1.29.2006

John Brown’s Body is a Rollin’ in his Grave

Recently, a friend of mine informed me that she had heard that a racist organization was planning a white power rally in Buffalo this spring. Being a decent human being, she was obviously a bit distraught. Many folks are surprised to hear that there are avowed, proud racists living and working around them “up here” in the North.

We forget that the story of racism in America is not confined to the South and that we to are haunted by America’s greatest shame. For example, it was only 1964 when Rochester was consumed in a race riot. The Flour City was not the only northern cities to burn around that time: NYC, Jersey City, Paterson (NJ), Philadelphia and Chicago also in 1964, the Hough riot (Cleveland) in 1966, Newark, Plainfield (NJ) and Detroit in 1967, Chicago again in 1968 after King’s assassination and York (PA) in 1969.

The presence of such recent race riots shows that racial tensions and oppression are strong enough in the North to spark violence. However, racial violence is not new to our region and has not always involved the uprising of the oppressed. For example, throughout the 1920s, the Second Ku Klux Klan, an anti-Jewish, Black, Immigrant and Catholic organization, was incredibly strong in the North.

In Upstate New York, the Klan made Binghamton its northeastern headquarters from 1923 to 1927; at that time 40% of the city’s residents were immigrants or their children. In 1926, Klan members marched through the largely Italian-immigrant village of Endicott, burned crosses and recruited “many well known business people.” These businesses advertised in the newspaper with a secret code to convey their allegiance to members.

Xenophobia, racism and hate are interwoven into the history of our region just as popular resistances to those pressures are. My timeline of Upstate antebellum events includes not only the inspiring events of the Jerry Rescue (where a mob freed a captured slave in Syracuse) and the Underground Railroad, but also stories of mobs chasing the first Anti-Slavery Society meeting out of Utica, attempting to destroy Frederick Douglass’ printing press and attacking converts to new religions like Mormonism.

Today, we are still haunted by racism. The group that is sponsoring the march in Buffalo, the Racial Nationalist Party of America, has made a name for itself in Lockport flyering and protesting. It is not the only racially-charged group in York State; the Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a database on hate groups and is watching 12 organizations in our area. The Racial Nationalist Party is only one:

Around Syracuse are three KKK affiliates: The Free Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Imperial Klands of America Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In Buffalo, the Neo-Confederate League of the South and a branch of the Nation of Islam operate. Rochester has a wing of the Neo-Nazi National Alliance and the fundamentalist terrorist group known as the Jewish Defense League. Schenectady and West Hurly also have branches of the National Alliance, Syracuse the Nation of Islam and Parishville the white power Council of Conservative Citizens.

Race is a powerful force, but one that white America tries its best to forget. Yet, ignorance or denial of reality does not change the nature of the beast. Hate crimes, from KKK scrawled on the hood of a car owned by a person in an interracial relationship in Ballston Spa, to assaults on Latinos in Farmingville, organized hate groups, race riots and the widespread day to day oppression that is often only understood in large scale statistics, tell a very different story than the one heard on the evening news.

I think that, as thoughtful people looking to improve life in our region, we cannot forget the importance of race. What are the forces that drive race in America? How is the American story race told in our hometowns? Perhaps most importantly for this website, how are hate groups driven by a lack of identity and how can we work to fill this problem? Why, when we are located so deeply in the North, are there neo-confederates working out of Buffalo? Has our region so spectacularly failed to produce a meaningful identity that some of our citizens have instead turned to a pro-slavery revolt in the South close to 150 years ago? Why does any vehicle with a New York license plate have a Confederate flag in it? Why does “being country” necessarily mean you find your heroes in Texas or Tennessee? On a different note, how does an Upstate identity differ for Blacks, Latin@s, Whites who descended from old families and those from immigrant stock, Asians and Indigenous peoples? Where does it converge? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

-Posted by Jesse

25 comments:

Fjord Frickey said...

Latin@s, did you think that up yourself? ha. Yo, most of the racist, bigots, and scumbags in the north don't belong to hate groups and they do work at your place of employment under, over, and around you. Actually, a bunch of them are in the NYS Senate and US congress.

Dr. Kimbote said...

Maybe some folks who've migrated north from the south have a new york state license and still have some vestige of pride in the symbol of the south, the confedy flag. Really, who cares about these tiny hate groups with memberships below a dozen people when the dept. of social services is the largest racist institutional organization in America.

Jesse said...

