Tag Archives: Racism

We Have Seen This Before

In Amsterdam last week I visited the Dutch Resistance Museum, dedicated to chronicling the history of the German occupation of Amsterdam, the Holocaust in the Netherlands, and those courageous citizens who chose to resist. The Nazis deported 107,000 Dutch Jews to labor camps. Only 5500 survived.

It was a wrenching museum experience. It must be especially so for those who lost family and friends in the Holocaust. I visited on the Friday of a week in which the President of the United States told four women of color who serve in Congress to go back to where they came from. All four of them were American citizens. When the President spoke at a “rally” in North Carolina the crowd eagerly and enthusiastically followed his racist lead. “Send her back,” they chanted, about a US Representative who migrated to the United States as a child and has been a citizen longer than the President’s wife. We have no need, the President said, for people who hate America, who criticize me in “disgusting terms.” Love it or leave it. Criticism is unwelcome. It is easy and intellectually lazy to make facile comparisons between President Trump’s America and Nazi Germany, but there can be no denying the rhetorical similarities. The President and his supporters parroted in their chants and howls the excesses of the Nazis and their sympathizers. All this was abundantly clear from looking at the exhibits at the Dutch Resistance Museum.

I am not one of those who is surprised and disappointed by Donald Trump. This is precisely what I expected from him, what he has shown himself to be. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that significant numbers of people have no problem with his many well-documented faults, who will bend themselves over backwards to defend him. Completely abdicating any sort of critical thought, or empathy, and ignoring entirely the obligations of informed citizenship, they march along merrily towards despotism. Ignorant of the traditions and history of American constitutionalism, by the tens of millions they roar their support for this tyrant, egged on by a well-oiled propaganda machine that promotes as it shapes this President. Meanwhile, fearful of the backlash that followed Hillary Clinton’s apt description of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” Democrats offer tepid resistance that thus far does not extend to a concerted effort to remove him from office for high crimes and misdemeanors, including obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause, and allegations of rape. He has assembled an unholy alliance of corporate elites, grifters, racists, and creeps, unopposed effectively by a timorous Democratic party leadership that should call its supporters out into the streets. Any reflection on the history presented in Amsterdam makes clear that we are not doing enough to counter his policies, and the tens of millions of Americans who continue to embrace his racist and cruel policies. I find it difficult to laugh at the many people who make fun of this president, and the crazy things his supporters say. No, I think now. They are dangerous.

I refuse to believe that our current crisis is not a product, in some small part, of assaults on the teaching of history and the liberal arts generally–fields that emphasize to students the importance of questioning and analyzing sources, investigating and researching deeply, and reading and thinking critically. True, the bulk of Trump’s support comes from non-college educated Americans. “I love the poorly-educated,” he once said. But it seems to me that he does not want you to think. You do not need to see or hear the evidence, he says, whether the unredacted Mueller Report or his tax returns or the testimony of cabinet officials lawfully subpoenaed by Congress. You must not question him.

I am teaching my Humanities class in Oxford this summer. We take our cue from Pericles and discuss how the purpose of government is to secure the commonwealth, the good of the whole. That requires that American citizens exercise what the Revolutionary generation saw as “virtue”: the ability to set aside one’s self-interest for the good of the community. Corruption, in this sense, is virtue’s opposite. In order to exercise this virtue, citizens must be independent, able to exercise their will freely, and they must be active, engaged, and informed. Those who are ill-informed, and constitutionally illiterate, and who do not think and reason about the way things are and the way things ought to be, make perfect tools for a tyrant. A citizen, for instance, who knows nothing of the language of Article II of the United States Constitution is unlikely to challenge the president’s spurious and frightening claim that it gives him “the right to do whatever I want.”

