Does removing Confederate monuments “erase history”? (And what the hell does “erasing history” even mean?)

Campaigns to remove Confederate iconography from public spaces tend to draw the criticism that doing so amounts to “erasing history.” I’m presently involved in an effort to rename MTSU’s ROTC building, now christened for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave-trading, axe-murdering Klansman creep; I’ve encountered this argument frequently in this space.

Here’s an example from the Change Forrest Hall website:


And this from a local page:


However, it isn’t clear what “erasing history” actually means. (Nor am I sure the charge is sincere, rather than a political device. But I’ll treat it on its own terms.)

One problem is the ambiguity in the word “history.” It means more than one thing. It can suggest any of the following:

(1) The past;

(2) Historical artifacts;


(3) The record of the past;

I’ll explore each of these options in turn.

“Erasing history” as erasing the past

Notice the critics say we “can’t” erase history. This suggests by “history” they mean the literal past; as of course we can’t undo what’s happened. But then, what’s all the fuss about? If we’re doomed to fail, you can safely afford to let us try. Yet there is a fuss. So something more must be going on.

I imagine they are saying: “Your campaign is ‘in effect’ an effort to erase the past, and even though you can’t literally do this, your efforts will cause damage along the way.” And this damage is precisely to (2) and (3) on our list (historical artifacts and/or the historical record). So I’ll turn to those now.

“Erasing history” as destroying historical artifacts

There does seem to be a worry that we are discarding important historical artifacts. For an extreme example, I’ve heard a commentator liken removal of Confederate icons to ISIS’ destruction of ancient Babylonian statuary. Certainly, this interpretation would explain the degree of ire directed toward such campaigns.

The only problem: The items targeted by these campaigns by and large aren’t historical artifacts. (At least, not in the sense our critics mean; they aren’t Civil War artifacts). Virtually all the contested images date from the period of the very late 1950s through the 1970s, when they were erected by reactionary whites as a giant, collective middle finger to the Civil Rights Movement. e.g. Forrest Hall was erected in 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education gave the order to desegregate public schools. The other two contested representations of Forrest in Middle TN date to the late 1970s (bust in the state Capitol) and late 1990s (the I-65 statue).

The most our critics can say, then, is that these items are artifacts about history; that is, contemporary items which represent something historical.

I’ll turn to these next.

“Erasing history” as destroying the record of the past

So then, is destroying these ‘artifacts about history’—present-day items which represent the past—tantamount to “erasing history”?

If this is what our critics mean—and by elimination, it appears that’s all they could mean—the charge seems a bit overblown. By this logic, each of the following would constitute “erasing history” too:

  • allowing any history textbook to go out of print;
  • rescinding a terrible, failing History 101 paper which was accidentally published by a small press;
  • scrubbing “This is racist” protest graffiti off a statue of a confederate general (see below);
  • removing hundreds of tiny uncooked-spaghetti sculptures of historical figures which I set about the town square overnight;


(Hell, while I’m at it, the blog post you’re reading contains a number of historical statements, so I’d be “erasing history” in the same sense if I took it offline.)

These examples are a bit silly—but that’s the point: Clearly, nobody could consistently believe that ‘contemporary representations the past’ is some untouchable class of items. To the extent they sometimes talk this way, they’re either confused or lying.


My kid drew this pic of Rutherford B. Hayes. Don’t ask me to take it down. That would be “erasing history.”

I imagine our critics might reply:

“When we say ‘erasing history’ we aren’t talking about pasta folk art and crappy term papers. We’re talking about erasing the good historical representations, or the important (or noble, well-made, competent, etc.) ones.”

OK, but so are we. We just differ about which ones those are.

The upshot is: As soon as you start discriminating among historical representations—saying, this is valuable, but this is expendable—you have conceded the basic point: Not all representations of the past are sacrosanct. And deciding which are important enough to keep around is an essentially moral enterprise; it will be determined by our values. There is no way around this. Sure, our values may differ, and you’re free to argue that Confederate iconography is socially uplifting (or whatever), but the point is—that’s the case you have to make. Do the fucking work, or don’t. But this pretense to neutrality—the whole, “it happened, good or bad, so just let it be” approach—isn’t enough.

