History’s Grim Duty: raceAhead

August 7, 2019, 10:08 PM UTC

One hundred years ago this week, writer Jelani Cobb reminds us, a seventeen-year-old black teen named Eugene Williams attempted to beat the Chicago heat by swimming in Lake Michigan with his friends. When he drifted too close to a whites-only beach, a man named George Stauber threw rocks at his head. The boy was struck and drowned. That incident triggered eight days of arson and violence (little) known as the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. 

But tensions had been simmering for a long while. 

“Thousands of black soldiers returning from the First World War competed against white workers for employment and housing. The veterans brought with them a renewed intolerance for discrimination,” Cobb says. “Other African-Americans, newly arrived migrants from the South, as part of what became known as the Great Migration, were viewed as interlopers whose willingness to work for low pay undercut the wages of white men. As the poet Eve Ewing notes in her searing collection ‘1919,’ white Chicagoans attributed the violence to a ‘Negro invasion’ of previously white enclaves. The world had been made safe for democracy; Chicago had not.”

 Thirty-eight people died, 15 of them white, 23 of them black.

A hundred years to the day that the Chicago Race Riot was being commemorated in earnest, another vile attempt to stave off an “invasion,” this one Hispanic, took place in El Paso, Tex. A young white man who openly claimed terror as a political strategy was about to join a long line of smugly entitled murderers bent on setting the border straight.

Monica Muñoz Martinez, a professor at Brown University and author of the book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texasrecently spoke with Tanzina Vega on WNYC’s The Takeaway.

She began by noting the long history of violence against Latinx throughout history, including terror lynchings carried out by white mobs across the U.S. But the period from 1910 to 1920 was particularly deadly. Historians believe around 5,000 people of Mexican heritage were either murdered or disappeared in the American West. 

Texas has long been responsible for the lion’s share of this violence for an important reason: It allowed state-sanctioned violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, often led by the state police known as the Texas Rangers, alongside local law enforcement, and U.S. soldiers. And they brought their friends. “When we think about racial violence on the border it’s important to remember that it’s not only acts of statesanctioned racial violence, but that they were linked with vigilantes,” she says. 

She cites the Porvenir Massacre as a classic example of this unremembered history. 

On the night of January 28, 1918, a mob of Texas Rangers, U.S. Cavalry soldiers, and local ranchers set upon the small village of Porvenir in Presidio County, Tex. They removed 15 boys and men from their beds and took them outside and shot them in front of their families. The flimsy excuse was thefts at nearby ranches. The village was razed days later, erasing the evidence along with the story.

“It’s one of the greatest tragedies that’s unknown in U.S. history,” says Martinez.

Despite decades of efforts of families and witnesses to find justice—there was even an archeological dig at the Porvenir site in 2015—nobody was ever prosecuted for the crime. “In fact,” says Martinez, “there were participants who enjoyed long careers in law enforcement after the massacre.”  

It is history’s truly grim duty to remind us of the rot that lurks in our past, like the way that law enforcement, political leaders, and the media have traditionally portrayed the Latinx population of Texas as less-than-human and inherently violent criminals. 

You know, not the “best people.” 

“It shows that the deadly consequences of racist rhetoric not only leads to violent policing, it also leads to vigilante violence,” says Martinez.

All the ugliest impulses doomed to repeat on a loop.

On Point

8chan owner called to testify before Congress The House Homeland Security Committee publicly called on Jim Watkins, the current owner of the online forum 8chan, to testify after the site was alleged to be used by the shooter in the terrorist attack in El Paso, Tex. “Regrettably, this is at least the third act of white supremacist extremist violence linked to to your website this year,” it begins. “Americans deserve to know what, if anything, you, as the owner and operator, are doing to address the proliferation of extremist content on 8chan.” The letter was posted on Twitter. Watkins, who operates from the Phillipines, responded to the letter on Twitter. “Rest assured I am not an extremist. My telephone should work worldwide,” he said. Time

