Organized Labor is Organized Love (September 1st, 2019)

On Sunday, September 1st, 2019 I had the honor of sharing some thoughts on labor organizing, and our own efforts to unionize at the University of Mississippi, with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. Here are those comments below, in their unpolished form.

*Updated to correct a part of the background which I got wrong in the first version*

First, I want to thank Reverend Doctor Gail Stratton for extending an invitation to me to talk today. And to Wendy Prenger for organizing the details and the planning.

My family and I come to the UU church on occasion, and we’ve always felt welcomed here. Which I don’t ever want anyone to take for granted – it matters a great deal to us that we’re welcome here.

I was asked to share some thoughts on labor, on organizing, and importantly on the new wall-to-wall union we now have at the University of Mississippi. And in framing those things, I thought I might focus on those aspects of labor, of organizing, and of our union that don’t get as much attention. That these things – labor movements, labor organizing, and the formation of our own union at the University of Mississippi – are at their core about a radical praxis of love.

That praxis of love isn’t often centered in imagery and depictions of labor organizing, at least in my view. More often, labor movements conjure images of anger between workers and their employers, or violent confrontation between workers and law enforcement.

Some of you for example have probably read about, or heard about, the Haymarket Square Affair of 1886. On May 4th of that year, labor activists in Chicago had organized a rally in Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by Chicago police during a strike that happened the day before. The protest turned into a riot when someone threw a bomb at police. The bomb and ensuing gunfire resulted in the death of several police officers, and at least four civilians, with dozens more wounded.

Some of you may have also read about, or heard about, the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Here, an uprising of ten thousand coal miners from across West Virginia turned into the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War. There are of course more contemporary examples, but these are some of the more sensational.

I’m not here to claim that the history of labor movements has been nonviolent, nor am I going to claim that every instance of violence on behalf of labor movements has been justified.

Instead, I want to talk about what grounds labor movements in general, and our own labor movement on campus more specifically.

Let me locate myself a bit, here, too, for context. I was born and raised Jewish. As a young kid, I attended Saturday services pretty regularly with my grandmother. As a teenager, I drifted away from the synagogue. But as a young adult in college, I drifted back to Judaism’s ethics, by way of a few religious studies courses taught at the University of Missouri by the local rabbi.

And it’s that set of Jewish ethics that informs a lot of my own activities today around economic justice, racial justice, and political engagement.

But what are Jewish ethics?

There’s a famous story about Rabbi Hillel, a first century sage and commentator, in which a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism approaches him. The gentile stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stands on one foot. Hillel accepted the challenge, and said the following:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”

Other rabbis have pointed to Micah 6:8, which some of you may know:

The Lord has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Rabbi Tarfon, another first-century sage, offers the following commentary on Micah 6:8:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Justice, mercy, and humility – these are among the core tenets of Judaism. For many Jews, these tenets aren’t electives we can simply shrug off as optional. We are literally called to be dedicated agents of justice, to look the world’s pain, despair, and sadness in the eyes and face it head on. Even – and perhaps especially – when it would be easier to do otherwise.

And importantly, to act justly and to love mercy – these are relational practices. Each necessitates the other. They are also active. It is not enough to want, or hope, for justice. Or to want, or hope, for mercy. You have to act justly. You have to love mercy.

So what does this mean in terms of union work and labor organizing?

About two years ago, Jessie Wilkerson, who is a professor of history and southern studies on our campus, approached me to see if I had any interest in helping to form a union on our campus. Jessie had been approaching others with the same question, and had been working with a friend, colleague, and labor organizer whom she knew from her days as a community college instructor and member of United Campus Workers of Tennessee.

The early years of United Campus Workers of Tennessee included a successful living wage campaign, and the expansion of membership to every public college and university in the state of Tennessee. Today, United Campus Workers has active locals at the University of Georgia, here at the University of Mississippi, and as recently as last month, at LSU.

And when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, I helped form a graduate student association within my department that later became part of the basis for a graduate student unionizing effort that took place after I completed my degree. In June of 2018, a federal judge ruled that the University of Missouri’s student workers are employees under the Missouri state constitution, and that their union is the sole collective bargaining entity for MU graduate students, and that the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators must recognize them. The University is of course appealing the ruling.

Now, when Jessie and I spoke, we talked about our own interests in forming a union. We spoke about things like fair pay, and the fact that the wage floor at the University of Mississippi is not even $10.30/hr. Which works out to barely $21,000 a year, if you are working full-time and have full benefits.

We talked about how expensive housing is here, and how difficult it is to find adequate, affordable housing when our wages on campus are as low as they are. The median rent for a two-bedroom housing unit in Lafayette County is nearly $870 per month. For someone working full-time and making $10.30 per hour, that $870 per month is nearly half of their monthly income, and it’s just for rent.

We talked about how little healthcare our health insurance actually affords us. The co-pays are high, the coverage isn’t great, and if you have dependents on your coverage you’re coming out of hundreds of dollars each month in premiums.

We talked about the imbalance of power between workers and employers on our campus. That there aren’t strong policies that protect us in the workplace from harassment, from bullying, and from retaliation by our supervisors.