* * *

Finally, the critics could still have a point. I mentioned “historical record” above. I use this phrase broadly, meaning the thing which all those “historical representations,” silly and otherwise, add up to. It could be argued: “Erasing” one or a couple pieces of this record does no real damage; but what if so much is destroyed that a subject becomes “lost” to history altogether?

Do our critics have reason to fear this will happen with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate flag, and soforth, due to the opposition campaigns?

Uh, no.

Do some very rough math. First, we aren’t talking about just any historical representations, but those dedicated to the honor of some entity.[1] Honorariums constitute but a wispy little fraction of all existing historical representations. (Consider every book, museum, lecture, memory, conversation, spaghetti figure….) And we aren’t talking about all honorariums. Only a wispy little fraction of the total are in the cross-hairs for “erasure.”

Not to mention, “erasure” isn’t really on the table after all: Of the targeted memorials, almost none if any will actually be destroyed; they will simply be moved to another publically-accessible location, causing no net loss to the “historical record.” (For example, per the recent decision of the University of Texas-Austin to “remove” a statue of Jefferson Davis from campus, he will simply be relocated in UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.) Likewise, in the case of Forrest Hall, the name will almost certainly be replaced with that of another historical figure who was him/herself “erased” (or “undrawn” in the first place—surely just as bad) by not being there all along; so that, too, amounts to a “wash” for the historical record.

Even still: Let’s imagine the extreme case in which we succeeded in removing every honorarium to every historical figure—hell, even the good ones—in the entire country. We still wouldn’t touch a tenth of a tenth of of a percent of all existing historical representations of these figures and events. Not even almost.

So kindly put your fears to bed. They are infinitely misplaced. (And I think you probably fucking knew that.)


[1] An honorarium doesn’t just give facts about history; it doesn’t just say “this happened.” It says, this happened and it is good. Which points to another reason you can’t be neutral in this debate: Displaying an honorarium in public means we the public are saying “this is good.” And maybe we aren’t.

Support MTSU’s campaign to change the name of (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Hall

Students at MTSU (my alma mater) have resurrected the campaign to change the name of the ROTC building, currently named for Nathan Bedford Forrest—slave trader, Confederate war criminal, and first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

What follows is my effort to broadcast the campaign and provide reasons to endorse it.


Nathan Bedford Forrest: A racist sleazeball, even “for his times”

If the well-known facts about Forrest’s life aren’t enough to convince you he shouldn’t be memorialized, consider some less celebrated biographical gems:

(a) Forrest’s attitude toward what he did for a living was simply wicked. In one advertisement, he both boasted about separating black families and cruelly mocked female slaves’ vulnerability to being raped—bragging that he had captured the daughter of famous slave-turned-Northern-statesman Frederick Douglass, and she was “of the class known among dealers as a ‘likely girl’.”

(b) His final career was as a hyper-exploitative broker of (forced) black convict labor, on a pestilent island in conditions described as “worse than slavery.”

(c) His reputation as “the butcher of Fort Pillow” is well-deserved. First, nobody denies a massacre occurred, nor that Forrest was in charge. Before the attack, Forrest sent a note to the Union generals promising to massacre their forces if they didn’t surrender. And when they failed to surrender, they were indeed massacred; further details are fuzzy, but also unimportant. (In later years, when challenged about his crimes, his go-to response was to cruelly mock the slaughter, claiming that his men ate the black soldiers and he himself ate their murdered babies.)

(d) Finally, Forrest hacked a black field hand to death with an axe for the crime of refusing to drain a puddle quickly enough. This prompted the rest of his workers to mutiny, rat-holing Forrest in his own house by torch and pickaxe until the deputy could rescue him. (Forrest was tried for murder and acquitted only due to the corruption of a white judge.)

* * *

To address some common defenses of NBF and his imagery:

(i) But he was very good at something

NBF was perhaps the greatest American(?) cavalryman ever. But surely this is not enough to rate statues and nameplates. Think about it: Outside of contemporary pop culture, celebrity is inevitably attended by ‘greatness’ of some sort or another. This applies no less to the infamous: Hitler’s oratory skill is only the most famous example. Even, say, notorious serial killers only become so for being more clearly fastidious, dedicated, and brave than average folk.

