Trump’s Culture War

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Shameless, thy name be Trump

W.J. Astore

President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power.  Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics.  Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed.  He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.

Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting.  The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.

Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.

Why?  Because Trump has nothing real to run on.  His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans.  When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say.  No policy goals.  Nothing.  The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.

If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.

Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist.  It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy.  For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers.  Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.”  Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.

Truly, these are bizarre times.  Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals.  As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated.  Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.

Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost.  Why?  Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects.  And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy.  A sucker.  And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.

Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power.  Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.

Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America.  Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer.  Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.”  He wants to keep it servile to him.  He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.

Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?

Black, Irish, White: A Case Study of Policing

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“Paddy Wagon” — generally considered a derogatory term against the Irish

M. Davout

The police killing of a subdued and helpless George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations against systematic police brutality against Black Americans it provoked have rightly put a spotlight on policing in the US.  Floyd’s senseless killing and the populist pushback have also raised the question of the extent to which the institution of policing in this country originated and evolved as an instrument of group domination by self-identified whites.

Policing has never been my academic research specialty but I did once have a close-up encounter with reams of data that appertained to the question of how policing has worked in this country. Many decades ago, over several weeks of a hot Boston summer, I was employed by a sociology PhD student to code data from arrest records contained in old ledgers piled in a dusty basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse.  I remember going through dozens of ledgers from years that spanned the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and recording surnames of individuals who had been arrested by Boston police officers, as well as the crimes they were charged with.

While the specialized legal abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of penmanship of those long dead clerks took a while to decipher, it wasn’t long before I was making quick progress through years of arrest records. And, almost immediately, a pattern was evident. The overwhelming majority of the defendant names were Irish, while the infractions charged were relatively few: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, with, perhaps, some counts of resisting arrest thrown in. As it turned out, the PhD student was writing a dissertation about the relationship of Boston’s Irish population to the local police. And from the data I was coding, it looked to my unscholarly eyes that that relationship had been a contentious one, with Irish-surnamed folk filling Boston’s jails for decades at least. Needless to say, the court records did not indicate how many of those charges of public drunkenness or disorderly conduct were trumped up.

Growing up in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1970s, I experienced people with Irish-sounding surnames as figures of authority and accomplishment: grade schoolteachers, parish priests, local and state politicians, and, of course, the Kennedy clan. It was a far cry from that earlier time when Irish-Americans were a despised and impoverished immigrant group (“Irish Need Not Apply”) and were the targets of popular discrimination and systematic harassment and repression by many Protestant establishment political elites who controlled public institutions in the Bay State.

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Purely by coincidence during that same summer of research in the basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse, I was reading J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the contentious history of school busing, Common Ground, and came across a passage describing the Massachusetts State legislature’s confiscation of control of the Boston police force from city hall in 1895. Just ten years earlier, the city elected its first Irish-born mayor, which “launch[ed] an era of Irish-American dominance of Boston City Hall.”

It seems that even when the Boston Irish had made progress through the ballot box, their newfound control over the city’s main instrument of coercion could be stripped away by their long-time political nemesis acting at the state level. In the end, it may have been only after Irish-Americans, who had long been considered a race apart from Protestant America, could move across what W.E.B. Dubois called America’s “Color Line” and become “White” that they could escape the worst effects of policing. The same path, needless to say, has not been available to Black Americans.

M. Davout is the pen name for a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South.

Will the U.S. Military Hammer Strike the Citizen Nails?

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Caption at the Guardian: Members of an airborne military unit are deployed on the streets of Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.  This year alone, the U.S. government will spend roughly $740 billion on its military, though the real figure when you add in all costs exceeds a trillion dollars.  With so much “invested,” as the Pentagon likes to say, in that military, there’s a strong tendency to see it as the solution to the most stubborn problems.  All problems become nails either to be whacked down or pulled out and discarded depending upon which end of the military hammer our rulers choose to employ.

Americans are used to “our” military being used to hammer home American exceptionalism in faraway, foreign places.  But what about when that hammer is deployed to Main Street USA to hammer peaceful protesters into line?  Or, alternatively, to pull them out of the streets and into the jails?  That hammer doesn’t seem to be such a solid “investment,” does it?

