What the Hell Do You Have to Lose? Cover
What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?: Trump's War on Civil Rights, by Juan Williams (Hardcover, PublicAffairs, published September 2018)

There is still some hes­i­tan­cy among mass media out­lets and oth­er civil­i­ty-com­pul­sives about whether Don­ald Trump is actu­al­ly a racist or — out of a cyn­i­cal appre­ci­a­tion for the expe­di­en­cy of racism — mere­ly some­one who talks like one; has act­ed like one through­out the entire­ty of his pub­lic and pro­fes­sion­al life; has sur­round­ed him­self with big­ots from his but­ler to his admin­is­tra­tive staff; and sup­ports racist poli­cies includ­ing eth­nic cleansing.

This is a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence. Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren got some push­back on the left for say­ing some­thing similar.

Is the pres­i­dent racist?” CNN’s Manu Raju asked her.

WARREN: Look at his remarks. He’s made racist remarks and he’s been racial­ly hate­ful to peo­ple. That’s what matters.

RAJU: But is he racist?

WARREN: I don’t have to look at his heart, that’s not the point. He behaves. Look at what he’s done, it’s racist what he’s done over and over and over. It’s not the first time.

I don’t know what this fas­ci­na­tion with peo­ple’s hearts or souls is. But then, I’m a mate­ri­al­ist. I care a lot more about peo­ple’s mate­r­i­al con­di­tions, their legal rights and jus­tice in prac­tice than I do the moti­va­tions of any­one involved.

“You are what you do repeat­ed­ly.” The why does­n’t matter.

What the Hell Do You Have to Lose? Cover
What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?: Trump’s War on Civ­il Rights, by Juan Williams (Hard­cov­er, Pub­li­cAf­fairs, pub­lished Sep­tem­ber 2018)

But a book by Fox News con­trib­u­tor Juan Williams has had me com­plete­ly revers­ing myself on this per­spec­tive, and by the end I was almost obsessed with what exact­ly is going on inside Williams’ head.

What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?: Trump’s War on Civ­il Rights is a much bet­ter book than I expect­ed. Williams looks at advances black Amer­i­cans made through­out the 20th Cen­tu­ry but par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the Civ­il Rights move­ment, zooms in on the lit­er­al blood, sweat, tears, and corpses involved in mak­ing those steps for­ward, and how dif­fer­ent aspects of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion reversed them dur­ing its first year-and-a-half in office.

My Amer­i­can his­to­ry is still strong­ly influ­enced by a white per­spec­tive, and par­tic­u­lar­ly a white male per­spec­tive, and more par­tic­u­lar­ly the per­spec­tive for white men of means. The Gild­ed Age looks a hell of a lot dif­fer­ent when exam­ined from the per­spec­tive of Native Amer­i­cans, black Amer­i­cans, Chi­nese Amer­i­cans, or poor peo­ple of any race try­ing to unionize.

A mat of hair, bro­ken teeth, and torn flesh from a half-cen­tu­ry of mas­sacres can’t fair­ly be called “gild­ed”, even if you drip some gold on the top of it.

If you’re already steeped in black Amer­i­can his­to­ry, Williams’ book may not have much to offer you, but most of us aren’t. Pub­lic edu­ca­tion does­n’t do it for us, and pop­u­lar his­to­ry is all wars and aliens. So there’s some inher­ent val­ue to this.

Even where I knew a bit already, like Trump’s father Fred get­ting arrest­ed at an anti-Catholic KKK ral­ly in 1927, I did­n’t know Fred was noto­ri­ous enough to have Woody Guthrie write a song about the fam­i­ly’s racist hous­ing practices.

I sup­pose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that blood­pot of human hearts
When he drawed that col­or line
Here at his Beach Haven fam­i­ly project

Williams’ abil­i­ty to take past advance­ments made through the sac­ri­fices of past giants and com­mon folk to con­nect them to how the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and oth­er Repub­li­can gov­ern­ments have rolled those advance­ments back is, I sup­pose, effec­tive but not par­tic­u­lar­ly interesting.

