Yesterday we discussed the parallels in antisemitic rhetoric between President Trump and President Nixon. Since so much has been made of President Trump’s purported racism, a political history here in Florida is in order. At least a twentieth-century history.
In 1916, Sidney Catts was elected Governor of Florida after being denied the Democratic nomination in a recount. Catts secured the nomination of the Prohibition Party and was elected. Catts talked extensively about political & bureaucratic reform and married that rhetoric with overt racism.
Here is an excerpt from Catts inauguration speech:
“Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.”
Read more for a political history in Florida…here:
In antebellum America, operatic and concert songs were very popular forms of entertainment. European concert sopranos, such as Jenny Lind and Catherine Hayes, drew huge crowds and rave reviews during their U.S. tours. Lind was so popular that baby cribs still bear her name, and you can now visit an unincorporated community called Jenny Lind, California.
Greenfield, however, was different. She was a former slave. And she was performing songs that a burgeoning field of American music criticism, led by John Sullivan Dwight, considered reserved for white artists. African-American artists, most 19th-century critics argued, lacked the refined cultivation of white, Eurocentric genius, and could create only simple music that lacked artistic depth. It was a prejudice that stretched as far back as Thomas Jefferson in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” and was later reinforced by minstrel shows.
But when Greenfield appeared on the scene, she shattered preexisting beliefs about artistry and race.
‘The Black Swan’
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, around 1820. As a girl, she was taken to Philadelphia and raised by an abolitionist.
Largely self-taught as a singer, she began her concert career in New York with the support of the Buffalo Musical Association. In Buffalo, she was saddled with the nickname “the Black Swan,” a crude attempt to play off the popularity of Jenny Lind – known as “the Swedish Nightingale” – who was wrapping up one of the most popular concert tours in American history.
In 1851, Colonel Joseph H. Wood became Greenfield’s promoter. Wood, however, was an overt racist and inhumane promoter known for creating wonderment museums in Cincinnati and Chicago that featured exhibits like the “Lilliputian King,” a boy who stood 16 inches tall. With Greenfield, he sought to replicate the success that another promoter, P.T. Barnum, had with Jenny Lind.
In a letter to Frederick Douglass, Martin R. Delany, a physician, newspaper editor and Civil War hero, wrote that Wood was a fervent supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and would not admit black patrons into his museums or at Greenfield’s concerts.
For Greenfield’s African-American supporters, it was a point of huge contention throughout her career.
Critics reconcile their ears with their racism
In antebellum America, the minstrel show was one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment. White actors in blackface exploited common stereotypes of African-Americans, grossly exaggerating their dialect, fashion, dancing and singing.
For example, the popular song “Zip Coon” portrayed African-Americans as clumsily striving for the refinement of white culture. The cover of the sheet music for “Zip Coon” shows an African-American attempting to mimic refined fashions of the day and failing. The song goes on to mock its subject, Zip Coon, as a “learned scholar,” while putting him in situations where his apparent lack of intelligence shows.
Greenfield’s performances, however, forced her critics to rethink this stereotype. The Cleveland Plain Dealer described the confusion that Greenfield caused for her audiences:
“It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’”
Critics agreed that Greenfield was a major talent. But they found it difficult to reconcile their ears with their racism. One solution was to describe her as a talented, but unpolished, singer.
For example, the New-York Daily Tribune reported that “it is hardly necessary to say that we did not expect to find an artist on the occasion. She has a fine voice but does not know how to use it.” (We see a similar phenomenon today in sports coverage, in which black athletes are often praised for their raw physical athleticism, while white athletes are praised for their game intelligence.)
By performing repertoire thought too complex for black artists – and by doing it well – Greenfield forced her white critics and audiences to reexamine their assumptions about the abilities of African-American singers.
A star is born
On Thursday, March 31, 1853, Greenfield made her New York City premiere at Metropolitan Hall.
Originally built for Jenny Lind, it was one of the largest performance halls in the world. The day before the concert, the New-York Daily Tribune carried an ad that read, “Particular Notice – No colored persons can be admitted, as there has been no part of the house appropriated for them.” The ban resulted in a citywide uproar that prompted New York City’s first police commissioner, George W. Matsell, to send a large police unit to Metropolitan Hall.