I agree that by far the majority of racists are not members of organizations devoted to that cause, and even that the most dangerous racism anymore comes not from organized groups but instead from institutional methods that depersonalize and disguise racism today. However, I bring up the hate groups for several reasons: 1) because of this upcoming rally which shines some light on them, 2) to ask why they exist and 3) because they are indicative of a much more wide-spread problem. There is a saying in the restaurants that I work that for every complaint that is spoken or written down to our staff, seven more people are thinking it.

There is probably some of the south-to-north migration going on as Dr. Kimbote points out, but that does not explain all of it by far. I know young men who come from families who have lived in NY for generations, grew up here, were educated here and have yet to leave, but still put Confederate flags up. A "south-to-north" migration theory does not address the deeper question of why is rural society so culturally dominated by the South?

By the way, Latin@s is a gender neutral way of writing Latinos and Latinas. I read it in a journal and thought it was clever.

Frances said...

Many people living in Upstate have very little exposure to diversity. I have relatives living near Lockport and everyone they know or are related to is white. It has been that way for decades and decades. Recently, in Ransomville, two young children of a mixed racial heritage had to change schools because of the comments they received from classmates. When you learn such attitudes at a young age, it can be difficult to change despite one's best intentions.
It also does not help that the media constantly reports crime (usually in Buffalo) from the "bad" parts of town, which often tend to be black neighborhoods. Most working class individuals watching the news are not going to then lament over the lack of opportunity and the imbedded social structure that has created a cycle of poverty. Instead, they will associate blacks with crime whether it be consciously or subconsciously. In addition, in these smaller towns in Western New York, the minority presence is so small that they immediately become the other. Families, such as mine, tend to stay in one area and remain close, thus facilitating the perpetuation of these racial stereotypes. If people see black crimes on the news and have no experience with blacks outside of the news, it is going to have an effect.

Alia said...

I am very distraught. Is there anyone willing to organize with me to go and counter the demonstration?

Jennifer said...

In the late 1990s I lived in Johnson City (where I apparently missed out on some good pizza) and served a church in Endicott. I'll never forget how uneasy this move made my grandmother who had memories of not being able to stop in the Binghamton when traveling with her young family.

By and large, my time in Endicott/Johnson City as a young African American newly relocated from San Francisco/Berkeley was without much incident. But I'll never forget my one and only Rotary meeting in Endicott at which a man gave a presentation on the Klu Klux Klan and spoke with pride about his involvement. It is a haunting memory. I moved from the Southern Tier just four months later.

Jesse said...

It seems strange to me that Binghamton, of all of the cities of Upstate New York, was (and perhaps still is for all I know) a hotbed of racist action. I spoke to my father, who grew up here, and he said that as a child, there were no black folk living in Johnson City or Endicott. He says there was one man who lived in Vestal (across the river) and worked at the YMCA, but no others. He believes there was a small community on the North Side of Binghamton, an area that has several rich communities today, including African-Americans and refugees from the Yugoslav wars. This doesn't mean that Johnson City or Binghamton were populated by "old" families of settler descent; to the contrary, they were, and are, filled with Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians. But no black folk.

Today, things are somewhat changed: there are black and asian descendened students at Johnson City High School for example (many of the asians are Laotian or Vietnamese refugees). However, the social segregation within the school is intense and there is little mixing outside of the common denominator of the school. I also have wracked my brain and cannot think of a single Jewish student having attended while I was there, though of course in such an environment, a person might not trumpet a minority status that was not obvious to the eye. I remember that gay and lesbians in particular were, and still are, verbally assaulted daily at the school.

When we were growing up, there were reports of the Klan having ceremonies in white robes with torches up in the hills, though I have heard that it was a group of Wiccans mistaken for Klansmen. Why is this history secret? Why doesn't Johnson City or Binghamton face its history? What about your communities, have they honestly told the story of race, gender, sexuality and oppression?

Natalie said...

"What about your communities, have they honestly told the story of race, gender, sexuality and oppression?"

I think the more difficult question is: What would you suggest a town or city do to "face up" to its troubled past?
I think towns and cities, in their histories, tell a version of the truth about themselves that oftentimes glosses over disturbing elements of their history, especially in short histories or when teaching local history to children in schools. It's not dishonest, it's a product of the desire to emphasize the positive while marginalizing the negative, and instill some civic pride.
That said, it's not entirely excusable, and it's of course reprehensible to deny these things. When utilized correctly, the sort of public acknowlement I think Jesse is suggesting of the past in one way or another can be helpful in understanding the derivated problems and social ills that still face us today.
However I don't think theres anything useful about the self-flaggelating apologies that I feel like people expect when dealing with histories of discrimination. Too often I've found that saying sorry and honestly telling a story of oppression, or someones version of it, doesn't go that extra step to make people understand the dynamics of what really happened, and simply villifying hate groups and leaving it at that doesn't get at the root of the problem. So what would get at the root of the issue? And what is the forum in which it is appropriate for a community to explore these issues of history that are so inextricably linked to our present day communities?