Point being, if “he possessed some very good qualities” is your sole argument for memorializing Forrest, this would allow memorializing virtually anyone well-known enough to be considered. So clearly, more must be said. Some consideration of “the whole person” must be made.

(ii) But he changed in his later years

Forrest’s alleged penitence in later life is overblown. He only renounced the Klan because, as his best friend recounted, “we knew it would not be needed again.” Namely, his exit followed a particularly violent campaign of voter intimidation in which NBF heartily participated, and which won the South for the Democrats that election year. (Similar tactics would keep them winning for the next twenty election cycles.) This was a period when intense federal and state heat was causing many prominent persons whom no one doubts were racist and remained so to leave and “renounce” the Klan. This egocentric pragmatism should hardly be confused with a change of heart.

NBF’s late wish for the “advancement of the negro” had economic and political components, but it isn’t clear it ever had a moral one. He felt that things like trades training for black folks was good for business—and not just generally, but for his business. His ‘turnabout’ on race relations emerged apace with his plan to populate the inferior lands along his railroad with free black townships—which of course required black tradespeople, etc.

He further flirted with a political alliance of conservative blacks and Southern whites; only the entire, stated point of this was to counter the only political force dedicated to the unqualified “advancement” of the former, the Radicals in the Republican Party. The appeal to blacks was always cast in a “devil you know” mood: i.e., “Don’t ask for too much or you’ll stir up trouble with those guys and lose what you already have.”

In the end, “advancement” from some low baseline is one thing; full equality with whites is quite another. And NBF was clear to make the distinction until the day he died.

(iii) Let history be (or something)

Some argue that we should take a “neutral” stance toward historical artifacts: History happened this way, and there is no use denying it just to make ourselves feel good.

For instance, from the Change Forrest Hall campaign Facebook page:

ScreenshotNBF(First, I doubt the sincerity of those who make this argument—because they are inevitably the most vociferous defenders of NBF’s resume. That is, you can’t say history should stand “no matter what it was like” while at the same time saying “it should stand because it was like this.” But that’s a side point.)

Let’s be clear: The items in question aren’t historical artifacts. At least, not the way these people mean; they aren’t Civil War artifacts. The three contested representations of Forrest in Middle TN date to the late 1950s (Forrest Hall), the late 1970s (bust in the state Capitol) and late 1990s (the I-65 statue). Granted, these are artifacts about history, but so what? The blog post you’re reading is an artifact about history. Protest graffiti on a statue of a Civil War officer is an artifact about history. That status alone doesn’t render something untouchable.

In the end, these critics are confusing a representation with an honorarium. A Forrest nameplate doesn’t just give information about the past. It doesn’t just say “this happened.” It says, rather, “this happened, and it was good.” Of course, you’re free to say that Forrest’s legacy is a good one, all things considered. And we can talk about that. But drop the pretense to neutrality. This debate is necessarily about what we value—what we think is good. It has to be.

* * *

Conclusion: The real point here

All that said, I suggest that the technicalities of NBF’s biography are largely irrelevant to the question of whether to keep or remove his busts and nameplates. It is possible for someone’s image to function as a racist symbol whether or not he was always—or even ever—a nasty racist himself.

Ninety years after the Civil War’s end, the South saw an explosion of new Confederate iconography. Busts and statues of CSA heroes popped up all over. High schools adopted little rebel guy sports mascots. In 1961, the South Carolina legislature ‘suddenly’ elected to fly the Battle Flag over the statehouse.


The timing of this trend—plus the transcripts of the dedication ceremonies—show without a doubt that it functioned as a protest of the nascent black Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools.

The choice to name MTSU’s military building after Nathan Bedford Forrest (1958) should be viewed in this context. As such the nameplate is “bigger” than Forrest himself and has a meaning independent of him. It was chosen to mock and dispirit black people struggling for human rights. In this sense, it functions as a racist symbol no matter the “real facts” of NBF’s life. There are other reasons, but this alone warrants the change.

[Come rally with us to get this done!]


Read the transcript closely: Officer Darren Wilson implicitly confesses to murder

[The one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death is upon us. Rereading Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, it occurs to me he essentially confesses to murder—and more than once.]


