Monthly Archives: November 2018

My Life in a Racist Segregation Academy

I’ll confess that until today’s news cycle, I had never in my life heard the term “segregation academy.” But it’s in the news today, as part of the arc of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s (R-Jim Crow) lifetime of racism, culminating in a series of breathtakingly racist missteps ahead of tomorrow’s runoff election for her U.S. Senate seat. Over the weekend, the Jackson Free Press broke the story of Hyde-Smith having attended such a school, which were set up over Christmas break of the 1969-70 school year as “private schools” intended explicitly to avoid a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order. Such schools persist throughout the South; Hyde-Smith sent her daughter to one, too. And the overt racism taught and cultivated in such schools tends to last a lifetime. Get ’em young.

Well, sometimes. In my case, the lessons didn’t stick very well.

In November 1969, at age nine, my parents moved me from Los Angeles to Columbia, South Carolina, and made the bewildering (until later in life, when I came to realize how racist they were) decision to enroll me in a private school that was only in its third year of operation – very much a “segregation academy.” The kids weren’t all bad – though they did tend to reflect the biases of their parents. (When President Nixon came to town, the whole school got the day off so that we could go see the Great Man.) The ’60s never happened in Hammond Academy’s curricula, and the War Of Northern Aggression (commonly known elsewhere as the Civil War) was an ongoing, century-plus grievance, taught in painstaking detail except for the bit about ending slavery.

As a kid from L.A., none of this made sense to me, but my “education” came quickly. I remarked to a classmate that I didn’t understand what the difference was supposed to be between white people and black people, a heretical comment that spread like wildfire. Eventually, my “teacher” decided to punish the heresy by having me stand up and repeat my comment before the entire class, an exercise in shaming which ensured my ostracization (as a “Yankee,” because California, presumably, was “Up North” somewhere) for the entire four years I was forced by my parents to attend that cesspool.

The purpose of Hammond Academy – yes, it still exists, and actually sort of integrated a few years ago – wasn’t any secret in the early ’70s. For starters, its namesake, James H. Hammond, was one of the leading antebellum advocates for slavery, and thus a segregationist hero. I remember a local newspaper column attempting to answer a black family’s query as to whether my school would accept their child, and the school spokesperson explaining that, why, heavens no, Hammond wasn’t segregated – they just hadn’t had any black applicants who could meet their high academic standards.

This was hilariously implausible not just for the unabashed racism of much of the school’s leadership, which blew up publicly a few years later when the IRS revoked its tax-exempt status. (Wikipedia: “In 1972, Hammond Academy’s tax exemption was revoked by the IRS when it refused to document that it had a racially nondiscriminatory admissions policy. In 1976, a school administrator told John Egerton the school did not want the tax exemption because the school was “better off without negroes.” The administrator further opined that “segregation is coming back to this country” because it is a “more natural condition.””)

It was also absurd due to the idea that somehow a school operating almost entirely out of mobile trailers was offering any kind of rigorous education. I got in immediate trouble soon after arriving for declaring that the principal wasn’t qualified to be a janitor at my old L.A. public school. The truth hurts.

This is exactly the kind of environment that shaped Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and a lot of other white Southerners of our age. Of course, the smarter among them realized decades ago that the South’s well-earned reputation for bigotry, oppression, and racial violence comes with a huge economic cost. It’s a major reason why states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and other mostly rural recesses of the Deep South remain poor – and why so much effort has gone into rebranding the “New South” in booming cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville. A lot of people have moved into these areas from other parts of the country, and world, in the intervening decades. The political power in such cities is often multiracial, but the wealth is largely still in White hands. Not everyone who attended segregation academies grew up to become a segregationist – you’re hearing terms like “embarrassing” being used to describe Hyde-Smith’s views, which is undoubtedly true for some Mississippians. Other – white – Mississippians are likely bewildered by what all the fuss is about.

By the beginning of ninth grade, I was refusing to attend dear old Hammond, a standoff that was resolved only when my father took a job in the Detroit area and we moved, again. (There would be two more family moves, to Chicago and then Memphis, by the time I finished high school.) I despised South Carolina and was elated to leave. Six years later, as a young adult, I returned to visit – and was enraged to discover that a whole segment of the population had been hidden from me, one far more interesting, and seemingly principled, than the assholes I’d been immersed among.

I’ve long felt that those years in South Carolina were critical for my development – that I got most of my core values by negative example, not just from my parents (another long story), but the hypocritically pious and hate-filled kids, and adults, at Hammond. I didn’t ever want to be like them.

At least one U.S. Senator does. My guess is that Mississippi’s runoff election tomorrow won’t be all that close. People with backgrounds and values like Sen. Hyde-Smith just aren’t embarrassing enough to enough white rural Southerners. Not yet.

