Mathew Duncan Ector: A Mostly Unremarkable Life of White Supremacy

Original work began November 2017

As memorials to Confederate figures and slavers continue to be removed from public and otherwise challenged, a common refrain is that by doing this, we’re forgetting our history or erasing it.

This is, of course,  disingenuous, but it reminded me how little I know about the namesake of Ector County: Mathew Duncan Ector. So I went looking.

I found that my home county is named after a Confederate general and Texas judge most notable for re-affirming anti-interracial marriage laws post-Reconstruction.

As part of the Southern effort to kill hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans in order continue keeping millions of fellow Americans in chattel slavery, Mathew Ector rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate army until he was wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, resulting in the amputation of part of his left leg. [link] [link]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most memorials and plaques to him are centered on his military actions, for example, the 1963 historical marker [link] placed in county seat Odessa, Texas:

Enlisted 1861. Lieutenant 3rd Texas Cavalry. Fought Arkansas, Missouri and Indian territory. As colonel led 14th Texas Cavalry Kentucky invasion. Made brigadier general 1862 to command famed Ector’s brigade in Tennessee and Mississippi battles. Wounded four times without leaving Chickamauga field. Under constant fire 70 days in Georgia. Lost leg in Atlanta 1864. Assigned to defense of Mobile, Alabama. A memorial to Texans who served the Confederacy erected by the state of Texas 1963,

A second marker [link], placed in 1964, refers to the creation of the county itself but includes the curious phrase “Outstanding Jurist”, which took some digging into.

Created February 26, 1887 from Tom Green County organized January 15, 1891, named in honor of Matthew Duncan Ector 1822-1879. Member of the Texas legislature a confederate officer and outstanding jurist Odessa, The County Seat.

(He spelled his name with only one “t”, after his mother’s father [link], but it shows up even on plaques with the more common spelling.)

The Texas State Historical Association has articles about Mathew Ector and about Ector’s Brigade [link][link], and those are about the most complete biographical information written about him, albeit highly simplified and often slipping into Confederate apologism.

Just after the Civil War, Ector won an election for district judge, but in 1867 the United States military government removed him from that position due to being a “Southern obstructionist”.

Ector had won his district judge election in 1866 before federal Republicans and an occupying military had successfully extended the franchise to Black men, so his first judgeship and removal occurred in the context of white resentment and violence toward formerly enslaved people [link]. Other than the 1866 election being illegitimate for that reason and, perhaps, lying about whether men sworn-in to serve on a jury actually had been Unionists during the war, I haven’t found a source to detail what he did during that year.

The specific phrase “Southern obstructionist” seems to come directly from a short chapter of flowery prose [link] from The Bench and Bar of Texas [link], written in 1885 by James Daniel Lynch [link], a Confederate private and later anti-Reconstruction writer [link].

Ector claimed not to be an obstructionist, of course. He wrote more than once to President Ulysses S. Grant, first to the then-general in 1866 for endorsement of a pardon regarding his part in the war, then Oct. 10, 1867, because the Union military generals in charge had removed him as an elected district judge on the basis of “Known Hostility to the General Government” [link].

But Ector claims:

I positively assert that since I have been upon the bench I have taken no part in politics and have had as little to say about such matters as possible.

Grant favored the pardon but had no opinion on restoring him as a district judge. Ector went back to private practice till 1874 when the state legislature removed his replacement, District Judge John B. Williamson. A known “impediment to reconstruction” Governor Richard Coke appointed Ector to fill it, so he was obviously considered by his peers to be a good, safe Southern legislator. As Southern revanchists reasserted their power in Texas, their new constitution in 1876 created the Texas Court of Appeals in an effort to get around the existing Texas Supreme Court and its anti-Confederate justices [link]. That structure remains to this day.

A challenge to pre-Civil War anti-miscegenation laws came to the Texas Court of Appeals in 1877, circumventing the Texas Supreme Court’s rulings that such laws violated the 14th and 15th amendments [link] [link].

In the decision of Charles Frasher v. the State of Texas, Presiding Judge Matthew Ector writes [link]:
Marriage is not a contract protected by the constitution of the United States or any of its amendments. It is a civil status under the control of the states, and the existence of the relation and the rights, obligations, and duties arising out of it are to be determined exclusively by state laws.
The provision of the Texas code making marriage of a white person to a negro an indictable offense is not repugnant to or avoided by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the constitution of the United States, or the legislation of Congress under them.
The fact that by the code the penalty is imposed on the white person only, does not make it obnoxious to the Civil Rights Bill. 

The opinion later quotes that exact Texas law, article 2016 of the Criminal Code passed in 1858 [link], stating that a white person couldn’t marry someone with a great-grandparent identified as Black, except on fear on imprisonment:

“If any white person shall, within this state, knowingly marry a negro, or a person of mixed blood, descended from negro ancestry to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor of each shall have been a white person, or having so married, in or out of the state, shall continue to within this state to cohabit with such negro, or such descendant of a negro, he or she shall be punished by confinement in the penitentary not less than two nor more than five years.”

In 1879, the Texas legislature explicitly extended the punishment to Black spouses as well now that the law had to regard them as people.

In her 2008 paper [link], University of Texas Professor Martha Menchaca [link] considered the Frasher opinion nationally notable and part of a general revanchist streak to undo Reconstruction:

This new legal conservatism coincided with political changes at the end of Reconstruction. In 1873, Texas Governor Coke, who opposed extending equal rights to Blacks, began replacing liberal state supreme court justices with conservatives (Richardson and Wallace, 1970: 224). Furthermore, conservatives took control of the legislature and in 1876 revised the state constitution to condone the segregation of Blacks. In 1877, the Texas Supreme Court heard Frasher v. The State and upheld the legislature’s right to preserve the division of the races. The decision was felt nationwide as it set a legal precedent protecting the states’ right to pass antimiscegenation laws immune from the jurisdiction of the 14th Amendment. The Court opined that the 14th Amendment did not apply to marriage because US Congress conferred on state legislatures the right to regulate marriage contracts in order to follow majority views. According to the court, if Christians in Texas by tradition have opposed the intermixture of the White and Black races, the legislature had the obligation to uphold this belief. Judge P. J. Ector offered the opinion of the Court:

In this state marriage is treated as a civil contract; but it is more than a civil contract. It is a public institution established by God himself, is recognized in all Christian and civilized nations, and is essential to the peace of happiness, and well-being of society . . . Civilized society has the power of self-preservation, and, marriage being the foundation of such society, most of the states in which the negro forms an element of any note have enacted laws inhibiting intermarriage between the white and black races. And the courts, as a general rule, have sustained the constitutionality of such statutes . . . It has always been the policy of this state to maintain separate marital relations between whites and the blacks. . . . If the people of other states desire to have an intermixture of the white and black races, they have the right to adopt such a policy. When the Legislature of this state shall declare such a policy by positive enactment, we will enforce it; until this is done, we will not give such a policy sanction.

