Cornel West and Matthew Briones talk election year in interracial America

Recently Matthew Briones, author of Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America, collaborated with esteemed Princeton scholar Cornel West on an essay for our Election 101 forum discussing this election year in interracial America. The interaction of racial and ethnic groups, particularly the  alliances between Asian Americans and African Americans, has been understudied in the US, and many actually see the two groups as pitted against one another. Read on to hear their arguments for the importance of interracial coalitions, not only in the 1940s, but especially now as we head into the election season.


“…there’s a train a-comin'”

Cornel West and Matthew Briones


As this election season envelops the nation, we have already witnessed the Republican Party pivot within a nasty primary from a usually disciplined election-year message to an array of cultural war “greatest hits,” including assaults on women’s rights and their bodies, contraception, and personhood amendments.  Meanwhile, an increasing number of state legislatures have eviscerated the few benefits workers deserve these days, quashing unions (under 12% participation nationwide) and proclaiming themselves right-to-work states (23 and counting).  In Benton Harbor, Michigan, an expanded state law permitted an unelected emergency manager to overrule and disband the duly elected city council and commissioners under the guise of fiscal discipline.  The authoritarian power grab obviated the rights and franchise of thousands of citizens, predominantly African American (90%), while this manager saw fit to prioritize the building of a sprawling new golf course (for its predominantly white [92%] and wealthier sister-city, St. Joseph) with nary a concern over poverty in the area.  In sum, we’ve experienced an unabashed assault on women, workers, African Americans, and the poor in the past year, and the best our mainstream media can provide is whether or not Snooki is pregnant.

With the publication of Matt’s new book, Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America, we wanted to recapture the gaze of concerned citizens and freedom fighters alike, to bear witness to the new “Jim and Jap Crow” taking place in 2012 interracial America.  First and foremost, readers of all colors should be extremely concerned over the insidious (but familiar) practice of voter suppression laws wending their way through state legislatures.  Some of these measures include eliminating same-day registration, limiting the timeframe for early voting, making it more difficult for ex-felons to vote, and most significantly, requiring government-issued identification cards or other similar photo ID documents.  These acts blatantly overburden the poor, college students, workers, and people of color—all of whom comprise the traditional foundation of the Democratic Party electorate.  According to Harvard legal scholar Alexander Keyssar, “[B]eefed-up ID requirements have passed in more than a dozen states since 2005 and are still being considered in more than 20 others.”  As the civil rights icon and U.S. Representative John Lewis penned in the New York Times on the eve of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, these 21st-century schemes are little more than “A Poll Tax by Another Name.”

On an intertwined subject, the Associated Press most recently revealed to us its 2012 corollary of “Jap Crow,” through their reportage on the NYPD’s systematic surveillance of Muslims in Newark, New Jersey, and college students of Muslim faith across the Northeast.  In a sad but not unexpected twist of partisan politics, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey (R) has loudly denounced the practice, along with Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), while Democratic senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) have defiantly justified the NYPD tactic.  Hence, nearly seventy years to the day that Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942), which unconstitutionally incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast in the racialized hysteria of World War II, the AP issued an update on its ongoing investigation of America’s spying on its own citizens of color.  As one tragicomic example, they reported that an undercover policeman posed as a student to accompany a Muslim students’ organization from the City College of New York on a white-water rafting trip upstate.  Jawad Rasul, one of the students on the trip, remarked, “There’s nothing to say really about the trip, except that it was a group of Muslims.”  According to Rasul, in retrospect, the spy’s intentions now appear quite obvious: “What makes us think that we know who it was is that he was an older person, nobody saw him taking classes even though he said he was taking engineering classes. He said he had a job but somehow he was available for all the trips.”  Rasul has since admitted that he now constantly updates his Facebook status, in order to provide complete transparency for Big Brother eyes he knows are watching him.  While the federal government has not rounded up over 100,000 Americans and imprisoned them behind barbed wire as it overtly did seventy years ago, its deafening silence over the covert activity of the NYPD demonstrates that government no longer needs physical barbed wire to virtually corral and monitor Muslim Americans whom they believe prima facie are terrorists-in-the making.  The systematic oppression signified by “Jap Crow” in the 1940s has simply transmuted into its Orientalist cousin of the 21st century.

Of course, in this tragicomic phase of America culture, when it seems the plutocrats scoffing at the 99% have won the day, and the weight of simply living as “everyday people” has crushed us, as we pay our debts, feed our children, keep our neighborhoods safe, and maintain our dignity, we also bear witness to the courageous acts of resistance and protest evidenced by the Occupy Movement, promising a spring revival of its own, in many ways a humble tribute to the Arab Spring of last year.  The Right, lobbyists on K Street, and even those surfeited on Pennsylvania Avenue will be surprised when May Day draws immigrant workers of all colors—Asian brothers and sisters from Chinatown, Latina/o brothers and sisters from Boyle Heights to Queens, and proud Black brothers and sisters from Chicago to Tulsa.  They will take pause when they see members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe in Hayward, Wisconsin, military veterans in Akron, Ohio, workers at the DC Central Kitchen, and coal miners in West Virgina banding together, standing up and protesting, “Enough!  Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”  And our collective fight must be waged—not only through the power of our franchise at the ballot box, but also through the strength of our voices and footfalls in the streets.  People, get ready.

Matthew M. Briones is assistant professor of American history and the College at the University of Chicago.

Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton and, in June 2012, he will return to the site of his first teaching post at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.  A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, Dr. West also earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton.  A consummate teacher and mentor, Dr. West is best known for his New York Times Bestseller Race Matters (1993) and The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989).  He co-hosts a weekly discussion with Tavis Smiley on Public Radio International (PRI), while the two have most recently collaborated on The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (2012).