When Civility Is Used As A Cudgel Against People Of Color

Mar 14, 2019
Originally published on March 20, 2019 9:38 am

The value of civility is one of the few things Americans can all agree on — right? That's the common assumption. And yet it's an assumption that depends on everyone thinking they're a full member of the community.

But what about when they aren't?

For many people of color in the United States, civility isn't so much social lubricant as it is a vehicle for containing them, preventing social mobility and preserving the status quo. The furious white pushback at integrating lunch counters in the 1960s wasn't about the grilled cheese sandwiches that sit-in protesters weren't going to be served — it was about their presumption that they could sit at the counter at all. As equals.

That fury is why Alabama Gov. George Wallace could proclaim, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!"

Even after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, some white people were still pushing back against demands for equality from black and brown communities. James Forman, a principal organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had famously promised the people who wanted to go slow on integration that if blacks didn't have a seat at democracy's table soon, the entire table would be tossed.

A few years later, as the Black Power movement gathered steam, activist H. Rap Brown told black Americans that they could ignore laws that were never meant to include them. "We did not make the laws in this country," he insisted. "We are neither morally or legally confined to those laws. Those laws that keep them up keep us down!"

A "God-ordained" right to civilize others

Such laws and ordinances were designed to contain communities of color, says Gaye Theresa Johnson, who studies the intersection of civility and race at the University of California, Los Angeles. They allowed white citizens to, in effect, civilize people they considered less than.

And many assumed that this civilizing mission came from a higher authority. "It's always been a situation where people assume that civility is something that's sort of God ordained," Johnson says.

That belief would indicate that some people are innately civil, while others need to have civility taught to — or imposed upon — them. Johnson says this is part of the underlying rationale for the enslavement of Africans imported into America and the genocide of Native peoples.

"People of color don't get to orchestrate the terms of civility," she explains. "Instead, we're always responding to what civility is supposed to be."

So the relationship between alleged civilizers and the people they're "gifting" with civility, Johnson points out, is "inherently undemocratic, unequal and racist." (Think of Native American children being forcibly removed from their homes and placed in so-called Indian boarding schools or Mexican children being punished for speaking Spanish in schools or African-Americans being forced to listen to sermons that preached that servants should obey their masters, etc.)

And so, pushing back against the status quo will be seen as inherently uncivil by the people who want to maintain it. And there are always higher standards expected of those people pushing back.

Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper writes about white reaction to black anger in her book Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Since the Black Lives Matter movement blossomed, Cooper says, the mere fact that blacks are protesting affects how white society sees those protests.

"Black anger, black rage, black distress over injustice is seen as, one, unreasonable and outsized; and, two, as a thing that must be neutralized and contained quickly." Cooper says this often takes the form of whites "preaching at black people about how they're bad and how they're ungrateful for being angry."

Opening eyes and ears

Former President Bill Clinton illustrated this during a Philadelphia campaign event for his wife, Hillary, in 2016.

As he talked about the ways in which the criminal justice system has evolved in recent years, his recitation was challenged by Black Lives Matter activists. "I listened to them," he told the Hillary Clinton supporters, "and they don't wanna listen to me."

He turned to his challengers and shook his finger at them: "You will never learn anything when you're talking." He was, in effect, telling them they were being uncivil.

But sometimes being uncivil is what gets the job done. Back in the late 1980s, many AIDS activists decided that the only way the country was going to become concerned about the growing human toll that HIV was claiming was to cause disruption.

Steven Petrow writes a column for The Washington Post on LGBT issues called Civilities. Back then, he says, most of the country had to be shocked into caring about AIDS — and trying to find a treatment for it.

A group of AIDS activists called ACT UP, which was dedicated to aggressively pressing for more research and services, infuriated a lot of people whose lives were disrupted by their demonstrations. But, Petrow says, something had to happen: "People were dying. The FDA was doing nothing. The Reagan White House had said nothing about AIDS well into the president's second term. So, yes, that urgency justified that type of action."

Students who are in the country illegally have used the same tactics to press for extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. In the past few years, marches and protests have raised awareness about the students often referred to as Dreamers.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem enraged many people — including President Trump. The upward spiral of unarmed black people (mostly men) who have been killed by (mostly) white policemen was unacceptable to the NFL star. He chose to kneel to bring attention to it, and that, says Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, made a lot of the white public furious.

Daring to challenge society

"The idea that these athletes were addressing themselves to a burning political issue — that in and of itself made people mad," Kennedy says.

Kaepernick and other athletes who have chosen to protest social issues are angering people who believe they have strayed from their appointed place as athletes, Kennedy argues. These people want a ballgame, not a lecture — even a silent one.

