Any Colour You’d Like: How Racism and Historical Misconceptions are a Continual Problem even in an Era of Unprecedented Access to Information

Those of my friends and colleagues who know me best could tell you that one of my biggest pet peeves is purposeful ignorance to generally accepted notions of our historical past. In the Information Age in which we live, there is little, if any excuse for not having a general grasp on basic concepts of our historical past.  Anyone with access to a computer can Google an infinite number of historical subjects and gain a basic working knowledge of generally accepted historical principles.  Granted, there is always a caveat emptor factor in gaining any type or depth of knowledge from the internet but the basic foundations are readily available to anyone with the desire to learn.  Again, this is not in-depth historical analysis or anything that would pass for scholarship but it can provide most people with a basic working knowledge from which to develop and answer some questions they have regarding historical inquiries on any number of subjects.

That being said, two currents events which seemingly are totally unconnected, can serve to illustrate what happens when we either choose to ignore our history or purposefully misinterpret it to try to mold it into aligning with our ideology.  The first event is the killing of former NFL player Joe McKnight in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, on December 1, 2016.  The basic background to the story is that McKnight allegedly cut off Roland Gasser while driving and the two got into a heated exchange due to “road rage” which tragically ended with Gasser gunning down McKnight.  The story in itself, while unfortunate, is not unique or remarkable other than the fact that McKnight’s status as a former professional athlete has drawn national attention to the incident, including commentary from those on ESPN’s First Take sports talk show.  What is remarkable about the story is the fact that Gasser, a fifty-four year old white male, turned himself into authorities only to be questioned, then released, and only later arrested and charged with one count of manslaughter!! As someone who has a law degree and background in the legal field, both the procedure and the choice of only charging Gasser with manslaughter are remarkable, especially given the circumstances of a similar April incident involving road rage where a former New Orleans Saints’ player, Will Smith, and his wife, were shot.  Smith ended up dying and his wife being wounded.  The perpetrator, Cardell Hayes, a twenty-eight year old black male, was immediately arrested and held on charges of second-degree murder and attempted murder.  Hayes was recently found guilty and convicted of first-degree manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.  While this is another bizarre, tragic story of road rage leading to death, the two cases are comparable in terms of causality, the criminal justice system’s response, and society’s response.  If this were the end of the story, we might have a nice question to torture law school students with in their Criminal Procedure final exam, but this is only the beginning.  In an attempt to explain the seemingly different treatment of similarly situated defendants of differing races, Jefferson Parish Sheriff  Newell Normand explained that “strategy, evidence, and stand-your ground laws” all worked together in their decisions in handling the cases.  Perhaps the most bizarre part of all of this was Normand’s overly emotional comments regarding the “nonfactor” race allegedly played in the McKnight case and his lashing out of at those who were trying to make an issue out of a non-issue, in his opinion.  Normand, an alleged professional, speaking on behalf of the government, not only riddled his press conference with expletives, but also pointed out that because no witnesses reported the use of racial slurs by the parties, that race was not a factor in the crime and that outsiders needed to let the justice system do its job without stoking the fire, so to speak.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen A. Smith, of ESPN’s First Take, had strong words of reaction to Normand’s comments.  The basic gist of Smith’s response was that of course race was an issue, even if this was not a textbook Hate Crime, because there exists a culturally engrained mentality to view and treat black males as “animalistic, predatory, and a danger,” which, Smith argued, allows situations like this to escalate into fatal violence.  While Normand is correct in his assertion that the situation stemmed from two men “engaging in bad behavior,” it is not that simple and Smith’s analysis is quite on point and reads between the lines of the inconsistencies in the prosecution and procedural handling of Gasser and Hayes, respectively.

However, what is missing from this entire discussion is historical context.  Normand may be technically correct in his assessments of the crime but his outrage at the criticism levied upon himself and his colleagues is misplaced at best and authoritarian at worst.  Smith’s opinions concerning the contemporary cultural context and “black perspective” are astute, but fail to explain why Normand views race as a non-issue.  Essentially, Normand, and many other white Americans, quite simply have a historical blind-spot which renders them totally incapable of empathizing with the racial subjugation of what Smith calls “second-class citizens,” meaning racial minorities.  Part of this blind-spot is due to a willful ignorance of issues, crises, and troubles, which seemingly are “beyond their front door;” but a larger part is due to a lack of historical understanding and the context in which the events have transpired.

