Category Archives: Race and race relations

From the Frying Pan into the Fire?

byrd_midde_schoolSo, the Henrico County School Board has done the politically correct thing and re-named Harry F. Byrd Middle School to Quioccasin Middle School. Quioccasin, a Native American word meaning “the gathering spot,” is a local place name used for the road on which the school is located.

I’m OK with re-naming the school, which is located in western Henrico County near where I live. Virginians should re-think they way they honor former segregationist governors (even one who enacted the first law in the United States banning lynching). But given the tenor of our times, I wonder how long the new name will remain politically correct. Can’t the use of Native American names be condemned as “cultural appropriation?”

If calling a football team “the Redskins” is outre, how long until people begin calling for re-naming of all the places names stolen from displaced and exterminated native peoples? Where is the logical point at which enough is enough?


Remember the Past with More Viewpoints, Not Fewer

lee_statueby Randy Salzman

There is a move afoot in Charlottesville to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. Rather than spend tax dollars to remove the statue and rename the park, perhaps Charlottesville City Council should consider a higher-order solution pioneered by the people of Australia.

White Australians in the 1800s were as brutal than the worst American slave owner, perhaps more so; they treated Aboriginals with a viciousness few can imagine today. Often, when a European settler, or his cow or sheep, disappeared, white Western Australians gathered guns and horses and went out and murdered members of the nearest Aboriginal tribe. Punishing every Aboriginal they could — even if no tribe member had committed any crime and often unsure that any actual crimes had been committed — the theory of these so-called “punitive expeditions” was that any remaining Aboriginals would never harm whites’ livestock in the future.

Lasting over 100 years, the final “battle” between spears and rifles took place in 1934. By then, white Australians had built statues and monuments honoring the “brave” members of earlier punitive expeditions and, after one, a particularly horrendous massacre of about 70 mostly women and children, a popular song was written to honor the leader.

By the turn of this century, with the publication of such books as “Why Weren’t We Told,” by Henry Reynolds, even the most strident white Australian began realizing that, as one historian put it, the celebrated “punitive expedition is most likely a euphemism for massacre.”

But rather than tear down the monuments and statues, the Aussies hit upon what I think Charlottesville should do with Lee and Jackson statues. They added another version, the Aboriginal version, to the monument’s story. Today, in places like Fremantle, Western Australia, the old statutes have bronze plagues explaining that there at least two versions of what happened, and why. In some cases, there’s a competing monument.

The history, good and bad, isn’t eradicated. Instead, it’s expanded in a manner which illustrates that all versions of life are seen through flawed human eyes. William Faulkner’s truism that “The past isn’t dead: It isn’t even past” is obvious to anyone reading the monuments.

Humans simply don’t know how our present actions will be perceived in future times; nor apparently do we know if what we do today is actually a plus or minus for society. We regularly forget what our grandmothers used to tell us, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are especially noteworthy for their “good intentions.” Neither was a proponent of slavery at a time when virtually all their peers were advocates for, as Lee put it, “a moral and political evil.” The most honored man in their youth, Thomas Jefferson, wrote eloquently about freedom but kept dozens of slaves at his plantation, Monticello — today a World Heritage site.

“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery,” the father of American literature, Mark Twain, wrote three decades after Lee’s death. ”I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”

In that climate, both Lee and Jackson decided that loyalty to their home state, Virginia, was the greater good and, of course, fought for the Confederacy. No one doubts that they fought honorably while few, if any, historians claim they ever treated a black man, woman or child with anything but kindness. The record of neither man contains anything like that of General Nathan Bedford Forrest whose troops apparently massacred black Union prisoners at Fort Pillow.

Highly religious, Stonewall Jackson, became a slave holder, history tells us, only because several members of his illegal school for blacks begged him to buy them. He had started the Sunday school on principle, and indeed in direct violation of Virginia law, because he believed, as Lee did, that the true road to emancipation came through education. Lee’s anguish at deciding whether to back Virginia or take command of all Union forces is famous.

Today, it’s obvious Lee made the wrong decision. But it wasn’t clear to anyone in 1861. Even the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, thought blacks were genetically inferior to whites; the brilliance of escaped slave Frederick Douglass being the “exception that proved the rule.”