I may be in a bub­ble where it’s under­stood that a major Repub­li­can aim is to make it hard­er for black Amer­i­cans to vote and par­tic­i­pate safe­ly in civic life. I am not aware of any exam­ples of any state or local GOP work­ing to make it eas­i­er for peo­ple to vote or help black peo­ple any­where in any way. This should not be a rev­e­la­tion to any­one. It’s been trend­ing this way since 1964.

Yet, unless he’s advanced to the point where he can just call on ghost­writ­ers, Williams is a much bet­ter his­tor­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tor than I’d realized.

James Zwerg
“If you want to talk about hero­ism, con­sid­er the black man who prob­a­bly saved my life. This man in cov­er­alls, just off of work, hap­pened to walk by as my beat­ing was going on and said ‘Stop beat­ing that kid. If you want to beat some­one, beat me.’ And they did. He was still uncon­scious when I left the hos­pi­tal. I don’t know if he lived or died.” —Free­dom Rid­er James Zwerg

He writes about the abduc­tion and mur­der of three vot­er-reg­is­tra­tion vol­un­teers in Mis­sis­sip­pi by focus­ing first on how the news of their dis­ap­pear­ance was received by their fel­low North­ern civ­il rights activists then reveal­ing the details of the bru­tal­i­ty they endured.

As dra­ma and plac­ing peo­ple in their shoes, this is tremen­dous­ly effective.

He also describes just how much it took for the tri­umphs of the past to be tri­umphant. There was Robert Par­ris Moses endur­ing through beat­ings and con­cus­sion on a cour­t­house lawn just to reg­is­ter a few black Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans as was their Con­sti­tu­tion­al right.

There was James Mered­ith enrolling at Ole Miss in the face of every bureau­crat­ic chal­lenge and then a vio­lent white mob that killed two and injured 300. There also was A. Philip Ran­dolph’s fight to union­ize the black Broth­er­hood of Sleep­ing Car Porters in the face of bribery and phys­i­cal threats in the 1920s through head­ing up the March on Wash­ing­ton in 1963.

The nar­ra­tive of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment we have regur­gi­tat­ed end­less­ly is the non­vi­o­lence of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.

We leave out what that was in con­trast to and oth­er meth­ods of respond­ing to it.

White Free­dom Rid­er James Zwerg does not appear in Juan Williams’ book, nor should he, but pho­tos of the sort of bru­tal­i­ty vis­it­ed on him, as a rel­a­tive­ly priv­i­leged white man, got out into the world. For most native black South­ern­ers and for black and white activists from oth­er parts of the U.S., they were injured or killed in dark­ness and silence. And still they came and worked because that was that it took to break some­thing as awful as Jim Crow.

Civil­i­ty could not on its own bring about civ­il rights.

Just for the his­tor­i­cal sec­tions, this book earns its keep.

It should take you down a path of greater dis­cov­ery, if noth­ing else. So much of what we for­give about the past isn’t wor­thy of for­give­ness because there were cur­rents already exis­tent that were argu­ing for pro­gres­sivism even then.

They just were dis­count­ed and ignored by peo­ple in pow­er who got to write the lat­er nar­ra­tives that will excuse them.

Which takes us back to Trump. Under Mitch McConnell, Sen­ate Repub­li­cans held open a Supreme Court seat so they could let a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent fill it instead of any­one a Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent nominated.

Unlike lib­er­al jus­tices Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg or Stephen Brey­er, the Repub­li­can jus­tice Antho­ny Kennedy decid­ed to retire strate­gi­cal­ly so a Repub­li­can exec­u­tive and Sen­ate replaced his seat with a younger, more reli­able con­ser­v­a­tive vote.

Even if Brey­er and Gins­berg make it to 2021 (or 2025), watch for Jus­tice Clarence Thomas to step down before then to make way for a forty-some­thing-year-old Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety replacement.

Mean­while, due to McConnel­l’s block­ing of Oba­ma nom­i­nees and accel­er­a­tion of Trump’s own, at present one out of every four peo­ple on the fed­er­al judi­cia­ry were ele­vat­ed there by Trump. Sev­en­ty per­cent are white men, and increas­ing­ly, they don’t feel com­fort­able stat­ing that Brown v Board of Edu­ca­tion was decid­ed rightly.