I have many mixed feeling about these issues, coming from an upper middle class suburb that tried its damndest to make amends for that fact by doing lots of "character education" and staging elaborate black history month assemblies and activities in high school, which I felt were 9 times out of ten more of an effort to show we were openly feeling bad about being a mostly white and wealthy school district than educating.

As for counter-protesting hate groups, I think it's ineffective. Being met with resistence, even a bunch of well intentioned folks holding hands just adds fuel to the fire. Both sides of the issue are coming to that demonstration with preconceived notions so strong that they have taken the time to organize and march around to try and push their ideas on other people. Each side will be resistant to the others entreaties, and perhaps the cries of the opposing side will even strengthen their resolve. Nothing is accomplished. It's better to just let them march around by themselves without onlookers, met by nothing other than an empty street. Then they won't feel self-righteous and justified, they'll just feel stupid.

[I suppose I shouldn't take issue with a word like Latin@s since we here at York Staters are similarly trying to promote an identity-solidifying moniker. But since you're soliciting opinions, I have to say that in my opinion, like 'womyn', Latin@s just looks kind of silly ;o) Also, how would you pronounce it?]

Natalie said...

An interesting post about transgender discrimination in Glens Falls over at Adirondack Almanack

Alia said...

You look kind of silly Natalie. Telling a history that glosses over disturbing elements in order to "instill some civic pride" is dishonest. It leads to the creation of a society that does not feel it important to resist neo-nazi groups. For anyone interested in going with me June 10th, I'm not talking about hand-holding.
Also, it is unacceptable to assume the group one discusses is male, hence the creation of the word Latin@s. The word is pronounced as a phrase: "Latina or Latino".

Alia said...

Could you please put up the link to the transgender discrimination post? Thanks.

Jesse said...

In reading through the history of KKK marches in my hometown and nearby Endicott I found that often times the local people would not show up either to counter-protest or to support. They stayed home. Now this might be interpreted as a statement that the protest was beneath even recognizing. That is the idea behind protesting by not having a protest that is so often suggested as a way to challenge white power groups.

Yet, I have the tendency to believe that the white power groups don't have that same idea. I would bet that they would interpret empty streets as being a statement of fear by the local community, which is, after all, what they're after. Also, to those who are very political and witness the march and don't see a counter protest, the conveyed message might be that the racists have cowed opposition, that no one cares, or that the racists dominate the political landscape.

Now, if there is a massive gathering, a counter-protest and multi-racial gathering of solidarity and outrage, no-one can dispute that not everyone agrees with the racists, that the town is not cowed, that a white hood doesn't scare everyone.

I'm up for your rally Alia.

Jesse said...

Whoops, typo. In the sentence: "Also, to those who are very political and witness the march and don't see a counter protest, the conveyed message might be that the racists have cowed opposition, that no one cares, or that the racists dominate the political landscape." the "are" should be "aren't" I'm referring to the apolitical, apathetic or ignorant.

joe said...

I'm not down with counter-demonstrations, cuz to me they are meant as a way of silencing speech and ideas. People go to counter-demonstrations to shout down the demonstrators, whether it's at a anti-war rally or pro-life/pro-choice or Supremacist rally. I don't think it would be right for me to say these people can't go and say whatever they want to say, which i think showing up and yelling at them would be -and most times the supremacists have to be protected by the police from the counter-demonstrators which are in their furor pretty overwhelming and hysterical. Which I don't blame them, cuz someone saying the holocaust didn't happen is the kind of thing that would make me hysterical with disbelief in the possible ignorance of another rational human being.

Woerner Hossenfaus said...

Are you such a dreamer, to put the world to rights?

Alia said...

Hysterical. Interesting word choice Joe. Hysteria was thought to be a disorder that only afflicted women during the 19th and 20th centruies. It was believed that women's uteruses wandered around their body, making them "hysterical", and unfit to enter into the world of politics.
I do not intend to become "hysterical", or to silence the opposition's speech. I plan on going June 10th to show solidarity with the oppressed and to further organize.

Natalie said...