Evidence of this assault on engaged citizenship, and the kind of education that promotes it, is visible everywhere you look. The conservative Republican governor of Alaska has effectively shit-canned his state’s higher education system. Ted Cruz, that Texas Senator who combines sadism with unctuousness, has proposed legislation to label the activists in “Antifa” as a terrorist organization, while white supremacists and nationalists continue to regularly gun down ordinary Americans with their military hardware. Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin who with his allies in that state eviscerated its flagship university system, has been placed by President Trump on the board of the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation. The Wilson Center is non-partisan and highly-regarded, while Walker has railed against “the absolute crap taking place on college campuses across the country.” So strongly does Walker oppose the teaching of critical thinking and research on college campuses that he included in this tweet, in all caps, “I AM PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN,” with a large American flag, four tiny American flags, and four statues of liberty (an ironic choice to be sure, given the Republicans’ penchant for caging children carried here by their asylum-seeking parents).

It is a common refrain. You hear it again and again and again. Liberals are corrupting the young. They are teaching “Socialist” and radical lessons in colleges and universities. The policies “radical socialist liberals” favor are dangerous and destructive, even though they are already in place in much of the western world. Liberals are “Un-American,” or “America-Haters” and, especially if they are people of color, they should go back to the “shit-hole countries” and other places they came from. And they teach history in a way that encourages students to hate their country.

These Republican charges are vile nonsense. Republicans want to silence dissent and impose their own white nationalist views of the majority of Americans who find them repellent, even if that means controlling the media, restricting the right to vote, and incarcerating ever growing numbers of Americans. We who educate do not need to become activists. Always we must remember the canons of our discipline. But nevertheless, in the course of doing our jobs as we ought, we will resist and challenge these policies. If truth has a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert once joked, history shows these Republican operatives for what they are: a grave threat to the Constitution. That tens of millions of Americans continue to support these policies, despite all they might have seen and heard if they kept their eyes and ears open, demonstrates the magnitude of the threat we face. It is a challenge we can and must confront. Our job is, as I have written on this blog, to promote intellectual courage, so that our students will ask probing and important questions, dig relentlessly for answers, and assess carefully and critically what they see and hear. Courageous thinkers will challenge the assertions of those with power. They will demand of them the evidence that supports their reasoning. They will not accept pat answers, slogans, and sound bites. Because they call those in power to account, they are seen as a threat. And, time and again, Republicans have acted on that threat. As historians, most assuredly we can say we have seen this before.

The Problem of Racial Sterotypes–It’s Not Just Native Americans Who Are Victims

Oh, Penfield.

For years you have held a lacrosse tournament the first weekend in May. You call it “Cinco de Laxo,” an obvious play on that made-up American holiday that takes place every May 5th.

To promote this tournament, like most lacrosse tournament organizers and promoters, you produce posters and t-shirts. Nothing surprising in this at all. But in your promotional efforts, you utilize racist caricatures of Mexicans, images as deeply offensive as the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” logo, and the Blackface imagery that still crops up too often (even at my college, unfortunately).

I have been complaining about this for quite some time. My kids have never played in this tournament. They never will, even though they play lacrosse. I wrote to the members of the Penfield School Board. Penfield Lacrosse uses school property for its events, and links to the high school program on its website. I wrote to the superintendent of Penfield Schools. I wrote to every member of the board on Penfield Lacrosse. Not one of you bothered to respond.

I have heard from parents in Penfield who see these images as perfectly acceptable.

They are not. At a time when our presiding tyrant routinely demonizes refugees from Central America, denounces Mexicans as “murderers and rapists,” gins up fears of crimes and drugs crossing the border, and in general stokes the fires of racism and white supremacy by coddling the Klansmen of Charlottesville, the last thing we need is a youth lacrosse league peddling in such damaging images.

Because when you reduce a group of people to a caricature based on some of the worst sterotypes about them, when you appropriate images from the past to falsely and inaccurately define people who are still here today, you in effect trivialize their claims to justice, and aid and abet the racists and vigilantes and the border troglodytes who terrorize refugees while playing army along the southern border. When, through your promotional materials, you deploy images that bestialize an entire group of people, you provide cover for those who feel that these people are “illegal,” or “dangerous,” or an invading force, or that odious policies like family separation are entirely justified.

One parent wrote to me and said that I should suggest an alternative image that Penfield Lacrosse could use. Maybe there is an image of Mexicans you could use to make this more palatable.

There is not. You need to stop. Call your tournament, the Spring Fest, or the May Day Parade, or something other than this. These images are racist and demeaning, they are hurtful and harmful, and they do nothing to make people of color feel welcome in the town of Penfield.