Many have detailed the absurdity of Wilson’s account of the Mike Brown shooting. The facts don’t jive with reality. Fewer have noted its inconsistency: The facts, absurd or no, don’t jive with each other. At some points, DW gives rationales to defend his behavior which are completely undermined by his words and behavior at later points. Perhaps worse, the DA never calls him on any of it.

Below are two of the more severe and seldom-emphasized examples.

Fatal inconsistency #1: Running vs. not running

The crux of DW’s defense is that he had to shoot Michael Brown to save his own life. Specifically, Brown was punching him in the face through the police car window and he thought the next blow might kill him. (He also testified that Brown began to reach for his gun; however, this was subsequent to his choice to draw and shoot.)[1]

Let’s ignore the patent implausibility of the “death blow” theory.  (And the lack of evidence—when a picture of Wilson’s “injuries” was shown to the jury, the prosecutor literally didn’t know what they were looking at). As the normally-inclined-to-accept-the-police-narrative Nancy Grace asked, Why didn’t he simply “put the pedal to the metal and drive”?

To be fair, Wilson describes a fast-paced, chaotic episode of tussling, his hands flurrying to simultaneously block and grab at his attacker and open the car door to exit. Placing the car into drive and zooming off may not have been a clear option at all moments in this process.

But after the first shot is fired, the entire game changes. According to DW, the bullet sent Brown backward away from the car window and momentarily paused the struggle. One juror reiterates Grace:

“Did you ever think about, I know you said your vehicle was running, did you ever think about just getting in that bad boy and drive?”

(n.b. He’s already in the car, so “getting in” is figurative there. She’s asking why he didn’t just put it in gear and depress the gas when he clearly had a chance.)

His response:


Interesting—because not three pages earlier, DW is asked why he chose to exit the vehicle in the first place before waiting for backup, which he estimated to be less than 30 seconds away. (Or rather, why he tried to exit, as according to his testimony Brown prevented this from happening).

Wilson answers:


“Running” in response to being “chase[d]” certainly sounds like “fleeing conflict”—the thing he says he is “trained not to [do]”—after all. And the way he describes this, using the present tense (“my comfort zone is…”) indicates this is not only an option, but one he considers as a matter of routine: It is Wilson’s habit to place himself outside of his car when dealing with dealing with tense situations, in case they escalate to a point where he “need[s] to run.”

In fairness, it does appear that by “run” DW means something less than a “full retreat,” never to return to the action. Outside his car, he can maneuver for position, beat a strategic retreat to create space, collect himself and then resume the arrest, possibly with backup.

Fine. But this can all be done—all the better—in a car. Indeed, Wilson is forced to agree that he is “more mobile in a car than…on foot.” At a minimum, he could use the car to get out of the car: If Brown was blocking the door, as he testified, then drive up several feet, exit, and double back.

Instead, Wilson chose to shoot Brown from inside the car—not once, but twice. Think about that. Even if you accept he couldn’t drive away before the first shot (which is false—he had to have both hands free to rack the slide), he clearly could afterward. By his own admission, his choices were: (1) Drive forward a bit and see what happens, or (2) kill someone. And he chose (albeit unsuccessfully, at first) the latter. This is, plainly and simply, attempted murder.

Fatal inconsistency #2: Checking vs. not checking UOFC

To justify his choice to shoot Brown, Wilson appeals to the policing technique “triangle of force,” more commonly known as the “use of force continuum.” This is a scale police use to rank methods of controlling a suspect from non-lethal to most lethal. It is designed to help officers comply with the legal obligation to apply only as much force as is needed to neutralize a given threat. Put simply, you can’t escalate to more dangerous techniques until all feasible safer ones have been tried.

According to Wilson’s testimony, verbal commands and ‘empty hand control’ fail to rebuff Brown’s blows, and he left his taser at the station because—seriously—he’s too lazy to carry it. So he mentally cycles through the “triangle” of remaining options, the escalating list of possible defenses he can use.

He considers and rejects the following in turn:

  • mace: runs the risk of blowback in the confined space of the car, incapacitating himself;
  • ASP (telescoping baton): located on back of belt, hard to access from a sitting position; narrow space of the car would prevent expansion, and if expanded, can’t get a good swing;
  • flashlight: can’t get a good swing;

In addition, Wilson testifies, retrieving each of these items would require “sacrificing” his left hand, which he “wasn’t willing to do” as it was engaged in blocking Brown’s blows.