Clearly the history of oppression is an important one and should be recognized and brought to light - that's not in dispute. To clarify, in terms of places where it is glossed over or omitted, I was thinking of two places where local history is often taught: on signs and in elementary school.
I don't think it would prevent prejudiced attitudes to have underneath the "Welcome the Binghamton" sign in addition to something like "Home of the 1989 Northeastern Regional League Girls Softball Champions" to also put "Home of the KKK 1923-1927" Likewise, I don't know that explaining the Klan and the social history of hate to a group of 7 year olds is going to be as effective as it would be when they're 14. When you're 7 you're learning about the Erie Canal and creation myths of the Iroquois.
No doubt history as complex (and from the number of comments on this post, clearly inflamitory) as this needs to be told, but more than that, it needs to be used and framed to combat the prejudices that would lead to a society that supports ignorance and hate. In these cases it's not an issue of honesty or dishonesty, it's an issue of appropriate forums and effectiveness. Just because the entire story of a town or city from soup to nuts isn't shouted from the mountain tops at all times doesn't make what they do emphasize any less true. (Although in this case, I completely made up that thing about the 1989 girls softball team.)

Personally, my proposal of the protest silent treatment is based on my confidence that my fellow citizens recognize that hate groups are a bunch of whiny reactionary extremists. If you guys aren't so confident, then counter protest, I send you my good will. But I think the bigger obstacles to a more understanding and equal community come not from the extreme hate groups, but from your average run of the mill predjudices that, as Fjord points out, are all around us. In my estimation, yelling from either side of a picket line does little to promote understanding or combat intolerance.

(You could write Latinos/as or Latinas/os. That's the way I've normally seen it in print. I realize that you have to decide whether the male or female ending comes first, but for the sake of both equality and clarity to us ignorami out there, I think it makes due.)

Lastly, sorry about that, I tried to link it but it doesn't seem to have worked. The Adirondac Almanack is here, and if that didn't work, they is a link to them on our sidebar.

Jon said...

Alia is right on with that one... hysteria comes from the latin root for Uterus.

Thats why male WWI injured couldn't be classified as having "hysteria" - they didn't have uteruses, and thereby their "shell shock" (as it came to be called" went untreated.

joe said...

cool, know i know something that i learned in psych. 101. thanx! I don't see how my comment could be associated with anything feminine in the counter demonstrator. I don't think you can find a subtextual link in my speech between the induced mania of the counter-demonstrator and any type of perceived archetypal womanhood -if you can that'd be impressive and I'd love to analyze that, it sure was a fun topic in feminist ethics and all those postmodern literary theory classes.

Why not have some sort of solidarity with the community march on the day before or after or somewhere else in the city? Because the point of the counter-demonstration is to silence the other's speech, which is wrong regardless of how hateful or inane that speech is.

Joe said...

Also, I'm the most radical anarchist, I'd even bite my arm off in a contest!

Jon said...

I posted the psych 101 knowledge simply to provide more information about what Alia was saying, not to point anything out in your argument.

your suggestion that you respect, above all else, free speech is not borne out by your rheotic, which employs sarcasm and irony to silence speech in the very forum which you purport to uphold it.

the purpose of a counter march is not to silence speech, it is to show an overwhelming majority does not support, and will not let go unquestioned, another position. I don't think anyone has suggested calling city hall to have the march shut down. The point is to show up and not let positions go unquestioned.

joe said...

Anyways, 'Hysteria' is not from latin, it is related to latin via french, but the word's derivation is ultimately from the greek 'hustera' -which means 'womb' basically.

I used 'hysteria' which is a 19th century entry into english, while 'hystertic' (the derivation Jon and Alia are referring to) came earlier into english (around the mid 17th century) and is very much related to the french and latin 'uterus'.

Ok what's this mean... 'hysteria' doesn't come from the latin root for 'uterus'.

If anyone's interested we can get into medicine, michel foucault, and the birth of the asylum. And really get into the good stuff to the reasons why doctors would place mania in the uterus -and ultimately why Alia and Jon's critique of my use of 'hysteria' was almost, but not quiiiiite correct.

Or, we can discuss the concept of irony and its use in debate(Alia was the first to attack with sarcasm and basically called me a misogynist), -or we can just stop posting nonsense on jesse and natalie's web log.

Alia said...

I wasn't being sarcastic and I didn't call you a misogynist. Are you a misogynist?

Jesse said...

Folks,
I think we need to take a breather here. These comments are breaking down into insults and flames, which I think is absolutely unnecessary. In fact, we have a policy against such personal attacks on this blog and will not post any more of them. I think in our desires to get the last word, we've forgotten the purpose of this post: how is racism a force in our communities? Why has the pro-South/Confederacy ideology crept into Upstate New York? How can our communities respond to racism?

Joe said...

I might be a misogynist. My main goal in life is to waste mine and other peoples time, especially at work, and I really don't like the girl I'm seeing -but I'm not gonna break up with her.