Now – it’s easy to hear these things only as grievances. To only imagine the frustration we feel. Maybe even to feel frustration and anger for us. But take a pause. At its core, our discussion was not about anger and frustration, though that was certainly part of it. Our discussion was about our care and concern for our fellow persons. And our anger and frustration was rooted in a radical love for others. In our desire to act justly, and to love mercy.

Pay is low at the university, so low it makes affording housing and other basic needs difficult if not impossible. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to meet their basic needs. We love our fellow person enough to see their struggle, and to want to do something about it.

Healthcare is expensive, and the coverage isn’t great. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to see a doctor when they need to, and not go broke because of it. We love our fellow person enough to recognize they aren’t doing well, and to want to do something about it.

There is an imbalance of power in our workplace, and workers have little protection from harassment, bullying, and retaliation from their supervisors. And that’s a problem because we want people to be able to feel safe and supported in the places that they work, so that they can thrive. We love our fellow person enough to see they are being bullied and harassed, and to want to do something about it.

Following that initial conversation with Jessie, several of us began to meet pretty regularly, to plan for the plan, so to speak. And by October of 2018 – less than a year ago, we chartered the first higher education union in the state of Mississippi with an initial dues-paying roster of 50 members. We are now at nearly 90 dues-paying members, with plans this year to grow membership to at least 200.

Because of our success, friends and colleagues at other higher institutions across our state – Mississippi State, Southern Miss, Jackson State, and Mississippi University for Women to name a few – have reached out with interest in joining United Campus Workers of Mississippi, and starting their own campus chapters.

Now, something that is often lost in our union’s narrative, and in social justice work more generally, is this. When it came to organizing United Campus Workers of Mississippi, much of the heavy lifting was overwhelmingly performed by women.

To be sure, there were some men who also did some very heavy lifting. But there were many more women. Strong women. Women committed to acting justly, and loving mercy.

Jessie Wilkerson whom I already mentioned. Ellie Campbell, a former law school librarian who recently moved to Chapel Hill to take a position at UNC’s law library. Wendy Goldberg, from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Angela Green, also from the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. Lauren Rogers, who works at the main library on campus. Jodi Skipper, an anthropologist and activist who organizes the Behind-The-Big-House tours each year in Holly Springs. Carey Dowling, a professor of psychology who along with her partner Conor has opened her home for strategic planning sessions.

And then there are the women who work for our umbrella union organization, Communications Workers of America, or CWA. Karly Safar and Melanie Barron, who work as regional organizers for United Campus Workers and CWA. Also Kate Diedrick, who is part of a worker-owned firm called Research Action which partners with UCW, CWA, and other national and local racial and economic justice organizations across the Southeast to assist with their campaigns and organizing practices.

Each of these women shows a radical capacity for love of others – and that love informs and shapes every aspect of our union and its activities.

So to end, if I can go back to Micah, this time to chapter 4, verses 3 and 4. Here, Micah offers a prophecy for how to transform despair, or in Hebrew, ya’ash, into peace, or shalom.

It reads:

“…They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every [one] shall sit under [their] grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb [them].”

Within this passage is a beautiful image of a world to come. But whose responsibility is it to make it so? Not some higher power, whatever name we give that higher power.

This world to come will be, if and only if we make it happen. If we beat our swords into plowshares. If we make our spears into pruning hooks. This prophecy calls us to act, and demands that we love. And only if we – the collective we, the organized we – do these things, can we all know peace and justice.

Thanks.

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The Alchemy of Heroes

I started writing this shortly after John McCain died in late August of 2018, in a rough attempt at creative writing. I shared it with a few friends, but chose not to publish it so shortly after his death. Jewish ethics demand we honor the dead, including those we may not deem honorable. Today marks the one-year anniversary of McCain’s death. It felt right to share it now.

From its sins, its lies, and the pain of others the Nation fashions Its heroes. Twenty-three. Twenty-three times, the Soldier climbed into His aircraft with orders to drop bombs on behalf of His Nation. Twenty-three times, the Soldier dropped the Nation’s bombs on to men, women, and children that did not ask to be bombed. The War was Unjust, but the Soldier was dutiful. And so the Soldier required His Nation’s praise.

On His twenty-third mission to deliver the Nation’s bombs upon men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed, the Soldier’s plane was shot down and the Soldier was captured. The Nation was split. How should It consider Its Soldier and others like Him, who dropped bombs on those who did not ask to die? For five years, the Nation agonized over this question. Until one day the Soldier was set free. And the Nation was relieved. The Nation had Its Soldier, and no longer needed to drop bombs onto those who did not ask to die.

The Nation summoned Its Alchemists to do what has been done since the Nation’s founding. The Alchemists gathered the Nation’s sins, Its lies, and the pain of others, and from them fashioned a Hero. The torn limbs and charred flesh of the men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed were rendered ash. The details of their lives made dust, and to dust they returned.

But the Alchemists were not finished. From the Soldier-turned-Hero’s military career and captivity, they wrote an Odyssey. From ashes of the men, women, and children who did not ask to be bombed, the Alchemists fashioned steppingstones. The Alchemists laid these stones before the Hero, so that he could ascend into the Great Hall where other Heroes like Him awaited.