Greenfield was met with laughter when she took to the stage. Several critics blamed the uncouth crowd in attendance; others wrote it off as lighthearted amusement. One report described the awkwardness of the show’s opening moments:
“She was timidly led forward to the front of the stage by a little white representative of the genus homo, who seemed afraid to touch her even with the tips of his white kids [gloves], and kept the ‘Swan’ at a respectful distance, as if she were a sort of biped hippopotamus.”
Despite the inauspicious beginning, critics agreed that her range and power were astonishing. After her American tour, a successful European tour ensued, where she was accompanied by her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe.
A singer’s legacy
Greenfield paved the way for a host of black female concert singers, from Sissieretta Jones to Audra McDonald. In 1921, the musician and music publisher Harry Pace named the first successful black-owned record company, Black Swan Records, in her honor.
But these achievements are byproducts of a much larger legacy.
In Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” one of the slave children, Topsy, is taken in by a northern abolitionist, Miss Ophelia. Despite her best attempts, Ophelia can’t reform Topsy, who continues to act out and steal. When asked why she continues to behave as she does – despite the intervention of implied white goodness – Topsy replies that she’s can’t be good so long as her skin is black because her white caregivers are incapable of seeing goodness in a black body. Her only solution is to have her skin turned inside out so she can be white.
Stowe’s argument was not that we should begin skinning children. Rather, Topsy is a critique of the act of “othering” African-Americans by a dominant culture that refuses to acknowledge their full humanity.
After Greenfield’s New York concert, the New-York Daily Tribune recognized the monumental nature of Greenfield’s heroics. The paper urged her to leave America for Europe – and to stay there – the implication being that Greenfield’s home country wasn’t ready to accept the legitimacy of black artistry.
But Greenfield’s tour did more than prove to white audiences that black performers could sing as well as their European peers. Her tour challenged Americans to begin to recognize the full artistry – and, ultimately, the full humanity – of their fellow citizens.
But how did we get this system in the first place? Our ongoing historical research project investigates the relationship between the press and convict labor. While that story is still unfolding, we have learned what few Americans, especially white Americans, know: the dark history that produced our current criminal justice system.
If anything is to change – if we are ever to “end this racial nightmare, and achieve our country,” as James Baldwin put it – we must confront this system and the blighted history that created it.
During Reconstruction, the 12 years following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, former slaves made meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.
As the prominent historian Eric Foner writes in his masterwork on Reconstruction, “Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.”
But this moment was short-lived.
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, the “slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
History is made by human actors and the choices they make.
According to Douglas Blackmon, author of “Slavery by Another Name,” the choices made by Southern white supremacists after abolition, and the rest of the country’s accommodation, “explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.”
Designed to reverse black advances, Redemption was an organized effort by white merchants, planters, businessmen and politicians that followed Reconstruction. “Redeemers” employed vicious racial violence and state legislation as tools to prevent black citizenship and equality promised under the 14th and 15th amendments.
By the early 1900s, nearly every southern state had barred black citizens not only from voting but also from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system.
The South’s new racial caste system was not merely political and social. It was thoroughly economic. Slavery had made the South’s agriculture-based economy the most powerful force in the global cotton market, but the Civil War devastated this economy.
How to build a new one?
Ironically, white leaders found a solution in the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in the United States in 1865. By exploiting the provision allowing “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” to continue as “a punishment for crime,” they took advantage of a penal system predating the Civil War and used even during Reconstruction.
A new form of control
With the help of profiteering industrialists they found yet a new way to build wealth on the bound labor of black Americans: the convict lease system.
Here’s how it worked. Black men – and sometimes women and children – were arrested and convicted for crimes enumerated in the Black Codes, state laws criminalizing petty offenses and aimed at keeping freed people tied to their former owners’ plantations and farms. The most sinister crime was vagrancy – the “crime” of being unemployed – which brought a large fine that few blacks could afford to pay.