Following the ruling, Frasher became the national precedent upholding the states’ right to regulate marriage and determine which races could intermarry (American Digest, 1902, 1949). State rights were to be upheld at all cost even if policies prevented people from marrying within their own ethnic group, or if the policies resulted in absurd practices such as prohibiting people from marrying anyone.

Otherwise, as presiding judge, I couldn’t find any especially laudable or even notable rulings up to his death in 1879 [link]. Then, there’s nothing until the county is named after him.

I’m not a scholar, so I’m limited to what work others have done or has been digitized. Ector’s first name is just as often given as “Matthew” instead of “Mathew”, plus almost all references that appear are for his part in the Civil War in a military capacity.

To a layperson like myself, other than, I suppose, some personal bravery for volunteering, fighting in multiple battles, and eventually losing a leg, he doesn’t seem especially notable in his military career considering there were literally hundreds of other Confederate brigadier generals and dozens of Texans [link].

Tom Green, Benjamin McCulloch, and H.B. Granberry had counties or cities named after them, too, but not Prince de Polignac, Sul Ross, or Richard Waterhouse.

Without access to the debate on HB 113 from Texas’ 20th Regular session [link], I can’t know what their stated criteria was. Someone could still do that in the future.

Looking at places where Ector pops up otherwise, there’s a reference to how he treated some enslaved people while administrator of his father’s estate prior to the Civil War [link].

Matthew D. Ector, as an administrator of the estate of Hugh W. Ector in Rusk County, placed three of his eight slaves ‘with the best carpenters the county could afford and this materially enhanced their value as skilled workmen.’

Ector’s father Hugh [link] seems to have died in 1835 [link], so Ector would have been 13 at the time. Rusk County is also in Texas, and if Ector was living there then, he had to get back to living in Georgia for passing the bar and his early adult career. It’s also possible the estate was in someone else’s hands till he came of age [link].

That the adminis on the estate of HUGH W ECTOR dec’d be premitted & authorized to keep the estate of said dec’d togather without division in joint common stock for the benefit of the family & heirs until the legal age or marriage of either or otherwise legally required—— and to continue to work the plantation, saw mill, balcksmith sop and carpenter at their discretion as they may think necessary.

By 1845, he’d been elected to the Georgia General Assembly as a House representative for Meriwether County [link], and other sources indicate he only served one biennial term through 1847. Although I was able to find several references to his father, I couldn’t find anything for Ector himself during this time as a Georgia House member [link].

After his first wife died in 1848, he moved to California then to Texas where he was a lawyer again but also a newspaper editor for the Henderson Democrat. He shows up in this period before the Civil War in regards to an 1860 a slave insurrection panic [link] that a fire had been intentionally set, perhaps as part of an abolitionist conspiracy [link].

Ector initially claimed he thought “negroes had but little to do with it”, but the “committee of vigilance” he was on ultimately recommended hanging at least three Black people and fretful Texans lynched at least one white person in direct relation to the panic [link].

Henderson, Aug. 7, 1860.
Judge Frazer:
You have before this learned the fate of our town. All from McDonough’s Hotel to Smither’s office, taking that entire block, and from Redwine’s store to Likens’s corner, running back to the Presbyterian Church, (which was saved,) is a scene of ruin and devastation; 10 stores, 2 drug stores, 8 or 10 law offices, 2 family groceries, &c., were consumed. There was a stiff South wind blowing at the time, and in two hours at most, every house which had caught burned down. The sparks reached out fully a half mile. Judge, it is a sad picture to visit the scene, where all but yesterday was life and energy, fine buildings and every evidence of thrift and prosperity, now burnt and crumbling walls, lonely chimneys, chared [sic] shade trees, and the rubbish, as is generally to be seen after such a calamity. Owing to the failure of crops, such a misfortune never could have found us so illy prepared to meet it in a pecuniary point of view. And when we consider it has not been the result of accident, but that it was fired beyond any sort of question by some fiend in human shape, who had only acted the part allotted him in all probability, in a common purpose, to set on fire our towns and perhaps to murder or poison our citizens, it has driven us to a state of desperation which can scarcely be conceived by one who has not witnessed it. All is alarm and excitement with our women and children. Our men are in arms. The most vigilant investigation is being had. The plot was so well conceived, the time of the night, a little excitement between two gentlemen had just occurred which attracted the crowd just as our citizens were assembling at Church, and before the guard started out, the fire was put in some shape into an old shop where there had been none for months. It was burning in every part of the house at once, and in less than five minutes it was on fire all over. As yet we have not been able to find out who it was that did it, whether white or black. No traces have been discovered. My own opinion is, that the negroes had but little to do with it. I have given you these particulars in haste. I will write again soon. I see no chance for us to have a Court. We can scarcely provide for those of our people left. I would like to hear from you and advise with you. Be on your guard, for you cannot tell how soon you will share the same fate with us.

Your friend,
M. D. Ector.

With the tail-end of that panic coinciding with the 1860 election and slipping quickly into the American Civil War, we’re back up to his military service.

If I gloss over that, it’s only because, again, I don’t care much about the particulars what the moral equivalent of child rapists did in their war to defend systemic child rape.

