Skip to Content

raceAhead: Debating George H.W. Bush’s Legacy

This week we mark the passing of George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st U.S. president, and the middle figure in a political dynasty that has had an outsized impact on history.

To put it mildly, right?

While tributes and remembrances continue to pour in, others are raising legitimate questions about the former president’s record. For people intent on policing “civility”, it can feel ill-timed.

But these difficult conversations are not only possible, they are also necessary. It serves the public to understand the legacy of a public servant.

You can be both a folksy patrician and a vicious political operator—and he was.

I won’t veer into political analysis. But I do feel the need to defend the practice of historical review, to create a cultural habit of reckoning that has long eluded the American character.

What do leaders do to keep and maintain power? And what price does the public pay? What can we learn from this history?

Living through a time doesn’t equate to understanding it; what we remember instead, is the myth-making and the marketing, the William “Willie” Hortons and drug-dealing rapists that Mexico “sends our way.”

But none of this is new. The history of 10 seconds ago is built on an invisible pedestal of actions that happened 10 years, 10 decades ago, or more.

It’s why a quiet meeting that happened today in North Carolina is important to note.

Today, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided how they wanted to manage the legacy of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue torn down four months ago by protestors who felt that the presence of the monument as a symbol of white supremacy was a continuing affront.

“Last night, a group of students and community organizers did what few were prepared to do: they corrected a moral and historical wrong that needed to be righted if we were ever to move forward as a University. Last night, they tore down Silent Sam. They were right to do so,” the UNC undergraduate leadership group said in a statement.

The statue was erected in the 1920s as part of the second wave of Confederate monuments designed to affirm the Jim Crow caste system and cement the ideals of white supremacy. It is no surprise, then, that at the time Silent Sam arrived, the country’s oldest public university was also facing increasing resistance to its status as a whites-only campus.

It would take decades before the first black students, brothers Ralph and LeRoy Frasier and John Brandon, were admitted.

The three enrolled in 1955 after filing a lawsuit against the UNC board and winning a federal court decision that overturned a 150-year-old segregation policy.

Today, however, the board decided to split the baby: They’re recommending Silent Sam be restored to campus, but in a new building dedicated to telling the university’s long and complicated history. (Which will come with a $5.3 million price tag.)

While it’s not what protestors wanted, history may offer a saving grace.

In a passionate opinion piece, UNC history professor James Leloudis describes the opportunity costs of not facing unvarnished truths in real time.

When the university first failed to integrate, he says, it also failed to calculate “the much larger cost of inaction: the violence and daily degradation inflicted on blacks and Native Americans, and the poverty, illness, and ignorance suffered by many whites as well in a state more concerned to maintain white supremacy than to invest in the health and well-being of its citizens.”

So, let your inner historian out to read, talk and think about the hard stuff. The examination of a public life or institution is an act of public service. May the truth set us all free.

On Point

Nike is Ad Age’s marketer of the yearThey were either on the “right side of history,” as per Spike Lee, or on the “wrong side of the American people,” as per Senator Ted Cruz. Whatever your opinion, the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan starring unemployed football player Colin Kaepernick, proved that taking a stand can pay off. “Virtually every chief marketing officer is going to look at [the campaign and say] ‘How can we capture that magic?'” the research director for the CMO research practice at Forrester told Ad Age. How indeed?Ad Age

Feliz Navidad, America
Lissette Gutierrez and Shirley Figueroa, a married couple living in upstate New York, have donated a 72-foot-tall, 12-ton Norway spruce to Rockefeller Center for its annual Christmas tree celebration. While the tree, which the pair affectionately named Shelby, is not the tallest one ever selected, she is one for the record books: She is the first tree ever donated by either a same-sex or Latinx couple. After the holidays, Shelby will be donated to Habitat for Humanity, which will use her lumber to build homes. The pair will be doing some amateur forestry. “I believe if you take something down, you gotta put something back,” Figueroa said. “We’re definitely going to plant … a few more trees, because she took up a lot of space.”
NBC News