Black convicts were leased to private companies, typically industries profiteering from the region’s untapped natural resources. As many as 200,000 black Americans were forced into back-breaking labor in coal mines, turpentine factories and lumber camps. They lived in squalid conditions, chained, starved, beaten, flogged and sexually violated. They died by the thousands from injury, disease and torture.
For both the state and private corporations, the opportunities for profit were enormous. For the state, convict lease generated revenue and provided a powerful tool to subjugate African-Americans and intimidate them into behaving in accordance with the new social order. It also greatly reduced state expenses in housing and caring for convicts. For the corporations, convict lease provided droves of cheap, disposable laborers who could be worked to the extremes of human cruelty.
Every southern state leased convicts, and at least nine-tenths of all leased convicts were black. In reports of the period, the terms “convicts” and “negroes” are used interchangeably.
Of those black Americans caught in the convict lease system, a few were men like Henry Nisbet, who murdered nine other black men in Georgia. But the vast majority were like Green Cottenham, the central figure in Blackmon’s book, who was snatched into the system after being charged with vagrancy.
A principal difference between antebellum slavery and convict leasing was that, in the latter, the laborers were only the temporary property of their “masters.” On one hand, this meant that after their fines had been paid off, they would potentially be let free. On the other, it meant the companies leasing convicts often absolved themselves of concerns about workers’ longevity. Such convicts were viewed as disposable and frequently worked beyond human endurance.
The living conditions of leased convicts are documented in dozens of detailed, firsthand reports spanning decades and covering many states. In 1883, Blackmon writes, Alabama prison inspector Reginald Dawson described leased convicts in one mine being held on trivial charges, in “desperate,” “miserable” conditions, poorly fed, clothed, and “unnecessarily chained and shackled.” He described the “appalling number of deaths” and “appalling numbers of maimed and disabled men” held by various forced-labor entrepreneurs spanning the entire state.
Dawson’s reports had no perceptible impact on Alabama’s convict leasing system.
The exploitation of black convict labor by the penal system and industrialists was central to southern politics and economics of the era. It was a carefully crafted answer to black progress during Reconstruction – highly visible and widely known. The system benefited the national economy, too. The federal government passed up one opportunity after another to intervene.
Convict lease ended at different times across the early 20th century, only to be replaced in many states by another racialized and brutal method of convict labor: the chain gang.
Convict labor, debt peonage, lynching – and the white supremacist ideologies of Jim Crow that supported them all – produced a bleak social landscape across the South for African-Americans.
Black Americans developed multiple resistance strategies and gained major victories through the civil rights movement, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow fell, and America moved closer than ever to fulfilling its democratic promise of equality and opportunity for all.
But in the decades that followed, a “tough on crime” politics with racist undertones produced, among other things, harsh drug and mandatory minimum sentencing laws that were applied in racially disparate ways. The mass incarceration system exploded, with the rate of imprisonment quadrupling between the 1970s and today.
Critics may accuse President-elect Donald J. Trump and his supporters of dragging down public discourse in America, but civility took leave of open discussions years ago – online. Beneath digital news stories and social media posts are unmoderated, often anonymous comment streams showing in plain view the anger, condescension, misogyny, xenophobia, racism and nativism simmering within the citizenry.
Yes, the mass media supplied the public with incendiary rhetoric and insult commentary from pundits and satirists before read-write internet access reached all Americans. The shoutfest of “The McLaughlin Group” and Rush Limbaugh’s popular polemic radio show began in the 1980s. But the torrent of hostile online comments freely exchanged by ordinary Americans at the bottom of news stories and on social media has had a pernicious influence, too.
As a scholar of journalism and digital discourse, the crucial point about online comment forums and social media exchanges is that they have allowed us to be not just consumers of news and information, but generators of it ourselves. This also gives us the unbridled ability to say offensive things to wide, general audiences, often without consequences. That’s helped blow the lid off society’s pressure cooker of political correctness. Doing so on news websites gave disgruntled commenters (and trolls) both a wider audience and a fig leaf of legitimacy. This has contributed to a new, and more toxic, set of norms for online behavior. People don’t even need professional news articles to comment on at this point. They can spew at will.