Timeline in Confederate Gazette [link]

  • 1822: Born in Georgia
  • 1844: Passes Georgia Bar
  • 1846-47: Served one term in Georgia General Assembly as representative from Meriwether County
  • 1850: Settled in Texas by way of California after wife’s death in 1848 (married 1842)
  • 1851: Passes Texas bar
  • 1855: Elected to Texas House
  • 1859: Second wife dies
  • 1860: He is listed in the 1860 U.S. census as having $29,000 in property and enslaving 20 people; only 1860 Census I’ve found (for Rusk County) says 4,000 real value and 2,500 personal value [link]
  • 1861-1865: American Civil War
  • 1867: Wrote to President Grant, claimed to be apolitical and loyal to government [link]
  • 1874: Becomes district judge again. Rules in favor or railroad companies’ fraudulent election where they paid fees for special bond [link]
  • 1876: Elected to Texas Court of Appeals.
  • 1879: Dies
  • 1887: House bill 113 of 20th Regular Session Texas legislature passes, dividing western Tom Green county into six new counties. [link]


John T Reagan, with a nearby county [link] and elementary [link] in Ector County Independent School District named after him had this to say: [paper] [source] [full text]

‘Reagan described “the four million negroes in bondage in this country … better fed better clothed, better protected from violence and wrong. better informed. more intelligent. ” than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. To free the Negro would be to destroy that ideal state. Besides, Reagan added, he found Negroes so incapable of self-government and survival that if emancipated “they would fall into such habits of idleness and vice and licentiousness as would render it necessary, for the security of society, to exterminate the greater portion of the race. ” ‘


Continue reading “Mathew Duncan Ector: A Mostly Unremarkable Life of White Supremacy”

What “Defund the police” really means

Police officers in riot gear and national guard shrouded in tear gas and smoke backlit by floodlights outside of Seattle Police Department East Precinct

Our police department, as we have seen last night and the night before, and the night before that, is using weapons of war on our own residents.

I heard reports last night of people being three stories up and not being able to breathe because of the gas. Last week we heard the story of the 3-month-old baby who was foaming at the mouth. We heard other stories subsequently of a 6-month-old baby sitting in the hallway with its parents trying to get fresh air.

These are stories that we must respond to, and we also have to recognize that we have a budget that allows us to maintain controls over this effort.

Source: Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda per KUOW

“I did not make up with the demand of 50 percent defunding of the police, that came from the community. … Any politician, whether they are in Minneapolis or Seattle who is telling you that police can be dismantled under capitalism is bullshitting you.”

Source: Councilmember Kshama Sawant per Periscope

There are inherent limitations of political imagination once you’re in office, but given the councilmembers’ own experiences on the barricades, their words, and their reasoning, it’s difficult to see how half-funding such an organization as they describe should be looked at as a positive result.

There hasn’t been a budget cut to the department since 2000, so I’m not sure what prior year a 50 percent reduction would take Seattle back to, but it’s likely that law enforcement was being brutal and predatory toward its most vulnerable residents at the equivalent funding level in 1999 or 1990 as well. “Defund” is not sophistry; it’s a demand because the status quo is radical and harmful to the people America has always despised.

I was not at any protests while people were being actively assaulted by the police’s chemical weapons, explosives, or maiming projectiles, but I have close friends who were, and I was observing via the livestreams of ground witnesses and upper-story neighbors as police committed those assaults. I was trying to help get information to people there about where was safest to regroup amid the explosions or to find a medical station that hadn’t been overrun and destroyed and experiencing terror for them in real time.

When I hear that the goal is fund police a bit less, it sounds something like I imagine it would to a Cold War-era East German hearing that the Stasi budget was getting slashed.

If in our own communities, a budget cut means we have fewer secret police—that is, undercover cops and armored officers covering their badges—on the streets, that is an improvement, but it’s not a victory. Having half as much poison gas that’s been banned in warfare to use on unarmed people in the community still means there’s plenty of poison gas to use on unarmed people in the community. Plus, bullets are still relatively cheap and so are truncheons.

Source: Teresa Mosqueda via The Urbanist

The most lawless things I’ve seen in Seattle in my time here have not been people unable to afford permanent shelter who sleep outside but the behavior of a bunch of (mostly) men, incredibly well-equipped, hiding their identities as they attack regular people for continuing to stand with umbrellas because those people not disperse when the armed and armored men said so. Yet if there had not been dozens of cameras and thousands of eyes on them, they wouldn’t have been on what was apparently their best behavior. One or two officers alone with one unarmed protester, those cops would have likely genuinely feared for their lives and used that as justification to brutalize that person or even kill them. And that’s not a hyperbole.


My union, SEIU 925, is having members forced to take furloughs due to a drop in revenue by UW Medicine. This is after being called “heroes” but being continuously underfunded and provided insufficient resources of personal protection during a pandemic.

It makes me sick to see what material resources and salaries these cowards in the Seattle Police Department have been given to misuse when the tool they actually need is respect for other residents of this city as equals.

I don’t think they’re capable of that, which is why they must be defunded and that money given to other organizations that actually make people safe from the violence of eviction, of not being able to afford insulin any longer, or of sleeping on the side of a highway in the rain because the hotel you can see from there that lights up “BLM” on the side doesn’t want to turn its vacant units into shelter for free and the government won’t force them.

King County General Fund

I want to fund public safety, not exploding canisters. Which means, at the county level, I want to fund room, board, and medical care for people whenever they need it, not just when they’ve been arrested and sent to jail to be held against their will. Seattle police make for an easy villain because of their union, their fragility (they really tried to claim that reflecting their own floodlights back at officers with foil was a provocation), and their visibility in the city, but this is a much wider problem and Democrats everywhere are going to have to make choices about what rhetoric they’ve always meant on principle and what rhetoric was convenient to get them in office.

If someone told you two weeks ago Seattle police would abandon their Capitol Hill precinct entirely and leftists would be booing Councilmember Sawant for only promising to cut the police budget in half, you would have scoffed and called it ridiculous. So would I have. None of us should scoff now at literally defunding the police or first start looking for a way to compromise.

