An Object History Lesson: Roanoke
In 1587, a small group of colonists settled on Roanoke Island. Three years later, they had vanished—seemingly without a trace. The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is one of US history’s most enduring mysteries. It is a tale filled with twists, turns, and peculiar clues that have enthralled the imaginations of countless historians and entertainers. Neil Gaiman reimagined the fate of the Roanoke Colony in the Marvel 1602 graphic novel, American Horror Story reimagined it in their recent sixth season, and an assortment of people and have offered a multiplicity of theories, ranging from the mundane (the colonists integrated with local native tribes out of necessity) to the frankly bizarre (the colonists were all wiped out by a zombie plague). For our purposes, however, the ultimate fate of the colonists is neither here nor there. What interests me is an anecdote from the brief period of their history that we are sure about.
The John White party was not the first group of settlers to colonize Roanoke Island, and the previous group had developed very bad relations with the Aguascogocs tribe. Not long after White’s party arrived, a man named George Howe was killed while out crabbing. The Roanoke colonists responded by attacking a Croatoan village, a tribe that had—previously—been friendly to them. They did this, seemingly, because they could not tell the difference between the Croatoan and the Aguascogocs. Allies were turned into enemies, and life got a hell of a lot harder for the Roanoke colonists than it otherwise might have been. We’ll never know, of course, but the mistaken attack on the Croatoan tribe may well have been a fatal mistake.
Last weekend, protests erupted across the United States in response to the Executive Order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The ACLU immediately began legal proceedings to enact a stay on the order until its constitutionality could be assessed by the country’s judicial branch, and the Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, was fired for instructing the Justice Department not to defend the order. The administration claims that the ban (which they refer to as “extreme vetting”) is a reasonable safety measure, but critics have pointed out that none of the seven countries that were (initially) banned have produced extremist terrorists. By contrast, four countries that have produced extremist terrorists (including those responsible for the September 11th attacks) were not included.
As I read the breaking news and followed the various developments in the story, I couldn’t help but think of the tale of the Roanoke colonists and their inability to tell friend from foe, of their impulsive need for vengeance and what it might have cost them. We still, apparently, lack the ability to tell friend from foe, and if we can’t get that straight we might just disappear—seemingly without a trace.
The Protest Path Leads to the Airport
Speaking of the weekend protests, I noticed something interesting about them. Because of the nature of the executive order under protest, the majority of the demonstrations took place at airports across the nation. And they, like the Women’s March, remained peaceful. There’s a temptation on the part of white liberals (particularly those in the media) to imagine the reason for this peacefulness is the (white) people involved in the protests. I’m not convinced that’s the case, however. I’d like to offer an alternate hypothesis.
In an LA Times article on the protests at LAX, reporters noted how police officers negotiated with protestors to get them to unblock the roadways leading to departure and arrival curbs, eventually conceding protestors the right to block the roads for alternating and limited periods of time. This isn’t typical behavior on the part of the police. They did not negotiate with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. They have not negotiated with Black Lives Matter protesters. (They didn’t negotiate with the president of the NAACP who staged a sit-in at the office of Senator Jeff Sessions). But they did negotiate with the Ban protestors this weekend, and I am convinced those negotiations had nothing to do with the people involved and everything to do with the location of the protest.
An airport is always busy, and there are always people who are there who have to be. (And who can prove that they have to be there—who, in fact, are required to prove that they have to be there.) For that reason, the police cannot engage in escalation tactics. There’s simply too much of a possibly of doing collateral damage with exceptionally bad PR.
So clearly more protests need to happen in airports.
In Search of Common Ground
Economist Andrés Miguel Rondón, who grew up amid the upheaval of Venezuela’s populist movement and the rise of Hugo Chávez, recently wrote an article for the Washington Post in which he encourages American progressives to learn from Venezuela’s mistakes. He notes—most particularly—the sovereign importance of not playing into polarization, of resisting the siren song of outraged ethics and righteous contempt, and of seeking common ground.
Now, as anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I have been very angry since the election—and even angrier since the inauguration—and I haven’t been much for the concept of common ground. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the people you disagree with are people, rather than enemies. But a lot of the mess the US is in at the moment stems, in my opinion, from the inability of the average American conservative to understand that minorities agitating for rights and progressives pushing for social change are not their enemy. So the question is, putting aside the frustration and—yes—the moral high ground, how do we make that clear to them? How do we get them on our side?
Obviously, I’m not advocating for progressives to cast a blind eye on injustice. I’m not even advocating for progressives to empathize with prejudicial views and actions. What I am advocating for is a strategic change in the way we talk about the problems we face. I’m a big proponent of equity over equality, but there’s no getting around the fact that equity looks threatening to those of us in the majority, so we’re going to have to find a compromise that everyone can live with.
Final Thought: Reframing White Supremacy
One tactic for finding common ground that I’ve been thinking about is the reframing of white supremacy. White supremacy is well understood as a social structure that harms people of color. I think it needs to be better understood as a social structure that harms white people as well. Certainly, this is not a new concept (it has been discussed—far more eloquently than I will discuss it here—by more than one person), but it is, I think, a concept that lacks the mainstream currency it needs. In much the same way that patriarchy has come to be more broadly understood as toxic to men (and feminism as therefore a movement that seeks to help both men and women), white supremacy needs to be more broadly understood as toxic to white people (and anti-racism as therefore a movement that seeks to help both white people and people of color).
It’s frustrating that it isn’t enough that patriarchy and white supremacy are harmful to women and to people of color, that we have to make it readily understood how they are harmful to men and to white people as well if we want to get wide-spread traction—that we have to shift much needed focus away from issues that have lacked it to once-again discuss the problems of people who are always in the spotlight. But I believe that’s one of the things we have to do. We have to get the conversation to a place where those who disagree with us don’t begin and end the discourse with an eye roll. I wonder if we can. Or if we will. But I hope.