* * *

To summarize Wilson’s position: Each less-than-lethal option is rejected due to his operating within the “close and confined” space of the police car; a space he is confined to, in turn, because Brown was preventing his exit; this rejection left him no choice but the gun.

Put crudely, the line of causality goes:

Brown’s attack –> confined to the car –> had to shoot

The chief problem with this justification is that Wilson goes on to successfully exit the car and to shoot Brown from that position as well.

After the shot from the car wounds Brown, he retreats and is followed on foot by DW, who shoots again when Brown (allegedly) spins around and “charges” him.[2]

By his own testimony, upon exiting and gaining space from Brown, Wilson needs to check the “triangle” again for the least forceful but effective option available. But he never does—he simply imports the check from the car. Indeed, the first (and only) thing he tells his sergeant responding to the scene is “he tried to grab my gun, I had to shoot him”—ignoring the fact that the fatal shot(s) came after the “grabbing,” with Brown nowhere near the weapon. This is like saying I had to hit my dog on the nose today because he had a smaller dog in his jaws last Tuesday.

Outside of the vehicle, every reason Wilson chose “deadly force” in the prior case no longer applies. He is free to—and indeed, must—consider the full range of forceful options from hand control to mace to baton. (Or indeed, a tactical retreat by foot—the entire reason he said he wanted to exit the car in the first place.) But Wilson just shoots—again.

He never explains this “leap” across the force continuum, which ended in the death of Michael Brown; nor is he asked by the DA to explain it. Again, the word for this is murder.



[1] Indeed, even in Wilson’s narrative, it sounds like Brown “reached for” the drawn gun to save his own life; rather than attempting to grab it, he pushed it away from himself, driving it down into Wilson’s hip.

[2] “Charges” if (and only if) you believe the one witness (#10) who concurs with Wilson’s account, and who happens to be the most inconsistent.

Reflections on the anniversary of Eric Garner’s murder; Or: Actually, smartass, sometimes you *can* talk when you can’t breathe


I’ve heard it dozens of times and a year on, I’m still hearing it: If Eric Garner really couldn’t breathe due to chokehold, he couldn’t possibly have said (as he did repeatedly) “I can’t breathe.” The implication of course is that Garner was all drama and the police were correct to ignore his pleas.

Behind this response is, as always, plain and simple racism. But it also stems from a misplaced focus on the “chokehold” aspect of the case. This focus is somewhat understandable: The chokehold launched the assault on Garner, it’s a distinct and recognizable move, it’s dramatic—and it’s illegal. Nonetheless, this emphasis has somewhat warped the analysis on “both sides.”

Windpipe constriction versus chest compression

Yes, a chokehold which completely cuts off the windpipe prevents both breathing and speech. But this is irrelevant to Garner’s case. For one, the chokehold had already been released by the first time Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”

Alongside “neck compression,” the medical examiner cited “chest compression” as cause of death. The latter ostensibly occurred when Garner was taken to the ground, prone and face-down. This alone can give a man of his size trouble breathing, but it was severely exacerbated when Officer Pantaleo proceeded to fucking kneel on his head and upper back. It was this move which immediately precipitated the first “I can’t breathe” plea. At which point, six more officers piled on top of Garner, the weight and strength of each aggravating the compression further.

Unlike a chokehold, chest compression doesn’t have to prevent speech. The key to speech is exhalation. Windpipe restriction prevents this, along with inhalation. But chest compression is a one way street: It permits exhalation—at least to the point where the air already in the lungs when the compression occurs is exhausted. However, it does not permit inhalation, so once this air is up, speech is done so long as the compression remains.

(Note: This is not the say the chokehold wasn’t a contributor to Garner’s death. Among other things, it would have induced stress and accelerated his heart rate, which would have quickened his breathing; this in turn made compression more dangerous, as the amount of air needed across a given period was increased.)

I bring all this up because it remains standard police practice to restrain and cuff suspects prone on their stomachs—a process which can take several minutes. This, even as the practice is being rapidly abandoned by mental health facilities across the country in light of its demonstrated potential to kill (see Restraint-Related Positional Asphyxia).