One more thing: A week and a half of people in the streets unwilling to compromise on the fundamental humanity of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color has done more to combat police militarization and their unaccountable violence than 30 years of Democratic governance, female, male, Black, white, gay, and lesbian.

Therefore, I support the protesters the way some people support the troops: I will not parse it between “good” and “bad” or “peaceful” and “looters”.

Demolitions are destructive, too. Dismantling the viaduct was destructive, too. If what we’re trying to construct is a better place where people are not executed for being deaf in one ear while woodcarving or executed for needing help during a mental breakdown while pregnant or abducted off the street for walking with a golf club as a cane, then we should count some broken windows and expropriated material from a department store as the controlled demolition necessary to get people’s attention where repetitive human suffering could not.

People literally risked their lives in the hope that a rubber bullet aimed in malice wouldn’t cave in their head or that panicking officers wouldn’t switch to live ammo to mow down a crowd holding rainbow umbrellas. In another week, people from those crowds and their loved ones will literally start to die from COVID-19, and they’ll die because they demanded their police not be equipped for war and allowed to kill them.

There is nothing unreasonable, immature, or impractical about being unwilling to accept half-measures for a cause so worthy that you risked so much for, and they’ll remember us for how we treat them and their concerns forever.

BOOK REVIEW: With “No One at the Wheel”, the rich can steal the roads from us—if we let them

Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be the most disruptive technology to hit society worldwide since the advent of the motorcar.

This pronouncement by the team of journalist Karen Kelly and former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz is the sort of boilerplate futurism you’ll find written about any new technology.

Likewise, the very next statement could almost be chalked up to typical hyperbole: “Some futurists and policy experts even talk about driving being banned on some or all roads.”

What sets No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future apart from that sort of replacement-level schlock isn’t where it looks forward, then, but for how it looks backward to show how a similar process already happened.

A century ago, the original grand theft auto was letting the car industry steal the roads from pedestrians and non-motorized traffic. Soon, driverless industries will be in a position to take the roads from the public entirely.

But only if we let them.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: With “No One at the Wheel”, the rich can steal the roads from us—if we let them”

Lecture: How Was Whiteness Invented?

“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no white people there, nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another 60 years.”

That is the summarizing statement and the big takeaway from Ted W Allen’s two-volume work called “The Invention of the White Race.”

That does not mean that people looked differently. There were English people that were there, there were people that might look like some of us in this room, but they did not consider themselves to be white in 1619.

And this talk is going to go through how whiteness was invented in the 17th century. And so from the early 1600s, that idea does not exist yet. By the end of
that century, it does.

I’m going to talk about three people that sort of represent how being someone of African descent changed from being someone that was a little lower in status but able to achieve parity, to their being a complete divide between people who would be considered Black—or in these terms Negro would be the term, right? And then the invention of whiteness as a thing.

Then I’m going to tell you about one of the major incidents that seems to have
caused that. It’s called “Bacon’s Rebellion” and ultimately I’m going talk about sort of the justifications that happened after the invention of whiteness to try to make it a real or scientific thing and how those really didn’t hold up especially in the 20th century and into today.

So the first person I want to talk about is a man named “Anthony Johnson”. He arrived in Virginia in 1621. So as many of you probably know, the first African enslaved people arrived in Virginia in 1619, and they showed up in Jamestown. Jamestown was found in 1607, but these people that were forcibly brought there, they got there before the Pilgrims so the pilgrims are central to our national myth, but they don’t found Plymouth until 1620.

Anthony Johnson was captured by an enemy nation in what’s now Angola, he was sold to a merchant working for the Virginia Company, but he was sold as an indentured servant. And this is something that’s pretty important about the early period of American colonization because, if y’all remember the current governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam he got into lots of trouble because apparently he either dressed up in blackface or as a KKK member in college. And then tried to explain that and had to be coaxed out of moonwalking, and then he did an interview, and he referred to the first Africans who came to Virginia as being an indentured servants, and the interviewer corrected him instead slaves and that is somewhat true, but in case of Anthony Johnson, he actually was able to work his way out of forced indentured servitude. So he’s able to engage and marry another indentured woman, whose name was also “Mary”. And by 1647 he is definitely completely free he is able to purchase cattle. By 1651, he acquires 250 acres of land, and he also has five hundred servants. Of those five, only one of them is of African descent. So in this early period, statuses are a little more fungible.

Between 1653 and 1655, Johnson is involved in lawsuit with a man named Robert Parker and it’s over a person whose name is John Casor.

So in this lawsuit, we have Johnson described as a “free Negro”, and Casor is an indentured servant who claims that he’s being held illegally because his time, his contract, is up, and Johnson’s holding it too long. Johnson first loses the suit, so Casor is going to be able to go freely, but then on appeal Johnson wins the case and Casor is declared to be a slave for life. This is very new because he’s not accused of doing anything wrong. There’s no crime. But as of 1655, he is going to be held as property, basically for the rest of his life. And what this change represents is that Casor viewed himself as part of a client-patron relationship, so he thought he was a client of Johnson, so he was going to go become a client of Parker. But Johnson’s argument was that, no, this is his property, he’s not somebody that can make that change.

Remember that Johnson is what we would not describe as Black, so he’s able to own property and do these things. He wins this case but there is obviously some discrimination there against him.

In 1657, someone forges a letter supposedly by Johnson—who is illiterate—saying that Johnson owes that guy 100 acres. Johnson doesn’t fight this. He gives the 100 acres to pay off that debt, and by 1670 when Johnson dies he’s going to try and leave 50 acres of what is still his land to his son, but a jury of men of European descent—this is 1670—they determined that the colony can seize those 50 acres rather than allowing Johnson to give it to his son because the son was “a Negro by and by consequence an alien.”

So Mary Johnson still survives, she is able to give some cattle to her grandsons. In 1677, one of those grandsons is able to buy 44 acres of land, but by 1730, this whole family is out, and disappear.

So over the course of his life, Anthony Johnson goes from being forced into indentured servitude, getting status and becoming someone who is a cornerstone of the community. In 1653 there’s a fire that burns their house and lands, and the legislature says actually we won’t make these people pay any taxes because were such find, upstanding residents. Within a few decades, they’re gone.

