If you are interested in racial justice, you may find this shirt of interest.
TAMPA—Fear serves as a primary motivator of human behavior for good reason—if you do not adequately avoid threats, you cease to be a human being.
Threats, Opportunities, & Survival
For every member of the animal kingdom, survival boils down to a rather simple strategy: maximize opportunities and minimize threats.
Yet as simple as that may seem, the desire for opportunities and the fear of threats varies widely from person to person. These differences lead some people to take far greater risks than others.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these individual differences have been shown by science to correlate with complex social behaviors.
Mapping Biology to Society Quite Indirect
One of the reasons it is easier to be a politician than a scientist or a science writer is because with science, the devil is always in the details. And hashing out the details gets wonky in a hurry.
Take, for instance, political party identification. For any given person, a huge variety of factors affects this identification—including strongly the party identification of those who raised you.
Political parties are social constructs that represent some amalgamation of broad ideology with the particular interests of those in power controlling the parties.
Given this, it should come as no surprise that science is able to better explain identification with an ideology than with a political party.
Further, if you can get a better handle on which aspects of an ideology result in the identification, you can far better explore the factors that correlate with, predict, and follow from that identification.
But that makes for far more boring headline.
Popular Understandings of Human Motivation
Almost everyone reading this will have heard of “fight or flight” or “approach and avoidance.” Those represent straightforward notions, and they are relatively easy to understand.
Each paints two diametrically opposed choices: you go one way or the other. Just like an arrow with two ends.
You have one body, so you can go in only one direction given the laws of physics.
Yet as scientists continued to dig deeper into the mysteries of the human mind—not surprisingly—the underlying reality turned out to be much more complicated.
‘Risky’ Behavior Reveals a Single Arrow’s Flaws
Consider something very benign, which has no serious appeal and poses no serious threat. I have often used the example of a kitchen stool, or, for example, why so few people watch C-SPAN.
Let me try to illustrate this with what I hope will be a straightforward example.
With a single approach/avoid arrow and a very neutral object, there is no motivation to approach or avoid it, so one would fall in the middle of that arrow.
Now consider some “risky” behavior that carries with it both strong appeal and a good deal of risk.
Unprotected sex is one example. Recreational drug use is another.
For recreational drug use, one might be allured by the social conformity of the group at a party and any pleasurable effects of the drug. Concurrently, one might be repelled by health dangers and potential legal consequences.
Here one also is caught in the middle of the approach and avoid arrow, yet it goes without saying that this is an altogether a different experience.
Two Systems Must Produce One Result
As it turns out, scientists have revealed a great deal of evidence that the simple approach/avoid model poorly explains what happens in the human nervous system.
Rather than a single push/pull system, thousands of studies point toward two separate systems: an appetitive system that regulates the desire to approach and an aversive system that regulates the desire to avoid.
The two systems compete for control, and whichever system is most active governs action. When appetitive activation is greatest, the inclination is to approach. When aversive activation is greater, the inclination is to avoid.
Returning to our neutral, boring object, neither system is activated, so there is no motivation to do either.
For the risky situation, both systems are similarly active, so there is, in effect, a tie between them. It is difficult draw.
Note how the simple switch to two competitive systems now clearly illustrates why the neutral and risky situations immediately seem so different despite the fact that they both fall in the middle of the single approach/avoid arrow.
Which System Wins at Any Given Moment
If these two systems, appetitive and aversive, were perpetually deadlocked, you would be perpetually frozen, and that likely does not resemble your personal experience.
Using data, scientists have developed models that suggest that these two systems ramp up differently depending upon the intensity of the situation.
When the world seems fairly calm and safe, the appetitive system enjoys an advantage. This makes a great deal of sense biologically. Without this advantage, no one would explore their world, so they would never find food, water, or potential mates. We call this advantage of the appetitive system positivity offset.
However, if they appetitive system always enjoyed the advantage, you would walk straight into every danger in the world. In short, you would soon be dead.
The check on this is that as the environment becomes more intense, the aversive system ramps up more quickly. If you’re mathematically inclined, one can say that the slope of its activation function is steeper. We call this negativity bias.
Taken together, the positivity offset and negativity bias serve to allow humans and animals to be generally exploratory in nature yet avoid dangers and threats.
The important thing to note that is our research and that of others provides strong evidence of significant individual differences in both positivity offset and negativity bias.
Equally as important, our data showed that the two factors were independent. That is, people with a high negativity bias might have either a low positivity offset.
Examining the Two Factors Together
All other things being equal, those with a high positivity offset will have above average approach tendencies. Even as situations become more intense, these individuals still will feel drawn to approach.
Likewise, all other things being equal, those with a high negativity bias will have above average avoidance tendencies. Even when situations are relatively less intense, these individuals will be inclined to avoid.
Because empirical data showed these dimensions to be relatively independent, it becomes much more explanatory to consider individuals that are high or low in each of the two dimensions.
When divided into “high” or “low” on both negativity bias and positivity offset, we got roughly four equal groups of people. Here is our name for each group and a summary description.
INACTIVES: Individuals with both a low negativity bias and a low positivity offset exhibit the least reaction to the external world. Opportunities do not especially excite them, and risks do not especially frighten them.
RISK TAKERS: Given that our research was designed to help craft better health communication messages, this group was of greatest interest. High in positivity offset, these individuals are driven to experience life, and this drive is only slightly tempered as risk increases. Not surprisingly, these individuals reported the most tobacco, drug, and alcohol use.
