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American Studies Professor Rasul Mowatt

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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Rasul Mowatt.


He's a professor of American Studies and of geography at Indiana University. While his work is varied and includes research on culture, media, critical leisure and governmental studies, there's always an underlying theme:  the role that race plays in the United States. And this goes beyond studying the effects of policies, or the civil unrest those effects can lead to. Mowatt is interested in unearthing the deep, systemic roots that lie buried within our culture and contribute to the way we view and treat race today. Rasul Mowatt has a bachelors, masters and doctorate, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And recently, he joined Janae Cummings for a conversation in the WFIU studios.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Welcome to Profiles.

RASUL MOWATT: Glad to be here.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You are a professor at Indiana University of American Studies and geography. Before we get our conversation rolling, can you tell us a bit more about American Studies, the discipline?

RASUL MOWATT: Think of American Studies as this massive endeavor to look at, critically, what we conceive of as America, both as a consciousness, as a set of nation-states - because we try to push us to think about America beyond just United States, but all of countries that are north, south, central and the Caribbean - and to engage this sort of endeavor as a project to examine the ways in which people function as independent people of nation-states, how nations function on those people. And so that leads to this sort of interesting mix of people who come from history and people who come from sociology and people who come from ethnic studies and people who come from literature who all come to this space of American Studies. It's so widespread, while there are Department of American Studies, a lot of people, a lot of scholars, have their hand in American Studies.

JANAE CUMMINGS: So how does your scholarship in geography tie into this?

RASUL MOWATT: It's a recent sort of split appointment that I have in geography, and I'm looking forward to exploring this with my colleagues. Geography gives me the room to more specifically locate some of the questions I may have in relation to American Studies - specifically, what's happening where and why - but also allows me to go beyond the Americas. So, because of my work, there's things that may not be influenced or connected to United States, or connected to any other place within the United States or within the north, south, central or Caribbean. There may be things that are just occurring in South Africa that have no implication, that have no relationship or connections to anything. So geography sort of allows me this ability to focus specifically on what's happening in a location.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What drove your interest in American Studies as a discipline versus another type of cultural studies, for instance?

RASUL MOWATT: Yeah. So, some people have framed American Studies as a sort of new version of cultural studies in the United States. Culture study is not just simply looking at culture. Cultural Study is specifically - what we sort of admire is what came out of a particular university in Birmingham and the U.K. and all the notable people there, specifically Stuart Hall, that looked at and examined all aspects of culture in Britain that were troubling society in some ways. Especially during the '50s, there was this turning point where British society was trying to reconnect itself to this image of aristocracy, to wealth and all the tastes and attributes that while working class and immigrants completely were going to be left out of that narrative. And how does that work? TV, newspapers, stage plays - all these types of things - and there's this tension that's there, so cultural studies examined this in a multitude of ways. Culture studies out of the Birmingham schools then formed and inspired a lot of other cultural studies scholars that do the same in other places in the United States. American Studies is felt to be one of those disciplines that sought to re-examine itself because of that inspiration. When we think about American Studies, that's an endeavor as a project, and alongside geography, it gives anybody this ability to really go into these questions, whether it's political-based questions, or whether it's just social-based questions like, what do people consume for food and why? And what does this food have in terms of a history? How did this food get here? Who are the people who produced it? Who are the people who made it? Who are the people who farmed for it? Who are the people who serve for it?

JANAE CUMMINGS: Fall 2020 semester at IU, you are teaching a course called “What is America?” – “Finding The Wire: The Two Americas.” The Wire is a now-legendary crime drama on HBO that looked at the Baltimore drug war through the eyes of police, dealers and users, and it's also a scathing examination of urban inequality. And for many, including myself, it is the best show ever made.


JANAE CUMMINGS: Can you give insight into what makes The Wire so compelling for IU's semester 2020, which focuses on democracy? And what prompted you to create an entire class around this?

RASUL MOWATT: David Simon, Ed Burns, former journalist for The Baltimore Sun, and Ed Burns, a former police officer in the Baltimore Police Department. Of course, we know more of David Simon. They collaborated, I think, a third time in creating The Wire. Just for your listeners, previous to this, they had an HBO show called The Corner that went around drug dealing and just life around the corners. And then before that, they did several episodes of the crime drama Homicide, that was also set in Baltimore. But David Simon has articulated that The Wire is an indictment on the failures of the war on drugs and what this policy of the war on drugs did to all of the United States by way of the city - how it altered policing, how it altered the street organizations, how it altered the school systems, how it altered the economy and then the unions, how it altered all these sort of bases. And so why The Wire is such a great show is that David Simon, instead of making a TV show for fanfare that could go on endless seasons, he made a book. He knew where he wanted to end, and he knew what the purpose of it was. And so when those of us who love it and watch it - we know that everything is being directed towards driving that story, that critique of the war on drugs. So there's very little life drama, right? There is not love interests and love triangles that even become noteworthy on the show. There is no side parts. There's no characters that just become fan favorites, and they do the impossible. And so everybody lives and dies just like in real life based upon these things. And the other fascinating part is that it's built off of the model of a Greek tragedy - so the hero who faces this insurmountable task, overcomes it, but still at incredible loss. When you understand that depth, it becomes a great visual text as opposed to a TV show that people are just watching. For students, that's engaging. It's a different way to approach a class. So instead of having a text to read, they're having a text to watch. The other part that becomes interesting is that so many of the actors that are well-casted have become household names. Idris Elba, this is his first major acting break who lied to get the casting offer.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What was that lie?

