Back to the future in race and gender relations

I’m pretty sure I was still an undergraduate at CSU East Bay when I asked my then-favorite professor, an African-American, how, when so many parallels could be drawn between present and historical events, he could believe that the country was progressing. He replied by pointing to his own presence at the head of the class. He said that in the 1960s, it would be impossible for a black man to be a professor. He’s a full professor, fully tenured—a decision the administration of that university undoubtedly rues—and has served as department chair at least twice.

Perhaps. But today, I stumble across a Bay Guardian article that leads me to a Calbuzz piece about Belva Davis. Tim Redmond, at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, focuses on the part of the Calbuzz story on Davis’ experience at the 1964 Republican Convention in, lest we ever think of the city as particularly progressive, San Francisco.[1] The Calbuzz story quotes Davis’ new book here at length:

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing…

Suddenly Louis [Freeman] and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?’”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Methodically we began wrapping up our equipment into suitcases.

As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch!” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass!”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way.

Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip began to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.”[2]

The story highlights a comparison between the Barry Goldwater political platform and today’s Tea Partiers. Of course the latter deny they are racist. But it remains that if John McCain had been elected as president in 2008, we would not be hearing accusations about his origin. McCain was born on a military base in the Panama Canal Zone,[3] then a U.S. territory; Obama was born in Hawaii. Hawaii became a state a couple years before Obama was born. Panama apparently always had sovereignty over the Canal Zone and now controls it.[4] So by any measure, Obama’s claim to natural-born citizenship is stronger than McCain’s.

But according to the Los Angeles Times, yesterday, “An Orange County Republican Party official who sent an email that portrays President Obama’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee with the words: “Now you know why — No birth certificate!” apologized for her action but insisted she’s not a racist.”[5]

Let’s be clear: the birther movement represents the desperate plea of a diminishing white majority to retain hegemony. It is no different now from when abortion first became controversial during the Industrial Revolution. As I wrote in 2009,

The Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th Century nearly coincides with a number of other developments in the United States. The Confederacy had lost the Civil War, African-Americans had been freed, the men among them had even been given the vote, and white bitterness was so palpable that the fact that middle and upper class white women were exercising greater control over their fertility, in combination of a wave of immigration consisting largely of darker-skinned, non-English speaking Catholics, led to cries of “race suicide.” It was a time for lynchings. “Race suicide” was code for white fear that they would be outnumbered politically, that they would lose their privileges in a heavily segregated, bigoted society.[6]

That connection extends to abortion rights and accounts for a surge in anti-abortion legislative activity which even seeks to define most forms of contraception as abortion—hence the recent attempt in the House of Representatives to ban funding for Planned Parenthood.[7]

Regrettably, my then-favorite professor and I have parted ways. Relying on fairly mainstream sociology, I refuse to separate race issues from gender issues from class issues from other forms of bigotry. He accuses me of being reluctant to discuss race. The Tea Party, with an unparalleled attack on women, people of color, and the poor, is not helping his argument.

  1. [1]Tim Redmond, “1964 all over again?” San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 20, 2011,
  2. [2]Calbuzz, “Belva Davis, Barry Goldwater, Tea Partiers and Race,” April 20, 2011,
  3. [3]Carl Hulse, “McCain’s Canal Zone Birth Prompts Queries About Whether That Rules Him Out,” New York Times, February 28, 2008,
  4. [4]William Ratliff, in “Controlling the Canal,” Online News Hour,; John J. Tierney, in “Controlling the Canal,” Online News Hour,
  5. [5]Los Angeles Times, “GOP official who sent Obama chimpanzee email: ‘I am not a racist’,” April 19, 2011,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “How “Town Hell” reminds me of the Industrial Revolution,”, August 10, 2009,
  7. [7]Jessica Arons, “Contraception Is the New Abortion,” Science Progress, July 28, 2008,; Kathi Di Nicola, “Budget Deal Preserves Nation’s Family Planning Program,” Planned Parenthood, April 9, 2011,

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