RISK AVOIDERS: At the very opposite end of the spectrum, individuals with a low positivity offset and a high negativity bias feel less pull toward opportunities in the world, and they are quick to withdraw when any risk presents itself.
COACTIVES: Finally you have the group with a high positivity offset and a high negativity bias. They charge out into the world seeking experience and opportunity, just like risk takers, but that drive has a serious limit. As soon as the likelihood of risk increases, the opportunity loses its appeal
Physical, Behavioral Differences Among Types
In addition to their likelihood to smoke, drink, or take drugs, individuals falling into these groups exhibited both behavioral and physiological differences. That is, their bodies responded differently to pleasantness and unpleasantness.
For example, when shown a series of pleasant and unpleasant photographs, risk avoiders were especially fast to click past extremely unpleasant photographs.
These differences manifested in their physiology, too. As might be expected, those high in negativity bias exhibited increased levels in multiple physiological changes associated with avoidance.
These physiological differences are crucial to understanding this issue. If you are an individual with high negativity bias, unpleasant things are bad to you precisely because they feel bad to you. Even if often subconscious, these physiological changes associated with flight are registered in the mind, and they affect ongoing cognition.
Restated, this is not a carefully reasoned, logical choice. This is, “This feels bad, and I am getting out of here.”
Bringing It Back to Politics
As I first wrote last week, at the same time we were working on this research designed at designing better health prevention messages, other researchers were examining how these concepts related to underlying political ideology.
As a reminder, political party identification is extremely complicated and only partially affiliated with underlying ideological values.
Variables such as education and socioeconomic status also play large roles.
Furthermore, you are a product of your genes, your environment, and how your environment affected your gene expression. So who you are was never predetermined.
Thus, there almost assuredly never will be physiological measures that associate as strongly with party identification as with basic conservative or liberal ideology.
And as a final qualifier—reminder here that with science, the devil is in the details—this also is not simply asking people to check conservative or liberal. Effective measures ask participants to rate their agreement with several statements, some of which stem from liberal ideology, and some of which stem from conservative ideology.
The words, as labels, are also highly charged, so their use skews responses.
Despite Qualifiers, Correlations Exist
Admittedly that was a long list of qualifiers. Yet understanding that basic concepts should make it at least plausible that those individuals with a greater negativity bias would tend to show greater agreement with these kinds of statements:
- Society works best when people realize the world is dangerous
- Society works best when people take primary responsibility for their welfare
- Society works best when those who break the rules are punished
Accordingly, people who respond with a high level of agreement with these statements, which derive from conservative ideology, are more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.
Just as is the case that designing anti-tobacco messages should differ based upon your audience, feal appeals work differently with different audiences.
Fear appeals work best on individuals with a high negativity bias. On the aggregate across a national population of more than 300 million people, individuals with a high negativity bias are going to be overrepresented in the group of people who agree with conservative ideology. And among these people, Republican party identification will be represented in greater numbers.
However, this is far from invariant, and there is no direct causal link. Trying to make predictions for a given individual likely will fare no better than a coin flip. For a national election, however, these trends will manifest themselves in a mass population.
TAMPA—Sometimes a mystery leads you places you had no intention of going.
But it is difficult to walk away from a good mystery.
This was the case in my research lab several years ago when we began a series of studies that had nothing to do with politics or political ideology, yet we wound up scratching our heads and asking:
“Why are conservatives so afraid of the world?”
The primary difference between science and politics is that in science, you follow the data. When the data clearly demonstrate that your predictions were incorrect, you work hard to understand why. You go where the data take you.
Nearly a decade ago, my research lab was working on a study to better understand the cognitive processing of television.
Specifically we were investigating the cognitive underpinnings of how viewing large quantities of television distorts viewers’ perceptions of the world. In short, the more TV you watched, the meaner you thought the world was.
Participants are asked questions like this:
“If you were to walk by yourself for an hour every night in a park in New York City for a month, what do you think the chances are that you would be the victim of a serious crime?”
It turns out that people who watch a lot of television estimate their chances much more likely than those who watch less television.
That “mean world” finding was decades old and had been replicated hundreds of times, including multiple times in my lab.
In fact, I even designed, simulated, and published an artificial neural network to show how this effect might manifest itself in the human brain.1
When it came time to collect additional human data with additional measures to test the model against human performance, I had moved to Texas Tech University as an assistant professor.
Lubbock County is one of the most conservative counties in the United States, but it did not seem to matter much because we were investigating fairly low-level cognitive processes.
Television’s Influence upon Our World Perceptions
The basic “mean world” effect makes perfect sense. Even if you work in law enforcement, you are far more likely to see a television or film portrayal of a homicide than to witness a real life murder.
When we ran the first study in Lubbock, however, we failed to replicate this effect—one of the most replicated effects in all of media science.
As scientists do in such cases, we began to dissect everything, looking for what went wrong.
During that process, we ran across the research of John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, whose (then) early work offered us a clue.
Bad, Scary Things Are Worse for Some People
In order to explain this briefly, ask yourself the following four questions:
- Do you like riding roller coasters?
- Do you like watching horror movies?
- How badly would you cringe if shown a photo of a burn victim?
- Lastly, do you know people who would answer completely differently?
In an admitted oversimplification, one’s aversion to these kind of risky or unpleasant situations in called “negativity bias.”
In short: How bad is bad stuff to you?
More specifically, how quickly do bad things become worse to you.