It appears the Trump administration has now backed away from plans to commit regular federal troops to “dominate” protesters.  Opposition from retired generals and admirals like James Mattis, John Allen, and Mike Mullen may have helped.  But if and when protests become more widespread or embarrassing to Trump personally, don’t be surprised if the “bunker boy” calls again for troops to be committed, the U.S. Constitution be damned.  After all, he’s described peaceful protesters led by clergy in Washington, D.C. as “terrorists,” and we should all know by now what a “war on terror” looks like, led by generals like that same James Mattis.

Remember when a militarized hammer was a symbol of that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?  Remember when violent suppression of peaceful protests was something “they” did, you know, the bad commies, in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  As Paul Krugman has noted, today much of the GOP would cheer on Trump if he launched a military coup in the name of “law and order.”

Echoing this, one white American from Michigan told a reporter he “applauds” Trump’s crackdown and “fully supports” Trump if he orders federal troops into American streets to suppress protests.  In the same story from the Guardian, reporting from the white suburb of St Clair Shores, many residents “share the president’s world view that the police and national guard are heroically battling violent agitators, not brutally suppressing largely peaceful protesters.”

The story noted that “Several men who were part of a construction crew called the protests ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time and energy.’  Some even suggested Floyd was at fault for his death because he allegedly committed a crime, despite general worldwide outrage at the brutal manner of his killing and the criminal charges it has now brought against the officers involved.”

So, you have Americans who support the brutal murder of George Floyd, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, simply because Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit bill.  They even support a military crackdown, again in the name of “law and order.”

Who’s the evil empire now, America?

Racism and Violence in America

W.J. Astore

Violence is endemic in America.  So too is racism.  And they make for a combustible mix.

Recently, we’ve witnessed three incidents of black men either being killed or deeply discriminated against.  First there was Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man shot and killed while jogging in Georgia.  Then there was Christian Cooper, a black man birdwatching in Central Park who asked a woman to leash her dog in accordance with the law.  She called the police on him while lying that he was threatening her.  The third case saw a black man, George Floyd, being choked to death while on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck.  The police ignored his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.

And some people think the big problem in America is Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem so as to highlight violence against blacks:

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I have no magical pixie dust to solve racism and violence in America.  What we need to do, collectively, is take a long look in the mirror.  We need to recognize we all bleed red.  We’re all vulnerable.  We all share (or should share) a common humanity.  And then we need to act like it.

Most people want one thing: they want to be treated with respect.  With dignity.  As equals.  Let’s do that.

Of course, it doesn’t help that President Trump is a racist.  It doesn’t help that Joe Biden bragged about locking up “those people.”  The plain truth is that we need to be and do better than our leaders.  Because, far too often, those leaders are looking for ways to divide us as a way of exploiting us more easily and effectively.

We need to reach deep down and discover (or rediscover) our common humanity.  We need to fight together for what’s right and against what’s wrong.  And that means we must stand united against violence and racism in America.

Trump is a Trump Supremacist

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He soars over all of us

W.J. Astore

Over at ABC News, an article asks whether Donald Trump is a white supremacist.  Bernie Sanders thinks so.  Elizabeth Warren does too.

I’m not so sure.  Trump sounds like a white supremacist.  His rhetoric encourages white supremacists.  He has a long history of bigotry and racism.  QED?

I’m hesitant to say it’s proven, but I know one thing is certain: Trump is a Trump supremacist.

A self-confessed “very stable genius.”  A man without a racist bone in his body.  The least racist person you’ll ever meet, according to Trump himself.  A president who ranks himself as roughly equal to Abraham Lincoln, considered by most historians to have been America’s finest president.

Vanity, thy name is Trump.  And because Trump is a white male, ipso facto white men are supreme; they must be, because Trump is one of them, indeed the finest example of them, at least in his own mind.

So, I think it’s tempting yet too simplistic to say Trump is a white supremacist.  Trump is a Trump supremacist.  Everyone else is inferior to Trump, some more so than others.  The less you look like Trump, or act like Trump, the less he thinks of you.  Thus it’s no surprise he surrounds himself with mostly white men, many with dubious pasts of sexism or racism.  To Trump, these are not disqualifiers.  How could they be?  He’s sexist and racist, so how can that ultimately be a bad thing?

From his lofty perch as the greatest human in all of history, Trump looks down on all of us.  He just sneers a bit more if you’re brown or black or less than 100% boorishly male.