Deeper issues: White charity is for other whites

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume the widespread perception—that Garner made his statements while in a chokehold—because it points to deeper issues.

To see this, let’s rewind a bit. The opinion of our smartass observer is that Garner was not subject to a “real” (i.e., dangerous, breath-restricting) chokehold because he was (still) able to speak during this event.

This view assumes that a chokehold would have had to have been perfectly secure throughout this event. Clearly however, in a “tussle,” it is possible for the choker’s grip to tighten and then loosen as the strugglers’ bodies move relative to one another. It seems reasonable that someone in Garner’s position might experience inability to breathe when the grip is tight, and then, when it loosens a bit, exclaim “I can’t breathe” in reference to what he fears is an ongoing pattern of loosening and retightening-to-come.

Surely a man in such a position can be forgiven for not taking the time to qualify for his attackers, “I couldn’t breathe a second ago, and I anticipate that if this struggle continues in this manner I’ll not be able to breathe again momentarily.”

* * *

The fact that the assholes don’t even entertain this interpretation of Garner’s last words is profoundly telling. It has to be. I mean, shit. We interpret things this way all the time: e.g. When someone answers the phone with “I can’t talk right now,” nobody thinks, “That lying asshole—how could he not talk when he had to talk to even tell me that?”

That would be absurd, right? So extend the same fucking imaginative charity to Eric Garner: What might the man have meant? Is there some non-absurd intention we can reasonably tease out of his words? If you make that move for other white people every day but maintain a goofy hyper-literalism for Garner, there has to be a reason. And that reason is almost certainly that you’re a racist prick.

Robert McCulloch has now lost six grand juries; each time, a killer cop walked

We’ve been hearing how rare it is for a prosecutor to fail to secure an indictment from a grand jury.

This is due to the one-sided nature of the proceedings: The prosecutor alone determines what evidence jurors hear and how it’s delivered. The accused gets no attorney, has no right to answer the charges or mount a defense.

Nor is there a judge; consequently, evidence that would easily sustain objection or suppression in a trial is admissible in a GJ. A prosecutor can revoke a subpoenaed witness’s Fifth Amendment privilege, forcing them to testify against their will or face civil contempt. (You can’t do that in a trial either.)

Nothing prevents a prosecutor from engaging in behavior that would be ruled abusive or unfair in court—badgering the witness, etc. The secret nature of the proceedings (no press, transcripts are sealed by default) only encourages this latitude.

Finally, as Lauren Regan points out, “The prosecutor becomes the grand jurors’ friend: he controls their bathroom breaks, meals, and whether they can return to their work, families, and lives”—and of course, thanks them for their service in the end.

* * *

Prosecutors are able to capitalize on this advantage about 100% of the time. In 2010, U.S. prosecutors held 162,000 grand juries at the federal level; of these, a paltry eleven failed to secure an indictment.

Now consider this: Of the grand juries Robert McCulloch alone has prosecuted, a full six (including Wilson) have failed to grant indictments. Six, of course, is more than half of eleven—all by a single guy. Fucking amazing, right?

Even more amazing, those six happen to be cases where the accused were, like Darren Wilson, cops who killed someone in the line of duty.

The only way it’s not amazing is if McCulloch is a rank shitbag who softballs murder suspects when they happen to share his law enforcement background. But the chances of these numbers occurring without his complicity are astronomically remote.



So yeah. It isn’t amazing at all. Prosecutors are ‘naturally’ inclined to identify with the police and think well of them. They are “on the same team” and closely collaborate. A prosecutor rarely gets a case which does not someway depend on the word of an officer.

This tends to temper a prosecutor’s zeal for going after a cop—and especially, as in McCulloch’s case, the very same cops he works with.

Moreover, we all know by now McCulloch’s dad was a St. Louis PD cop killed in the line of duty. Less well known is that his brother, cousin, uncle and nephew served in the same department; his mother worked there as a clerk for 20 years.

McCulloch himself intended to join the force before losing his leg to cancer as a teen: “I couldn’t become a policeman,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “so being [a] prosecutor is the next best thing.” Today, he is president of, a charity which gives financial aid to police and their families facing hardship (and which may have been raising funds for Darren Wilson).

Shit doesn’t look good.