It might not surprise you to learn that a study of incarcerated psychopaths showed no evidence of any negativity bias.
Physiological, DNA Underpinnings of Political Leaning
What Hibbing had begun to explore is how individual differences in negativity bias correlate with political leaning.
Decades of research has correlated a wide variety of measures to political leaning—but these are almost always self-report. Self-report measures have an enormous limitation in the lab because as well as you think that you know yourself, you often do not actually know why you do what you do.
Hibbing and colleagues began to use the tools that I used in my lab—specifically psychophysiology, which allows us to measure bodily responses that you are neither aware of of able to control. As with all science, of course, he was drawing upon much previous work. But importantly he had begun to take his field in a direction that directly intersected with our line of research.
One of his paper’s was published in Science2, the upper echelons of publications in the world.
How You React in a Haunted House Is Telling
Imagine that you’re walking through a really good haunted house. Your heart is pounding. Your palms are sweaty. Just at the moment when your fear peaks, a zombie arm suddenly grabs you from what you thought was a solid floor.
The overwhelming odds are that you’ll jump. You have been startled, and everyone knows what that feels like.
What you likely did not know is that an involuntary eyeblink was part of that startle reflex, and the muscles that close your eyes began to contract long before you knew that you had been grabbed.
The more afraid you are, the greater the magnitude of the startle reflex.
In plain English, the more scared you are, the harder you jump.
The startle reflex is “preattentive,” which means that low-level parts of your brain initiate reflexive action well before the “you” part of your brain figures out what is going on.
As a nerd disclaimer, my entire doctoral dissertation was on the startle reflex.
Just as greater fear makes you flinch harder, the muscles closing your eyes also slam shut harder. And we can measure that by placing small sensors over those eye-closing muscles. These sensors are sensitive enough to detect the electrical activity generated by the muscle fibers contracting.
Startling Liberals and Conservatives
You may have guessed the basic answer to the mystery by now. Hibbing and his colleagues distinguished individuals with strong beliefs associated with liberalism and individuals with strong beliefs associated with conservatism.
They then seated the participants, attached sensors, and asked participants to stare at a focus point on a blank screen.
In the lab, for decades, we have elicited startle reflexes by a very brief but very loud burst of white noise (think static on the radio). This noise comes from a special machine that can generate white noise and go from 0 decibels to around 95 decibels instantly. Although this volume would damage the ear for prolonged durations, this lasts just 50 milliseconds.
This noise reliably generates an eyeblink startle reflex. And it is a reflex. I have been working on startle reflex-based research since 2003, and the noise gets me now exactly as it did the first time.
The important thing found by Hibbing and colleagues is that when seven of these noise bursts were played at unexpected times, the eyes of those aligned with conservative ideology slammed shut harder than those aligned with liberal ideology.
In addition to their eyes closing more forcefully, those individuals who identified with conservative ideology also showed greater electrodermal responses to threatening pictures, which is indicative of activation in the fight-or-flight system.3
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough …
For all normal people, as unpleasant situations become more intense, our bodies begin to prepare to fight or flee. All normal individuals have this negativity bias as bad goes to worse.
However, a large body of research has demonstrated that the rate at which bad goes to worse is steeper for some individuals than others. Like eye color and height, this is an individual difference that varies among people.
What Hibbing and colleagues have continued to do4 is to collect data that support the notion that, on average, individuals aligned with conservative ideology have a higher—or steeper—negative bias.
Put more plainly: data show that individuals aligned with conservative ideology respond more intensely and quickly to fear.
Please note that the “on average” part is crucially important to science. Nothing about these data predict how any given individual will respond. However, as a group, these two populations respond differently.
Also note that this is science and not a campaign speech. It would be absurd to say that Republicans do not ride roller coasters or all Democrats skydive. These studies point to a tendency among groups of people, and they specifically use ideology because it is far more indicative than party affiliation.
Our Mystery Was Nearly Solved
We conducted two follow up studies, which did provide evidence that the disproportionately high number of conservatives in our study likely caused our initial failed replication.
Television did not make our participants think the world was more dangerous because to them, the world already was too dangerous.
It is extremely difficult to recruit a sample of liberals and conservatives in rural West Texas that match on socioeconomic and demographic variables, so we postponed the final physiological study to confirm our hypotheses until we had proper funding. Then I became an administrator and had way less time for research …
The important point is that during the past decade, important new research has shed light on physiological differences between two broad groups of Americans ideologically, and part of these differences might be due to our DNA.5 Work is ongoing.
1 Bradley, S. D. (2007). Neural network simulations support heuristic processing model of cultivation effects. Media Psychology, 10, 449-469. doi:10.1080/15213260701533078
2 Oxley D. R., Smith K. B., Alford J. R., Hibbing M. V., Miller J. L., Scalora M., Hatemi P.K., … (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321, 1667-1670. doi:10.1080/15213260701533078
3 This is admittedly an oversimplification.
4 Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology.Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 297–350. doi:10.1017/S0140525X13001192
5 Nerd note: For centuries, there was the debate of “nature” vs. “nurturer.” Another large body of recent work demonstrates that the environment in which you are raised affects gene expression. So it is not one or the other. It is both individually and multiplied by each other. Science is hard. But fun!
As with any completely new experience, there was some apprehension walking through that door. I had brought a friend, but I am leery of the wholly unknown.
Yet it was fundamentally important to me to be there. To “show up,” as the name of the organization suggests.