Incarceration Rates for Native Americans

Many of my students have seen The 13th, the scathing documentary that looks at the close relationship between racism and violence in modern America.  Not only does the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, incarcerate nearly a quarter of the people on earth who live their lives behind bars, but it does so in a manner where African Americans are are disproportionately represented in the prison population.  Racism is alive and well in this Incarceration Nation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the prison system.  My good friend runs a blog detailing her experiences as the wife of an inmate incarcerated under New York’s inhumane Rockefeller drug laws.  And many of our students read Heather Thompson’s book on Attica last fall.  Professor Thompson was on campus, as were a number of people who had been involved in the Attica uprising and its aftermath. A student in my Indian Law class asked about incarceration rates for Native Americans.  I had always assumed that Native Americans, in states with large Native American populations, were over-represented in those state prison populations.

There is information on jails in Indian Country here. It is a broad, national picture.  For the Native American population incarcerated in “local jails,” which are defined as “confinement facilities administered by local or regional law enforcement agencies and private facilities operated under contract to such agencies. They exclude jails administered by federal, state prison, or tribal authorities,” you can read more here. For the federal prison system, an overview can be found here.

In Montana, where I lived and taught for four years. Native Americans were significantly over-represented in the states prison population. The Prison Policy Initiative has assembled a really helpful website that allowed me to increase my understanding of this important issue.

 

2010 graph showing incarceration rates per 100,000 people of various racial and ethnic groups in Montana

 

racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in MT as of 2010

For Arizona, a state with a large Native American population, the figures are a bit less stark than they are for Montana.

 

racial and ethnic disparities between the prison/jail and general population in AZ as of 2010

 

For other states with large Native American populations, here is a run down on the figures:

State                                          Percentage of Population           Percentage of Incarcerated Population

New Mexico                                               9%                                                           11%

South Dakota                                            9%                                                            29%

North Dakota                                            5%                                                            29%

Utah                                                            1%                                                             4%

Washington                                              2%                                                              5%

Oklahoma                                                 7%                                                              8%

Alaska                                                        15%                                                          38%

Minnesota                                                 1%                                                             8%

For other states, you can see the reports here, including tables on the number of people in each racial demographic per 100,000 in population by clicking here.

We Are Not Canada, But We Could Learn A Thing or Two

In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about his country’s history of relations with its indigenous population.  He wanted to show the world that Canada could take responsibility for the “terrible mistakes” of its past.

Whether or not Canada has succeeded in doing, so, Trudeau spoke of the enduring legacies of colonialism.  “Early colonial relationships,” he said, for Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, “were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” but rather an experience that “was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”

And the damage has been long-lasting indeed.  Trudeau spoke of Canadian indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water, of large numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women.  He spoke of “Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away or take their own lives in the night.” The problems of which Trudeau spoke have been well-documented.

Trudeau has faced significant criticism at home from indigenous spokespeople who feel that his words have not been matched by action.  Many have criticized the Canadian movement towards reconciliation, which I have written about on this blog, as a feel-good movement for white people that does nothing about structural inequalities and injustices deeply rooted in Canadian society. These are significant critiques, and it is well-worthwhile for students of America’s native peoples to watch how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues its work. (You can access its reports here.)

But despite the criticism of Trudeau and the limitations of his approach, for an American president to even consider saying something close to what Prime Minister said before the UN is utterly inconceivable.  If you saw the excellent “Wind River,” you will recognize that the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is not exclusive to Canada.  Corporate profit-seeking in Indian Country has led to the devastation of water supplies on American reservations.  I have written much on this blog about DAPL (the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” is strong on sentiment but weaker in terms of substance) but that is hardly the only example.  More than a third of all Superfund sites are located in Indian Country, and others, like Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, are nearby. Police violence against native peoples, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and higher rates of deficiency on every measure of social well-being: the problems are enormous, the challenges daunting, and the resources available limited.  In both Canada and the United States, these are the legacies of an enduring colonialism.