The United States, in general, and Louisiana, in particular, have a long history of abhorrent racism which must not be ignored in terms of understanding contemporary crime, criminology, and social responses to crimes involving race and racial minorities.  Perhaps the memories of the Colfax Massacre are too distant for Normand and those who claim that criticism of the criminal justice system is misplaced when it blatantly treats similarly situated white and black defendants differently?!?  For those unaware, the Colfax Massacre occurred in April, 1873, amongst political battles between whites and blacks of over issues of political representation and vote counting.  Essentially, over two hundred KKK members killed, maimed, and burnt alive over one hundred African Americans who were “rioting” (basically, attempting to exercise their newly granted right to vote) culminating in one of the bloodiest acts of political violence in American history.  A marble obelisk (which is pictured above) still stands in Colfax’s cemetery reading: “In Loving Remembrance Erected to the Memory of the Heroes Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris, Who Fell in the Colfax Riot Fighting for White Supremacy, April 13, 1873.” This is only one event of a long history but it serves to illustrate the type of historical context in which contemporary events are derived.  Should anyone be surprised or be critical of those who criticize the justice system in the McKnight case given this historical backdrop?  Sure, things have changed since 1873, but this ground needs to be treaded upon extremely carefully and with empathy and sympathy towards the concerns of those who rightfully have complaints given the treatment of minorities in the recent and distant past.  Normand, and many white Americans, refuse to yield to this demand because they simply do not, or will not, understand their history.  I am not recommending that we all become prisoners of the past, but rather suggesting that outrage seldom arises randomly and often has to do with a lengthy history of repression.  When it starts to rear its ugly head as often as it is currently, seemingly with every act of violence or prosecution of a minority citizen, there is something deeper we need to understand, all of us, in order to accept and solve these issues in a way which can mend historical fences.  Understanding our historical past is a great place to start.  And if the use of the word “heroes” on Colfax’s monument does not make you at least a little queasy then perhaps you should imagine the same circumstances from the opposite perspective; with whites being the victims of hate crimes committed by terrorists and what the reactions would be.  “Heroes” would not be your word of choice to describe the assailants.

Speaking of racism, case study number two comes directly from the mouth of Newt Gingrich.  While making a guest appearance on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich called for the federal government to stop all funding to  “sanctuary cities” and to imprison the mayors of these cities for allegedly not cooperating with federal immigration officials in prosecuting certain alleged illegal immigrants.  As a brief background, “sanctuary cities” are those such as San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, and even, Houston, among others, who have chosen, for various reasons, not to use municipal resources to enforce federal immigration laws.  Gingrich’s stance is political and ideological by nature and more in the realm of political opinion than historical interpretation; but Gingrich’s justification for the precedent of putting his measures into place was troubling.  Gingrich stated, “They don’t get to pick which federal laws they obey.”  An accurate enough statement to which host Bill O’Reilly responded that the ground on which federal authority could legitimately usurp state or local authority in this case was questionable, alluding to the Tenth Amendment and the Constitution’s separate systems of sovereign power.  Another accurate enough statement, which prompted Gingrich to respond, “Look, Bill, we fought a Civil War to indicate there is one sovereign system.  It is the United States of America.  No state, no city, can interpose itself between federal law and the citizens.”  There are so many things wrong with this statement they make my head spin.  First, and I will be brief because idiocy needs no in-depth response, and because the topic of this post is historical misconceptions, from a legal standpoint, yes cities and states can do exactly what Gingrich says they cannot.  Perhaps he is unaware of Printz v. U.S. (a case which, ironically, given this discussion, involved gun control and the Brady Bill) but essentially, Congress cannot compel states to enact or enforce federal regulatory programs using local officials; they could withhold funding related to those programs but could not arrest mayors or withdraw, wholesale, federal funding.  Second, in circumstances too numerous to mention, including gun control, Gingrich has argued for exactly those kinds of “states’ rights” that supported his political or legal ideology at the time that he now seeks to trample as infringing on national sovereignty!  Who knew Gingrich was a Hamiltonian Federalist!!??  Finally, and to the point of this post, to state that the American Civil War was fought over states’ rights is a gross historical misconception which completely ignores the primary basis of the war: SLAVERY!!!  Simply put, to state that the root cause or outcome of the Civil War had anything to do with anything but slavery and civil rights is incorrect.  Were there other causes such as states’ rights, regional and national economic concerns, international politics and economics, changing demographics, and the balance of political power vis-à-vis engrained sociocultural customs?  Sure, but since the inception of the country, Thomas Jefferson, and anyone with half a brain knew slavery was the big issue that needed to be resolved.  For Gingrich, a man who claims to know quite a bit about the Civil War given his trio of books, Gettysburg, Never Call Retreat, and Grant Comes East, this simple misconception of the basic primary cause and result of the war is astounding, or, perhaps, unethical, as Gingrich is obviously attempting to mold historical evidence to comport with his ideology.  Either way, this is another case of a historical misconception, whether conscious or unconscious, that reinforces erroneous interpretations of the past and perpetuates historical ignorance.

So what’s the big deal you might ask?  Historical interpretations often shift over time to conform to contemporary necessities and surely there is no one “objective” historical truth but in these cases there are no arguments being made with the support of historical evidence to reintroduce something new to an old, relatively settled discussion.  Instead, the hallmarks of our collective past are either swept under the rug in favor of a contemporary view that makes us feel at ease because “out of sight is out of mind,” or the past is twisted in such a gross fashion as to become a shadowy reflection of itself, tainted, tattered, and mysteriously inaccessible to all those but PhD holders.  This is inexcusable in the Information Age.  People in high position of power, in government or criminal justice, should have at least a basic understanding of our historical foundations.  They need not be Noam Chomskys or Marc Blochs but they should be aware of the generally accepted historical views of the past in relation to the words that come out of their mouths.  We all should!  What’s more, we should not be upset, emotional, or cry foul, when others take objection with purposefully ignorant (or just purposeful) historical misconceptions.  Race is a sensitive issue, and rightfully so given the historical backdrop.  To ignore the scars of the past or misinterpret them only opens us up to further pain.  It needs to stop.

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