Is there anything new to say about race in America?

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, 1995. Photo by Osha Gray Davidson.

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in 1995.

On June 17, a white 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American women and men in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier, Roof had published a racist manifesto online saying that he hoped his actions would spark a race war, and then he headed to the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where he sat silently at a Bible-study group for an hour before carrying out what must certainly be considered a terrorist attack.

A few days later, I received word that The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, a book I had written two decades ago about an unlikely friendship between C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina, Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American community organizer, was going to be made into a movie. The film will have the star power of Taraji Henson (from the popular TV show, Empire) and will be directed by Robin Bissell (he also wrote the screenplay) who was a producer on The Hunger Games. In other words: the movie is going to be a big deal. Of course, I’m happy about this development. But it’s impossible not to be sobered by what the timing suggests: White-on-black terrorism is an “evergreen” story in America. The story I chronicled 20 years ago — about events that took place 25 years before that — is still painfully relevant.

When the University of North Carolina Press published The Best of Enemies in paperback in 2007, I wrote a new introduction for the edition. It, too, seems relevant after Charleston. I hope someday Americans will have to turn to books and films to learn what racist terrorism looks like — and not be able to read about it day after day after day in newspaper headlines.


BofEIs there anything new to say about race in America? Even a decade ago, critics of President Bill Clinton’s call for a national conversation on the subject didn’t think so.

It’s all been said before, they complained, and with some justification. It is true, for example, that racial incidents, followed by calls for tolerance and understanding, are a more-or-less permanent feature of the American landscape, durable as the Rocky Mountains, familiar as the Mississippi River.

But Clinton’s critics were missing the point. With a few significant exceptions, what has been occurring for decades, even for a century or more, has not been a dialogue on race, but any number of simultaneous monologues on the subject. You want race-talk? Oh, there has been plenty of talk. It’s listening that is in short supply. (Not that this observation is original or even vaguely new. Forty years ago – in 1967 – the late poet June Jordan covered this same ground, brilliantly, in an article she wrote for the Nation magazine entitled “On Listening: A Good Way To Hear.”)

One way to read the story of Ann Atwater and CP Ellis is as a testimony to the transformative power of listening. Listening is, however, only a first step. What comes next is even more difficult: reconciling the new information with what we already know, or think we do. This feat requires what the early 20th Century American writer Sinclair Lewis called a “willingness to sift the sanctified lies,” a chore that is hard enough when the “lie” is trivial. Imagine the difficulty of listening to, and then accepting, a truth that overturns everything you believe about the world. And not merely that, but a truth that informs you that “The world is not what you think it is. And, by the way, neither are you.” How many of us have the intellectual courage to consider, let alone accept, the truth when it demands so much?

You want race-talk? Oh, there has been plenty of talk. It’s listening that is in short supply.

CP Ellis did. And he did, even knowing that the truth that would set him free would also set him adrift, untethered in a divided society that demanded to know, every day: “Which side are you on?” Deep into the winter of 1994, more than two decades after leaving the Klan, CP was driving me around Durham in his old Buick, giving a tour of the city he had lived in nearly all his life. It was late in the day and cloudy. Neither of us had spoken for several minutes. Suddenly, apropos of nothing beyond what was churning in his head and heart, CP said, “I don’t feel comfortable here.” He added, “I wish I had more friends.” There was plenty of regret in his voice, but none, it seemed to me, for the choices he had made, and most especially no remorse over his one big choice, the decision that had left him perpetually uneasy and nearly friendless in his hometown.

 A slightly different way to read this story is as a cautionary tale – albeit one with a measure of hope – charting the price we pay for embracing our glorious national myths while ignoring or minimizing the cruel realities of America’s past and present.

The myth most pertinent to this story is that America is a classless society, where anyone can rise from humble origins to become whatever he or she aspires to be, limited only by individual ability and level of commitment to work hard. CP inherited this myth from his father, Paul Ellis, a mill worker who died of brown lung, worn out and impoverished (despite working two jobs nearly all his life) at the age of 48. “Do right,” Paul Ellis taught CP, “support the police, salute the flag, and good things will happen to you.”