So Anthony Johnson is part of one of the first cases of associating African descent and perpetual slavery for no crime. He’s part of that case, but even before that we have a man named John Punch.

In 1640 John Punch is an indentured African servant. He ran away together with a Dutch and with a Scottish indentured servant, and they wanted to get out of Virginia and go to Maryland. When they all get caught, they’re all given 30 lashes, but the Dutch and Scottish ones, they just have a couple more years added on to their period of servitude. Whereas Punch, he is sentenced to “serve his set master for the time of his natural life, here or elsewhere.” So already, we don’t have a conception of “race” yet, but they are making these distinctions between people of African descent and people of European descent.

The third person I want to tell you about is Elizabeth Key. She was born in Virginia in 1632 she was born in what will become United States. Her father is a British man who serves in the Virginia House of Burgesses. That is the colonial legislature. But her mother is an enslaved African woman. Key’s father, once he dies when she’s 6 years old, she then goes with the home of a godfather who is supposed to take care of her. So she is going to be an indentured servant for this man who’s gonna help her till she gets to the age of adulthood.

Instead he sells her to a judge who considers her to be a permanent slave. Now, Key goes with her common-law husband, and they sue saying she’s being enslaved wrongfully. So her argument is first that under English common law, you take the status of your father. Her father was a free man, he was an important politician, therefore, she should be free. But secondly, they have her certificate of baptism. She’s a member of the Church of England, and they cannot enslave Christians. So it seems like pretty open-and-shut case. She wins, and she’s able to win her freedom or acknowledging freedom of herself.

So that’s 1656, and the legislature goes: “So by law she’s right. I guess we need to change the law.” In 1662, they pass the law that says in the colonies, people are going to take the status of their mother, and the justification for this, at this point—this is 1662—is that Africans are not subject to British law because they are not British. They’re African. So we have like different laws for people from foreign nations, basically.

But this also has the very obviously self-interested effect of allowing people who own people to profit by sexual assaults and have more property. But as late as 1656, you were still able to transition from one state to another.

So Bacon’s Rebellion is what is pointed to as a central event in early American colonial history. It’s 1676, because Ted W. Allen, the guy who wrote “The Invention the White Race”, he traces—how especially in England—the status of peasants had actually been getting better throughout the late medieval period, they had gotten more rights for themselves. But then with enclosures, the ruling class started enclosing lands off from the commons. And they want to do that because it was worth more to have sheep graze on it which you can turn into wool and sell somewhere else. Before, the people working the land could make food ourselves. The effect of this is that you push a bunch of people off the land, they could not grow from food anymore, they had to rely on wages which didn’t pay very well.

So a lot of them were either involuntarily or being coerced or just not having better options than selling themselves into indentured servitude, going to the colonies, and hoping for some kind of better life.

Early on they are also paid wages. Allen shows that it was pretty rare for someone to be in an indentured servant and not also make money because that would be a punishment. But as the 17th century goes on, it starts to resemble more and more we would recognize this chattel slavery. You didn’t have rights, you could be beaten, those sort of things.

In addition to that, mortality rates are very high in the colonies. People are dying of diseases a lot, and also starvation. Because the Virginia Company is an explicitly capitalist enterprise. You should make the most money. That means you should export tobacco because that makes the most money. Unfortunately, you’re not growing your own food, so they were often very close to starvation. There was also an economic crash, so things were not very good.

In addition to this the American Indian nations by the time we’re still very numerous and powerful. In fact, up in New England, it’s called King Philip’s War. It was the leader of Metacomet. He had a confederation that was going to wipe out all of the English colonies. He nearly succeeded but didn’t quite. In Virginia, it wasn’t quite that bad, but there were groups that were raiding them, too.

So there’s a guy, his name is Nathaniel Bacon, and Bacon, he really wants to go retaliate against the groups that are attacking them but also just wipe them out so that he can take over their land. His argument is that, “We don’t have enough land here; we should get more of it then we can have more land and be richer.” But he is in disagreement with the governor of Virginia at that time, William Berkeley. Bacon is able to unite the indentured servants of European descent, the servants of African descent, and the enslaved slave people, who at this point are all of African descent.

And it says something I guess about us and our history that the only thing that really has ever united people is trying to wipe out another group, but that is what got them all together. Then they turned on Berkeley in the House of Burgesses, and the colonial powers they burned down Jamestown. They were nearly successful at overthrowing this whole system, then Bacon got fever, he died, and their rebellion falls apart.

This scared the heck out of the land-owning people because they saw all of these poor people together, and there’s always way more poor people than rich people. They saw them working together and the rich people recognized they needed to do something to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.

So we’re talking about the invention of whiteness. It is pretty late. The adjective “white” for a person does not go back any earlier than 1671 in English, but it starts to get codified into the law more and more. At the same time that you were taking freedoms away from people of African descent, you were starting to bribe the other poor people by giving them a status of whiteness—that they could one day own property, they could one day become a high status person. They got a few more protections, but as an example, in 1680, there is a law that is again aimed as enslaved people, and it says if “any Negroe”—and for some reason they spelled with an e at the end—”or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any Christian”, they’ll be lashed.

So in 1680, it is said that there are enslaved people and there Christians: that’s the status. But it should be pretty obvious why this needs to change. Because if I can just say, “You know, I believe in Jesus now. I want to join the Church of England,” I can now leave this status. It’s not permanent. You can’t keep doing it. But if you based slavery on something else that is permanent, then it can stay forever.

By 1691, the first laws that mention this, they’re about intermarriage. They define all these people that are not supposed to be able to intermarry with “English or other white women”. By the end of the 17th century, we have defined whiteness, and whiteness is people of European descent. If you are not one of those people, you can never be. And if you have any the, phrase they use is “admixture” the origin of the one-drop rule, you’re not white.

They did make an exception though because do you remember the story of Pocahontas? She married and had children with John Rolfe. They became wealthy landowners, and so the laws did go out of their way to say that these people that were claiming Pocahontas as an ancestor, they still had whiteness. Everybody else didn’t, but this family did, and so they managed to carve whiteness out for them.