Once in the Great Hall, the Hero and others like Him built the Nation’s Great War Machine. The Hero and others like him demanded bigger and better bombs that could kill many more men, women, and children who did not look or think like Him.

A time came for the Nation to weep for its own Martyr. Yet the Hero could shed no tears. Nothing was more important for the Hero than His Great War Machine. Though the Hero would regret having shed no tears, He never regretted His Great War Machine. To be sure, His Great War Machine made Martyrs of many more men, women, and children who did not look and think like him. But they also made many more Heroes in His own image.

The Nation’s Alchemists watched this all, and were still not satisfied. So they gathered Dissent, Death, and Destruction, and to their Hero added Maverick, Straight-Talker, and Statesman. From the Nation’s most essential Truths – Imperialism, War, and Greed – the Alchemists fashioned a Man of Principle. For more than four decades, the Soldier-turned-Hero-turned-Maverick served in the Great Hall alongside other Men of Principle just like Him.

And when the Hero’s time on this Earth finally came to pass, the Nation mourned the loss of one of its Men of Principle. And when the Hero’s body was laid to rest, the Nation once again called upon its Alchemists to conjure a Symbol from Him that would be wholly recognizable to the Nation, yet wholly irreconcilable with whom the Nation buried. The Alchemists took their Symbol and placed it within the Heavens for all time. Then the Nation returned to its work, gathering its sins, its lies, and the pain of others. And from these things the Alchemists fashioned for the Nation its next Savior from itself. For the Alchemy of Heroes forever requires the words and deeds of Broken Men, and the gulf between.

Democratic Socialism in the United States

A few weeks back, The Oxford Eagle ran a guest column by Michael Henry entitled “Socialism Plus Ignorance“. My colleague, Marcos Mendoza, and I wrote and submitted a response for consideration. To the best of our knowledge, the newspaper decided not to run our response. So we are making public what we sent to The Eagle in the hopes that others will read, share, and discuss.

What kind of society do we hope to build and bequeath to our children? One of the most exciting developments of recent years is growing skepticism about business-as-usual politics and economics. Having weathered four decades of free-market globalization and the massive expansion of social inequality, the American public has begun to search for new perspectives consistent with our longstanding beliefs in republican democracy.

In a recent column, Michael Henry discusses the electoral victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party primary of New York’s 14th Congressional District (“Socialism Plus Ignorance”, August 1st, 2018). Henry uses this opening as a chance to demonstrate his (willful?) ignorance of Ocasio-Cortez’s political identity as a democratic socialist. Enormous ideological differences remain between democratic socialism, authoritarian socialism, fascism, and totalitarianism. However, Henry tries his best to lump all of these together into one menacing boogeyman.

In terms of raw numbers, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are still quite small: less than 50,000 members. However, democratic socialism has garnered significant media attention due to the surprising success of Senator Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, national polling shows growing support for socialism and socialist policies, and declining support for capitalism and austerity measures, particularly among Americans ages 18 to 30.

So what is democratic socialism? Democratic socialism is a political tradition that depends upon liberal democracy: the respect for individual and human rights, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and divided government. It has nothing to do with autocracy, tyranny, or dictatorship – anyone who suggests otherwise is grossly misinformed. Democratic socialists believe that liberal democracies work best when they protect freedom and create a society based on the inherent equality of all. Democratic socialists seek to enact public policies that ensure equality of opportunity, constrain inequalities, and enable upward mobility.

Democratic socialists also embrace a suite of social rights that provide people with free or subsidized childcare, parental leave, education, healthcare, and social security, while also protecting the environment. Some of these social rights already exist in the United States in limited form. Democratic socialists want to enshrine these rights in the Constitution and fund them through a progressive taxation scheme targeting the wealthy and the powerful.

Finally, democratic socialists are deeply skeptical of unrestrained, free-market capitalism, which puts the interests of the few above the plans and security of the many. This critique of capitalism points to the massive divergence in wealth and income between the elite class and the vast majority of Americans who struggle to provide for their families. This critique recognizes that there is a fundamental social struggle occurring within America between a privileged minority and an exploited majority that includes people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. Democratic socialists take a populist perspective in seeking to break the stranglehold of the oligarchy while working to democratize the economy. Democratic socialists believe that our current Gilded Age 2.0 is deeply corrosive to the values of our republic.

Advocating a program of radical democracy, DSA chapters have helped organize campaigns that tie the above tenets to local conditions. Most efforts focus on labor solidarity and support for the social safety net. Nationally, DSA supports Medicare for All, strong unions, and expanding representation in electoral politics at the local, state, and federal levels. DSA chapters work to create strong coalitions with other progressive groups and social movement organizations because they see this as key to building the political capacity of the working-class.

Across the country, DSA chapters are organizing local campaigns centered on affordable housing, support for public education, providing a true living wage, criminal justice reform, and ending racial discrimination, to name a few. In Memphis, the local DSA chapter has endorsed ‘Fight for $15’ and the Poor People’s Campaign, which among other things seeks to end poverty, racism, and environmental destruction. The DSA chapter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi has pushed hard to protect the rights of immigrants and others, and to end local law enforcement’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These activities and others are not rooted in a vision for an “all-encompassing bureaucracy” that stifles individual freedom, as Michael Henry claimed. Rather, they are rooted in creating a truly democratic society where the interests of the least well off are fairly represented. In 2015, the median net worth of members of Congress was more than $1.1 million, or twelve times the net worth of the median US household that same year. It should come as no surprise that Congress often supports legislation that protects their own financial well-being, while cutting funding from programs that help those most in need.