Skin lightening cream takes top prize at start-up competition
Kourtney Brooks, the founder of TINGE, a purportedly “safe” alternative to the skin lightening creams used by women in India, Asia, and Africa, won first prize, $15,000, and a year of mentorship at the grand finale of the Tulsa StartUp Series at Tulsa Community College last month. There is, admittedly, a huge market for the stuff, and Brooks, who is white, became aware of the issue while studying abroad in India in 2013. “One of the things that stood out is that she’s already made the determination that she wants to be the Apple,” said one judge. “She wants to be the luxury brand. So she’s thought that through, and it doesn’t scare her. I like that piece of it.” Building a global business on anti-blackness? Yes, I can hear you screaming right now; see more below.
Tulsa World

A conversation with Unilever’s Paul Polman highlights the inherent conflicts in social impact capitalism
Unilever CEO Paul Polman has become renowned in corporate circles for his commitment to positive social impact and leading with purpose. (More on that here.) But the consumer goods chief had trouble answering a pointed question posed to him by author Anand Giridharadas during a recent panel discussion on “conscious capitalism.” Giridharadas is the author of a new book called Winners Take All, which argues that corporate “do-gooding” is actually a smokescreen that maintains the status quo. To prove his point, he showed Polman a video ad for an appalling Hindustan Unilever skin-whitening product called “Fair and Lovely.” The ad and the product have clear racist overtones. It was a cringer, but Polman did not back down. “The world is burning, and we are talking about a micro-issue to make a point,” Polman said.
QZ

 

The Woke Leader

On skin whiteners and the love of family
Lamya H, a queer Muslim writer living in New York City, has written a poignant essay in three parts that explores the way the racism inherent in her own family formed a complex backdrop for her own thinking on race, bias and violence. In scene one, an adolescent Lamya is encouraged by the older women in her family to bleach her skin, to become pretty. In scene two, she feels her own story unraveling while sitting in a postcolonial theory class, her feelings amplified by romantic stirrings she for a brown-skinned woman classmate. “Unlearning what I have learned about skin from my brown family is a slow, circuitous process, full of embarrassing regressions and painful memories,” she writes. In scene three, she lets it burn.
The Offing

How the model minority myth hurts people at work
It’s more than just the pressure to succeed, says professor and researcher Adia Harvey Wingfield. Racism affects the professional potential of Asian people from the time they become students. While Korean, Chinese and Japanese people have made it part-way into managerial ranks, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Filipino Americans remain overrepresented in low wage jobs. “Research suggests that whites see Asian American men as being unfit for management, because they are stereotyped as passive and weak,” which operates as a racialized glass ceiling. But throughout their professional development, being rewarded for silence means that very real problems—from discrimination to depression—go unaddressed. “When Asian Americans are depicted as the minority group that doesn’t complain, attract negative attention, or cause problems, it can feel uncomfortable for them to point out stereotypes, insults, and assaults,” she writes.
The Atlantic

The most violent four miles in America
It’s not in Chicago or Baltimore, but on a deadly stretch of road called Natural Bridge Avenue in St. Louis. The street is so famous it shows up in rap songs. This piece accompanies a Guardian special report on the inequality of gun violence in America. The Guardian’s deep reporting moves beyond crime stats and census data to bring the human stories of this once thriving black neighborhood, now a shell of its former self after years of racial exclusion, underinvestment and systemic neglect. One tale: James Clark, a community organizer, dispatches volunteers to shutter up abandoned buildings and ask residents how they are and what they need. They leave yard signs behind, now so popular that they cannot keep them in stock. “We must stop killing each other,” they read.
The Guardian

Quote

Any instructor who shall teach in any school, college or institution where members of the white and colored race are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined in any sum not less than ten dollars ($10.00) nor more than fifty dollars ($50.00) for each offense. (Oklahoma) Books shall not be interchangeable between the white and colored schools, but shall continue to be used by the race first using them. (North Carolina)
A sampling of Jim Crow laws