RASUL MOWATT: The casting director knew that he was from the U.K. David Simon wanted to keep it authentic. He only wanted to hire people from Baltimore and maybe with the exception people from New York. So Idris came in with a very New York, Brooklyn accent, and the casting director was, like, “you have to maintain it. You know, you cannot let him know. I want you to get this role.” So the callback, there was actually one person in the hiring table who was from Ireland who was suspicious of Idris because I guess he maybe heard certain things. As Idris explains, he says, “so you're from Brooklyn. Tell me about growing up in Brooklyn.” And, of course, he couldn't explain anything. And so he said, “I can't lie to you. I'm from East London,” you know? And David Simon really liked him. And he just said that, “even though you were up for Avon Barksdale” - that's who he was auditioning for – “I cannot put you into that role. But we have this other character, Stringer Bell.” And he explained it, and Idris was all for it. And the rest is history. I see my students - they're, like, “Oh, Michael B. Jordan is 14 years old!” And then all these other figures that we've come to see either through Game of Thrones or John Wick movies - all these other things have become more prominent - all were in The Wire.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Rasul Mowatt, professor of American Studies and of geography at Indiana University and the instructor of the fall 2020 course “Finding The Wire: The Two Americas.” He's speaking with Janae Cummings.

JANAE CUMMINGS: When you talk about two Americas for this course, what do you mean by that?

RASUL MOWATT: The class has been altered in many different ways. Prior to this, it was about finding race, finding class. And so when I saw the call for the semester around democracy, I knew that the class was still great because of its criticism of the war on drugs and the implications on government policy. So what I meant by two Americas is taken directly from two David Simon interviews on The Wire where he says that there are two Americas, and the journey between those two are broad, and one rarely ventures from one to the other. And when one gains citizenship in one, you immediately disconnect or lose your citizenship in another. And this can speak to both class and race within society. As one moves up, they move out of their neighborhood. They move to another neighborhood, and they all of a sudden have access to things that they no longer have. And they can never return, really, to that other space. Or when downward mobility happens, and you lose your job, and all of a sudden, you find yourself in another particular place. It is very hard to get back. And that's becoming more and more the reality based upon just how things look in terms of employment. So that's what's meant by the “two Americas,” is directly from David Simon in his interview. And it's also my way to focus the class around this relation between class and race.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Are there other materials, be it text, music, film, that could be as successful in demonstrating these two Americas as The Wire?

RASUL MOWATT: As successful? As two people who are probably biased on the show, probably not.


RASUL MOWATT: But I think the point is that going back to cultural studies, it did not turn its nose up to gossip magazines or other sources. Anything was a source as it relates to telling us about culture. Any show could be turned into a class of discussion by just thinking for the relationship of how important the discussion is and how important the show treats that discussion. There's no other show that does it the best. And the show has inspired so many other shows in so many different ways. I always remember that several of the actors for Game of Thrones in the first season reference, like, them wanting to do world-building like The Wire. When you watch The Wire, you have a sense that there is a real mayor making real determinations to demolish that building that results in all of these families, as well as street organizations, losing their home. The stakes were real for the characters on there, which made the show believable. And at least Game of Thrones, up to a certain level of seasons, you felt a sense of world-building. And they said that they were always inspired by that, and many other shows were also inspired by the show. There has been some other shows that I've begun to see as good children of The Wire, let's say. There's a show called ZeroZeroZero that's built off a book that talks about the internationalization of the drug trade, meaning that, as governments have become more enforceful in terms of certain types of laws, on internal drug operations this has spread the drug game internationally. So, for example, the show highlights the very real connection between drug cartels that have become more militarized and U.S. shipping companies moving their drugs to better markets because the United States is already saturated. It's not a new growth area, so you've got to get into other countries. And to pass through easier or weaker shipping inspections, the shipping company takes the drugs and once they drive the drugs through all of these countries in West and North Africa, they have to get clearance from Islamic fundamentalists who give them safe passage, to then leave the ports in places like Libya and Algeria to get to Italy and to France. ZeroZeroZero to me sort of picks up where The Wire ends. It's not really officially connected, but it kind of gives you this sense that it's more than just these individuals on the street corner. But it's hard to sort of find a self-packaged show. There's probably episodes or seasons here and there of other shows, but The Wire is kind of hard to outdo.

JANAE CUMMINGS: How do you approach this course? Are students watching clips? Are they watching full episodes?

JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah, great question.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Is the syllabus constructed in a way that kind of, like, follows a narrative through the series?

RASUL MOWATT: Yeah, great question. No, I have colleagues that use a season. I have colleagues in education that use season four. I have colleagues in English that have used, like, season three or season two for specific reasons, but for what I'm trying to do, it'll be really hard to cut off a season. Since it's a visual text, I don't have really a lot of other texts that they read. So they have to watch. There may be occasional times in which we may watch an episode and I walk them through how to watch it as a text, so stopping, making notes, what type of notes to make from what you're seeing. The other part that I'm really expecting upon students is pretty much bingeing all five seasons for the 16 weeks of school - might give them specific episodes to really pay attention to. So while they can watch all the episodes, there are certain episodes that are most significant for varying displays of stuff. In class, when I'm giving a lecture, there are certain clips that I'll use. For example, when it's about Carcetti, who people more famously know as Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, as he is considering running for office, he sets about meeting with the former mayor of Baltimore, who is also white. And the context of this is that Baltimore is a heavily populated black city. So to be white, to run for mayor is pretty difficult, especially against a black incumbent mayor. And so he's trying to seek this advice. And there is this terrible story of receiving a bowl of stuff. And for our listeners, the stuff is feces. And so you sit down on your first day and you have all these ideas of what you want to do and your chief of staff brings in the bowl from the unions and you have to eat it. And as soon as you finish it, next thing you know your chief of staff brings out the bowl from the ministers. All of a sudden all day you're eating these bowls, which sort of alludes to this sense of the dysfunction, even if you are a good-natured person, even though you may be passionate, and even though you may have goals, most of your years in office is just sort of fulfilling the wishes of all these interest groups, which prevents you from ever doing anything or tackling anything.