Finally, the emergence of DSA as a political force in the twenty-first century is a direct consequence of the failings of our current political and economic structure. While Michael Henry claims capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system, the facts tell a different story. Since 2009, the richest one percent have captured 95 percent of all income growth; and the concentration of wealth among the richest one percent is the highest it has been since 1930. While Michael Henry admonishes the European model, the truth is that wealth inequality in the United States surpassed Europe’s in the mid-twentieth century and shows no signs of slowing down. The attention and success of the current DSA movement strongly suggests that many Americans, especially younger ones and those from working-class backgrounds, are hungry for a progressive social and economic agenda that is not beholden to corporate and elite interests. Who knows, perhaps growing concerns over the lack of affordable housing, prevalence of poverty wages, and concentration of political power among our town’s ‘old money’ will lead to the emergence of Oxford’s own DSA chapter?

Marcos Mendoza is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mississippi, and author of The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2018).

James M. Thomas (JT) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi, and coauthor of Are Racists Crazy? (NYU Press, 2016).

Professors Mendoza and Thomas co-teach a seminar entitled, “Empire and Revolution”, where they and their students examine colonialism and postcolonialism, and subjugation and resistance, through the lens of political theory.

What Should We Do With Our Confederate Monuments?

A recent Winthrop University poll across eleven southern states reveals striking differences between whites and blacks’ attitudes on several social issues. The poll’s methodology is scientific and sound. Of particular interest are questions directed at southerners’ opinions on (1) monuments or memorials to Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War; and (2) statues honoring Confederate war heroes. Continue reading

Visualizing Lynchings in the U.S. South, 1877-1950

Using comprehensive lynching data from the Beck-Tolnay Inventory,  I analyzed Southern episodes of lynching from 1877-1950 using Tableau software.

In the storyboard, you can play around with a few important variables (state, race, sex) to see differences in where lynchings took place, and the demographics of the victims. With the maps, you can identify the number of lynchings in an area down to the county level.

If clicking on the map below doesn’t take you to the story, just click here.

 

Southern Lynchings in the United States: 1877-1950

Petition to Amend or Retract Mississippi Governor’s Proclamation

The University of Mississippi’s Critical Race Studies Group, for which I am currently co-chair, has created a petition through Change.org demanding our Governor, Phil Bryant, amend or retract his proclamation that April 2016 be Confederate Heritage Month. You can click the above link to sign and share the petition. Below is the full text:

On February 10th, 2016, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared the month of April 2016 ‘Confederate Heritage Month.’ Governor Bryant has issued similar proclamations in the past, yet this year carries special significance. The murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist with an affinity for Confederate imagery led to protests and calls for the removal of Confederate iconography from public spaces across the nation. In addition, Bryant’s proclamation preceded the Mississippi Legislature’s failure to act upon nineteen different bills proposing a change to the stage flag. It remains the only state flag in the US that bears the Confederate battle flag in its emblem.

In his proclamation, Governor Bryant declares that “it is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities that lie before us.”

The 1861 Mississippi Declaration of Secession stated plainly “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” In spite of this, Governor Bryant’s proclamation makes no mention of the millions of enslaved men, women, and children who suffered and died in captivity, or the Confederate cause to keep them in bondage. As citizens of this State, we ask that Governor Bryant clarify what specifically about our nation’s past he intends that we reflect on; what insight is to be gained from the error of owning other human beings and, in turn, fighting for that right; and to make clear the specific mistakes and successes of the Confederacy, so that we can not only come to a fuller understanding of our shared heritage, but learn from it.

Therefore, whereas the history of the Confederacy consisted of the victimization of state enslaved men, women, and children of African descent in the four-year period of 1861-1865; and

Whereas the influence of the Confederacy allowed the continuation of the victimization of millions of black Americans within Mississippi and elsewhere following their emancipation in 1865; including state-sponsored denial of economic, educational, health, and socio-political rights; and

Whereas Confederate Heritage Month, Confederate Memorial Day, and other commemorative events surrounding the Confederacy and its legacy risk the perpetuation of false values and narratives without well-defined grounds, goals, or necessities for such proclamations;

Now, Therefore, we, as citizens of Mississippi, and friends across the world, call upon Mississippi’s elected officials to recognize the pain and suffering of its enslaved population, and honor their survival; while also recognizing the continued effects of this dreadful past on our present. We call upon Governor Bryant and other elected officials to make good on their claims of civic enlightenment through economic and political support for statewide efforts to tell richer and more factually accurate narratives of our state history, through social science public education, creative arts programs, and cross-racial dialogues. We insist that only a deliberate and intentional reckoning with this shameful legacy of injustice will carry us through to a better tomorrow. Until that reckoning, we reject the validity of Governor Bryant’s proclamation, and call upon Governor Bryant to either (1) clarify his intentions or (2) retract it entirely.