The agenda showed that we would be breaking out into groups, which ratcheted the apprehension. In some odd personality quirk, I welcome the opportunity to talk to strangers when in “work mode” but tend to eschew it in “personal mode.”
In my first group of four people, I and three strangers were asked to discuss our responses to the following question, an abbreviated version of which I wrote down:
“What incident turned you on to racial justice work?”
– An abbreviated version of our first question, posed by the discussion leader for the night, Russell Meyer
All anxieties quickly dissipated, and I learned a lot and very much enjoyed getting to meet new people with different perspectives.
Racism is a difficult subject. Yes, there were some tense moments. But we cannot grow in comfort. I am more than willing to endure mild social awkwardness if I can help in some small way to make the world a better place.
I left the meeting engaged and ready to work.
Sens. Warren, McConnell, and Coretta Scott King
Then I came home and began reading social media.
At the very same time that we were discussing racial justice, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had been silenced from the Senate debate on the confirmation of Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General, who until his confirmation is himself a member of the Senate (R-AL).
Warren was silenced at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) because she was trying to read King’s 1986 letter to the Senate regarding Sessions’ then nomination to a federal judgeship, which was rejected by the Senate.
Despite the fact that the letter was written well before Sessions became a senator, McConnell invoked Senate Rule 19, that says that senators cannot offer words that would suggest “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Warren forced a vote, and 49 Republicans voted to silence her. And social media erupted.
No matter the motives, the facts of the incident were that a southern white man silenced a woman for trying to read the words of an African-American woman that suggested another southern white man had engaged in racist practices while an employee of the U.S. government. Pundits call this “bad optics.”
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
– Coretta Scott King March 19, 1986, cover letter to then-Senator Strom Thurmond(R-SC) opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions as a federal district court judge. (Emphasis original). Attached to the cover letter was a nine-page statement, the PDF of which is available by clicking here.
I will say simply that the events of the U.S. Senate yesterday made me more energized and more prepared to work.
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
For me, the answer to the first breakout group question took the form of a mathematical equation—or a chemical formula.
There was a seed crystal and an activating agent.
The seed crystal, not surprisingly, is best described by my favorite author, Henry David Thoreau, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
For racial justice to me, that book was Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic A People’s History of the United States, as revised in 2009. An Ivy-League educated historian, Zinn attempted to tell the parts of our history omitted from almost every official account.
It was chapters two and three, “Drawing the Color Line, and “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition,” respectively,” that moved me the most.
Slavery’s Origin in North American Colonies
To be clear in advance, it was neither the prevalence of slavery nor its brutality that most moved me—as both were well known and abhorrent to me before the book. Instead, I was deeply affected by the systematicity of the efforts and more pointedly, the purposeful efforts by white landowners to inject racial hatred into people. Wealthy white people worked resolutely to create racial hatred and hasten its festering.
First, however, we must begin at the beginning.
According to many accounts2, the first involuntary kidnapped Africans arrived in what would become the United States in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Zinn quotes an African-American writer, J. Saunders Redding, describing the event.
“Sails furled, flag drooping at her rounded stern, she rode the tide in from the sea. She was a strange ship, indeed, by all accounts, a frightening ship, a ship of mystery. Whether she was trader, privateer, or man-of-war no one knows. Through her bulwarks black-mouthed cannon yawned. The flag she flew was Dutch; her crew a motley. Her port of call, an English settlement, Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia. She came, she traded, and shortly afterwards was gone. Probably no ship in modern history has carried a more portentous freight. Her cargo? Twenty slaves.”
Jamestown represented an ambitious project for investors in The Virginia Company of London. In April 1607, three ships of optimistic colonists settled and named Jamestown. Nine hundred settlers arrived within three years.2 By 1610, all but sixty had died of famine. The period came to be the known by the words of one settler as “the starving time.”
Zinn points out that the English settlers simply did not possess that agricultural acumen—or the work ethic—to feed themselves and grow tobacco for export.
Although they had superior weaponry to Native Americans, they were vastly outnumbered by a cunning people on their native soil, so their enslavement was an impossibility.
Zinn quotes Edmund Morgan in his book, American Slavery, American Freedom:
“If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians’. You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages. It was evident in your firearms, your clothing, your housing, your government, your religion. The Indians were supposed to be overcome with admiration and to join you in extracting riches from the country. But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did. They even furnished you with the food that you somehow did not get around to growing enough of yourselves. To be thus condescended to by heathen savages was intolerable. And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much. If it came to that, the whole enterprise of Virginia would be over. So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar treatment to any of your own people who succumbed to the savage way of life. But you still did not grow much corn …”
– Zinn excerpted much of the quote. Above is the entirety taken from page 90 of the 2003 paperback edition.
Driven to the point of cannibalism and starvation, the people of Jamestown desperately needed labor.
A Slave by Any Other Name
When that first Dutch ship arrived in 1619, it is important to note two things. Firstly, indentured white servants already had been imported to Jamestown, but in far short supply. Those first 20 hostages from African were dubbed “servants” rather than “slaves” despite the fact that the European slave trade was at least 50 years old.
Slavery had not yet been legalized in the colonies, so this euphemism of equality between indentured European servants and kidnapped African slaves was of necessity. Despite the terminology, every record from Jamestown documents an unequal treatment—far harsher to the slaves in every case. The white Europeans in power treated them very much differently.
Perhaps the most important point from this section of Zinn’s book is that despite the unequal treatment by the ruling class, there is evidence that this prejudice did not exist between the indentured white servants and the slaves from Africa.