JANAE CUMMINGS: There are plenty of students at IU and possibly enrolled in this course for whom systemic inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is remote from their daily lives. How will the racial and class makeup impact the course, how you teach it and maybe what the outcomes are?

RASUL MOWATT: I think that's the other brilliant thing about The Wire because I think most of us who watched it - some people are torn about season two. And so season two, it changes abruptly. So I remember clearly watching The Wire as it was on during that time. And so I remember the first season - great acting. But I was like, “I've been here before in terms of drug dealers and police, right? I don't know how much longer I'll keep going, even though the show is good.” It was really season two that got me hooked because it changes venues. It changes personnel. It goes to the docks. All of a sudden you see these dock workers and their unions becoming part of the issue and how - well, how do the drugs get into a city? And in the case of Baltimore, it has to come through the ports. And so the dock workers are taking off these shipments of drugs in these containers and they're looking the other way. The union has to be a part of that because the union is the leadership. In this case, this one key individual figure is the current union president and he's also getting additional money on the side. And this creates the whole dynamic of talking about capitalism, and it flushes this discussion out. And all of a sudden, you see the desire and need to be involved in this criminal enterprise is a function of a failure of society that impacts everybody. This man has a full-time job, but they're cutting his pay. And he's providing for his family. He's also concerned about the future of his family. And so that's why he's been taking on this additional risk of looking the other way for these containers but also accepting this additional money to increase the amount of the product that comes in. How is it any different from what's happening in West Baltimore? And West Baltimore, if people don't know, it's predominately black, both on the show as in real life. And so that dynamic is extremely helpful especially for a student body that's here at Indiana University who are coming from equally impoverish communities because even though it may be predominately white this is not California. We're talking about educational attainment being very low. We're talking about barely even working-class income as most people are working poor. Within the state, this ties into it. And so I also kind of balance the class out with actual data from real cases or situations here. And so there's counties here in the state of Indiana that has higher incarceration rates and penalties for drug dealers than places in California and New York. But who's being arrested? It's not a Avon Barksdale, a black guy in Indianapolis. It's some random guy. In this case on a show, it's Nick Sobotka. But is Nick Sobotka from South Bend in the case of Indiana? I think that's how the show aids at bringing that discussion to this particular type of student body.

JANAE CUMMINGS: You've said that in examining The Wire we may learn to create a more just society. What did you mean by that?

RASUL MOWATT: We may. I want to emphasize my choice of words, and the emphasis is less on the “justice” side and it's on the “may.” It is something that you can be very pessimistic about because we've seen the dysfunction happen over and over again. The more you see it, you either have to make the assessment that dysfunction has crept into a system that could potentially be just or is it that it's a part of it. So the system or the society, it was never just in the first place. So the “may” part removes the sense that there is somebody coming to save. There's not some miraculous political party or person that's going to save the day. There's not some external body of people who are going to come in and sort of rescue people. No. You. And so, the last season, who helps Bubbles – who is this person who has trouble with being addicted to crack as well as heroin throughout all the seasons –to recover? It isn't the state. It isn't the city. It isn't any organized body. It's just one, the strength of himself coming to a particular point. Some small support of his sister who at least allows him to stay in the basement. This is like her last time because she's been there before for him. But it's this miraculous group of people at some deserted abandoned church who runs addiction program that counsels him, that's the potential for a just society. It's in our hands. And so sometimes that may mean for us to just independently create the things that we need as opposed to constantly appealing to a structure in society that seems not to be responsive or competent.

JANAE CUMMINGS: It reminds me of what the character Omar Little said, which is that “the game is out there and it's either play or get played,” which I think initially I took to mean there are winners and losers in this game. You only win if you get out of the game. And it seems that in the show the only winners are the ones who were able to get out entirely and kind of move on with their lives in another way.

RASUL MOWATT: Right. And so many people are so close to getting out, but they lose their life. You have to remove yourself. I know the analogy of life as a game is not necessarily heavily emphasized in The Wire. But I know people say it in general. But that's not true. Because if life was a game, we would know the board that we're on. We would know that there's rules. We just know we had to bide our time.  Think of chess—and The Wire uses chess every now and then—as long as we can get across the board, I can get the powers of a queen. We know that. But in life, that's not true. We can go through all those pieces and spaces and successfully get to the end. And nobody is there to give us the ability of the queen. When you remove yourself, like, “I'm not having I'll be a player on this board anymore,” it's the only way.

JANAE CUMMINGS: In 2020, in this era of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I wonder, does The Wire deserve any criticism for this approach to police brutality?