Sincerely,

The University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group and The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation

First Pub for the UM Critical Race Studies Group!

The University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group (for which I am co-chair this year) just received notification of our first scholarly publication, in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

You can find the abstract to our publication below. If you’d like a copy of the article but can’t get through SAGE’s paywall, just email me.

Click here to access the article

SRE

New Book is Out!

I’m late in announcing this, but my latest book, Affective Labour: (Dis)Assembling Distance and Difference (with Jennifer G. Correa) is now available as a hardback, paperback, and e-book. If you buy directly from Rowman and Littlefield, you can use the following promotional code and save 30%: RLI093

Below are some of the reviews:

Thomas and Correa offer an important empirical study of affective labor’s central role in sustaining two pillars of inequality: racial difference and socio-spatial distance. Noteworthy for its comparative and relational approaches, Affective Labour reveals the entwinements between racism and affect in everyday practices and places.
Paula Ioanide, Associate Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies, Ithaca College

In this theoretically groundbreaking yet remarkably accessible book, Thomas and Correa establish a strong case for why affect should matter to scholars of race and racism, as well as to activists working for social justice. Affective Labour describes the painstaking work of identification, the crafting of difference, and the production of social distance, in effect asking how forms of violence and exclusion become imaginable or unimaginable. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from a college-town bar scene to the US-Mexico border, through the contemporary diversity regimes of predominantly white institutions. The authors then bring the lessons from these case studies to bear on the emergent affective politics of Black Lives Matter and similar radical democratic social movements. In spite of the grimly neoliberal landscapes of difference and inequality it explores, Affective Labour remains optimistic in its evocation of coming into being and the potential for an affect of liberation in progressive politics. ​
Rebecca R. Scott, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri-Columbia

Bringing together critical social, cultural and political analysis, phenomenology and original ethnographic research, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the politics of affect. Thomas and Correa provide an imaginative and incisive account of how the manufacturing of gendered, racialised, sexualised, and classed relations of distance and difference is a matter of affective labour. Through a diverse range of in depth examples – from American nightlife cultures, to University diversity-initiatives, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – the book offers a refreshing and distinctive examination of the affective work of everyday life and its wider critical implications. The analysis offered is at once productively troubling and optimistic: Contemporary forms of affective labour frequently work to reproduce relations of domination, but they also fuel solidarity, resistance and ‘a sense of hope for what can be, despite the reality of what is’.
Carolyn Pedwell, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology, University of Kent

Thomas and Correa’s expansive research into distance and difference takes us on an immersive journey into configurations of affective subjectivity – from above and below. Carefully crafted case studies of urban nightlife in Columbia, Missouri, ‘War on Terror’ at the US-Mexico border, diversity regimes in higher education, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, underline why affect should be of critical concern to social, cultural and political theorists. Affective Labour is an original and timely contribution that will have implications for how we approach the politics of difference in the classroom, the polity and on the street.
Christopher Kyriakides, Associate Professor of Sociology, York University, Canada

Sharp End: The Sorrid History of Race, Space, and Inequality in Columbia, Missouri

**Note: Much of this history has been covered elsewhere, and much more substantively. I’ve provided links to the sources I consulted while writing this piece. For a strong academic treatment of Sharp End, see Jason Jindrich’s 2002 Master’s Thesis for the University of Missouri’s Department of Geography. This thesis serves as the foundation for how local papers and historians discuss Sharp End and the history of racial exclusion in Columbia, Missouri.[1]

With so much coverage over recent racial unrest at my alma mater, the University of Missouri, I thought it would be appropriate to provide a bit more context—historical and geographical—for those interested in understanding the underlying conditions of racial inequality that many students, faculty, and staff are calling attention toward. However, I want to broaden the perspective, and situate the demands for inclusivity and equity within the larger narrative of Columbia, Missouri.

A few days ago, a Facebook friend declared, “Never in our lifetime have we had any real racism that represented a large portion of our society as a whole…I’ve lived in Columbia my entire life and never has there been a real race problem until now.”

This person is near my age (I’m 33), so I was shocked to hear him claim that Columbia is an exemplar for racial tolerance. I’m a three-time alum from the University of Missouri, and spent roughly twelve years living, working, and going to school in the city. My instincts tell me that this friend’s statement is more a reflection of a failure to understand what racism actually is. This wouldn’t be uncommon. Numerous sociological studies show that often, when people discuss racism, they frame it as individual acts of hatred toward members of a racial or ethnic minority group. Shouting racial slurs, or proclaiming your own individual hatred of a certain racial group, are familiar tropes.

While these acts of intolerance are racist in the sense that they articulate a set of beliefs about a particular group’s inferior status based on that group’s racial membership, racism isn’t just a set of beliefs or attitudes. Racism also refers to the actions and practices guided by these beliefs and practices. Ideologies are the cement from which a whole architecture of policies and practices arise. Democracy, for example, isn’t just a belief in representative government, it’s also how that belief is put into practice. Racism, then, is not just a set of beliefs in the inferiority of other racial groups. It also includes practices at the individual and collective levels that flow from those beliefs.