“…where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were ‘remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.’
“Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. In 1661 a law was passed in Virginia that ‘in case any English servant shall run away in company of any Negroes’ he would have to give special service for extra years to the master of the runaway Negro. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any ‘white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
The inexpensive slave labor proved extremely profitable, and the proliferation of kidnapped slaves exploded in Virginia. By 1700, there were 6,000 slaves in Virginia (one-twelfth of the population), according to Zinn, and by 1763, half the population were slaves, 170,000.
An Inhumane, Brutal Practice at All Times
The kidnapping, transportation, and sale of Africans as slaves cannot be described as anything other than abhorrent and evil. Yet it was the system of treatment designed to control such a large, poorly treated slave population once arrived where evil took on a new dimension.
“Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736:
“ ‘We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war… and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
Indeed there were hundreds of such revolts, despite barbarous physical and psychological torture aimed at submission. Kidnapped from their native land, transported in inhuman conditions, forced into brutal labor, and typically torn from their families once in America, these human beings understandably yearned to be free.
To the wealthy landowners, these revolts and rebellions had a chilling and threatening correlate: indentured white servants and other poor white citizens often joined in the rebellions.
“Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation. As Edmund Morgan sees it:
“ ‘There are hints that the two despised groups initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together. In Bacon’s Rebellion, one of the last groups to surrender was a mixed band of eighty negroes and twenty English servants.’
“As Morgan says, masters, ‘initially at least, perceived slaves in much the same way they had always perceived servants… shiftless, irresponsible, unfaithful, ungrateful, dishonest…’ And ‘if freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done.’ ”
– Zinn, Chapter 2
The Most Unforgivable among Unforgivable Sins
Wealthy landowners—vastly outnumbered and fearing a common uprising between slaves and indentured whites—set about a diabolical plot to institutionalize racism so that they two oppressed groups would be less likely to see one another as the allies they were.
To put that another way, many of the racial issues still hurting lives in 2017 were purposefully and deliberately institutionalized by wealthy white landowners in the 1700’s.
They did this on purpose.
And not just informally. The Virginia Assembly wrote white supremacy into the law.
“Virginia’s ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, while women servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land.
“Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests.”
– Zinn, Chapter 2, quoting Morgan
Employing the human motive of greed, the ruling class drove an inexpensive rift between two exploited peoples. Racism in America did not come about as the natural course of events. It was carefully orchestrated as history first created the need for slave labor (if white landowners were to prosper) and then to alienate the slaves from white servants (if which landowners were to live).
This historical web of events led to a society that still struggles mightily with racism, both overt and subtle.
We Got Here; We Don’t Have to Stay Here
Then Zinn says among the most powerful statements in the book. One that gives me genuine hope and gives me the motivation to stand up for racial justice and continue to stand up.
“The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not ‘natural.’ This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. It means only that there is a possibility for something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”
– Zinn, Chapter 2 (emphasis added)
People long since dead did this to our society to protect their interests. That means that together we have the power to undo this to advance society’s interests.
Racism is a disease that has long angered me. Finding out that it was a purposeful infection was the seed planted in my mind that told me that I had to do something about it. Anger was not enough.
Participating in the Women’s March on Washington was the activating agent that told me that I have to do something about these injustices now.
1 When I created this blog, I did so very purposefully with the name “Now the Facts.” It will remain true to the name. Some will view this as a “political” post. It is not. Here I report facts with the objectivity of a trained journalist. I have fact-checked this post. The first-person portion of the post diverges from traditional print reporting, but again, these are the facts of my experience rather than my opinion of what one must infer from my experience.
2 See also: Johnson, C., & Smith, P. (1998). Africans in America: America’s journey through slavery. New York: Harcourt Brace. Gates, H. L., Jr. (2011). Life upon these shores: Looking at African American history. New York: Knopf.
“Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
– Disputed origin
TAMPA—It is an old saying, but its meaning is simple: the newspapers of old had a voice far larger than any individual due to volume. You can write a letter. They can write a million. Draw their ire at your peril.
The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has made no secret of his contempt for most of the media, save for Fox News.
“I don’t like watching fake news. But Fox has treated me very nice. Wherever Fox is, thank you.”
– Trump during his ‘listening session’ for Black History Month, Feb. 1, 2017.
Things have changed with the Internet and social media, of course. With Twitter, the president has direct access to 24.1 million followers.
Despite his ongoing feud with the media, Trump offered unprecedented accusations of the press Monday at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base—home to both United States Central Command and the United States Special Operations Command and ironically just across the Bay from the Poynter Institute, the preeminent thinktank for journalism.
“You’ve seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.”
– Trump at MacDill AFB on Monday, Feb. 6, 2016.
I will leave it to others to dissect that quotation, but in this space I will offer that it ignores both the “ink by the barrel” maxim and the realities of the modern media landscape that allow him to have 24 million followers on Twitter.
Incredibly Weak Conspiracy Theory
The majority of people walking around Europe have a camera-equipped cell phone in their pockets—many of which are capable of broadcast quality HD video. If even if the media (a majority of which are corporate owned and driven by profits) somehow did collude to not cover a terrorist attack, it would be impossible for it to stay hidden because of social media.1
Journalists today must work harder than ever because everyone has the ability to be a citizen journalist. With a cell phone and a coffee shop, you can reach the world.
The desire to be first with the scoop makes this notion absurd prima facie.