RASUL MOWATT: No, I think it still holds up in several different situations that come up. There is the case of Herc and Carver and one other person they go to the high rises and causes trouble at night after drinking. They have this sort of stereotypical sense of looking down on these people who live in the high rises. And so they respond to people in high rise just throw all this stuff, set their car on fire and then Major Daniels, who's not a major yet, comes to question them in the morning before the press and the higher ups to get their story together. And it doesn't paint it in a good picture. But people forget that that was part of the lack of accountability, getting your story together because if we remember specifically with Breonna Taylor the excuse of it was a no knock policy they have. But they knocked, right? And so that was a case where somebody told them to keep their story together but forgot the other aspect of the story which opened the doorway for a lot more questioning to come in. Some other examples, there is the whole good cop, bad cop discussion. And that's like an internal culture discussion. And good cop on the show has nothing to do with spending time with children. And anything like that is just, “what are you here to do? What's your job?” There are those who seek advancement and do whatever they want to do. And the good police is this sort of internal conversation of “wow,” you know, “this person is really good police.” Meaning, that this person can really investigate a crime and find out what happens. I think that sets up, then, another take on what I think the show is trying to present with Pryzbylewski. He's put into a classroom. We can think that is being set up to be one of those, sort of, teaching-type movies, Dangerous Minds or whatever else. But instead, he's season and harden. If we recall, he chooses to not side with his father-in-law who's pretty high up in the police chain, takes the discipline, which removes him from the police department. I guess he had a college degree, so it allows him to go into another line of work. He has a redemption, but redemption is more of a wait. He never is a hero. He does try to look out for certain people, but, of course, he learns unlike some other teachers there he's been a police officer. He hears how the school system is just like the police department, changing stats around. So instead of moving arrest data around, the school system is moving around test scores. Take it as that in a sense that what they are doing oftentimes is separating the police officer from the state. The person on the ground are carrying out policies, but they're carrying out not their discretion but the policies of the state and the will of the state. And so people who we really should be concentrating on is these actors that are dictating whatever else. I don't think David Simon, Ed Burns are police abolitionists. Absolutely not. Do I think that they're reformist? Probably. But I don't think that their sensitivity training reformists. I think we can move some resources around to other places. And I've heard some of the speeches. He's explicitly said, like, “we should have social workers handle that.” He's definitely not somebody that believes in getting rid of police. So there is a sliver of that that's present. But I never get a sense from watching The Wire that police come out good. Everybody's grey in The Wire. This gives us a sense that there's different people who may play certain roles within the system, but there's still the system. And if you don't operate where the system wants you to, you're going to be handled or dealt with. When we think about examples of the case with Breonna Taylor and others, I think their places are maybe willing to arrest police officers if that's your position, of course. Police abolition is kind of hard to argue for arresting police officers. I think certain places are doing that, but some places, I think, are holding on doing that for the sake of elections because I think they recognize that they don't need to protect these officers anymore. There's hundreds of them that we can replace, whereas before I think there were system structures there where they would protect those officers but not really any loyalty to the officer but just a message to everybody in the system to stay your course. But now in this case, I think more places are willing to expend them, but they'll just sort of wait especially because of - the summer 2020, we've had civil unrest. I think they also want to make sure that the likelihood of returning to civil unrest could come back up. And so, it's like, “let's wait until it's simmered down as much as possible and then, yes, we're going to bring them back out and we're going to charge them and the rest will be done with it.”

JANAE CUMMINGS: This is a little off topic, but I'm curious about your opinion on police unions and their impact on what we're talking about right now, which is that we let things die down and we're going to bring this back again. Do you think that police unions stand in the way of that kind of justice?

RASUL MOWATT: And this is where I think The Wire is still good to even bring up, the reason why the police are still present, even though it’s around the docks, it's not because the dock workers messed up at the beginning. The dock workers messed up later. So it was running smoothly. The problem is, is that the stevedore union curries better favor with the church than the police union. The head of the police union is angry that the stevedore was able to get the stained glass window into the church before they did. And so, this major in the police department who is also the president of the union is angry and livid. And they're suspicious of the stevedore and uses his rank, get more resources to the major crime unit that's already investigating the Avon Barksdale Group so that he could get rid of the stevedore union. So if there was not this union presence and union fight, the dock worker issue would have never even come to the front. Bringing it back to your question, the role of unions, wow, it's smaller in The Wire. It still opens the doorway to discussion, and most people don't realize how powerful the police unions are because we hear union and we think collective action, collective bargaining around Labor issues. Police unions have additional legislation that then gives them extra authority. So, beyond just having collective action and collective bargaining opportunities, they get exclusive contracts for salary increases or additional types of work. So when we see, in certain cities, police officers also being able to work at security at clubs and bars, that's a police union agreement. While the city may be like, “we're not going to give you raises but we are going to allow you to work in your spare time as a security guard to make extra money,” that's a negotiation. Or, “we're not going to increase your salary but we'll give you the squad car to use as a personal car on your off time.” These are police union works and efforts. So then protection of policing becomes the business of the union. They'll do that protection at all costs that then may mean additional pressure. So while the police department is just another department in the city, the police union becomes a lobbying group that has all this influence and power just like any other special interest group.


AARON CAIN: Rasul Mowatt In conversation with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Rasul Mowatt is a professor of American Studies and of Geography at Indiana University. And portions of this conversation contain material that some might find disturbing. So listener discretion is advised.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Frequently argued these days that police brutality is modern-day lynching. But before we get into this topic further, can you define the word lynching for us?