One set of practices that has received incredible attention among scholars and journalists alike is urban renewal, and the displacement of low-income and nonwhite residents that typically follows. Columbia’s history of redevelopment is no different than that of many other cities, yet I’m surprised it has received so little attention by national and local media, who seem to think the recent racial unrest at the University of Missouri is new, and in sharp contrast to the perceived serenity of this popular college town. So, allow me to introduce many of you to a brief history of Sharp End, a once-thriving black business district in the heart of downtown Columbia, that was completely wiped out by Columbia’s first foray into ‘urban redevelopment’ in the mid 1950s.

Sharp End was located within the historic Douglass neighborhood, an area that was once home to Columbia’s business center—Market Square—in what is now the Flat Branch area. Figure 1.1 shows the approximate location of Douglass, marked by the red square. Within the southern border of Douglass is Sharp End, denoted by the smaller black rectangle. The larger, black shape to the south of Douglass and Sharp End is a rough approximation of the University of Missouri (per 2010).[2]

Figure 1.1: Columbia, Missouri 1950

1950Around the turn of the 20th century, city planners recognized that this bottomland was prone to flooding, and relocated Market Square to present-day 8th and 9th streets in downtown Columbia. Because Columbia was still highly segregated due to Jim Crow laws, free blacks could not live in white neighborhoods, or frequent many white establishments. The newly deserted area in Flat Branch was one of the few areas in the city where free blacks could live. As whites left, free blacks moved in, and began building what would soon become a commercial and cultural hub for black residents. Sharp End was solidified as a black business district sometime after 1910, and over the next forty years was home to a collection of thriving black-owned shops, bars, and restaurants that stretched along Walnut St., and between 4th and 6th streets. During Jim Crow, these were important alternatives to white-owned businesses that blacks were prohibited from patronizing.

Nevertheless, the city’s neglect of the Douglass neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century was blatant, and had severe consequences. City officials refused to pave or repair roads, and Douglass residents were denied many city services enjoyed by whites. As late as the 1930s, the city was dumping its refuse into Flat Branch creek, which ran through the western edge of Douglass. The city gas plant was also found to have leaked oil into the water of the creek, which accumulated human and livestock waste as it passed between black residences on Park and Ash streets. Finally, intense segregation—both residential and occupational—made for high concentrations of poverty among Columbia’s black residents in the inter-war years.

As a result, many Douglass residences consisted of wooden shacks, often without plumbing or electricity. Few black residents were able to afford city sewage, so their waste from their privies often flowed into the neighborhood creeks. A survey of Columbia’s waste management in 1919 revealed that, city wide, only 5% of black residences were connected to a sewer, compared to 80% of white residences.[3] Landlords often regarded Douglass-area property as a lost cause because it was black-occupied. For example, one landlord is quoted as saying, “Negro property is a fine investment because you don’t have any upkeep expense. All you have to do is pay taxes and insurance, and the taxes are very low on that property. Then besides, the niggers pay their rent, they don’t get behind like other people do.”[4]

As a teaching point, we should recognize that while this landlord’s statement reflects racism, it isn’t racism simply because the landlord uses the word “nigger.” The landlord’s statement, rather, reflects the dominant ideology of the time: blacks are less than human, and therefore do not require humane conditions or treatment. Importantly, this ideology cemented itself through specific actions (or in this case, inaction), resulting in massive racial disparities in the distribution of resources and opportunities. The practice of neglecting predominantly black neighborhoods on account of them being predominantly black—a practice that was institutionalized and supported by local government— is racist with or without the use of a racial epithet.

Importantly, the historical neglect of the Douglass neighborhood by city officials and local realtors alike laid the foundation for justifying the forced removal of its residents and black businesses in the 1950s. Following the 1949 Federal Housing Act, Columbia, like many other cities across the country, took advantage of redevelopment loans and grant programs by the Housing and Home Finance Administrator. Title I of this act authorized local public agencies to purchase or condemn areas of the city deemed “blighted or deteriorating.” Cities were then authorized to clear that land and “make it available, by sale or lease, for private or public redevelopment or development in accordance with predetermined local redevelopment plan for the area.”[5] In the case of Douglass and Sharp End, any ‘blight’ within that neighborhood was a direct consequence of the intentional and explicit denial of basic city services, including proper sewage and road maintenance.

Columbia twice failed to pass an ordinance for the creation of a local housing authority in 1952. However, in 1956 voters approved the formation of the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority, and its first meeting took place that June.[6] Records from the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, housed at the University of Missouri, show the authority had, as its objective, “slum clearance and urban renewal.” The authority selected 126 acres within the Douglass neighborhood for its first project, including within it the Sharp End district. Under the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, the city of Columbia was allowed to condemn Douglass under eminent domain laws. Though the law requires that the taking of private property must be justified for a public purpose, and that property owners must be compensated fairly, this was not the case for black residents and business owners. In 1958, a consultant hired by the LCR Authority had estimated the total worth of the 126 acres at more than $1 million. Yet, the city managed to only pay $591,000 for the land; or, less than 60 cents to the dollar.[7] Residents who refused to sell had their properties condemned under eminent domain, and were forcefully removed.