Now, if I were to ask my students if they should expect President Trump to deliver a speech similar to that given by Prime Minister Trudeau, they would emphatically say “no.”  If I were to ask them why, their answers would be a bit more complex.  For to assert that Trump is a racist or white supremacist uninterested in hearing about complaints from or the conditions experienced by peoples of color, while true, only gets us so far. No American president, whatever his party, has spoken as frankly as Trudeau about his country’s mistakes and misdeeds. No, there is much more to it than the current American president’s long list of shortcomings, inadequacies, and character flaws.

The United States, regardless of its leader, has shown little interest in confronting its long history of colonialism.  The growth of the United States could not have occurred without the wholesale and systematic dispossession of native peoples.  Sure, many of the thousands of transactions where Indian land came into the hands of white people were “legal” in the sense that they were recorded in deeds or ratified in treaties, but these transactions have histories of their own.  They occurred because of the relentless pressure exerted by European farmers and their livestock on native lands, or because native peoples decided to sell lands that they knew from hard experience “settlers” would take from them anyways, or after epidemic diseases reduced an indigenous community’s population and this made their lands seem “vacant” or as “surplus” land. Some of these cessions were the price of peace after a military invasion of conquest and desolation.  Dispossession and violence often walked hand-in-hand.

The loss of land was immense. But it cannot be understood apart from the assault on native peoples’ cultures and ways of living.  Just as Canada had its residential schools, the United States had boarding schools. Still, there was so much more to the assault on Indian identity, and it was so much more thorough than a focus on these sadistic institutions might lead one to believe.  I tell the story of this cultural assault in Chapter 8 of Native America.

We, as a country, are not very good at talking about our misdeeds.  We insulate our children from these stories, for instance, for a variety of reasons: because the stories of the suffering that his country has caused native peoples are so massive that kids could not handle them, or because somehow hiding the country’s crimes from them is the best way to produce loyal and patriotic citizens. So we design curricula that talk about tiny parts of the Native American past, but not in a way that would cause children to question their country’s conduct.  It happened a long time ago. We are free and clear, we tell them.  We’ll blame it on Andrew Jackson, and call it a day.

Meanwhile we cast Indians as part of the past, a point I have raised on this blog many times, because it makes it easier to deny their just grievances today.  We will pat ourselves on the back for renaming a football team, or changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or persuading this or that religious denomination to renounce its approval for the Doctrine of Discovery, valuable though these acts may be.  But let’s be clear. These actions cost white people little, and the structural burdens imposed by colonialism and white supremacy survive them and remain intact.  We like to tinker around the edges of significant problems. Too many of us view manifestations of Indian identity as inauthentic, and the expressions of long-held grievances as belly-aching about things that happened long ago.  We do not believe, as a rule, that inter-generational trauma is a thing, or that the burdens of history weigh more heavily upon some people than upon others.

We are unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, and to many of us too ill-informed or too uninterested to learn and understand how Native America’s loss has been white America’s gain.

As I wrote the first draft of this post earlier this morning, the hourly NPR newsbreak came over the radio.  The first story was Donald Trump’s denunciation of those NFL players who, with respect and civility, took a knee to protest police brutality and the continuing slaughter of people of color by the nation’s law enforcement officers.  The second story involved the shooting of a deaf person of color by police officers in Oklahoma. The victim did not hear the officers’ demand that he set down the metal pipe he was holding.

This country, it’s something else sometimes.  As native peoples long have told us, white people in America are comfortable dictating to people of color how they should conduct themselves, the forms of grievance and redress-seeking that are legitimate, not to mention how to conduct themselves religiously, spiritually, emotionally, sexually, domestically, and aesthetically. When kneeling for the National Anthem is viewed as more disrespectful than flying the Confederate flag, and when this proposition can be debated, defended, and taken seriously by millions of almost exclusively white Americans who support the President, it is pretty evident that the sickness is rooted deep.

Justin Trudeau clearly has not come close to doing what his very sincere and committed critics want him to do, but he has done more than any American president, and he is light years ahead of our Brass Creon. Talking cannot do everything, and acknowledging past crimes is not a remedy by itself. But it’s a start. It is a vital precondition to things getting better. The act of acknowledging that I am at least partially responsible for your pain,  and that I have benefited from the historical suffering of your people: it can be a powerful thing.  I am fully aware that I am speaking favorably of Prime Minister Trudeau for doing, at the end of the day, what any informed and honest person would do.  Yet our current leadership, in politics and in public education, in the Democratic and in the Republican parties, are not even close to being able to clear so low a bar.