RASUL MOWATT: So there's truly not an official definition. When I'm talking about lynching, I do give respect to the debate between NAACP and Tuskegee Institute. They held debates and conferences to try to come up with a definition. Ultimately Tuskegee then produces one sort of definition of it that allows us to give it some context but not the context of all expressions of lynching. And so, they say that it has to be three or more persons, because one or two is just a murder. So, they try to construct a sense of a group. So it's not just a killing. It's not just a murder. It's a special type of murder in the name of tradition, race, or justice. So there has to be some type of vocalization or, like, “we're doing this to preserve something” - right? - expressed in some way otherwise it's still maybe a group murder. There's a reason why we're doing this to this person that has to be sort of expressed. The third aspect tries to provide us some more context. There has to be evidence to allude to or suggest, one, that the killing did happen and that the killing met those other criteria points. And so that's helpful to look at specifically the lynchings of black people. It doesn't speak to what we know of numerically of the known lynchings of people who were white before the widespread lynchings of black people. It also does not speak to the ways in which indigenous or Latinx populations had also been lynched. Going back to the lynching of black people, oftentimes this was extrajudicial, meaning, that this was not an official capacity of the state. This is not execution. So, while there are cases in which an off-duty police officer was engaged in it, this is something that is thought of as being a vigilante based. It's not always the case that police were involved. In, actually, some cases there were legitimate…like firefights with like a sheriff who had a person in custody that they were taking across state lines to a courthouse, for example. And I remember this one particular case where I believe it was Georgia where the Texas marshal went to Georgia to pick up the person they had to ride the train back in – I think, Mississippi or Alabama – that the people actually physically stopped the train. So, they get on the tracks. The train has to stop. And then they engage in a short melee of fire. But what I'm saying is that there are cases in which there's actual newspaper clippings where even a mayor has stepped in to stop and the crowd was like, “you're next.” And the newspaper clipping says, “Mob Threatens to Lynch Mayor.” Lynching history is really, really complicated once you get into the weeds of it, but that's at least a definition that's helpful. It does not explain all cases, but it does provide some context to look at, specifically cases of lynchings of black people.

JANAE CUMMINGS: The Equal Justice Initiative reports that from 1877 to 1950, I think, more than 4,400 black people, men, women, children...


JANAE CUMMINGS: ...Were lynched by white mobs, not just hanging from trees, shot, skinned burned, bludgeoned...


JANAE CUMMINGS: Why do we have these extensive records of black death but not of the Latinx and indigenous populations that we just spoke about?

RASUL MOWATT: Yeah, great question. So, let me answer in two ways. First on the black deaths. Our record is only really based off of newspaper clippings. And so, the work - before the turn of the 20th century, work of Ida. B Wells and Monroe Work is probably a little bit less known. Ida B. Wells and Monroe Work both looked at in newspaper clippings to tabulate the lynchings. And Ida B. Wells was able to do this because she was a journalist, and she had this ability to look at specific cases but scanned other news sources. Monroe Work, working on behalf of the NAACP, was geographically plotting. So these two individuals were doing this sort of tandem work unbeknownst to each other. Ida B. Wells comes up with the complete tabulation, Monroe Work creates the whole sort of early mapping of lynchings; where they are in the city, where they're clustered. That's not really great data because just like police shootings now – I'm not saying that there's a relationship between two. but what I'm saying is that there is no official account. There's no true data source. There's no inventory log that officially charges – the police officer doesn't come in and say, “I shot and killed somebody,” and the Police Department officially records it. That explains how we know of the lynchings of black people. And we know a lot of the cases with lynchings of people who were white. Sometimes it was vigilante. Sometimes it was the law. So that's why we have a sense of the numbers of people who were white that were lynched. The problems with Latinx and indigenous populations is that even though there were some cases of vigilantes, there were more cases of state killings. So U.S. military or sheriffs or police departments were oftentimes the people who killed these populations in this particular way. Again, still the same thing, out of some sense of tradition but clearly not vigilante. The other part that makes it difficult and elusive is that I think there's ways in which we don't understand lynching but we think it's the worst thing possible. And so we label everything that, which then clouds our ability to understand it more sophisticatedly. And so there's things that we don't even think of as a lynching, but they are, right? So, if we think about the times in which indigenous populations were being scalped officially by U.S. Calvary, that's a lynching. But we just think of a scalping. And as I maintained from the Tuskegee point about this sense of tradition and so on and so that gives us a whole sense, like, oh my goodness, like, they did keep a record of how many scalps they collected. And individual citizens were also encouraged to do this in the act of settler colonialism, right? But we never think of it as lynching at all. Then there's other cases in which we know of entire villages and towns where several of the people who were gendered male would be gathered up and killed. I think it's Porvenir Massacre is one of those such cases where 35 men and boys were all gathered from the village. And they were all killed by the U.S. Army. And then, of course, in Minnesota very close to Minneapolis, there is the hanging of, I think, 63 Lakota in public all at once.

JANAE CUMMINGS: That's the same spectacle.

RASUL MOWATT: Same spectacle, but there's no postcard. There's not vigilantes. There's an official state act. This has been carrying out orders. And so we don't register them as lynchings because I think sometimes there's this sense of exclusiveness to a sense of violence that may happen to a certain population of people. So lynching is our thing. But it's not. It's an act that's committed upon anybody who is the racial other. It just happened to be, and what we have looked at the concentration is so bad that leads to the Great Migration and all these types of things. How else can we explain then just a sheer decrease in population of Latinx in Indigenous populations? They had to have been killed in some type of way, and not all through warfare. I know there are certain scholars that have pretty much convinced me that there's probably more cases of indigenous and Latinx lynchings than any other particular group. There's just no record. There's no fanfare.