The Douglas School Urban Renewal Project began in May of 1959, and was completed by July of 1966.[8] When it was finished, more than three hundred structures were completely eradicated, including at least eighty black-owned businesses. A portion of the Douglass neighborhood was rebuilt as public housing. However, many former black homeowners were not eligible for residency. Yet, because they were black, they were unable to secure loans for new homes. Local lenders still operated under revised models of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Authority (FHA), which had pioneered a ‘risk rating’ system that incorporated race as a marker of credit-worthiness as well as property value. By the logic of HOLC, and later FHA, black homebuyers ‘invaded’ neighborhoods, and compromised the value of surrounding properties.[9] Realtors and lenders were discouraged from showing black renters and homebuyers potential properties in predominantly white areas, denying even blacks with capital the opportunity to purchase affordable homes that would retain their value over time.

Consider the following racial dot map of Columbia, Missouri in 1970. Just over a decade after the initial razing of Douglass and Sharp End, we can see the extreme residential segregation of black residents in relationship to whites. Each orange dot in the map represents two black residents; each green dot represents two white residents. According to data from the U.S. Census, there were a total of 3,863 blacks living in Columbia in 1970.[10] More than half (~56%) were concentrated in Tract 8, which encompassed the former Douglass neighborhood. Though, as the map shows, the southern edge of Douglass, including Sharp End, were nearly devoid of residents, indicating this land was in the midst of being redeveloped for primarily commercial interests.

Figure 1.2: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 1970

1970DotBy 2013, the former Douglass area had a lower concentration of black residents. However, if we take into account the two neighboring census tracks directly to the north and the tract directly to the west, those four tracts (including the one that encompasses the historic Douglass neighborhood) accounted for nearly 35% of all black residents in Columbia, Missouri (Figure 1.3).[11]

Figure 1.3: Racial Dot Map, Columbia, Missouri 2013

2013Complimenting the racial dot map is the following map of average gross rent for black-occupied units in Columbia, Missouri, in 1970 (Figure 1.4). As this figure illustrates, blacks were primarily concentrated directly to the west and north of the former Douglass Neighborhood. Because so few blacks were able to rent in any other area of Columbia at the time, there is no available data for the average amount of money black residents paid in rent throughout the rest of Columbia. Average rent for blacks ranged from $74 per month in the former Douglass neighborhood and encompassing census tract, to $153 per month just to its South, where the current University of Missouri campus now extends.

Figure 1.4: Average Gross Monthly Rent, Black-Occupied Units, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

Rent1970Now, let’s overlay that with the composite gross monthly rent, irrespective of race (Figure 1.5). Here, the story becomes even more interesting. The blue shaded tracts are spaces where blacks’ gross monthly rent exceeded the composite gross monthly rent of that same area. In the tract directly to the north of the former Douglass neighborhood, the average gross monthly rent for blacks was 1.3 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($112 to $99). Directly to the south of the former Douglass neighborhood, overlapped by the south side of the present-day campus, monthly rent for blacks was nearly 1.4 times higher than the composite gross monthly rent ($153 to $112). This data suggests that, despite federal laws prohibiting such practices, Columbia realtors and landlords were still engaging in racist rental practices in 1970.

Figure 1.5: Gross Monthly Rent for Blacks vs Composite Gross Monthly Rent, 1970

GrossComparison1970Finally, let’s look at the median value of homes in these areas. In 1970, the median value of homes in Columbia, Missouri was $21,900.[12] In the areas in which blacks were primarily concentrated, the median value of homes ranged from a low of $10,824 in the former Douglass neighborhood, to a high of $15,627 just to its west (Figure 1.6). Put differently, the median value of homes in neighborhoods in which blacks were primarily concentrated ranged from 49%-71% of the median home value for the rest of the city.

Figure 1.6: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 1970

HomeValue1970By 2013, not much had changed (Figure 1.7). The median value of a home in Columbia, Missouri was $169,800. In the former Douglass neighborhood, it was $101,400 (59% of the median value). Just to the north, it was $66,500 (39%).

Figure 1.7: Median Home Value, Columbia, Missouri, 2013

HomeValue2013My goal with this very brief analysis of the Sharp End District and its demise at the hands of city government is two-fold. First, I want to illustrate that Columbia, Missouri is far from a racial paradise. Like most other cities in the United States, it has a long history of institutionalized racism, clearly identifiable in the local politics and decision-making among city officials, planners, and developers. Second, I hoped to demonstrate with this analysis that the effects of this institutionalized racism do not simply disappear because we wish for it. Without intentional, deliberate anti-racist policies and practices, racism and its effects will continue to fester. In the case of black residents of Columbia, Missouri, a multi-generational community, and its wealth, were nearly eradicated through deliberate practices by local government and developers.

As of 2015, the north side of the former Sharp End district houses the Columbia Post Office. The south side of Sharp End was converted into a parking lot upon the first phase of urban renewal. It remained so for nearly fifty years, until in 2011 it was converted into a ten-deck parking garage.

Footnotes

[1] Jason Jindrich, “Our Black Children: The Evolution of Black Space in Columbia, Missouri” (M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri, 2002), Microfilm, University of Missouri Libraries.

[2] All maps and figures derive from data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and were created using Social Explorer.

[3] August F. Larson, A Housing Survey of Columbia, Missouri (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1919).