On Charlottesville, and Our National Character

In what ways does the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville matter?

In the past two weeks I have listened to the Attorney General of the United States announce his determination to investigate discrimination on college campuses against…..wait for it….white people.  This move was endorsed by a President who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “animals,” and who has in as many words endorsed police brutality against African Americans and other people of color.  A sheriff’s deputy in Oklahoma, meanwhile, who gunned down an African American man who was walking away from her with his hands raised was rehired by another law enforcement agency.  And Friday night, and again on Saturday in Charlottesville, white supremacists marched in an American city, on an American college campus founded by Thomas Jefferson.  That flawed hypocrite whose moral cowardice was so great, who fathered children with his slave mistress while owning many other African Americans, who denounced native peoples as savages and spent much of his presidency trying to dispossess them, proclaimed his support for the premise that “all men are created equal.”

Saturday morning I sold a broken down flat-screen TV to a scrap-dealer.  Found a dude on Craig’s List who bought and sold dead flat-screens, and who included in his rapid-fire text messages a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  He showed up. Never shook my hand. Never made eye-contact, and never acknowledged my wife who also was standing outside.  He had on an Infowars T-Shirt.  “Ideas are bulletproof,” it read, with the letters imposed over an image of the Constitution. And the stickers on the back window of his truck?  A gun, pointed right at me, with the caption “Not This Truck;”  a  “F–k Cuomo” sticker, with the “f” and the “k” fashioned from the outlines of assault rifles; and a seal for some sort of militia group to which he pledged allegiance (I wish I could remember exactly what it said).

I sold a broken down television, in other words, to a guy who loudly proclaimed his embrace of Christianity in every text he sent, while at the same time announcing to all whose path he crossed that he not only would use violence to protect his personal property, but that he expected somebody to try to take it.  What a dark, frightened, and violent way to look at the world.

These views, expressed on my driveway by a frightened but well-armed scrap-dealer/militia member, or acted upon by the vicious nerds, gun fetishists, racists and thugs in Charlottesville, and described as moral equivalents to the views held by those who believe in justice, equality, and that black lives do matter by our babbling President, are of course nothing new in American history.  We have seen this before.  Too many times over too many years.  Nearly all of us who study this nation’s history for a living, I suspect, were shocked, angered and dismayed, but we were not surprised.  Sick and tired, but not surprised. The racists and white supremacists appeared in Charlottesville, but they had never, every, really gone away.

And that is a lesson, I believe, that must now inform my courses in Native American History even more than they have done in the past.  Hatred and fear of a racialized other.  It runs through the colonial period of American history. You cannot miss it if you look at the sources: from the treatment of native peoples by a frontier population intent on extracting a livelihood from ground seized from native peoples, to the slave owners, and the the lawmakers and legislators and founding fathers who regulated and policed the expropriation of native peoples’ lands and African peoples’ labor.   As I make my way slowly through Robert Parkinson’s magisterial The Common Cause, the best book I have seen on the American Revolution in some time, it is abundantly clear how important a fostered hatred of warlike native peoples and rebellious African slaves was to give shape to the “common cause” for which American patriots fought during the Revolutionary war.  Racism was there at the outset, fundamental to the formation of American national identity.  There have been, of course, many courageous people who have spoken out against this blight at the heart of the nation–some of them were mowed own by a white supremacist’s car on Saturday–and this heroic tradition is important.  But to deny the centrality of its opposite–racial antipathy–is to fail to examine closely the entire content of our nation’s character.

Three times more Africans migrated to the English American colonies than white people between 1630 and 1780.  Slavery was fundamental to the settlement and growth of the Anglo-American empire.  That dynamic and expansive process of enslavement, as historians like Brett Rushforth, Alan Gallay, Linford Fisher, Christina Snyder and many others have recently shown, ensnared many native peoples, too.  Slavery was central.  So was the systematic and organized dispossession of native peoples. I have tried to write about all of this in the second edition of Native America.

