It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”
This is what it’s like to report on extremism in the Trump era.
What happens when a perfectly innocuous phrase takes on a more sinister meaning over time?
Case in point, the expression "to call a spade a spade." For almost half a millennium, the phrase has served as a demand to "tell it like it is." It is only in the past century that the phrase began to acquire a negative, racial overtone.
Historians trace the origins of the expression to the Greek phrase "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough." Exactly who was the first author of "to call a trough a trough" is lost to history. Some attribute it to Aristophanes, while others attribute it to the playwright Menander. The Greek historian Plutarch (who died in A.D. 120) used it in Moralia.The blogger Matt Colvin, who has a Ph.D. in Greek literature, recently pointed out that the original Greek expression was very likely vulgar in nature and that the "figs" and "troughs" in question were double entendres.
“How attached are you to the idea of being white?” Chenjerai Kumanyika puts that question to host John Biewen, as they revisit an unfinished conversation from a previous episode. Part 7 of our series, Seeing White.
Photo: Composite image: Chenjerai Kumanyika, left; photo by Danusia Trevino. And John Biewen, photo by Ewa Pohl.
There are some great questions here that are well worth revisiting in light of the remainder of the series.
Some of this discussion reminds me of a lazy, 20-something comedian I heard recently. He hadn’t accomplished anything useful in his life and felt like (and probably was in the eyes of many) a “complete failure.” He said he felt like an even worse failure because in the game of life, playing the straight white male, he was also failing while using the game’s lowest difficulty setting. I wish I could give the original attribution, but I don’t remember the comedian and upon searching I see that the general concept of the joke goes back much further than the source–so it may seem he was an even bigger failure in that he was also lifting the material from somewhere else. What else should we expect in a society of such privilege?
When it comes to America’s racial sins, past and present, a lot of us see people in one region of the country as guiltier than the rest. Host John Biewen spoke with some white Southern friends about that tendency. Part Six of our ongoing series, Seeing White. With recurring guest, Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Photo: A lynching on Clarkson Street, New York City, during the Draft Riots of 1863. Credit: Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.
Having lived in many parts of the country growing up (Dahlonega, GA; Burlington, CT; Calhoun, GA; Baltimore, MD; Charlotte, NC; etc.), I can attest that the generalities described here do dovetail with many of my experiences. The cultures with respect to racism are very different depending on town, region, state, and histories.
Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen heard next to nothing about the town’s most important historical event. In 1862, Mankato was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history – the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors – following one of the major wars between Plains Indians and settlers. In this documentary, originally produced for This American Life, John goes back to Minnesota to explore what happened, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it afterwards.
These episodes and the brutal history they contain and suggest have been pretty gut-wrenching so far. This by far delves more deeply into the history and as a result is much more hear-rending than the others. It really makes me sick what our “nationalistic” tendencies have wrought thus far, and by all intents continues to continue to do.
If you haven’t been listening to this excellent series, I hope you’ll stop what you’re doing right now and listen to them all. I highly recommend it as required listening for everyone–even if you think you know what the message is.
Though this particular episode wasn’t specifically created for this series, it fits in incredibly well. I almost wish that some of the others in the series delved this deeply into some of the history as this one does. It really brings the problem into high relief and puts a more human face on the problems we may not see around us by looking back at a particular incident.
A podcast series from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University explores what it means to be White.
Part 1: Turning the Lens (February 15, 2017)
Events of the past few years have turned a challenging spotlight on White people, and Whiteness, in the United States. An introduction to our series exploring what it means to be White. By John Biewen, with special guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Part 2: How Race Was Made (March 1, 2017)
For much of human history, people viewed themselves as members of tribes or nations but had no notion of “race.” Today, science deems race biologically meaningless. Who invented race as we know it, and why? By John Biewen, with guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Part 3: Made in America (March 16, 2017)
Chattel slavery in the United States, with its distinctive – and strikingly cruel – laws and structures, took shape over many decades in colonial America. The innovations that built American slavery are inseparable from the construction of Whiteness as we know it today. By John Biewen, with guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Part 4: On Crazy We Built a Nation (March 30, 2017)
“All men are created equal.” Those words, from the Declaration of Independence, are central to the story that Americans tell about ourselves and our history. But what did those words mean to the man who actually wrote them? By John Biewen, with guest Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Photo: Meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1619. Library of Congress.
Seemingly almost too short, but lays some good groundwork (in retrospect) for what is to come.
Here’s where the story begins to heat up and lay some groundwork.
I’d never thought about the subtle changes in early American law that institutionalized the idea of slavery, race, and racism, which is very well laid out in the third installment, though I suspect is just a short sketch of a more horrifying past. In particular: laws that indicated that slaves who became Christian didn’t need to be freed, laws which indicated that the slave status of children was derived from the mother (and not the father), and laws which prevented white women from marrying African Americans.
I’d sadly never heard the history of the case of John Punch or any of the other examples in episode 3.
Having been born in South Carolina and then living in Georgia on a mountain at which John C. Calhoun apparently pointed at and uttered the phrase, “Thar’s gold in them thar’ hills.” I’m all too entrenched in his version of history. I’m also viewing this from a larger big history perspective and see a few other things going on as well, but sadly I’m woefully undereducated in these areas. I’m going to have to get some new reading materials.
There’s a lot of history concerning Thomas Jefferson and even Ralph Waldo Emerson which I’m going to have to go back and brush up on as there are large pieces missing from my general education. The discussion certainly reframes the way one could see America and it’s history from a vastly different perspective that just isn’t discussed enough.
I’ll have to go back and relisten to this for some great quotes as well as one from T. Veblen.
There are at least two more episodes in the series that I can’t wait to listen to before I surely circle back around and listen to them all a second time. This series is truly great. I’m subscribing to their prior episodes and can’t wait to see what they come up with in the future. I highly recommend it.
Resources I’m bookmarking for later reading:
I grew up in a family that embraced extreme views. I’ve moved on. The country can, too.