The ease of online ranting
I have a caustic online commenter in my own family. For the past four years, this family member has displayed a bumper sticker on his vehicle that reads “OBAMA: One Big Ass Mistake America.” On Facebook, he calls our liberal-leaning relatives “libtards.”
This relative of mine is angry. The norms of the America he’s known have been upended. He didn’t particularly like the idea of Trump as president, but he despised “Crooked” “Killary” Clinton. His daily information intake comes from Facebook, Fox News and The Drudge Report, and he’s convinced of “liberal media bias,” especially from newspapers with left-leaning editorial boards.
To alleviate his frustration with politics, society and the “lamestream” media, this family member relieves himself by posting acrimonious opinions online.
Never has my relative written a letter to the editor. He doesn’t consider himself eloquent enough, nor does he think his local newspapers would “have the guts” to print what he has to say. Online, though, he doesn’t need to be eloquent. He doesn’t need to be civil. He doesn’t even need to sign his name to his comments. Trump isn’t the only American who feels vindicated when sharing bitter criticism to a massive audience with the click of a button.
Unmoderated online comment forums are magnets for noxious speech. For years they have carried people’s discontent out into the world, while the writers sit safely behind screens. It’s almost bittersweet to think back on the time we once blamed internet flaming on the online disinhibition of middle school pranksters. It is the many unhappy adults in the electorate who are posting the things they are really thinking in comment boxes.
Nearly three-quarters of internet users – 73 percent – have witnessed online harassment. News website comment sections host antagonistic conversations between contributors. Nine out of 10 respondents of a Pew Research study said the online environment was more enabling of criticism. The squabbling can be overwhelming: As many as 34 percent of news commenters and 41 percent of news comment readers identified argumentative comments as the reason they avoid reading or joining the discourse.
Historically, American democracy always had some rudeness baked into it. For example, during the presidential election of 1800, incumbent President John Adams’ campaign proclaimed “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will all be openly taught and practiced” if his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, won the presidency. Jefferson, meanwhile, described Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character,” with “neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Civility in public discourse is often what people in power expect of their citizens. Demands for civility can be used by those with authority to deny power to those with none. People who feel marginalized or alienated use incivility and civil disobedience to fight the power. By causing offense and indignation, as we saw during Campaign 2016, outsiders gained massive attention for their cause.
Yet “democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process,” wrote cultural journalist Neal Gabler in an eloquent essay about how a hateful electorate threatens democracy. Gabler noted that the 2016 presidential campaign was referred to as the “hate election” because everyone professed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election, Gabler mused, “because of the hatefulness of the electorate.” He went on:
“We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.”
For scholars like me who study environmental justice, it has been encouraging to see residents in Flint, Michigan and the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota organize against threats to their homes and health. But elsewhere in our country, other struggles are happening out of the spotlight – and often dragging on for years.
In Puerto Rico’s south, protests are building over the disposal of toxic coal ash in landfills. Small-scale protests began in 2014, but opposition has grown. A recent demonstration drew an estimated 1,000 people. Protesters have been routinely harassed by police and arrested.
As a native of the island’s southeast, I have been following these developments closely. Historically this region has been a zone of human exploitation and natural resource extraction. In the struggle over coal ash disposal, poor and mostly black communities in Puerto Rico’s hinterlands are being forced to sacrifice their health and the health of their environment to support the island’s energy-intensive economy and lifestyle.
This crisis illustrates two closely connected problems: environmental injustice and environmental racism. The first refers to disproportionately high levels of exposure to environmental risks experienced by some segments of the population. The latter describes cases in which those unequal impacts fall on communities of color. Both are factors in this conflict and reflect Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic history.
But even as locals fight these problems, there is one hopeful development: the spread of rooftop solar power as a replacement. Coquí Solar, a project initiated in a Jobos Bay community near Guayama’s AES plant, is working to define an alternative to the underlying problem – coal-fired energy – and find ways to achieve it.