Three (Four) Co-Equal Branches
Ordinary Americans are learning a lot about the United States Constitution these days, so most people know that it sets up three co-equal branches of government.
I would hazard a guess that most people do not know that Article I covers the legislative branch. The executive branch is relegated to Article II.
This is for a reason. The people were always supposed to come first.
Article III, then, is the judiciary, which Trump seems to especially hate these days:
Trump has shown no restraint in attempting to delegitimize the judiciary, calling the federal judge who halted his travel ban nationally a “so-called” judge. Trump is speaking of Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who was appointed by then President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2004.
This would echo events from May 2016, when Trump attacked Federal District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel on Twitter because the judge was presiding over class action lawsuits against Trump University.
The tweets came just days after Trump called the judge a “Mexican” at a campaign rally.
“Summary judgment” (which Trump misspelled) means that a judge would throw a case out at the start for a lack of merit. That did not happen. Nor did a trial. Trump famously settled the lawsuit in November 2016 after vowing never to settle.
Ignorant statements about the judiciary from a defendant in a lawsuit who is still merely a candidate for his party’s nomination is lamentable. However, for a sitting president to directly attempt to undermine a well respected federal judge runs contrary to everything that America is.
This authoritarian style attempt to intimidate the judiciary clearly shows a trend.
Co-Opting the Legislative Branch
Turning back to Article I, the legislative branch, Trump showed no shortage of contempt for legislators over the campaign.
Just look at the many things Trump said about Paul Ryan during the campaign.
Many critics have argued that Trump is trying to bully his Supreme Court nominee through—this as news surfaces of founding a “fascism forever” club in high school, and the fact that no one seems to be able to ever remember the nominee at two prison-related legal defense groups at Harvard that he listed on his qualifications (he is not pictured with either group in yearbooks nor is he listed as “not pictured.”)
Trump already is pressuring the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, to take extreme measures if Democrats attempt to block this nominee.
“If we end up with that gridlock I would say if you can, Mitch, go nuclear. That would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web.
“It’s up to Mitch, but I would say go for it,”
– Trump speaking of McConnell on Feb. 2, 2017.
The pattern is clear: Delegitimize all other voices except the White House.
What About That Fourth Branch?
Although the Constitution clearly delineates just three branches of government, its First Amendment gives a nod to a fourth.
Attributed to date back to 1787 in the House of Commons of Great Britain, Thomas Carlyle attributes the term “Fourth Estate” to Edmund Burke after allowing for the first three “Estates”:
“… in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship
The idea—that has resounded loudly throughout American constitutional law—is that the press serves as a representative of the people as a watchdog on government.
Trump’s attacks on the media have been so ubiquitous as to not need repeating here, yet not only has he attempted to bully the other two actual branches of government, he has far worse tried to bully the fourth, metaphorical branch.
Except this one buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.
No matter how many followers on Twitter, the New York Times still employs more than 1,000 trained journalists around the world. And as a trained journalist, I assure you that those journalists see themselves not as the “opposition party” that Trump alleges but as the watchdog for the people that they have always been.
Regardless how much spin is cast or to what degree Fox News shows only a funhouse mirror version of the world to its viewers, there simply are too many trained journalists motivated more than ever to seek one thing: the truth.
Although I have yet to see any numbers, I would wager a good deal of money that every time Trump blasts the New York Times, its subscriber base jumps upward significantly. For something Trump says he hates, he is their best financial ambassador at present.
As I hold this actual copy of the Constitution in my hand, there are few paragraphs in isolation that I am sure that I am willing to die to protect. The First Amendment, however, is one.
And Trump chose to trash it in the city where I live.
So, resist I do.
1 A single video upload was the source of a storyline that spanned multiple episodes of the terror-themed drama, Homeland, for an example how this has made into into the collective conscience.
TAMPA—I have never been an activist. The number of political protests and/or marches that I have attended prior to 2017 are 0. I went to a George H.W. Bush campaign event in 1988 when I was quite young. Other than voting and some very modest campaign contributions, that was the grand total of my political participation.
Then something changed. Perhaps all of this was incubated in the seven month (and counting) fight to have my own constitutional rights violated that heightened my sensitivity to how easily “power” can trample constitutionally protected rights.
There have been so many events that I am missing one at this moment to have time for the first time in three days to post.
Coming Back from Washington
The Women’s March on Washington changed my life, and I returned to Florida determined to keep the momentum going. To the extent possible, I have tried to engage with the Women’s March Florida Tampa/Hillsborough Chapter.
That group held its first Mobilization meeting on Saturday, and a packed house filled a local library to stay involved.
The meeting gained local media coverage (click here to read the story), and made good progress for a first meeting.
At one point, we were instructed to divide up into breakout groups, which typically leaves me wishing I had a Xanax. But this discussion was touching.
As we shared our stories of why we were there, two different women became choked up. One as she said:
“This is not the America I grew up in.”
It was powerful and peaceful and very touching.
After the meeting, I stuck around to help stack chairs, which even got my picture on the group’s page.
These women are tough, and they’re not going away. One young woman, Jessica Harrington has even decided to run for congress in 2018.
There were plenty of jokes about the idea of getting paid to be protestors. Certainly I have yet to be offered any money.
With a vibrant base, I expect big things from this chapter.
Sunday’s March: Stop President Bannon
A group organized by Out and Loud Florida set a rally/march outside Sen. Marco Rubio’s Tampa office. Being Super Bowl Sunday, this was a smaller group, but it was an entirely peaceful march.