JANAE CUMMINGS: So when we think about police brutality and, as you mentioned, we tend to think of everything bad as a lynching, they are not lynchings by this definition.

RASUL MOWATT: Right. Exactly.

JANAE CUMMINGS: What should we be calling these incidents?

RASUL MOWATT: In researching this area of lynching for - I don't know - 16-plus years, what I've tried to articulate is this sort of 11 area continuum of racial violence. I begin with racial massacres sometimes referred to as race riots. And what I mean is race riots prior to the 1940s. And I started this place because when we look at the aim was never about absolute extermination. It was about mass group putting in place. If we look at specifically like 1921 and Tulsa, you know, that most people have become more and more aware of, they could have easily killed everybody. Easily. But they didn't. They just demolished a lot of buildings, and they also killed a significant number. And what did that do? That kept those people in place. That starts my continuum. That's one. Second thing is coups, racial coups. There have been political coups that change over in terms of political leadership. And the Wilmington Race Riot is one of the biggest cases of that. It happened before the 20th century. I think it's 1898. And Wilmington, a special thing had happened from reconstruction up until this race riot. There was a fusion party that was developed between black farmers, the Populist Party and the Republican Party. And they joined together as the fusion party. And they basically ran the entire state from the governor's position all the way down to the city council. At this time, Wilmington was one of the major cities. In six days, the Democratic Party through their sort of armed social club, the red shirts, came into Wilmington and burned down the black newspaper, killed people in brutal ways all throughout the streets and ran people out literally into the Cape Fear River so they can get the boat and get out of town. People did not return to office. People who were serving office were dead. Basically they had special elections. And that led a domino effect. It followed up with the Atlanta Race Riot in 1906. Same thing, red shirts came into there. What does that do? That gives us the South that we see today. While reconstruction failed at a federal level, it was not failing in certain cities. And if Wilmington was able to just be Wilmington, we would have had a completely different South. But once Wilmington fell, Wilmington sets up the South that we see today in terms of overwhelming black population but overwhelming black population that has been suppressed by violence, and so on. There were public schools. There were black businesses, all this type of stuff in Wilmington up to this time. But that's two. And then you get to mass lynchings. This is where we see the mass hanging or flogging of people to death. Again, it's all about message sending, keeping people in place. Then from mass lynchings, you get to lynchings, which is number four. And then from lynchings, you get to gun violence. And what I argue with gun violence is it's allowed to occur. How did these guns get into the community? How, with all the sophisticated technology? We can't sit down and figure out how they get there, much less who did it. It is a set of harm that happens in society that's allowed to happen. Guns are in a lot of different places. I mean, widespread rural places you have suicide by gun or accidental death. But they still have somehow managed to try to circumvent or correct it, like having localized restrictions on gun access, gun storage in the home, these types of things. And so it could happen still in most rural places. And it does. It still managed. And it's kept low. Gun homicides, then six state executions. And as we know, state executions become increasingly disproportionately represented by Black people from the '50s onward. Then we move to police killings as number seven - state actors committing a particular act on a citizen, whether they did commit harm whether or did not or whether they were questioned or not. Number eight is recreational murder. And then number nine is hunting. And the reason why I'm trying to bring them up and try to explain them together is I'm not sure where Ahmaud Arbery's killing falls within it. But it's not a lynching, because we only know of what they did. Because, one, they recorded it themselves for their own enjoyment and then gave the recording to their attorney, and their attorney thought releasing it - to my understanding - was going to help clear their name - like, here's the suspicious person. But instead it gave us a window to what they were doing. If that had not been done, that was going to be a personal recording for fun, and so I'm not sure if it falls within a recreational murder or this is just what these guys were doing. Who knows how many other people they've done this to. That's very different from sending a message, which is why you don't have 1,000 people lynched in one year in one city. You pick people off here and there and that does the job of keeping people in place. Whereas in this case there's nobody you're sending a message to because all they're going to do is find this brother dead on the ground, especially since he's Black, it could be dismissed as drug-related or whatever, right? There's no follow-up. Ten is ethnic cleansing. And United States, outside of indigenous populations, we do not know ethnic cleansing. The worst and the final, 11, is race war, which is all about absolute extermination. We understand race war to be a thing because White nationalists in particular have this concept, both in their fictional writings as well as in their rhetoric as well as in their clans and efforts. To me, that's the continuum where, on one end, it's about maybe killing a lot of people to send a message, but it's not trying to kill everybody. And on the other end, it is complete wipeout. And so that, to me, is what I always try to convey. Like, this is why lynching is - I'm not saying it's not important, but it's not the worst thing that can happen. Lynching was done for a specific reason: to deliver a certain type of message. This is why, for Black people, the bodies were oftentimes displayed in some way. This is why there were posters and advertisements for people to come. It was about message sending. There is no message sending the higher up you go in what I'm proposing.

JANAE CUMMINGS: The run of hangings in California and elsewhere - at a minimum, it seems suspicious. Would we consider these to be lynchings?