A sacrifice zone
Like many places that struggle with environmental injustice, Puerto Rico’s Guayama-Salinas region along the island’s Caribbean coast is a low-income area with a high fraction of minority residents. The median yearly household income is US$15,000, and more than half of residents live below the poverty line. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17 percent of people in the region self-identified as black or African-American, compared to the national average of 12.4 percent. (In Puerto Rico, large concentrations of black residents are a marker of poverty.)
The area has suffered historically from high unemployment and poverty rates. It lies far from the national capital, San Juan, and was highly dependent on sugar cane agriculture for many years. Because of this legacy, the coastal environment is especially valuable to residents. It provides resources that buffer them against local and global economic crises – much like resource-dependent communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast that face similar environmental justice struggles.
One recent study quotes a saying among Puerto Rican artisanal fishers: “Nos defendemos con pescado fresco,” meaning, “We defend ourselves with fresh fish.” Another study found that people in this region who made a significant part of their living from fishing in the ocean and foraging in the mangroves derived a sense of cultural identity and well-being from these activities, along with food and income.
The source of the coal ash is a 454-megawatt coal-fired electric power plant in Guayama owned by the utility AES that has been operating since 2002. The plant is adjacent to a Superfund site where Chevron Phillips operated an oil refinery from 1966 through 2002.
Throughout the area, former sugar cane fields, mangrove forests and oceanfront lands have been converted to housing developments, shopping plazas, manufacturing and power plants over the past 50 years. Residents thus already bear a heavy burden from development that has compromised their health and the natural resources that many rely on for their livelihoods.
The coal ash generated by AES in Guayama is known to contain high levels of arsenic, heavy metals and radioactivity. Under current EPA regulations, coal ash can be disposed of in surface impoundments and landfills, in surface-waste ponds or recycled into products such as concrete and drywall. These methods are widely practiced throughout the United States and other parts of the world.
AES then developed a construction product called Agremax, a filler based on coal ash. Some two million tons of coal ash were used throughout Puerto Rico to build roads, parking lots, malls and as fill in tract housing developments, including sites near public water wells, farms, wetlands and beaches. Alarmed by fugitive dust and other impacts, environmental groups sued. In 2014, lacking customers, Agremax was retired from the construction market.
In response, Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board and the island’s public power company (which buys the coal plant’s electricity) allowed AES to reverse its pledge and deposit coal ash in local landfills. But according to the EPA, a majority of Puerto Rico’s 29 landfills are over capacity, and some are open dumps that do not comply with current regulations. The agency currently has legal agreements to close 12 landfills. In sum, the ash disposal controversy is worsening a landfill crisis.
The struggle over coal ash is rooted in colonial and economic policies that have turned Puerto Ricans into migrants, consumers and debtors over the past century. These circumstances illustrate what Princeton University’s Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”: a steady accumulation of gradual, and often invisible, environmental harms endured by vulnerable individuals and communities during capitalist expansion.
Southeast Puerto Rico was populated in the 18th century by enslaved Africans, and later free blacks and mixed-race individuals, who worked on sugar cane plantations. When the island industrialized in the mid-20th century, many workers left farms for factories, while others sought agricultural work in the United States. Massive migration to U.S. cities became a way of life for Puerto Ricans, and multinational corporations began to build facilities on empty agricultural land.
As a result of these processes, people in this part of Puerto Rico have little political or economic clout and are vulnerable to exploitation by corporations like AES. But they recognize that landfilling coal ash threatens the resources that they depend on, and are trying to end it.
A solar-powered future?
Residents of the Coquí neighborhood in the Bay of Jobos are working with scientists at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez to build and install solar panels throughout the community. If this initiative succeeds, it would be the first solar-powered community in Puerto Rico. Community volunteers will receive training in the hopes that they will be able to install and maintain the equipment locally. Perhaps anticipating this shift, AES has opened a solar energy farm on fallow agricultural land in Guayama.
Many other communities in places far from the public eye face what can seem like insurmountable obstacles in their own struggles against enduring environmental injustice and racism. Every case is unique, but as pioneering environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard argues, the central challenge is the same: providing equal protection to disenfranchised communities, and ensuring that their voices are heard.