Civility As A Tool For Keeping People Of Color In Their Place : Code Switch For people of color, "civility" is often a means of containing them, preventing social mobility and preserving the status quo.

When Civility Is Used As A Cudgel Against People Of Color

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It is one of the most overused words in politics.


RICHARD NIXON: Let us again learn to debate our differences with civility...

TED KENNEDY: We will treasure and guard those standards of civility...

GEORGE W BUSH: Join me in setting a tone of civility.

BARACK OBAMA: Only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.

CHANG: All this month, NPR's exploring what civility means in such a polarizing time. Especially now, you would think that trying to be civil is one of the few things Americans could agree on, but the very idea of civility can also divide us. It's divided us for decades, especially when it comes to race. From our Code Switch podcast, Karen Grigsby Bates takes this look back.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Civility has long been defined by people in power. From the time enslaved Africans were brought to these shores to the civil rights movement up to today, how attached you are to civility depends on where you stand or, in the case of this Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter demonstration in 1961, sit.


BATES: Segregationists viciously beat the people sitting at the lunch counters, but it was the victims who were criticized.


JOHN PATTERSON: It is our policy never to discuss problems or to negotiate with people who have utter contempt for our local ordinances.

BATES: Alabama Governor John Patterson felt the laws had kept white Americans separated from black ones for decades were a necessary element in maintaining a civil society. It was the early '60s and James Forman, a voting rights organizer and leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, didn't think much of the governor's insistence on obeying these laws.


JAMES FORMAN: This problem goes to the very bottom of the United States. And you know I said it today and I will say it again - if we can't sit at the table, let's knock the [expletive] legs off. Excuse me.

BATES: Even after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act had been passed by Congress, some white people were still pushing back against demands for equality from black and brown communities.


H RAP BROWN: OK. We're going to talk about law and order versus justice in America then.

BATES: By the mid-'60s, black power activist H. Rap Brown was insisting that black Americans should ignore laws that sought to uphold community standards because those standards did not address black needs or interests.


BROWN: We did not make the laws in this country. We are neither morally nor legally confined to those laws. Those laws that keep them up keep us down.

BATES: UCLA professor Gaye Theresa Johnson studies the intersection of civility and race. She says many local laws and ordinances were often designed to contain communities of color for white people to, in effect, civilize their lessers.

GAYE THERESA JOHNSON: People assume that civility is something sort of that's God ordained.

BATES: Johnson says that belief would indicate that some people are innately civil, and some people need to be taught civility or have it imposed upon them, which, she says, was part of the rationale for chattel slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.

JOHNSON: People of color don't get to orchestrate the terms of civility. Instead, we're always responding to what civility is supposed to be. So it's inherently undemocratic and unequal and racist.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hands up. Don't shoot. Hands up. Don't shoot.

BATES: That was a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2016. Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper says there have always been higher expectations for civility when people of color are involved. Cooper writes about white reaction to black anger in her book "Eloquent Rage."

BRITTNEY COOPER: Black anger, black rage, black distress over injustice is seen as, one, unreasonable and outsized and, two, as a thing that must be contained and neutralized quickly, sort of preaching at black people about how they're bad and how they're ungrateful for being angry.



BILL CLINTON: Wait, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

BATES: Bill Clinton scolded Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted a Hillary Clinton campaign event to object to his position on criminal justice.


CLINTON: I listen to them, and they don't listen to me. You will never learn anything when you're talking.

BATES: The former president basically told demonstrators that they were being uncivil.


BATES: The current president doesn't seem to respect black protest either, especially when it comes to NFL players taking a knee at the beginning of games.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now - out. He's fired.


TRUMP: He's fired.


COLIN KAEPERNICK: Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.

BATES: By expressing opinions on police brutality, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have angered people who believe the athletes have drifted from their appointed lanes.

RANDALL KENNEDY: The idea that these athletes were addressing themselves to a burning public issue - that in and of itself made people mad.

BATES: Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy says the president clearly feels protesting athletes have gone above their station. A lot of fans just want them to shut up and play ball. But Randall Kennedy says by kneeling silently, Kaepernick was acting in the same dignified way civil rights demonstrators did in the '60s. Kaepernick, Kennedy says, has a lot in common with people who stoically remained at lunch counters or public waiting rooms despite being showered with rage and physical abuse.

KENNEDY: I salute him. He was very vulnerable, and despite his vulnerability, he stood up in kneeling down. And I think that in history he will go down as a hero and the other athletes with him.

BATES: Maybe all it takes is time. Remember those students who had to be dragged away from Southern lunch counters? They were vilified by people in power back then. Now, more than 50 years later, many are considered heroes and role models for their civil disobedience. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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