When Little Rock's racial integration was a hot topic, I was an Arkansas teenager who was elected to go to church conference in Illinois. I was aghast to discover that people there assumed I was a racist and treated me with scorn. The same was true a decade later, when I arrived for graduate school in Massachusetts. Even though this was Brandeis, a Jewish university dedicated to tolerance, the underlying assumption was that because I was from the South, I was dubious.
Thus I am truly pleased to contrast the recent verdicts in controversial trials in Georgia and Wisconsin. A Wisconsin jury acquitted right-winger Kyle Rittenhouse of all counts, even though he carried an illegally obtained assault weapon across state lines to kill two people and injure a third at a political demonstration. In contrast, a nearly all-white Georgia jury convicted three white men of murder for killing a black man they suspected of theft.
The theoretical principle in both cases was whether or not a person has the right to take the law into his own hands (and it's almost always "his"). A Wisconsin jury said yes, and a Georgia jury said no. Such vigilante behavior was the longtime justification for lynching, and it currently is the basis for "stand your ground laws" that encourage a Wild West attitude. The inevitable result is tragedy from too many guns, too easily obtained.
Nowhere in the publicity on the Rittenhouse case did I see any intention to prosecute the person who allowed this immature avowed thug to obtain a gun at age 17. Worse, the judge refused to allow the prosecution to refer to the dead and injured as "victims" -- even though in any sense of the word, they most certainly were. He instead allowed the defense to call the dead men "looters" or "arsonists," even though they were unarmed and no evidence of individual arson or looting was presented. Rittenhouse claimed that he feared they would take away his gun and use it against him, but having a gun means taking that chance.
Even conservative news sources suggested that the judge was biased in favor of defendant Rittenhouse – despite a long record of favoring the prosecution over the defense. In this case, the defendant appeared to be of the same political persuasion as the judge, and I think the Wisconsin bar should reprimand him for his bias. No one else has suggested this in print, but I'm going to: let's ponder the fact that the judge's name is Schroder, while the chief victim's name was Rosenbaum. Anti-Semitism also is racism.
It's important to remember, too, that the protest resulting in this violence was because police shot an African-American man in the back, permanently paralyzing him. His name is Jacob Blake, and he was the subject of a "joke" that a juror, an older white man, told without apparent apprehension of revealing his bias. The riddle was "Why did the Kenosha police shoot Jacob Blake seven times?" The answer: "Because they ran out of bullets."
In any case, the two trials make it clear that not all prejudice is in the South. As a historian, I can tell you that it never has been. I hope that we will see more Northerners willing to examine their souls and do the right thing as the Georgia jurors did.
THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF PICK-UP TRUCKS
The three murderers in the Georgia case drove two pick-up trucks to follow their human target as he fled. In one of the articles that I read early on, an African American man said that he and his friends had grown up wary of pick-up trucks. They feared the white men who drove them, especially those guys who blatantly displayed their gun racks.
It's been a while – thankfully – since I've seen gun racks in traffic. It occurs to me now, though, that may be only because the guys who had gun racks became paranoid with Obama's election. They may now fear that such open carry is an invitation to break windows and steal. If that's what is stopping their not-so-subtle intimidation, I'm all for it. Anyway, the comment on pick-up trucks motivated me to think further on that phenomenon.
When I was a kid, we felt sorry for the people who drove a pick-up to church. It was a clear sign of poverty: a farmer needed the truck to haul hay and feed for livestock, and he was too poor to provide a car for his family. Children and sometimes women rode in the back, unprotected from wind, rain, or other exposure. My mother expressed sympathy aloud for these women, especially if men took up the interior space. Men always drove, of course, but their purpose in the passenger seat wasn't clear. "Riding shotgun" was a common phrase, but these men were churchgoers.
Almost no one hauls hay anymore, and urban highways now are full of pick-ups. Some internet sources, especially those sponsored by truck manufacturers, try to convince you that driver demographics have changed. However, according to the independent blog Hedges & Company, the most popular pick-up is the Ford 150 – and about 75% of its purchasers are white males, with Hispanic men accounting for most of the rest. These guys also have incomes appreciably higher than most of us. Another blog, Zippia, says that just 12% of pick-up purchasers are African American. It's true that women and younger people are more likely buyers than in the past, but I wonder how many realize that a pick-up may be seen as a symbol of racism.