Throughout the 1700s, throughout the 1800s, there starts to be more and more laws making this divide wider. Things are not really getting that much better for the poor people that we would now call white. Their conditions weren’t improving, they were still pretty bad, but they even bought off and bribed to consider themselves aligned with rich planters instead of the other people who were a more similar status.

But it’s not enough to just have a status that makes you superior to somebody else. You can’t just enjoy oppression because that makes you kind of feel bad, and so starting in the mid 1700s, we have Carl Linnaeus. He’s only gave us the Linnaean system of biology. So of course, you also classify humans. He said there were Europeans, Americans, Africans, and Asians. Of course, who’s going to get the top? It’s Europeans.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1795, he coined the term Caucasian. If you’ve ever wondered why that term exists, he just liked them. He thought that’s the original race, was Caucasians, and he thought they were the prettiest. That’s why we have the term Caucasian.

Samuel George Morton in the mid-1800s, he is not the only one to do this, but he would be most enthusiastic: he’d like to measure skulls. He just paid people to bring him skulls from all of the world. He measured them, he said this is the slope here, this is the size, and wouldn’t you know it? He found out that people who look like him were the smartest and best and should be in charge.

So this is not a surprise, but everything from religious justifications to science is called polygenism. So there were people who were religious who said, “Yeah I know that God made Adam and Eve, but maybe He also made some other people, and the other people are worse and bad and we should slay them.” And you have scientific people who took Darwin’s theory of natural selection and said, “Well, I mean that’s natural selection, and also social Darwinism, and yeah we’re at the top now. So we deserve it. I am benefiting from this and it’s deserved.”

So it doesn’t really matter what the justification is, you’ll find something that justifies your power and oppression and then try to make it scientific. You will still see people try to do this even with things like the human genome projects. In terms of actual biology, this should be well known by now. There are more differences within any group than between any groups. Sometimes people will say, “But what about sickle cell anemia?” And it is true that people who live in that band around the equator, they are likely to get malaria, so there’s an advantage to having sickle cell because it stops the spread malaria. But that is not relevant in a racial category that has been defined. The one I think that is the most commonly used, even today, is just as recent as the the 1940s. These terms are bad: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. Complete arbitrary. That should be obvious. But it’s also not really any sooner than the 1940s because some people have said there’s four races, there’s five. Whatever. This has been a part of American history.

In 1790, the Naturalization Act said they were allowing immigrants to naturalize who were “free white persons of good character”. I don’t know how they define a good character, but whiteness was right there. If y’all weren’t aware of this, immigration is a matter of debate people talk about now, but for about the first 100 years of American history, we just didn’t have an immigration policy. Beyond that anybody was allowed to come in. Then for the next 40 years after that, our only immigration policy was no Chinese people, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Before 1882, anyone of any race had come in, and some couldn’t be a naturalized citizen, but there wasn’t any real attempt to stop anybody from coming. It was only in the late 1880s as we started having more Chinese immigration that we said said, “Well, not those people. And if they leave, also they can’t come back.” So there were also no quotas before that I’m aware of prior, although some came later to target other East Asian groups, such as the Japanese.

In the twentieth century, 1924 is the big year for immigration restrictions. It was based on census levels from 1890. Basically, they said, “We only have this many Italians that we want to come in. We want more English people to come in.” That sort of thing. By the way, there are other forms of discrimination that exist. I’m gonna talk about those a little bit, but this is about whiteness.

Early on it was a little easier, and in the South they’ve tried to keep it this way or act like there are just two groups: that’s it. But in the early 1900s, the Naturalization Act of 1906 says “free white persons” are able to naturalize and also “persons of African nativity or African descent.” So they can naturalize along with whites. But this opens up a lot of questions because there was a lot of other people that are not those two things. In America, everyone wanted to achieve the status of whiteness because that was where power was.

The very first case that I was able to find about this was 1909, and it was Armenians. So Armenians are literally Caucasian. They were in danger of being deported, though, because they weren’t exactly white. They managed to win that case and, actually I was looking this because it’s like an old New York Times article. This is kind of blew my mind. It was a judge, and his arguments that, “I guess the Armenians can stay” is Judge Lowell also held that

“Congress may amend the statutes to provide more specifically what persons may be admitted to citizenship but until that is done and the definition of a white person is clearly set forth, the circuit court will not deny any citizenship to aliens on account of color.”

There’s some other nasty terms in here. “In his decision, Judge Lowell stated the government attempted to classify”—this next term is “Asiatics”—”having already made no objection to Hebrews”. So his argument was literally that like, “If we cannot keep Jewish people out, I guess we can’t keep Armenians out either.” So they got to join whiteness.

Not everybody did though. In 1922 Takeo Ozawa, he’s a Japanese American, he had lived in the US for 20 years, and he argued he ought to be considered white. Why? Because if he didn’t go out in the Sun, he was pretty pale. He argued a lot of things about Japanese culture been great his report though held that however “pale” Ozawa was he wasn’t “white” under the definition like Caucasian. So yes, you literally do get pale when not in the Sun, but that’s not we’re talking about here.

Another person that tried to have run of it was man named Bhagat Singh Thind. He was an Indian Sikh man. He immigrated United States and tried in 1923 to argue that he was his term, “a high-caste Aryan of full Indian blood”, and this time the court said that wellm true by like the scientific definitions that thety’re using that would be correct. But under the common or standing, you are not white, so you don’t get that privilege. Which obviously very arbitrary. It’s really arbitrary because it changes with time. In the South under segregation, in some areas people of Chinese descent were able to go to the all-white schools. They were not like forced to go to the segregated black schools. In 1930, the U.S. Census for the first time differentiated “whites” and this is the term “Mexicans”. So up till that point, and now we say there’s Non-Hispanic white and Hispanic white and so forth.

The thing about are you white or are you Mexican is that the 1930s was when we forced “repatriation” where about 500,000 people were forced to go to Mexico, even if they were not ever born there and didn’t speak any Spanish, because there’s a great depression we wanted to get people we did not consider being white out of the country.