Gaming has a diversity problem Games are pretty lucrative. According to industry tracker GlobalData, video games collectively brought in $131 billion in profit last year and a number which is likely to more than double by 2025. Sadly, only 1% of gaming professionals identify as black, and black women are barely a rounding error. It’s a serious problem: Racism, bigotry, and misogyny are rampant in programming themes, and gaming platforms are attractive staging areas for white supremacists. Members of marginalized groups have banded together to change the ratio, but with little progress. “There is power in diversity. But nobody gives a fuck unless I can substantiate it in a million different ways,” Keisha Howard, the founder of Sugar Games says in this story from Ozy. Afrotech

A new ABC series will tell the story of civil rights through the lives of black women leaders "Women of the Movement,” a working title, will be executive produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, among others. The series will start with the story of Mamie Till and the brutal torture and slaying of her son, Emmett, in 1955. The first season was inspired by Devery S. Anderson's book, Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, ABC said in a statement. The series is being written by Marissa Jo Cerar of "The Handmaid's Tale," "13 Reasons Why," and "The Fosters." ABC

On Background

Speaking of Marissa Jo Cerar… The talented writer and producer seems like a superstar hiding in plain sight. She’s been building a power resume in Hollywood for years, and one of her unproduced scripts was picked up in 2016 after it ranked high on the Black List in 2012. In this interview, she spends some time with a longtime member of her writer’s support and “war stories” group. “An uncommonly emotive screenwriter, Marissa in many respects served as the emotional barometer of our workshops,” says Sean P. Carlin. And she’s got a backstory of her own: She grew up in a family of 8 adopted kids, five of whom came straight from foster care on the same day. She focuses her work on characters or issues she’s interested in. “For example, my Black List script Conversion started with 'issues':  homophobia, religion, and reparative therapy. I wanted to explore the practice and use my experience growing up in a very rural, very religious small town as the setting with fictional characters at the center.” Sean P. Carlin

An interview with Ibram X. Kendi His most recent book, Stamped From the Beginning, is an essential read and a deep dive into five centuries of racist belief in the country. Kendi is a professor and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, which takes an activist approach to scholarship. His latest book, How to Be an Antiracist, sounds like the perfect companion piece, and just in time. While it sounds to be part memoir and part prescription, Kendi also includes anecdotes that show how he had indulged and was rewarded for racist thinking in his youth. It’s this rigor that he believes will help him identify ways to dismantle systemic racism through activist scholarship and policy design. It also helped him navigate a diagnosis of stage four colon cancer while he was writing the book. “I was pretty disciplined and determined before the diagnosis, but now I’ve taken it to a whole other level of seriousness,” he said. “Even though I’m young, I can’t imagine I have so much time. It forced me, compelled me, to take risks.” New York Times

Dance with Toni Morrison one last time This lovely photo-driven feature shows how creative Morrison was, and how much she enjoyed living, collaborating, and expanding the bounds of art. She wrote plays, children’s books and librettos; earlier in her career as an editor, she made sure the once-shunned Muhammed Ali got to work on an autobiography and worked with a recently acquitted Angela Davis to do the same. And then there are the portraits of a young editor taking to the dance floor to make sure disco knew who was in charge. Enjoy. New York Times

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead.


"Speaking of birthdays, I couldn't help but hear and read all over the news this past week about the fresh attention to your constitutional eligibility and natural-born citizen status. I hardly can believe that individuals are offering bounties—one for $100,000—for any personal witness or sufficient evidence to your American birth… I'm writing you because this is no longer a matter merely about proving you meet a presidential prerequisite in the Constitution. Refusing to post your original birth certificate is an unwise political and leadership decision that is enabling the 'birther' controversy. The nation you are called to lead is experiencing a growing swell of conspirators who are convinced that you are covering up something. So why not just prove them wrong and shut them up?"

Chuck Norris in a letter to President Obama

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