Things are bad, they’re going to get worse, and “vot­ing them out” only makes sense with an assump­tion of fair elections.

Who gets to decide what’s fair and isn’t, again?

Whether Trump is doing this because he’s manip­u­lat­ed by oli­garchs with dove­tail­ing inter­ests, this is all his own mas­ter plan, or he does­n’t care so long as it’s only peo­ple he does­n’t care about being hurt, does it matter?

“You are what you do repeat­ed­ly.” The why does­n’t matter.

But why does Juan Williams do what he does on Fox News?

I don’t think the net­work’s name ever appears in the book.

Maybe that’s for con­trac­tu­al rea­sons, but it’s not in the index, and if it’s ever addressed that I missed, it’s only in passing.

Cer­tain­ly, Williams nev­er grap­ples with Fox’s place in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, func­tion­ing as a pro­pa­gan­da organ for Repub­li­can pol­i­tics and now the Trump admin­is­tra­tion itself, both of which are by their nature anti-black.

Most impor­tant­ly, Williams nev­er looks at his role in all that.

In relat­ing how Steve Har­vey and a few oth­er black enter­tain­ers were crit­i­cized for being fool­ish to meet with Trump and try to influ­ence him for the bet­ter, Williams quotes then-CNN anchor Marc Lam­ont Hill’s crit­i­cism of the group.

It was a bunch of mediocre Negroes being dragged in front of TV as a pho­to-op for Don­ald Trump’s exploita­tive cam­paign against black people.

Williams large­ly agrees with this assess­ment, if for­giv­ing the group for their naivete. But if Steve Har­vey is fool­ish and in hind­sight made a poor deci­sion to meet with Trump once a few years ago, how much more so Williams?

He has explained his con­tin­ued pres­ence on the net­work he’s con­tributed to since 1997 by claim­ing that he presents opin­ions Fox’s view­ers would­n’t get oth­er­wise. He knows there’s no dif­fer­ence between the most pop­u­lar cable net­work on tele­vi­sion and the admin­is­tra­tion, but he explains that he’s also inside that bub­ble, so he’s able to reach peo­ple who just dis­agree with him rather than hate him.

“It is dif­fi­cult to get a man to under­stand some­thing when his salary depends on not under­stand­ing it” as the Upton Sin­clair quote goes, and as of 2010, after his anti-Mus­lim com­ments got him boot­ed off NPR, Fox was pay­ing Williams $2 mil­lion over three years just to come on their net­work and be in their bub­ble. Pre­sum­ably, he’s more valu­able now, but who knows.

Marc Lam­ont Hill, strange­ly enough, could­n’t man­age to endure at Fox. They got rid of him after a short stint in 2009. The Root’s head­line cheek­i­ly said he was fired for “not being Juan Williams”. Which may be exact­ly it. If a per­son actu­al­ly does chal­lenge view­ers too effec­tive­ly, actu­al­ly has strong opin­ions they can express coher­ent­ly enough to change view­ers’ minds, why would Fox let them on at all?

All of this has me absolute­ly baf­fled by what is going on inside Juan Williams’ mind, or in his soul if that’s more appropriate.

This book — which again, is in itself actu­al­ly good! — proves he knows more than enough to know that he is prof­it­ing from and enabling an endeav­or that is awful to its core and absolute­ly with­out redeem­ing features.

He knows, but he keeps doing it any­way, to fill his role to be point­ed at and shout­ed down, maybe not reviled by all of the audi­ence watch­ing him but cer­tain­ly nev­er mak­ing them uncom­fort­able enough to change their minds.

If there’s any jus­tice to what from to out­side appear­ances looks to be naked self-inter­est cov­ered by the tini­est fig leaf of prin­ci­ple, it’s that the peo­ple most like­ly to have heard of Williams’ book and been inter­est­ed in it were of the audi­ence cul­ti­vat­ed to hate him, and you see it in the gen­er­al tenor of their reviews.

It’s not what the book deserves, but it may be what the author has earned.

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