NEWS TO ME
I learn a lot of new things from National Geographic. I almost worked at that magazine when I was young, but US News, a few miles away in downtown DC, offered a little more money. I greatly admire National Geographic, though, and especially the devoted readers who have kept it in business since 1888. One would think that such a boring title would not have staying power, but the internet has only expanded its reach. For a few pennies a day, I get information and especially photographs unobtainable anywhere else.
National Geographic recently made me aware of Begum Samru, who rose from a young dancer in India to become a wealthy military commander. Born in 1753, she died in 1835 – the year before Victoria took the British throne. From a palace in Delhi, she conducted a private army of some 3,000 troops, including both Europeans and Indians. She converted from Islam to Christianity and took the name "Joanna" in honor of Joan of Arc. It was her marriage to a Frenchman, Walter Sombre, that gave her a start – but he died already in 1778, when she was just 23, so the power and fortune that she amassed was due to her own abilities.
Geography: the land remains the same, but the name changes are almost insurmountable, even for a nerd like me. A photo in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times showed protestors in "Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso." I had to look up the location, and it made me wish that news sources would include a brief clue for such. The caption could have quickly added, "formerly French West Africa." That wouldn't be very specific, but at least it would hit the right area of the right continent. If journalists think their readers have such knowledge, I think they are wrong.
FROM GAS TO GOLF
Speaking of the Tampa Bay Times, I know I often speak ill of its increasingly pitiable news coverage, while we get a plethora of sports coverage and especially advertising. If they are losing money, it's only because of poor management. Yet one thing established by earlier management that still brings credit to the paper is Politifact. I remember when its originators presented the idea to the local Harvard Club many years ago, and I'm pleased that it still continues.
You know the drill: Politifact rates assertions on a scale from "True" to "Pants on Fire," complete with flames. Last Sunday's was headlined "Are Gas Prices Out of Control?" The conclusion was that "the year-over-year rise in cost at the pump has been significant. But as a share of personal income, the changes aren't unusual." A year ago, everyone was staying home because of COVID, and prices naturally fell with the drop in demand. More people are driving now, and while prices are up, there wasn't the widely predicted surge over Thanksgiving weekend.
It's even less likely to happen now that President Biden has opened US reserves in response to OPEC's threat to decrease production, which would increase prices. OPEC and the Houston oil guys always have been in bed together, so just be aware: Republicans predictably will predict high gas prices when we have a Democratic administration. Remember Newt Gingrich saying it would rise to $6 a gallon if Obama were elected?
Those sly foxes in the GOP know that gas prices are highly visible and that people who depend on gas to get to work will notice even a few pennies at the pump -- and they can be easily induced to scream about Democrats and inflation. Republican donors in the oil industry want their party mouthpieces to take every opportunity to convince people (via naive journalists with no background in economics) that the sky is falling. Don't fall for it.
Finally, Sunday's Times used half of its editorial section to compare the salaries of professional athletes. It's not a bad idea, but I'd like another column comparing these millionaires to billionaires. The list included twelve areas (in my alpha order): baseball, basketball, boxing, football, cricket, golf, mixed martial arts, racing (both cars and motorcycles), soccer, track, and tennis – but not hockey, which is very popular here in Tampa Bay. I guess the Canadian sport doesn't have a history of overpaying players, but motorcycle racing? I didn't even know that was a thing.
I analyzed the list of moneymakers because I was looking for women. In all of the top 100, I found two, both in tennis: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams (but not her sister Venus). Tiger Woods was at the top of the one hundred, but there were no female golfers. This despite the fact that 2020 was the 70th anniversary of the LPGA. Its chief founder was Babe Zaharias, who set the precedent of earning a million dollars a year in 1948. I trust you know that this incomparable multi-sport athlete retired to Tampa. I'm not a sports fan, but we should work on equality for women in sports. We've fallen way behind 1948.