[More and better to come.]

“It can’t be racist to criticize a religion” and other Islamophobic nonsense

You’ve probably seen the exchange where Ben Affleck calls Bill Maher “racist” for his handy generalizations about “the Muslim world.”

This charge has somewhat reinvigorated the “religion not a race” defense among Islamophobes.

For example:

I never knew Dave Chappelle was muslim

I never knew Dave Chappelle was muslim

It should be enough to respond: “Well, yes it is racist, if the criticism is motivated by race.” Only thing, the Islamophobes speak as though this were impossible. This screenshot is entirely typical:


Cannot be? But why? What exactly is the argument here?

Clearly, it isn’t enough to say Islam is “a religion, not a race.” I may as well say the NAACP is “an organization, not a race,” and therefore it cannot be the target of racism.

They—the Caucasion ones, let’s say—probably mean something like: “Islam has a multi-racial membership and includes white devotees. Any criticism implicates white Muslims. Therefore, a criticism on racial grounds would be self-contradictory or absurd.”

One is tempted to counter: But people say and do contradictory, absurd things all the time. This is hardly “impossible.” As if racism should offer some perfectly coherent, rational system of thought.

But more can and should be said here, given the prevalence of the “meme” in question.

Racism toward other multi-racial groups

One problem with the “religion not race” defense: It is easy to think of other groups and practices which are clearly the target of racist views, but in which, like Islam, whites also participate; in other words, cases where white membership does not give immunity to racism.

For example, miscegenation (or “race mixing,” in old-school racist parlance): By definition, the “membership” of the institution of mixed marriage—or, if you like, of a given mixed-race couple—is not exclusively one race. The ones I (and white racists) have in mind have 50% white participation. And yet, these unions have frequently been opposed—even outlawed—on openly racist grounds (“diminishing the superior stock” and such). So why should a religion—whose white membership is a far smaller percentage—be immune to the same?

Likewise for formal organizations and movements. Nobody can deny that the African-American Civil Rights Movement earned racist contempt, even though it enjoyed high-profile white participation from the start. To have defended, “but it’s a movement, not a race” would have been absurd.

When whites-only golf and country clubs began integrating in the 1970s, many white members abandoned them—on admittedly racist grounds. The fact that these clubs remained 99% white did not magically dissolve the racist quality of this critique.

* * *

Note: In all these cases, not only did white participation fail to render “racist criticism” impossible, the white participants were not exempted in such attacks. Quite the contrary: Often, special ire was reserved for “race traitors,” e.g. the white spouses, the country club leaders or voting majority who sanctioned integration, or the whites who marched alongside black leaders.

As the picture below illustrates, certain sentiments (e.g. “n****r-lover”) were directed only to whites, yet remained indisputably racist, attacking non-whites by implication.

Marlon Brando: 100% white, yet victim of...anti-black racism???! Islamophobic peabrains = blown

Marlon Brando: 100% white, yet victim of…anti-black racism???! Islamophobic peabrains = blown

(A similar phenomenon happens when white suburban youth are attacked for appropriating black stereotypes. Saying, “Pull up your pants and turn down that n****r music,” is clearly a racist sentiment, even when directed against a racially-mixed or all-white group of kids. But if “sag-phobia” and “rap-phobia” can be racist, despite the existence of white saggers and rap fans, why are we so sure Islamophobia can’t be, simply because there are white Muslims?)


So no, it isn’t actually necessary for a group or practice to be monolitically non-white to be the subject of racist attack. It is only necessary that it be someway associated with some non-white group or groups that are themselves the subject of racist attack. No, the Civil Rights Movement and gangster rap are not “a race,” but are clearly associated with one in particular. That doesn’t make every attack on these things racist—one could criticize the CRM on tactical grounds, and hip-hop on aesthetic grounds—but it sure as fuck makes it possible to do so. It isn’t clear how the same logic should not apply to Islam.

Consider the statement by a reporter covering the Boston Marathon bombing that the suspect was “Muslim-looking.” Yes, he misspoke, but everybody knew what he meant. By sheer accident of history, Islam is closely associated with certain non-white races and cultures of the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. These groups account for its origins and initial spread and comprise the populations of Muslim-majority countries today. Most Muslims are members of these groups, even those living in the West. And these groups, religion aside, are historically subject to racist ideologies.