In a busy, largely affluent area of Tampa, hundreds of cars honked their horns in support, a few extended middle fingers through the window, but one incident stood out to me.
As the group was assembled at the corner of a busy intersection, one individual in a car making a left turn yelled:
“I hope you get raped by Muslims.”
On its face, it is absurd, but this is a place where people feel emboldened to yell such a thing at a group that contained more females than males—and several people brought small children.
It is easy, I suppose, to be a bigot in mid left turn with no chance of having to actually face the people against whom you have directed hate.
From what I heard, there was no outpouring of indignance. I heard more chuckles at the absurdity of it. Although at its heart, it was a vile expression of hatred, mostly is showed the laziness of hatred and that sheer lack of witness of this individuals.
A positive interaction with a Tampa police officer was characteristic of everything I have seen so far. After properly warning one individual to stay off of a (short) wall on public property, the office stopped to shake my hand as he walked by and asked me how I was doing.
I have no idea why he picked me, but we had a nice chat, and he seemed very genuine. I later saw him high fiving some of the kids as he continued down the line.
A not only peaceful—but even collegial—interaction between protesters and police.
That, my friends, is what American looks like.
And now you will have to excuse me, I have a protest to attend.
TAMPA—Jokes about Frederick Douglass still being alive led to a thought. And that thought led me into an abyss of Adobe Creative Suite.
In keeping with, you know, them not actually being alive, I found an old Garfield/Arthur poster from 1880 and recreated it from scratch.
Totally worth it.
A short, light-hearted post for a Friday.
Vote Douglass/Tubman in 2020.
TAMPA—More than one hundred residents of Hillsborough County attended the meeting of the County’s Diversity Advisory Council Wednesday night to voice their support for the county being designated a “Sanctuary County.”
Supporters spoke for about two hours, but despite news media reports to the contrary, their wishes were not granted. Progress was made, but rather than a bold statement from the council, residents got a whisper that the matter should be examined.
So many moving stories were told, and so many residents requested sanctuary status. Sadly in the end, they needed to include how to do what they wanted.
What these activists wanted was simple, yet perhaps because of the national chaos during the preceding week or the arcane nature of parliamentary procedure, not one of the dozens of speakers thought to ask for it directly.
Specifically, they wanted any one of the members of the DAC to say:
“I move that the Diversity Advisory Council recommend that the Board of County Commissioners designate Hillsborough County a ‘Sanctuary County’ ”
– Simple motion that would have voiced the community request.
That did not happen.
Instead the council first rejected one motion that would have merely informed the County Commissioners of the events.
In discussion between the motions, it seemed clear that the will of the majority of the council was to make a recommendation. But these are community volunteers, after all, and from a spectator’s seat, it just seemed as if they did not know how to do what they wanted to do. A bit of parliamentary knowledge would have gone a long ways.
Not one word here is criticism. Merely disappointment. It was so close.
What Did Happen During the Vote
As much as it pains me to say it, I was first appointed as a parliamentarian at 18—a quarter of a century ago. Although I am no expert, I have had reason to brush up over the years.
Public comment fully preceded the council discussion on the agenda, hence there was no avenue for public input during the council’s discussion.
Note: As a first-time attendee, it was very difficult to get the council members names. If I make any mistakes here, I am happy to correct them.
The councilor who made the original motion, Terry Kemple, expressed some concern about the council overstepping its bounds and members being removed by the commission.
That concern was not shared by the rest of the members, most pointedly by Roxanne Bartley.
Further, Bartley went on to be the strongest voice for making a clear recommendation, which drew many affirmative head nods from the council.
Yet that did not happen.
The Will of the People
I arrived early for the meeting but only early enough to make the overflow room.
In order to make public comment, one had to fill out a comment card. These were available, but when I arrived, I nothing to say a priori, so I did not fill out a card.
That was a mistake. I should have known myself well enough to know that I will always have something to say.
In the month since the DAC first called for public comment, a LOT has happened. The United States swore in a new president, who has done several drastic things drink his first 13 days in office.
With a de facto Muslim ban in place and rampant rumors about pending action against the LGBT+ community—let alone the myriad assaults on women’s rights—speakers’ comments rightfully ranged far beyond sanctuary status.
There was a desperate need for one speaker—a nerd like me, if you will—to precisely focus the council on its needed action that night. I wish I had said:
“Respected members of this council, you have heard poignant and eloquent words here tonight that I cannot match. However, if I may, I humbly submit to you what I have heard the vast majority of citizens of Hillsborough County ask of you tonight.
“I have heard the citizens of this great, extremely diverse county ask you to take direct action. We understand that this council serves only an advisory role, but we the people are counting upon you to be our voice.
“In keeping with that voice, we are asking that one member of this council offer the following 32 words:
“In keeping with the overwhelming voice of the residents of Hillsborough County, I move that the Diversity Advisory Council recommend that the Board of County Commissioners designate Hillsborough County a ‘Sanctuary County’ ”
– Words that came to me after I had the chance to offer them
What I Should Have Said as a Citizen
I do believe that the words about direct action needed to be said, but I showed up at County Center as a citizen rather than a journalist. There was a chance that I would write about it if events warranted, but I took neither my camera nor my reporter’s pad. I did however wear a white shirt and carried a sign I hurriedly created that afternoon.
As I was moved by all of the stories that I heard, I wish that I had requested the opportunity to speak about why the diversity of Hillsborough County means so much to me.