Blacks today have solid grounds for despising the 1960s myth that “the South shall rise again” and have even stronger grounds for hating the symbols of racism, like the so-called Confederate flag. The reality of what happened all those generations ago was buried by the purveyors of pre-civil-rights hate but, like humans of all generations and cultures, this post-civil-rights generation should be cautious about “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Lee and Jackson were wrong to fight connected with any concept of slavery. But right or wrong, how ironic that today when the whole world bemoans the intentional destruction of the Giant Buddha Statues of Afghanistan and the dynamiting of a half-dozen World Heritage sites in Palmyra, Syria we – in tiny Charlottesville, Va. — are considering eradicating “history” because the past’s version of it might be flawed.

More Complicated than It Looks…

transparencyTransparency in General Assembly Voting. Two weeks ago I blogged how two-thirds of the 1,221 of the 3,000 bills submitted in the 2016 General Assembly session died in committees without a vote. (See “Killing Bills Quietly.”) To my mind, the numbers implied a scandalous resistance to transparency and accountability.

Former Sen. Chris Saxman, now president of Virginia FREE, lent some perspective in a recent newsletter:

The General Assembly has 60 and 45 day sessions which move very quickly with a process designed to go slowly. Each session will yield about 2,000 votes per legislator. … What is fairly certain is that next year the General Assembly will be criticized, once again, for putting in too many bills, passing too many bills, and then killing too many bills. …

Many bills that do not advance have votes that are not recorded because the legislation itself is not quite ready for one. What happens in that situation is that the bill is explained to the subcommittee, then the chair asks those in the room to speak either for or against the bill – quickly – and then the patron is given a chance to respond. All the while amendments can be offered to improve the bill and its chances of passing. … Can you imagine a system in which every amendment has a recorded vote and corresponding procedures? Not much would get done. (See the U.S. Congress)

The chair then tells the subcommittee, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, the bill is before you.” If no amendments had been offered, the chances are that no motion will be heard. The chair then says, “Hearing no motions…the bill does not report” which effectively, but not actually, kills the bill. Other motions can be heard and voted on and, as stated above, any of them can be recorded.

The process, however, moves so very fast that the patron knows that the chance of the bill being signed into law is simply not worth the time and work so he or she will ask for and/or be granted by the chair a more palatable motion to “lay the bill on the table.” This is a courtesy to the patron. Sometimes a member can be extra nice to the patron and say the bill be “gently” laid on the table; however, there is no actual motion called gently laying on the table. It’s a professional courtesy.

This does not mean that the bill is dead. It means the bill is held by the committee. Anyone on that committee can later make a motion to take the bill off the table through a motion of reconsideration.

There’s always more to the story than meets the eye.

memory_holeDumping Harry F. Byrd Down the Memory Hole. In an uncharacteristic fit of political correctness, I endorsed the movement of students and parents at Harry F. Byrd Middle School in Henrico County to take a new name. Recognizing the deceased segregationist governor seemed especially inappropriate for a school with a large percentage of African-American students.

But in a recent op-ed, J. Edward Grimsley reminded us that Byrd was a progressive fellow by the standards of Jim Crow-era segregationists. Most notably, Byrd fought for and won the nation’s first anti-lynching law, bringing lynchings in Virginia to a halt. The legislation, Grimsley wrote, “made one of the most significant contributions to black civil rights since President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

If we are to be consistent in removing honors for segregationists, then let’s not single out Byrd. Let’s rename any school honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, after all, famously interned the entire U.S. Japanese population and, as Grimsley noted, did virtually nothing to reverse African-American segregation. He continued:

Having the power to desegregate the nation’s armed forces without the Supreme Court’s permission [Roosevelt] refused to do more than make a few token gestures. … Roosevelt repeatedly rejected pleas to follow the Byrd example and propose a federal anti-lynching law. And Washington, over which the federal government has ultimate jurisdiction, remained one of the most segregated cities in America until the middle of the 20th century.

Concludes Grimsley: “It would be a supreme injustice to allow Harry Byrd’s name to be tossed into Henrico’s trash bin of history without remembering that when black Virginians urgently needed the  help of a powerful political friend, he was there to support their most important civil right of all: the right to live.”

Note to knee-jerks: I am not defending Harry Byrd’s support of segregation. I am recognizing that the man is more nuanced than commonly portrayed.

How Many Millions Have Died from This Failed Scientific Orthodoxy?


Graphic credit: Washington Post

One of the most rigorous scientific experiments on the effects of fatty foods in the diet took some 40 years to complete, but the results are now in. Reports the Washington Post:

Collectively, the fuller results undermine the conventional wisdom regarding dietary fat that has persisted for decades and is currently enshrined in influential publications such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And the long-belated story of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment suggests just how difficult it can be for new evidence to see the light of day when it contradicts widely held theories.