All of the ingredients are there. And while this doesn’t prove that Islamophobia is racist per se, it is ridiculous to say that it cannot be. People must stop relying on this facile assumption to dismiss the charge of racism out of hand.

* * *

I do believe Islamophobia is largely about race, but I will tackle that in another post.

But here is a hint: Prior to 9/11, Arab-Americans enjoyed broad recognition as a “model minority”; many simply identified as white. After the attacks, this changed. Comedian Dean Obeidallah jested, “I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th, I am an Arab.” Islamophobia went mainstream virtually overnight. Granted, certain groups were actively promoting this, but what is notable is how little effort and money (one theorist estimates $50 million) it took them to do it.

This, combined with the sheer irrationality of Islamophobia, suggests the groundwork was laid in advance. American white supremacy proved a fertile soil for the seeds of Muslim-fear to sprout. The spike in anti-Muslim violence in the wake of electing our first black president (up 50% by 2010)—and of course the “Obama is a Muslim” trope in itself—only confirm this thesis.

But yeah, more on this later.

Islamophobes tripping over dumb shit, again

From the reporting, you’d think the Montgomery School Board (DC) just did something grand and sinister—and all at the behest of the local Muslim community.

Fox News informs: “School dumps Christmas, Easter” and “cancel[s]…Jewish holidays” to “appease Muslims.”

As of next year, all Christian and Jewish holidays will be removed from the calendar. That means no more Christmas, no more Easter and no more Yom Kippur.” All “because they did not want to disrespect or be insensitive to the Muslim community.

For Bill O’reilly, the Board is “caving in” to Muslim pressure: “They just wiped out all our traditions because [of] these people.”


Sounds awful, right? Creeping Shariah or some shit.

Not quite. Actually, something was stricken from the school calendar, but it wasn’t Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur. Rather, it was “Christmas,” “Easter,” and “Yom Kippur.” As in, the words. And by “school calendar,” I don’t mean a yearly series of events, but literally the piece of paper on which the event names are printed.

Words on a page. Nothing else will change. Schools will still close for all the same holidays as ever before. They will just be called something else in a single run of a single year’s calendar.

(Nor is anyone picking on Christians or Jews. All religious holiday names were stricken—it’s just that all of them happen to be Christian or Jewish. Nor were any strange new “Muslim holidays” added.)

Ah yes, that hallowed Christmas tradition when all the good kiddies across the world race wide-eyed to the mailbox...for the new Montgomery School District calendar!

Ah yes, that hallowed Christmas tradition when all good kiddies across the world race wide-eyed to the mailbox…for the new Montgomery School District fiscal calendar!

Even if this were a big deal, it makes no sense to blame the Muslim community for something the Board did. For one, it’s the opposite of what they were asking for.

For years, community leaders have petitioned the Board to recognize either of two feast festivals, Eid al-Adha (end of hajj) or Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), with school closures. This would amount to equal recognition of Muslim students given the traditional closures on Christian and Jewish holidays.

But this year, they weren’t even asking for this much. By chance, during the upcoming school year (2015-16), Eid al-Adha falls on the same day as Jewish Yom Kippur, for which schools will already be closed. So Muslim leaders modified their request, asking only that the words “Eid al-Adha” be printed in the new calendar next to “Yom Kippur”—instead of an inch or so below, where there are printed now as a kind of afterthought. (Leaders admit this is a “strictly symbolic issue.”)

The Board answered this modest request by striking all religious names from the record, calling it “the most equitable solution.”

Far from marking this as a great victory, the Muslim campaigners are pretty pissed:

‘By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,’ said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition. ‘It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification.’

(I’m sure he’s celebrating on the inside. Takkiyah and all.)

You people want equality? We’ll give you equality

Sure, the Board’s decision is “equitable.” Voting to torture every student for five minutes would be “equitable” too. But to pretend this is therefore “what the Muslims were asking for” is disingenuous.

Nonetheless, dumbasses across the county are scapegoating the Muslim community as spoilers (even though, you know, nothing is actually spoiled). The decision has deflected heat away from the Board, and onto the Muslims—exactly as it was designed to do.

Don’t buy that shit.