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

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W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

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Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

Yes, Trump is a Racist

Donald Trump Makes Announcement At Trump Tower
Trump on the down escalator toward American carnage, 2015

W.J. Astore

Yes, Donald Trump is a racist.  His attacks on four Democratic Congresswomen of color are only the most recent illustration of this.  Trump, of course, is also an opportunist.  A conniver.  An exploiter.  Unless it backfires, he’ll keep using racism.  It fires up his “base” and distracts from the looting his family and administration are actively engaged in.

Trump intuitively grasped a painful reality that Norman Mailer wrote about in 1968.  Inspired by Richard Nixon’s campaign, Mailer wrote that “political power of the most frightening sort was obviously waiting for the first demagogue who would smash the obsession and free the white man of his guilt [of slavery and racism and their legacies].  Torrents of energy would be loosed, yes, those same torrents which Hitler had freed in the Germans when he exploded their ten-year obsession with whether they had lost the war [World War I] through betrayal or through material weakness.  Through betrayal, Hitler had told them: Germans were actually strong and good.  The consequences would never be counted.”

Immediately after writing this, Mailer said:

“Now if suburban America was not waiting for Georgie Wallace, it might still be waiting for Super-Wallace.”

Enter Candidate Trump on his escalator, railing against Mexicans as rapists and killers.  Stoking fear and bigotry against people of color.  He did it, guiltlessly, because it worked.  And it proved a balm to so many in his base, who could now vent their racism because a rich White man like Trump had given them cover, permission, even a mandate.

Recall Mailer’s words: “The consequences [of unleashing guilt-free racism in America] would never be counted.”  We’ve been experiencing these consequences since Trump rode that escalator down and unleashed his own brand of American carnage.  We will continue to experience them even when Trump is finally out of office and long dead.  Because Trump isn’t guilty alone.  He needs followers willing to embrace his lies, his vitriol, his hateful speech.

Isn’t it time we rejected Trump, and all his words and works, and all his empty promises?

Blackface and White Nationalism

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Northam’s college yearbook page (1984).  Northam claims he’s not the pictured in the blackface/KKK photo, but that he did wear blackface on another occasion to emulate Michael Jackson

“It’s complicated” is one description of race relations in America.  The current controversy in Virginia involving Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this.  As a college student, Northam claims he donned blackface as an homage to Michael Jackson, even as Jackson, tragically, was beginning to alter his own physical appearance via painful surgical procedures, apparently to appear more “white.”

Why do white people don blackface?  When they do, is it always racist?  Take the case of Prince Harry, who as a young man wore a Nazi Swastika to a costume party.  Most people assumed he was simply trying to shock, and that he’d made a poor choice, not that he was a neo-Nazi bent on reviving the Third Reich.  In Northam’s yearbook page from 35 years ago, were the young men donning blackface and wearing KKK hoods simply (and dumbly) trying to shock?  Were they engaged in transgressive behavior to elicit groans as well as laughs?  Or were they white supremacists and racists, actualizing white privilege, privilege that is always present, even when not acknowledged, in American culture and society?

When you combine images of whites in blackface with other whites in KKK hoods, the message is clear.  Racial oppression, a murderous record, is being referenced, in a way that trivializes past horrors.  Governor Northam claims he didn’t appear in the blackface/KKK photo shown on his yearbook page, but he also apparently never complained about it nor did he express regret after the fact.

What are we to make of all this?  My friend M. Davout, who teaches political science in the American South, asks us to think about the wider historical context of blackface performers in the United States, including its role in the assimilation of immigrant groups into a racialized American identity. W.J. Astore

Blackface and White Nationalism

What a Virginia Governor’s Problem Reveals about American Identity

M. Davout

The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo displaying a person in blackface alongside a person in a KKK hood and a college yearbook entry referring to him as “coonman” has been mostly reduced to the question whether decades-old racist expressions disqualify him from continuing to occupy his current office.  To the extent the issue remains framed in this narrow way, an opportunity is missed to understand the nature and durability of racist expression in U.S. society.  By uncritically accepting the conventional association of blackface with racist animus, we overlook how racist hostility is twinned with racial attraction in the very definition of what it means to be an American.

In his thought-provoking work, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin raised a central question: What accounts for the long and pervasive career of blackface in American entertainment?  Consider the minstrel shows of the Jacksonian era, the Tin Pan Alley songs and vaudeville skits of the late 19th century, followed by the silent film era that featured DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through the introduction of synchronized sound in Hollywood movies starting with The Jazz Singer (1927).