“Full disclosure: I am a straight white male. My father was accepted as a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, and to be accepted, you must have documentation tracing your ancestry back to before the Revolutionary War. His sister was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so she had to document it separately. I have a CD in some box somewhere with all of the documentation—you know, for when I get old and find that stuff interesting.
“Yet I am still the product of immigrants. It doesn’t matter that the number of generations intervening in my case happens to be in the double digits. I am here because someone long ago crossed a broad ocean seeking a better life.
“Far more importantly, I am the father of four daughters. That is why I marched in Washington DC eleven days ago.
“I earned my undergraduate degree at New Mexico State University, a formally designated Hispanic-serving institution not 45 miles north of the Mexican border.
“My first job after college was as the education and health care reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News, where I got to learn the struggles of both documented and undocumented workers.
“Later as a federally funded researcher, I had to fight the bureaucracy to find a way to pay migrant workers to participate in our research, which was designed to create important health communication messages. One project addressed their health, but another focused on health practices in the fields where your food grows. Their health affects all of our health.
“This past December I drove my 88-year-old father across the border to Palomas, México, for dental work that is cost prohibitive in the United States. Although Pancho Villa once roamed this area, I saw not a single ‘bad hombre.’
“My career brought me to Tampa, but during my first week as a resident of Hillsborough County, I was taken on a tour that left me deeply impressed. The takeaway: Tampa was multicultural before it was either a word or a movement.
“Although several communities truly melted together in Ybor City, the social clubs impressed me greatly. Centers for Italians, Cubans, Germans, and Spaniards—some of which covered health care for their members nearly a century before the Affordable Care Act.
“Cigar factory workers pooled together their monies for a lector to provide daily readings, or lecturas. While they worked, they got to hear news of the world and great works of literature. They combined their scarce resources to educate themselves. More than 100 years ago, one can argue that we had the best-educated labor force in the world.
“This was my introduction to Tampa—an impression that has been repeatedly reinforced in the years since. Given this rich tradition, if there is any place in America that deserves to declare that it will treat you as a human being foremost and without concern about the papers that you do or don’t carry, this is that place. To not declare Hillsborough County as a Sanctuary County is a hostile insult to its every tradition.
“Immigration is a federal law. We are not advocating lawlessness. We are asking that you stand up and say that you will not invest the money of the taxpayers of Hillsborough County to do the job of a federal agency. You will ask your sheriff’s deputies to do their job, ‘protect and serve,’ and not to try to determine a person’s residency status.
“Diversity is woven into our history. What a tragedy it would be to turn our backs on that now.”
– If I had fully understood the importance of the meeting beforehand, this is what I would have said
Second, Slightly Revised Motion Passes
To be clear, this was an amazing night, and I applaud everyone who participated—even those with whom I vehemently disagree. And I have no intention to “shame” anyone on parliamentary procedure. But the council was so close to doing what the mainstream news media claimed it did:
After the first motion failed, Gamal Gasser offered a section motion that in legal terms was scarcely stronger than the first. It was restated multiple times in multiple ways, and official minutes are not yet posted, so at best I can paraphrase the motion.
The chair of the council, Nestor Ortiz is to prepare a report summarizing the community comments and recommend that the Board of County Commissioners examines designating Hillsborough County as a “Sanctuary County.”
Although an improvement upon Kemple’s original motion, this stopped far short of the will of the people that I heard expressed for about two hours.
To be clear, there were a handful of residents speaking out against sanctuary status. Kemple put the tally at 36 for, 8 against, and 2 neutral. From my recollection, this slightly overstates the opposition, but I did not keep count.
The Weirdest Moment of the Night
With a few exceptions, when an older white male approached the lectern, it was to voice opposition.
At one point, one man began speaking about veterans’ rights but then began rambling about Confederate Veterans not being represented on the diversity council.
This is one of those moments that catches you so off guard that you miss some of what is being said trying to process what you think you just heard.
And I thought it was simply an anomaly until I got home and Googled the council.
That, too, took a moment to sink in. Here are the first four paragraphs from that story—which is from less than six months ago:
“TAMPA — A well-known local activist for Confederate causes nearly won a spot Wednesday on a citizen council to promote diversity in Hillsborough County.
“David McAllister, leader of the Tampa chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, came one vote short of the requisite four needed to join the county’s Diversity Advisory Council. McAllister applied for an at-large seat and was the preferred choice of three Republican commissioners: Victor Crist, Stacy White and Ken Hagan.
“He initially tied with another individual, Lynette Stine, until Commissioner Kevin Beckner changed his pick to ensure Stine received the four votes needed for appointment.”
– Confederate activist nearly named to Hillsborough County’s diversity panel
As I do recall hearing that name, it is highly probable that it was the same person.
At one point during the discussion, Councilor Gary Howell made a point of addressing “White Privilege,” and it is clear that the county does indeed have work to do on this issue.
I am ready and able to help.
1 The form of these posts is indeed different from most of the writing that I have done throughout the past more than two decades. As a paid journalist, I very much adhered to the notion of objectivity.
Then I was trained as an empirical scientist, and any reader coming to this would clearly recognize this “participant-observation” as 180° from any of my peer-reviewed publications, yet I firmly believe this is the style appropriate to the current issues and current times.
At the same time, these posts differ markedly from the opinion columns that I wrote for two years as a college newspaper editor. These are true to the Now the Facts name, as the analysis is based upon empirical facts.