Also, in 1915 there was a man named George Dow. He was a Syrian American and he did win his case, so for that purpose Levantine (Christian) Arabs were considered white, but not other Arabs. So if you’re North African (Muslim) Arab you do not count as white until 1943.

So this should all be very clearly not a thing that is based anything that is substantively real, but it has real effects. Whiteness has very real effects on what you are able to do in society and what privileges you have. The fact that all of these different groups wanted to get the status of whiteness for themselves should be pretty clear because if you have a status of something else, you’re gonna face massive discrimination in almost every aspect of your life.

A lot of times people will hear this sort of thing and bring up, “Yeah but weren’t the Irish also discriminated? Or ike “Mike my great-great-grandfather was Italian and they called him names, all these things.” And that is true that other European groups experienced racism right but they experienced races for being the wrong kind of white right they were not legally barred from things in the same way that people who were considered to be Black, who were considered to be Chinese, for example, were barred from certain things. That’s why whiteness is this thing that doesn’t make any sense except as power.

Whiteness has been able to expand and contract and grab the people to help maintain itself, to maintain white supremacy, because it really just wants to keep the status quo. And if we say now that “this is the most diverse time in American history”, that’s kind of true but also there have been past times we could consider a diverse accepting we look back, and now say that all of those people were white, all of those people were part of this caste, and I think it’s really important to be aware of what whiteness is and means. It is not that you cannot have genocide or you can’t have slavery without a concept of race. Romans did it. They were really nasty and brutal, and they didn’t need racism for that.

But in American society, the way that we are structured is based on this, for lack of a better term, technology having all of us be convinced that if we are white then we’re in it together against those other people. They’re more dangerous because they’re trying to come in and take our things. That was the original reason that it was invented in the late 1600s, and even though it has changed a lot in terms of how expresses itself, and who includes it and who it excludes, that is a thing that is still very much a part of our society and if you are someone that benefits from being white, it’s not just enough to feel bad. “Well I look at history and go wow that was really bad those things that those people did.” You have to, in a very direct way andmore than just personal behavior way acts to change that because racism—

the fact it’s the fact this lasted so long it’s kind of depressing right but at the same time it doesn’t have to exist right we invented it we can not have it we can actually get rid of it. We have the ability if we try real real hard we can’t undo 400 years of this invention.

BOOK REVIEW: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me

“The rich are different from you and me.”

“Yes, they have more money.”

No exchange like that between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ever took place, but it’s a lot more fun to imagine that it did. The initially curt put-down contains within it the germ of a much more intense concurrence the more you think about it.

Unscaled by Hemant Taneja, or “How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future” manages to embody both readings of that exchange.

The multimillionaire venture capitalist’s book often reads like a literal vanity-press product, talking of its subjects as an excuse to brag about all of the occasions Taneja’s investments thus far have paid off. That includes investments you’ve heard of like the temporary-messages app Snapchat as well as those you probably haven’t, like the “consumer digital health company“, Livongo.

In that way, the experience of reading Unscaled is very much like anyone who’s ever been cornered at a house party by someone you’ve just met, quite sure everything they do will be as interesting for you to hear as it clearly is for them to recount.

But, the rich are different from you and me, and what interests Taneja versus what does not is almost like reading an alien species talk about the implications of technology for the future.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: In the future of “Unscaled”, AI will keep the rich different from you and me”

We let things get worse instead of making sure they’d get better

‘Screw Attack’ by Allie Merritt (@alliearts)

In the original Metroid for NES in 1986, the instruction manual referred to Samus Aran with male pronouns and (charitably) Samus wore a bikini only to make it inarguably clear the character wasn’t a man considering the hardware’s limitations in pixel count.

In the NES game, Samus had green hairbrown hair, yes, blonde, but neon, too, and the Nintendo Power comic for Super Metroid made the hair purple, as well as famously establishing a body size of 6′3″, 198 pounds (190 cm, 98 kg).

Subsequent to that, Nintendo decided to have a more standardized portrayal of Samus outside of the suit, which is blonde and blue- or green-eyed, and they released Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion simultaneously in 2002. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s limiting compared to the other options that existed when Samus could be many different things.

After Metroid: Zero Mission in 2004, Samus started down a road of bimbo-ification, for lack of a better term. The games with more explicit plot and characterization tended to follow Japanese stock tropes of magical superheroine, while in the West, the focus on a skin-tight flight suit had predictable results. Heels and generous breasts, hair that became more ornate even in situations where it would seem unlikely that was suitable.

Between the Smash Bros games and Metroid: Other M, a character that had been different, flexible in interpretation, a sci-fi action star with agency and presence, and notable for all these things, turned into another sex object whose feminity was only highlighted in service of being desired or desiring babies. ‘Smash Bros’ tells you a lot about the intended gaze, and MOM the game is ‘doesn’t look like anything to me’ bad in the choices it made.

Maybe it’s just rose-colored glasses, but I swear Samus didn’t use to be the subject of quite so much tentacle-based sexual assault in the past.

So I don’t think the ‘Screw Attack’ portrayal is definitive or should be the only interpretation of the character that exists, but I deeply miss the time, especially between 1994 and 2002, when Samus was more likely to be seen doing something in their suit than out of it, and, while out of it, they could look like nearly anything and anyone’s idea of them could be valid. Somehow, this actually made the character less interchangeable instead of more.

The past 15 years or so for gaming culture have in many ways been a regression when, for some reason, I expected progress instead. But I guess that’s true of a lot of other things in the culture, generally.

The curious logic of Professor Adam Carroll

Last week, Indiana University School of Medicine professor Adam Carroll filed a piece for the New York Times with a provocative premise. Titled Preventive care saves money? Sorry, it’s too good to be true, it argued that investing in preventative care doesn’t actually yield savings. Here’s its opening and closing: Continue reading “The curious logic of Professor Adam Carroll”

Mark Jackson, “That Man”, and Hitler — how an 85-year-old meme got new life in the NBA

Summary: NBA commentator Mark Jackson’s signature phrase is an old American joke about children not recognizing their father that became so widely popular in the 1930s it crossed the Atlantic and was used derisively of Adolf Hitler prior to WWII.