“This was all in the past,” you might say.  That is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to think.  The President, too, ever-ready with insult and slur, has proven himself time and again incapable of denouncing the white supremacists who believe strongly that he endorses their views.  This all is heartbreaking, you might say.  You might say that what we are seeing in Charlottesville is inconsistent with who we are as a nation.  You may respond to the news  by tweeting out a message of hope or inspiration under the hashtag #thisisnotus.  That is naive.  Dispossession. Discrimination.  Police forces, armed and militarized to the hilt, locked and loaded to protect the lives, liberties, and property of white people from what  they perceive as the threat posed by people of color, slay African Americans and Native Americans largely without fear of the consequences.

I have seen an increasing number of “Police Lives Matter” flags in the Rochester area, and “Blue Line” American flags.  I see on the news stories about how a Canandaigua woman quickly sold out of the shirts and signs she printed proclaiming that “I Support the Police,” or something like that. It’s a tough job. I get that. If you cannot do it without fearing or discriminating or murdering people of color, please for the sake of humanity do something else.

Is it worse than it has been in the past? We have talked about this as a family. We live in a small suburb of Rochester, a faculty ghetto of sorts where most residents like to think of themselves as tolerant and open to diversity.  My wife, whose skin is dark, is pulled over frequently by our local police; in nineteen years living here, I have never been pulled over.  It has been bad in the past.  There is no denying that.  But it is bad now, and it is getting worse even in the short time since the last election.  For too many white Americans, black lives do not matter.   Native lives, for too many of them, matter not at all. Too many white people view programs like affirmative action, intended to address past systematic injustices, as a threat.  And the people who hold these views? They know the president has their back.

I would like to think that we historians can make a difference, however small, by discussing this history in our classes. I do not see how one can understand American history in its complexity without doing so.  Few people read our work, I know.  But if we are to be effective educators, we must reach out.  We must have faith in the power of knowledge and reason and dialogue and debate.  We must write and teach with the urgency that comes from knowing that our words matter.  And in African-American History, or Native American history, we have the opportunity to explore the structural inequalities and profound injustices that have always rested at the core of this nation’s story.  We must be straight with our students.  Most of my colleagues are already doing this, but the urgency for doing this is growing. Cast away the comforting myths.  It is not our job to instill love of country, patriotism or civics.  We must counter this argument every chance we get. Leave that to the hacks and the partisans, the liars and the myth-makers and the members of the PTA.  We must defend what we do. We must be honest.  Look the evil in the eye.  Expose it to the light of day.  Name the evil, and show our students where it has manifested itself in the past, and the many forms it can take, the contortions and distortions it demands and justifies.  We will take some heat in doing this.  The dingbats and the right-wingers and some of the most conservative evangelicals and others will say that we are not doing our jobs, that we must stick to the facts.   And we cannot take these foolish charges sitting down. We must challenge those who denounce what we are doing with the meaningless and stupid epithet, “politically correct.” Debate these people.  Call them out, politely, professionally, but persistently. Only by standing tall can we help to inspire in our students the courage to speak out, to ask tough questions, and demand reasoned and relevant answers.  Only by doing so can we, in some small way, encourage them to confront and to resist the rottenness that has plagued this nation for far too long.

Yeah, About that Issue of What is Fair and What is Unfair

A number of disgruntled readers of my piece on Donald Trump have reached out to me with angry emails.  My essay appeared in the Syracuse newspapers a week or so ago.

One reader raised an argument with which may of us who teach Native American history are familiar, and with which we must contend.  Referring to the Oneidas of New York, who operate a lucrative casino and resort complex a short distance from Syracuse and just off the New York State Thruway, this reader asserted that “the ‘sovereign nation’ concept is obsolete and unfair to taxpaying citizens.”

“Last time I checked,” he continued, “most Oneida Indians live within the borders of the US, the County of Madison and the town of Vernon, They drive their cars on public highways, are protected by our military, so on and so on, just like me.”

Oneidas did everything this writer did, he argued, “except pay taxes.”  Asserting that Indians have unfair advantages, he declared that “it’s time to level the playing field.”