RASUL MOWATT: Exactly. The point of why I'm trying to present this sort of 11-level thing - we think a lynching is the worst thing. We label everything that. We think of it as the worst thing that can be done on a person. And when we don't understand motivation and purpose and function, we miss the point of an act. These are hangings. And because we think lynching and hanging is synonymous - and a black person in particular - it must be a lynching. But if the person was hung in a public display space, it probably is a lynching. It's a message being sent. But if the space was more obscure, I'm not sure. And there's even, historically, cases of lynchings that have been labeled as lynchings that I'm not sure anymore. Like, there's the classic Georgia Base lynching - specifically, Mae Dorsey, who was one of the people in this party - it was two Black men and two Black women. Mae Dorsey - she was also pregnant. And a mob pulled them out of the car and ultimately killed her and also cut out the baby out of her stomach and stomped on the baby. But there was no postcards. It was out in the woods, and we've called it a lynching. The Moore's Ford lynching - that's what it - they were stopped on the bridge. It's been labeled a lynching because it's just in the spirit of what we think. They kept it to themselves, and so was this a recreational murder or was this a hunt? I've even started to, like, reexamine even previously-labeled lynchings and it's like, no, it's probably not the case. And so, yes, in terms of your question, I think some of the examples that we know of fit within that space. I know the two in Houston seemed like that - it was a young black boy and there was another one - was a young Mexican American - kind of publicly displayed in some way. But I think one of the ones that's still a questionable in California - it doesn't seem like that. Clearly, there was some type of murder or wrongdoing. But again, was it a group? Was it individuals? This gets back into why the Tuskegee definition still is useful. There are, of course, the examples of somebody acting on behalf of something. So we have some cases right now where certain protesters in 2020 that have lost their life or have been injured from some random person firing into the crowd from some truck, and so this has led to some investigations to connect - especially since some police officers have also died from this same sort of act. And there are sort of White nationalist groups - like The Base, as an example - that are operating. And since they operate off of leaderless cells - which means that there's not overwhelming organizational presence, it's individuals that are disconnected from each other that receive instructions or guidance through some sort of clandestine way - we'll never be able to connect. So that, to me, is still - within a space, could be of a lynching, even though it's just an individual. But for the most part I think Tuskegee's piece still holds up to always force us to think about three or more people being a group that's doing this, not just a person and accomplice or two murderers.


AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is American Studies and Geography professor Rasul Mowatt. He's speaking with Janae Cummings. Portions of this conversation contain material that some might find disturbing. Listener discretion is advised.

JANAE CUMMINGS: In mid-2020, Senator Rand Paul stalled a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime. And it was a bill that they were hoping to get unanimous support - 99 senators, I think all but four persons in the House of Representatives. And so it's just this one person who has gotten in the way. What is the danger of that bill stalling, or is there one?

RASUL MOWATT: I don't think there is one. Because I think one of the things, again, since, for us, in American society, as we become more attuned to some parts of history, the Lynching Memorial Museum for Peace and Justice in Birmingham - reason why it is not something to give a lot of attention to is because, while we have this sense of lynchings more and more in society - and specifically people who are black in the United States society has always had this sort of sense of lynching being back there, even though we may not really know any specific sort of detailed case example - we just think of lynching and somebody voting against it as bad and we don't look at the weeds of the actual act or law. This would be couched within hate crime legislation. It's not a separate piece. And so already that's a hurdle. Most things that we believe are hate crimes rarely get labeled as hate crimes. So that has to be first proven - that the act was a hate crime. And then there's an extra burden to prove that, somehow, this hate crime was specifically a lynching. That is a major, major hurdle. But what I'm saying is that I'm not sure if the no vote really means as much as we think it is. Because when we look at past anti-lynching legislation - everything from the DIRe Bill to the earliest sort of anti-lynching legislation, which was around 1903, they were all strong. They were independent laws that dealt with, most importantly, not defining of the actual lyncher - because oftentimes you couldn't find out who lynched somebody. It was fining states and law enforcement because they were saying, “how is it that this person is in your protective custody awaiting trial, and yet again another mob was able to get into the jail? You should have hired more deputies. You should have fired into the crowd. You should've did something.” And so those laws, from the DIRe Bill backwards, would fine states 10 - $20,000 for not doing their due diligence to protecting the person who was awaiting trial. It's a very different sort of focus or purpose. So it was also creating this sense of responsibility for states to follow through, and that was what the federal legislation then was trying to do. We also kind of forget that, while there was never a federal legislation against lynching, there were certain states that actually did have their own anti-lynching legislation and, thanks to work from NAACP, they were able to really sort of chart which states had what and how many people actually had been charged. And a lot of times some of them were police officers and sheriffs who seemed to let a person be apprehended by a crowd or a mob. When you look at also the legislation, it doesn't have a lot of teeth. After you even pass those hurdles of proving it to be a hate crime and then proving it to be a lynching, it turns into a normal murder - they never arrested anybody for Emmett Till, you know what I'm saying? I mean, much less, you know, other people. And so...

JANAE CUMMINGS: But we compare everything to Emmitt Till.

RASUL MOWATT: ...We do. We do. So I just think it's one of those things where specifically, for Black people, I think we have an emotional investment and we just lose it. We lose it on stuff on slavery, we lose it on stuff on reparations, and justifiably. But the issue is that, in our losing it, we kind of forget reason and we didn't look in the weeds of, like, well this isn't anything to protect. This legislation is weak. This legislation doesn't do anything for retroactive judgments. We don't care if the person died, we're going to still charge them. Their family will have the stain of committing this act - it has none of that. And when you look at the weeds of it, it is really a weak piece of legislation. If you look at any of the past anti-lynching legislations that were attempted to be passed from the '50s all the way down to 1903, wow, they were taking a lot of risk presenting that, especially in the height of lynching activity.

JANAE CUMMINGS: One of your other areas of expertise is leisure studies.


JANAE CUMMINGS: Can you tell us a bit about what this is and how it connects to the rest of your work and, you know, what we've been talking about today?