[4] Audrey Nell Kittel, The Negro Community of Columbia, Missouri (University of Missouri, 1938), 44.

[5] United States Senate, “Housing Act of 1949” (United States Government Printing Office, 1949), 2, https://bulk.resource.org/gao.gov/81-171/00002FD7.pdf.

[6] Arcenia Harmon, “Columbia’s Sharp End,” Columbia Daily Tribune, April 4, 2004, http://archive.showmenews.com/2004/apr/20040404feat009.asp.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phillip Sitter, “Sharp End District Remembered for ‘Togetherness,’” Columbia Missourian, May 19, 2015, http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/sharp-end-district-remembered-for-togetherness/article_cdb41a50-fe83-11e4-83cf-c715d4cd44fe.html.

[9] Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 92.

[10] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce and the Bureau of the Census, 1972).

[11] United States Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, 2009-2013 (5 year estimates.” Washington, DC. 2014. Accessed via Social Explorer.

[12] United States Department of Commerce, “1970 Census of Population and Housing, Columbia Missouri, Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.”

An Open Letter to the University of Mississippi Community

I’m very proud to be a part of the University of Mississippi’s Critical Race Studies Group. Below is the link to our open letter to the University concerning Confederate iconography on our campus. Please share widely!

An Open Letter to the University of Mississippi Community On Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, student leaders from the University of Mississippi’s College Democrats and the UM Chapter of the NAACP called, separately, for the disavowal of Confederate iconography across our campus, including, but not limited to, the Mississippi state flag. Evoking the University of Mississippi’s own declaration that the flag and what it represents no longer aligns with our community’s core values, these student leaders showed the courage and conviction required to make this campus safe and inclusive for all students, faculty, and staff.

Since September 30th, many other student organizations have also publicly condemned the display of the Mississippi state flag and other Confederate iconography on campus, including: the Black Student Union, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the University of Mississippi Pride Network, the University of Mississippi Black Law Students Association, and the International Student Organization. The Critical Race Studies Group, an interdisciplinary body of faculty and staff committed to racial justice and equity, is proud to declare our public support for these and any other student organizations for whom these symbols represent a threat, whether overt or subtle. We are here for you, and we want to work with you.

The near-daily presence of Confederate flags on cars and pick-up trucks parked on campus property, the continued display of Confederate merchandise in faculty and staff offices, the proud display of large Confederate flags in the historic Grove at every home football weekend, the continued playing of “Dixie” by the University band at home sporting events, and the referencing of our University as ‘Ole Miss’ (a term used by slaves to refer to white slaveholding women) over the University of Mississippi (the name of the institution) is not aligned with our institution’s stated commitment to inclusivity. Furthermore, these symbols serve as concrete barriers in our quest to truly transcend our institution’s legacy of racism.

As our state’s flagship public institution of higher education, the University of Mississippi has a unique responsibility to lead proactively on all matters of racial justice. As a leading institution of higher education committed to intellectual debate and discussion, we call on our University administration to show the same courage and conviction as these brave students.

In addition to an immediate disavowal of all Confederate iconography, we ask that our University leadership follow through on the recommendations provided by two outside consultants last year, and the ‘action plan’ from former Chancellor Dan Jones. Taken together, the Critical Race Studies Group asks the University to:

• Discontinue displaying the current state flag on campus.
• Give faculty, staff and students the option to use um.edu instead of olemiss.edu
• Take an active and public role in supporting the efforts of Mississippi legislators, including House Speaker Phillip Gunn, U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who are demanding the removal of the battle flag emblem from the state flag.
• Reinterpret and modify our physical landscape to accurately reflect our institution’s historic involvement with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the University’s challenges and achievements in the post-Civil Rights era.
• Make a tangible investment on the part of University leadership into ongoing research by faculty on matters related to race and racism.
• Catalogue and promote all past and present race- and racism-related research conducted at the University
• Condemn publicly and officially the use of all Confederate symbols on university property, including their display in faculty and staff offices, in the Grove, and on vehicles parked on campus property
• Organize a public forum to allow for a debate on the merits of these symbols on our own campus. Such a conversation should be the hallmark of a leading liberal arts institution.

By confronting openly the presence of emblems of the Confederacy and white supremacy on our campus, we would be acting in concert with other leading public institutions such as Clemson University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Texas at Austin. The above changes, when combined, help tangibly demonstrate an ongoing, public recommitment to end the legacy of white supremacy on our campus.

After the Civil War, prominent Mississippi segregationists such as L.C.Q. Lamar and James K. Vardaman, both of whom have campus buildings named in their honor, continued to reinforce white supremacy. A critical rethinking of who and what we want to represent may help the campus community address how our racist past continues to affect campus life today. We recognize that these small changes alone will not disestablish the legacy of white supremacy on our campus. However, they are necessary first steps in moving towards a more inclusive, respectful, and enriching university community.

Sincerely,

The Critical Race Studies Group
University of Mississippi

The Critical Race Studies Group is an interdisciplinary group of scholars and staff dedicated to the identifying and dismantling of racial and other inequalities at the University of Mississippi and elsewhere. For more information, see http://socanth.olemiss.edu/critical-race-studies-group/

Posted by University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group on Thursday, October 15, 2015