, over the course of her career, she had consistently defended Black women, including those Black women who even some Black women did not want to defend. She had been arguably America’s most antiracist voice over the past two decades, unwavering in her search for antiracist explanations when others took the easier and racist way of Black blame.

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In her speech, she proposed a “new abolitionism,” pushing for a rethinking of prisons and how they function. Ten days later, President Bill Clinton endorsed, basically, a new slavery. A “three strikes and you’re out” law. It was called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, giving hard time to certain three-time offenders, which ended up causing the largest increase of the prison population in US history, mostly on nonviolent drug offenses. Mostly Black men. Of course, this once more put fuel in the “Black people are naturally criminals” vehicle, a vehicle that had been driving fast for a long time, running over everything in its path. But there was (another) academic debate brewing on whether Black people were natural or nurtured fools. And this particular debate had serious political repercussions for Clinton’s tough-on-Blacks New Democrats, and the newest force in American politics, which pledged to be even tougher.

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CHAPTER 26

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A Million Strong

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INTELLIGENCE. WHAT IS IT? THIS ISN’T A TRICK QUESTION. Or maybe it is. Either way, it was what academics were talking about as Bill Clinton’s crime laws drove the unintelligent-Black narrative. What scholars were arguing is that intelligence is so relative, it’s impossible to actually measure fairly and without bias. Uh-oh. This notion virtually shook the foundations of the racist ideas that Black people were less intelligent than White people. Or that women were less intelligent than men. Or that poor people were less intelligent than rich. It shook the idea that White schools were better, and even poked at the reason White students were perhaps going to wealthy White universities—not because of intelligence but because of racism. In the form of flawed and biased standardized testing.