But, Kennedy adds, by kneeling silently, Kaepernick was acting in the same dignified way civil rights demonstrators did in the 1960s: Students sitting quietly at lunchroom counters until they were dragged away, matrons shoved into police wagons, children being fire-hosed: All were quietly resisting what they believed was a societal wrong.

Kaepernick, Kennedy says, "was very vulnerable, and despite his vulnerability, he stood up in kneeling down. And I think in history he will go down as a hero."

As with so much, time changes things. Those students who had to be pulled away from lunch counters throughout the South were vilified back then. Today, many are considered heroes for their civil disobedience.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is one of the most overused words in politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RICHARD NIXON: Let us again learn to debate our differences with civility...

TED KENNEDY: We will treasure and guard those standards of civility...

GEORGE W BUSH: Join me in setting a tone of civility.

BARACK OBAMA: Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.

CHANG: All this month, NPR's exploring what civility means in such a polarizing time. Especially now, you would think that trying to be civil is one of the few things Americans could agree on, but the very idea of civility can also divide us. It's divided us for decades, especially when it comes to race. From our Code Switch podcast, Karen Grigsby Bates takes this look back.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Civility has long been defined by people in power. From the time enslaved Africans were brought to these shores to the civil rights movement up to today, how attached you are to civility depends on where you stand or, in the case of this Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter demonstration in 1961, sit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION ALTERCATION)

BATES: Segregationists viciously beat the people sitting at the lunch counters, but it was the victims who were criticized.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PATTERSON: It is our policy never to discuss problems or to negotiate with people who have utter contempt for our local ordinances.

BATES: Alabama Governor John Patterson felt the laws had kept white Americans separated from black ones for decades were a necessary element in maintaining a civil society. It was the early '60s and James Forman, a voting rights organizer and leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn't think much of the governor's insistence on obeying these laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES FORMAN: This problem goes to the very bottom of the United States. And you know I said it today and I will say it again - if we can't sit at the table, let's knock the [expletive] legs off. Excuse me.

BATES: Even after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act had been passed by Congress, some white people were still pushing back against demands for equality from black and brown communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H RAP BROWN: OK. We're going to talk about law and order versus justice in America then.

BATES: By the mid-'60s, black power activist H. Rap Brown was insisting that black Americans should ignore laws that sought to uphold community standards because those standards did not address black needs or interests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: We did not make the laws in this country. We are neither morally nor legally confined to those laws. Those laws that keep them up keep us down.

BATES: UCLA professor Gaye Theresa Johnson studies the intersection of civility and race. She says many local laws and ordinances were often designed to contain communities of color for white people to, in effect, civilize their lessers.

GAYE THERESA JOHNSON: People assume that civility is something sort of that's God ordained.

BATES: Johnson says that belief would indicate that some people are innately civil, and some people need to be taught civility or have it imposed upon them, which, she says, was part of the rationale for chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.

JOHNSON: People of color don't get to orchestrate the terms of civility. Instead, we're always responding to what civility is supposed to be. So it's inherently undemocratic and unequal and racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up. Don't shoot.

BATES: That was a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2016. Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper says there have always been higher expectations for civility when people of color are involved. Cooper writes about white reaction to black anger in her book "Eloquent Rage."

BRITTNEY COOPER: Black anger, black rage, black distress over injustice is seen as, one, unreasonable and outsized and, two, as a thing that must be contained and neutralized quickly, sort of preaching at black people about how they're bad and how they're ungrateful for being angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Unintelligible).

BILL CLINTON: Wait, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

BATES: Bill Clinton scolded Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted a Hillary Clinton campaign event to object to his position on criminal justice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: I listen to them, and they don't listen to me. You will never learn anything when you're talking.

BATES: The former president basically told demonstrators that they were being uncivil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

BATES: The current president doesn't seem to respect black protest either, especially when it comes to NFL players taking a knee at the beginning of games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now - out. He's fired.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: He's fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN KAEPERNICK: Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.

BATES: By expressing opinions on police brutality, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have angered people who believe the athletes have drifted from their appointed lanes.

RANDALL KENNEDY: The idea that these athletes were addressing themselves to a burning public issue - that in and of itself made people mad.

BATES: Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy says the president clearly feels protesting athletes have gone above their station. A lot of fans just want them to shut up and play ball. But Randall Kennedy says by kneeling silently, Kaepernick was acting in the same dignified way civil rights demonstrators did in the '60s. Kaepernick, Kennedy says, has a lot in common with people who stoically remained at lunch counters or public waiting rooms despite being showered with rage and physical abuse.

KENNEDY: I salute him. He was very vulnerable, and despite his vulnerability, he stood up in kneeling down. And I think that in history he will go down as a hero and the other athletes with him.

BATES: Maybe all it takes is time. Remember those students who had to be dragged away from Southern lunch counters? They were vilified by people in power back then. Now, more than 50 years later, many are considered heroes and role models for their civil disobedience. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.