Full explanation: Mark Jackson’s “Mama, there goes that man (again)” is most closely associated with Kobe Bryant highlights from a decade ago, but Jackson has subsequently used it in his post-coaching announcing career as an acknowledged catchphrase for LeBron James and Kevin Durant, among others, and it pops up occasionally now in other sports.

Ever since Jackson started doing it on nationally televised NBA games, people have been asking “What’s the deal with Mark Jackson saying that?”

A popular answer on the Internet is that Steve Harvey had been using the phrase in his standup in the early 2000s and Jackson took it from that. While that may be the most immediate provenance, I’m not familiar enough with his comedy to recall it, and other than references to Mark Jackson, I couldn’t find evidence of that claim online.

What’s more likely is that he picked it up from a grandparent or great-grandparent, and that’s because “That Man” was an incredibly popular, international meme in the 1930s and early ’40s that all-but-evaporated in the meantime.

This is illustrated by the title of a former BBC show that generated quite a few catchphrases of its own during its run: “It’s That Man Again”. The radio program supposedly got its name from a common practice of the Daily Express newspaper calling Adolf Hitler “that man” in its headlines in 1939. I haven’t been able to find any of those headlines directly, but it’s widely cited and the explanation the creators gave for their choice in title, intending for it to be topical.

You might be fooled, then, into thinking the original meaning is referencing literal, historical Hitler. But to my knowledge, Jackson has never used it for a James Harden highlight, and the phrase was already ubiquitous when the Nazis came to power.

By 1934, it was popular enough that there was already a song called “That Man Is Here Again” by Cab Calloway, and a sort of common reference is made to it in the film “The Thin Man”, also released in 1934.

For a fuller explanation, skip to 16:45 of this episode of Lexicon Valley by John McWhorter as he goes into it and how it was a pervasive joke that made it into all movies and such around that era.

There was a joke and the joke was that a husband and father is away so much that when he comes home his child says, “Mommy, that man is here again.” For some reason that was considered hilarious.

A Dictionary of Catch Phrases” by Eric Partridge takes a more cynical view:

‘The joke-reference had to do with the basic situation of mummy’s boy friend being innocently identified by a child—”Mummy, it’s that man again”—as once more he comes calling while daddy is out’ (Wedgewood, 1977). But then Shipley writes, ‘My recollection [of “Mummy, it’s…, in the US] is that it began not as a story or a joke, but as a caption to a cartoon’—which he cautiously dates as belonging to the early 1930s.

Which also means Alex from Yahoo! answers actually had their shit together years ago, unlike apparently everyone else on the Internet. Well, except for one self-published racist hack, surprisingly.

So there you have it! When Mark Jackson is saying “Mama, there goes that man!” to punctuate a dunk, he’s ultimately referencing an, at a minimum, 85-year-old joke about absent fathers or cuckoldry. Either way, the player in question is a real motherfucker, which lines up pretty well with how the phrase is used today.

Sports facilities, mass transit, and desegregation

St. Louis will never have an NBA team again. We literally have no basketball culture here.

There are more parks with hoops in the middle of Missouri than there is in all of the parks in St. Louis.

By design. I had a hard time finding a basketball court whenever I lived there. They have tennis courts, golf, and baseball diamonds in forest park but not one basketball court which probably has the smallest footprint of any the mentioned sports… well maybe not tennis.

Our city is actually divided into St. Louis County and St. Louis City. Suburbs are totally normal, but I’ve never have been to a city that is literally divided into a County and a City.

So much so that we don’t have a proper metro system because people in the county don’t want crime in the city brought to their suburbs.

Media likes to portray St. Louis as a crime ridden city, but the real problem is this city just seems barren. I’ve been to a few major cities in the last year, and their downtowns are thriving on random Tuesday nights. We just don’t have that here.

There’s a parallel in mass transit to what happened with community swimming pools.

A lot of racist jokes exist about black Americans not knowing how to swim, but it has a basis in fact, and it’s not a coincidence. Children weren’t allowed to swim in segregated community pools then once the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional, cities and counties decided to shut them all down or make them private, or make it so that only people who were wealthy enough to have their own backyard pools could swim.

I don’t think you can underestimate how much racism plays in even to something like opposition to mass transit. All transportation is public transportation, but everyone can use mass transit to get around a city or region. Without it, there’s a barrier for travel put up so that only people who can afford cars, including registration, maintenance, gas, and parking, get the benefit of roads. Which means you have to be even more wealthy already if you want to live in the suburbs and work in the city. It’s an invisible wall for the gated communities out there.

Not every place is dense enough for mass transit to make sense, but I’d argue the largest reason American cities lack the sort of infrastructure cities in European and Asian countries have is that everyone gets to benefit from mass transit, and that’s exactly what people who benefit from racist inequality don’t want.

To take it back to sports directly, but in a less well-thought-out way, this is the major motivation behind moving stadiums and arenas out to less-accessible suburbs like the Atlanta Braves did. They were trying to solve the ‘problem’ the Hawks have of black people attending their games and wanted to go to a place where it was less accessible to MARTA, with both versions of the acronym being appropriate.

Likewise, I think Seattle as a predominantly white city is a major factor in mass transit and stadiums that are downtown and easy to get to via that mass transit.

Texas named its counties for a lot of horrible people. Mathew Ector is one of them

As memorials to slavers and other Confederate heroes have been removed from public and otherwise challenged in recent months, a common complaint is that, by doing this, we’re forgetting our history or erasing it.

In my home county, we still have the historical marker its namesake:

Created February 26, 1887 from Tom Green County organized January 15, 1891, named in honor of Matthew Duncan Ector 1822-1879. Member of the Texas legislature a confederate officer and outstanding jurist Odessa, The County Seat.

Indeed, Ector (his first name was actually spelled Mathew) was a Confederate brigadier general and later a Texas high court judge. As a jurist, he’s most notable for re-affirming racist marriage laws after Reconstruction.

In 1878’s Charles Frasher v. the State of Texas, presiding judge Ector wrote:

Continue reading “Texas named its counties for a lot of horrible people. Mathew Ector is one of them”