RASUL MOWATT: There's what leisure studies believes itself to be and there's also what leisure studies, from my analysis, is - or what leisure is. So leisure is thought up as this sort of emotional experience that people can psychologically determine what it is. More importantly, leisure time is often put as a sense of time that's in opposition to work or in relationship to work. There's work and there's leisure. So it has a connection, clearly, with capitalism. Leisure is experienced, though, through specific types of activities. No one says, “I'm going to go do gymming.” There's no such thing as “gymming.” You're going to go to the gym. And we're going to split up and one of us is going to go swim and one of us is going to go lift weights and another one of us is going to go walk on the treadmill. You're going to do specific things, and those things reflect interests, likes, preferences and that type of thing. And so the study of leisure is, then, in those three camps - or schools of thought. For me, I say that leisure comes about in that way in the 1800s. And why in the 1800s? Because of slavery and colonialism, all of a sudden, you have this increased amount of societal wealth to allow people - workers, in particular - people who are not aristocracy or the corporate execs or business owners, but middle class and under - to now have discretionary time and discretionary income. But you wouldn't have that if you didn't have an entire population of people working for nothing and minimum - so the cost to sort of keep them functioning - you know, some shreds of rags to wear and some throw-away food and some makeshift shelter - extracting resources from some island and remote location in which you're running. And so all these societies that then leisure is birthed within - expands within in the 1800s. They start creating parks and museums. So we think about France. We think about Germany. We think about Britain. We also think about United States. So the wealth of capitalism and, as we understand it, there's a concept of - let's call it racial capitalism, but racial capitalism is just an explanation of just how capitalism functions. You can't have capitalism and we don't have capitalism if there was not slavery and colonialism. Capitalism is racial capitalism, but we've just come up with the term racial capitalism to create that certain type of conversation. You have to have a certain class of people that are designated as workers. You have to other them to sort of keep them in their place. The sense of racial other can be a range of people. You have these populations in place, but you have your leisure because those populations are overwhelmingly providing that service and work. Especially once you sort of move away from official slavery and colonialism, who still overwhelmingly works in hospitality services - the valets who move your car, who are they? What's their educational attainment? Whether they live in the community - who is in the kitchens or the catering services or - this all gets to that sense of it. So for me, you can't have leisure without exploitation and domination at all. It just would not come to be and it continues to not exist without that. So while I still sort of recognize those three schools of thought, those three schools of thought, for me, allowed me to sort of see that, when is leisure as we know it - not leisure in terms of the Greeks back in ancient Greece, but as we know it today - walking in the park, going to a gym, all these types of things - when did that become a thing?

JANAE CUMMINGS: There also seem to be so many activities that are almost divided by race. You don't see a lot of black people hiking or really outdoor activities at all. Like, we're not camping, for instance, or going out to the lake. And so that is very interesting to me that there are certain things that groups of people may not generally do. So that would tie back to this history.

RASUL MOWATT: Completely. So one of the pieces that I was able to finish - it took a lot to look up a lot of the primary sources on this - primary texts on this, but the origin of the conservation movement, origins of what's called interpretation - interpretation is when you go to the National Park Service, you have either signage or a person who kind of tells you, these are bison and bison do this and - as well as the park service operation, meaning those people who were part of the creation of that were eugenicists. One of them, in particular, was Madison Grant, who writes The Passing of The Great Race. It is also the guidebook for, eventually, Nazi Germany. But this is the same guy who saves the bison, saves the redwood forests. And their whole argument was the conservation of the environment is for the conservation of the race, and who they meant was not everybody on the planet. We missed that point. And so when we're going to your point about hiking, then certain bodies of people were never supposed to be seeing - certain people themselves were never supposed to experience environmental splendor or whatever else. And so some people believed it in terms of management and managed the place accordingly. Some other places they didn't, and so some of us developed a desire for it. But then, all of a sudden, you have segregation and it's violent and we have to have a thing like the green book to tell us where to go and where not to go - where to stay on the road to get there, but then also, when we get there, where we'll be safe. So I think it's, historically, this dual nature of - the origins of these things are built upon land theft and then eugenicist thinking for conservation and then, all of a sudden, you have Jim Crow laws that are violent. And these three things together results in 2020 National Park Service still sort of saying, there's not enough Black people coming out and not enough other populations of color coming out to certain parks.

JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, Rasul, this was a wonderful conversation and I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

RASUL MOWATT: Thank you for your time.


AARON CAIN: Rasul Mowatt, professor of American Studies and of Geography at Indiana University in Bloomington. He's been speaking with Janae Cummings. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.

MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about PROFILES, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, PROFILES is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of PROFILES.


Rasul Mowatt

Rasul Mowatt (Jillian Burley, WFIU)

Rasul Mowatt is a professor of American Studies and of Geography of Indiana University.

While his work is varied, and includes research on culture, media, critical leisure, and governmental studies, the role that race plays in the United States is an underlying theme. This goes beyond simply studying the effects of policies, or the civil unrest those effects can lead to. Mowatt is interested in unearthing the deep, systemic roots that lie buried within our culture and contribute to the way we view and treat race today.

For Fall 2020, in collaboration with Themester, The IU American Studies department is offering the course, "What is America?" Dr. Mowatt's section of course, Finding The Wire — The Two Americas, uses the critically-acclaimed television series to foster a sense of the need for, and role of, critical thinking in addressing societal issues as the responsibility of a just democracy.

Rasul Mowatt has a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate all from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


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