The special diet given to mental patients in Minnesota did succeed in its intent to reduce cholesterol levels. What no one anticipated was that participants were more likely than patients on a conventional diet to die earlier.

Bacon’s bottom line. First question: By regulating and brow-beating food processors to reformulate their packaged foods and by pushing Americans into embracing the new nutritional guidelines, social engineers succeeded in altering the American diet. How many millions of Americans have died as a result?

As an aside, given the obsession with race and class today, one is tempted to ask also if minorities and the poor were disproportionately impacted. Did the nutritional social engineering of the 1970s lead to more obesity, more hypertension, more coronary blockage, and more diabetes than would have occurred otherwise? How many millions suffered death and disability as a result?

Second question: Will the social engineers ever own up to this calamitous public health failure and their complicity, however well intended, in the premature death of millions of Americans? Will Black Lives Matter point an accusing finger at the nutritional policies that arguably have snuffed out a thousand times more African-Americans lives than unjustified police killings?

Third question: What can we learn about what happens when science, politics and scientific funding intersect? As the WaPo summarizes why early results of the study were buried when they conflicted with orthodoxy:

The Minnesota investigators had a theory that they believed in — that reducing blood cholesterol would make people healthier. Indeed, the idea was widespread and would soon be adopted by the federal government in the first dietary recommendations. So when the data they collected from the mental patients conflicted with this theory, the scientists may have been reluctant to believe what their experiment had turned up.

Could the same thing be happening in some other sphere of public policy? Could contradictory scientific evidence be ignored or suppressed? Just asking.


Demographic Mystery Almost Solved


by James A. Bacon

And now for an answer to the fascinating question posed by Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog: why African-Americans living in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have the highest median incomes anywhere in the United States (see “A Demographic Mystery“)…. Ultimately, he says, the answer can be traced to the history of slavery in the Chesapeake region that gave rise to a large population of free blacks.

At the risk of oversimplifying (I urge you to read his full blog post), Lombard’s argument goes like this: With the introduction of tobacco to Virginia in the early 1600s, Virginia was the first state on the North American mainland to develop a plantation economy. Most slaves at that time originated from Angola. Because that region of Africa had been under Portuguese influence since the 1400s, many of the slaves were Christian, which may have entitled them to different consideration than pagans. Moreover, English common law prohibited slavery. Therefore, the first Africans in Virginia, like whites, were engaged as indentured servants and gained their freedom after working for a set time.

(Lombard doesn’t mention this but it fits with his theme: Many followers of Nathaniel Bacon during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 were freed African servants and slaves, who made common cause with freed white servants and small farmers.)

The institution of slavery did not cohere into the chattel form with which we are familiar until 1705 when the Virginia House of Burgesses codified a system of forced labor for non-Europeans and non-Christians. By that point, the slave trade had shifted to West Africa where Africans were far less likely to be Christianized.

I would expand upon Lombard’s argument as follows. Chesapeake slavery was built largely around tobacco plantations. By the late 1700s, tobacco cultivation had exhausted the soils, and the industry went into sharp decline, leaving farmers and plantation owners with a large surplus of slaves. At the same time that slaves were losing value as a means of production, many slave owners were feeling the contradiction between their ownership of other human beings and their belief in egalitarian, revolutionary ideas. Manumission became a fairly common practice, peaking around 1800. (I have a Bacon ancestor living in Sussex County, Del., who, according to family lore, granted his slaves their freedom after his death.)

Everything changed around 1800. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794, making possible the profitable cultivation of cotton — but not in the Chesapeake states, which were too far north to grow the plant. And then the United States banned the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. The institution of slavery in the Chesapeake region gained a new lease on life as slave owners sold their slaves to markets in the deep south. The end result was a demographic pattern by 1860 in which 10% to 25% or more of the black population in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware counties were free but, outside a few counties in North Carolina, free blacks were almost unknown elsewhere.

That freedom, argues Lombard, gave Chesapeake blacks a head start in the accumulation of property and wealth. A glance at the maps he produces shows that across most of Virginia, the black farm ownership rate in 1920 was over 50% across the state and over 75% for big chunks of it — far higher than anywhere else in the country, even the North. Another map shows that the black home ownership rate in 1940 exceeded 60% in much of Virginia — again, far higher than anywhere else in the country. Lombard suggests that the lack of a sharecropping economy in Virginia may explain the difference.