If you teach Native American history, you have likely encountered these sentiments before.  If you are a student in a Native American history class, it is a safe bet that some of your classmates share these views.  They are not uncommon.  I heard them when I lived in Montana.  They were for many years the lifeblood of the anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality, which opposed Indian gaming and other commercial operations in New York state and Indian land claims.  Some of their signs still dot the roads coursing through New York’s Finger Lakes region.

We could, I suppose, dismiss these views as anti-Indian racism.  That, in my view, would be a mistake.  We need to engage.  We need to educate, and tackle views such as these head on. Our students, after all, learn nothing about concepts like tribal sovereignty and the place of native peoples in the American constitutional system and, at best, little about Native American history. At times, views like these are expressed with such vehemence that we might feel as if we are casting our pearls before swine, but I believe that these are teachable moments. And I would argue that we let these opportunities pass us by at considerable cost.

When I face views such as these, I try to concede a few points. In other words, if one sets aside the entire historical experience of the native community in question–which historians are always reluctant to do–it might seem that native peoples have certain “advantages.”  But these so-called advantages are often misunderstood, or based upon fallacies, or a lack of information about the constitution and American Indian history.

Sometimes I find this stuff difficult to explain.  Sometimes I think the people who write to me really do not want to hear a history lesson, or an explanation for how things came to be.

So I begin with the fact that native peoples belong to polities that predate the United States.  Under American constitutionalism, native nations retain by virtue of their inherent sovereignty the right to govern most of their own affairs, on their own lands, so long as they have not explicitly lost those rights by virtue of an act of Congress or a treaty, or implicitly because the practice in question is somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations.  I will point out that to a great extent they have lost criminal and civil jurisdiction over non-native peoples who own land on their reservations, but that they retain considerable power still.  I point out that over the course of the last forty years the Supreme Court has weakened significantly the powers of tribal governments.

So much for the Constitution.  I also point out that the notion that “Indians pay no taxes” is an oversimplification.  Native Americans pay federal taxes, even when that income is earned entirely on a reservation. States and localities do not have the constitutional right to tax economic activity by native peoples on Indian land.  (The most useful discussion of this issue appears in Chapter 10 of Stephen L. Pevar’s The Rights of Indians and Tribes, (4th ed., 2012)).  I am willing to concede that this might pose a competitive disadvantage to non-native businesses located in the vicinity of Indian reservations, but that this is not simply a product of “special treatment” or an “uneven playing field,” but because of the language of the Constitution which places Indian affairs under the control of the federal government.  I point out that in a number of instances, Congress has allowed states to exercise its authority in Indian country.  This is the case in New York State.

I have been at this a long time. Racism towards Native Americans is a real thing.  The inequalities experienced by native communities are significant.  The statistics do not lie.  New York became the Empire State, as Laurence Hauptman has so ably shown, through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. You could not have one without the other.

The transactions through which New York acquired Iroquois land happened a long time ago, but these were transactions that violated federal laws the United States lacked the power and perhaps the willingness to enforce.  The Supreme Court has held that these transactions occurred so long ago that nothing can be done to right these wrongs, but that does not mean that the rights retained by native peoples should be ignored.

New York’s native peoples have seen, through a long history, their homelands invaded.  They experienced waves of epidemic disease.  They faced dispossession, and then the effort to “remove” them to new homes in Arkansas, or Wisconsin, or the Indian Territory, and then to re-educate their children, and disable their governments.  Disease, warfare, dispossession, diaspora: the injuries occurred a long time ago, but their legacies remain.  And now, when a community like the Oneidas manage to bring a measure of prosperity to their homelands, after the withering trauma of history, there are those non-Indians who cry out, “Wait! This isn’t fair!”

Give me a break.  Look at the ground underneath your feet.  If you believe that laws matter, that the Constitution matters, that the pledges in a treaty that guarantees to the Six Nations the right to “the free use and employment of their lands” matters, then drop the whining about what is or is not unfair. Please.  I was writing about something else, a president’s name-calling that I considered racist.  Stop sniveling about fairness.  It is not a good look.  It makes you sound racist.