Rogin’s key to answering that question is his recognition of the important role of outsider groups such as the Irish Catholics of the mid-19th century and immigrant Jews of the late-19th and early-20th centuries as purveyors and consumers of blackface entertainment.

Singling out the vaudeville performer Al Jolson’s role as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer as the immigrant son (“Jackie Rabinowitz”) who transcends his Jewish roots to become an American success story via blackface performance (his blacked-up rendition of “My Mammy!” to an audience, including his adoring mother, concludes the film), Rogin suggests how blackface entertainment performed the American dream of upward mobility by making immigrant ambition acceptable to nativists.

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Al Jolson in blackface for “The Jazz Singer”

It was not unusual for past blackface entertainers to see their performances as manifesting a sympathetic bond with African-Americans—after all, Jewish immigrants from Russia knew what it meant to be treated as pariahs and were arguably as much a target of the newly resurgent 1920s KKK as were African-Americans.  In this regard, Northam’s admission, in one of his earliest public responses to the controversy, that he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for a medical school dancing contest may have been an effort, however ineffective, to evoke cross-racial sympathy and distance himself from blackface images more transparently driven by racist aversion as was arguably the case in the medical school yearbook photo (which Northam now claims is not of himself).

Of course, both then and now, however much the performer sympathizes with the group he is masquerading as, the effect of blackface performance is to help win acceptance for the performer (and his group) at the cost of keeping African-Americans at the bottom, unassimilable.

Irish and Jewish blackface performers signaled the transformation of despised and racialized European immigrant groups into true (i.e., white) Americans. In arguing that Al Jolson’s character “washes himself white by painting himself black,” Rogin points to how “whiteness” was (and, to an extent, remains) a powerful component of what it means to be an American.

Maybe “white nationalism” is not a fringe idea, after all, but a central part of what it means to be American and explains a significant part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his white working-class base: he refuses to hide or repress or ignore the racialized origins of American identity.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

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Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

A Little Honesty on the Confederate Flag

Want to fly a flag?  How about this one?
Want to fly a flag? How about this one?

W.J. Astore

Many people associate the Confederate flag (the “stars and bars”) with the South and the U.S. Civil War (Whoops — I mean “The War of Northern Aggression”).  For some people, it’s been a more or less vague expression of Southern heritage, or a symbol of rebellion, a sort of redneck “good ol’ boy” badge of pride.  Like any symbol, it is capable of holding multiple meanings.  To use academic fancy talk, its semiotics is negotiated and interrogated contextually within contingent cultural settings in which radical interpretive flexibility is possible.

Did you follow that last sentence?  If you didn’t, pat yourself on the back, because it’s all BS.  The “stars and bars” may have been a Confederate battle flag 150 years ago, but after the Civil War it morphed into a symbol of White supremacy, becoming a symbol of race hatred and violent resistance to integration during the Civil Rights movement.

A little honesty: The Confederate flag is hardly restricted to the South, and therefore it’s not primarily about Southern heritage. In rural Central Pennsylvania, where I recently taught for nine years, the Confederate flag was astonishingly common.  It was on license plates; it flew every day at a local gas station; I saw neighbors flying it openly on their flag poles.  Why, you might ask?

My wife was very good friends with a Black woman in a local town; the (White) neighbor immediately behind her openly flew a Confederate flag from his flag pole. Remember, this was Pennsylvania, Union country, not the heart of the Confederacy. There was no mistaking this man’s message — his unhappiness that a Black family lived near him, and his decision to make them uncomfortable, to make them squirm, by flying “his” flag.

Think I’m reaching here?  My wife’s friend has a son who went to the prom.  He complimented a (White) classmate on her prom dress, saying it looked “hot” on her.  He got a visit from an off-duty State Trooper who explained to him that Black boys don’t talk to White girls like that.  Not around here, son.  No, this wasn’t 1963.  It was 2013.  A half-century after the Civil Rights movement.

It’s good to see that the Confederate flag is finally being taken down from State Capitol buildings; that merchandise featuring it is being pulled from store shelves; that politicians are finally speaking out against it, even Republican candidates for president, who equivocated in such a cowardly manner until even they could no longer resist the pull of public outrage stemming from the latest racial hate crime in Charleston.

The question is: What the hell took them (and us) so long?