The analysis at this point gets a little fuzzy because, based upon an eyeballing of Lombard’s maps, the rate of farm- and home-ownership in Virginia were considerably higher than in Maryland and Delaware, so there may have been other factors at work than the percentage of free blacks and/or the lack of sharecropping institutions. Lombard doesn’t address this issue. Could Virginia’s Jim Crow laws been less restrictive than those of Maryland or Delaware? Were Virginia blacks more highly educated? Whatever, the reason, it can hardly be coincidental that Richmond, where many blacks proudly trace their ancestry back to the free black population of the ante-bellum era, became known as the “Harlem of the South.”

Any analysis also need to consider the massive early 20th-century migration of Southern blacks to cities in the Northeast and Midwest, and then the subsequent migration of blacks back to the South, both of which created a large mixing effect. While some Virginia blacks trace their roots back to free blacks living in the state in 1860, how many do?

In sum, Lombard’s argument is incomplete. Not wrong, just incomplete. His hypothesis — positing a link between the percentage of free blacks in the population in 1860 and the economic well being of Virginia blacks today — is fascinating and inherently plausible. It would make a great PhD thesis.

A Demographic Mystery

Black poverty rate by county. Source StatChat

Black poverty rate by county. Source: StatChat

The highest median income for African-Americans is highest in Maryland, second highest in Delaware and third highest in Virginia. The flip side of the coin is that the counties with the lowest African-American poverty rates are overwhelmingly clustered in the Mid-Atlantic, as can be seen in the map above. What’s going on? What’s so special about the Mid-Atlantic?

One obvious explanation is that the high median African-American incomes are centered on the Washington metropolitan area. That may be a factor but there’s more. African-American prosperity extends southward well past the Richmond metropolitan area and north into Delaware.

The data comes from Hamilton Lombard with the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, who published on the StatChat blog. In a future post, he says, he will examine how that came to be. I eagerly await his analysis.

(Hat tip: Frank Muraca, Nutshell.)


Failed Twice by the Criminal Justice System

Shaakira Ross, failed by the justice system... twice

Shaakira Ross, failed by the justice system… twice.

by James A. Bacon

The most basic and essential of all government services is to administer justice and protect the citizenry. If government can’t do that, it fails at the most profound level.

So, now we read about a murder trial in Petersburg in which a young felon was accused of gunning down a 19-year-old Governor’s School graduate, Shaakira Ross. The trial came to a halt because too few Petersburg residents subpoenaed as potential jurors showed up!

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch observes in his coverage of the incident, it is “extremely rare” for a criminal trial to be postponed for a lack of subpoenaed witnesses. In this particular instance, the government did its job — it issued 60 subpoenas for potential jurors. But only 24 arrived. Of those, 18 were excused under a statutory provision that exempts college students, the disabled and the elderly over 70. That left only six potential jurors. Normally, a trial requires a pool of at least 26 to 30 because some get dismissed during the selection process for biases or conflicts of interest.

“If this sort of thing continues to happen — jurors not showing up — it could be disruptive of the criminal justice system,” said Commonwealths’s Attorney T. Leslie Lindsey.

Hopefully, the incident was a fluke. But don’t be surprised if it’s not. Peoples’ notions of citizenship are changing. Even middle-class citizens regard jury duty as a hassle and try to get out of it. In Petersburg, with its large population of poor, many of whom live unstable lives, drift from residence to residence, and regard the justice system with suspicion, I would bet that the failure to respond to jury subpoenas is a chronic problem.

As an aside… The criminal justice system didn’t fail Ross just once, but twice. Her accused killer, Leon Thomas Archer, 21, had pleaded guilty in 2013 to three counts of burglary, two counts of larceny of a firearm, and one count of grand larceny. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison with eight years suspended on each of the counts, and allowed to serve the terms concurrently, for a total of only two years served. The man should not have been on the street.

Archer’s defense is that the killing was accidental. By his own admission, he was preparing to break into a home that evening on Fort Rice Street when he was startled by some music playing behind him. Allegedly, he turned around, locked eyes with Shaakira Ross, who was sitting in her car, and shot her. The police removed five .45-caliber bullets from her body.

Next time you denounce “mass incarceration” and call releasing more felons from jail or prison, please remember the gamble the justice system will be taking. The victims almost always are other African-Americans, in this case Shaakira Ross, a young woman described as a good student with a big smile and upbeat attitude who was planning to go to nursing school.