Progressives Showing Strong After First Night Ballots in Puget Sound

Nationally, Tuesday’s election pretty much went as the polls suggested they would. With both Democrats and Republicans highly motivated to vote this year, 2018’s midterms have shattered all kinds of national election turnout records for a non-presidential year. In Washington State, it doesn’t appear that the 1970 turnout record (which topped a whopping 70 percent) will be challenged. But with that enthusiasm, far more people than usual voted early: Almost half of the state’s 4.3 million registered voters (1.8 million) had their ballots counted with the state’s first release of election totals on Tuesday night. That will likely be at least two-thirds of the final total of voters – so that in key races where a candidate has a significant first night lead, that lead will be difficult to overcome as more ballots are counted..

In the Seattle area, where there aren’t that many Trump fans to urge to vote, progressive Democrats are looking at a nearly clean general election sweep. Start with the statewide initiatives: I-1631 (the carbon fee) is the lone exception to progressive success. It’s losing solidly, 45 to 55 percent, in a campaign that pitted environmental activists and Gov. Inslee against a 16 million dollar advertising onslaught paid for almost entirely by Big Oil. I-1631 would have been the first measure of its type in the country. However, we’ve seen in the past how much money companies or industries are willing to spend to prevent a new local or statewide idea from taking hold, whether it be an Employee Hours Tax, a ban on plastic bags, or I-732, an earlier, messier attempt at a carbon tax in 2016. Or soda taxes.

On that front, the sugared drink industry, led by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, sponsored initiatives in both Washington and Oregon this November that would have banned taxes similar to Seattle’s new sugared drink tax, which went into effect last January. In both Northwest states, those initiatives are failing – 42 to 58 percent in Oregon, 45 to 55 percent in our state – despite a blizzard of dishonest advertising, in both states, that depicted “politicians” as poised to tax all of our groceries and hurt grandma. And another heavyweight in the field of blocking activist initiatives, the National Rifle Association, failed in its efforts to block I-1639, a package of background checks and other firearms purchasing and safety requirements that leads comfortably after one night, 60 to 40 percent.
Another progressive ballot measure, I-940 – which would remove language in state law that has made it functionally impossible to criminally prosecute law enforcement officers for criminal on-duty use of force incidents – is also passing by a 60/40 percent margin after one night.

And in the biggest race in Western Washington, the campaign to replace retiring Republican Dave Reichert in Congress, Democrat Dr. Kim Schrier had an astonishing 11,764 vote lead (53/47 percent) in what late polls had described as either a toss-up or a race in which Schrier’s opponent, Trump defender Dino Rossi, was leading. Fifty-three percent might not sound like much of a lead – but given the large early voting turnout, Rossi would likely need to win at least 60 percent of the few remaining votes to come to catch Schrier. If her lead holds, that would be a huge victory for local Democrats.

In fact, the only two progressive Democrats that are clearly losing after the first night’s count are trailing other Democrats: Sarah Smith trails longtime incumbent congressional Rep. Adam Smith, 30/70 percent, and in state legislative district (LD) 32, incumbent Sen. Maralyn Chase, who has long ruffled the feathers of centrist Democrats in her district, trails Shoreline deputy mayor Jesse Saloman by a similar 30/70 percent margin.

The news is otherwise remarkably good for progressives after one night. In races nobody expected to be close, both Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Pramila Jayapal are ahead by unassailable margins. Several closer state legislative races have also broken well for progressives. In Federal Way’s LD 30, reactionary incumbent Sen. Mark Miloscia won last August’s primary against Federal Way school board director Claire Wilson, 48 to 38 percent – but this time Wilson is leading, 53.1 to 46.9 percent. If Wilson can hold onto that lead, she will join two notably progressive first-time legislators of color in Olympia: West Seattle’s Joe Nguyen (who leads centrist Shannon Braddock, 58/42 percent, in the race to replace retiring Sen. Sharon Nelson in LD 34); and My-Linh Thai, who leads Michael Appleby in Bellevue’s LD 41, an open House seat, by a 65/35 percent margin.

Lastly, two other high-profile races remain far too close to call after one night: In Legislative District 47 (Auburn), embattled Republican incumbent Sen. Joe Fain, who is under investigation for an alleged 2007 rape, leads challenger Mona Das by only 274 votes, 20,093 to 19,819. And up in Whatcom County’s LD 42, far right incumbent Sen. Doug Ericksen, who chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in our state in 2016, leads Democratic challenger Pinky Vargas by only 451 votes: 30,978 to 30,527.

In the coming days, watch the margins of the critical Schrier/Rossi race, as well as Fain/Das in LD 47 and Ericksen/Vargas in LD 42. If they don’t narrow – a lot – on the second and third days, the leader on the first night will likely win. But if, for example, Democrats were stronger in later voting, both Fain and Ericksen could be in real trouble. Either of those races has the potential to expand the Democrats’ legislative majorities in Olympia, in what has already been a strong election for progressives.