But good things were not forthcoming. The harder he worked, the deeper CP sank into the very rut that had swallowed his father, and even as he watched the less talented and shiftless children of the wealthy prosper. So CP turned to another myth to explain the bizarre situation. When, through no fault of their own, whites didn’t thrive, it was because after the Civil War, a conspiracy between outsiders (Northerners) and Southern blacks had upset the natural order:

 Ignorance, Lust and Hate seized the reins of State, and riot, rapine and universal ruin reigned supreme; the highest form of cultured society was thrust down and its noble neck was forced under the iron heel of pernicious passion who yielded a potent scepter of inquisitorial oppression, and the very blood of the Caucasian race was seriously threatened with an everlasting contamination.

 This florid version of the myth is from the Kloran, the self-described “sacred book” of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the United Klans of America, the organization in which CP found a home and a purpose, and where he rose to become the Exalted Cyclops.

It’s unlikely that CP would have been drawn to the racial mythologies of the Klan if “respectable” society hadn’t mirrored many of these same beliefs. Here’s another version of the myth, this time cleaned-up for mass consumption, its racism oblique, and tailored to its Cold War audience:

 The Congress of the United States yields to blackmail, and passes socialistic legislation-calling it “progress.” It appropriates billions, as directed by the President, on the pretense of helping the poor. The Supreme Court shackles the police, compounds confusion in the legislatures of the states, and turns loose murderers and rapists to repeat their evil deeds upon the innocent and law-abiding members of society. How much of this is the result of communist planning? Who can say? . . . .The communists want law and order destroyed in America. . . . They want riots in the streets, and demonstrations on the campus. They want confusion in our courts, and frustration among our states. . . . The name of the game is now survival—and we will either win it or lose it.

 These are the words of Jesse Helms, who, before becoming a United States Senator, delivered commentaries five nights a week after the news, on a Raleigh, North Carolina, television station, which were then rebroadcast on radio stations and reprinted in newspapers throughout the South. Between 1960 and 1971, Helms read thousands of these monologues, usually dedicated to conspiracy theories and apocalyptic warnings about the Red threat, which he saw everywhere, from the mildest liberal proposals to the civil rights movement as a whole. When speaking on issues of race (which he frequently did), Helms was careful to use code words and phrases that weren’t necessarily racist, but which his intended audience of Southern white conservatives clearly understood as racial. When, for example, he posed the rhetorical question, “Is survival possible when civilization reverts to the law of the jungle?” his devoted listeners recognized the reference to Africa and African-Americans. When Helms railed that “we must decide whether we will be ruled by sanity or ruined by savagery,” his audience knew exactly which “savages” Helms meant. Only rarely did he allow an undisguised racist remarks to slip through, like the time Helms referred to “the purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect.”

The American experience is permeated by racism. Northerners or Southerners alike. How could we avoid ingesting it?

The Klan didn’t exist in a vacuum, and, in fact, it couldn’t have. To appreciate the Kloran’s appeal you have to understand the role played by Jesse Helms, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and all the other respectable leaders who played the race card to advance their own careers, whatever the cost to our Nation.

Ann Atwater grew up poor, black and female in the mid-20th Century South, all circumstances that precluded her from buying into the myths that beguiled CP. She had her own set of beliefs, of course, including the conviction that all whites were simply and unalterably bad. Yes, some of them had a pleasant exterior. But, experience had taught her this much: scratch the surface and you’ll find the racist.

Her experience with CP taught her something new. A layer of racism may be nearly inevitably throughout white Americans. Perhaps racism is like DDT, the poison that was banned decades ago, but which, because it persists in the environment, is still found within our bodies. The American experience (not our mythology, but our history) is permeated by racism. Northerners or Southerners alike. How could we avoid ingesting it? (And, besides, unlike DDT, racism is still sold over the counter in America. Slavery was abolished. So was Jim Crow. Racism survives.) But beneath this body-burden of racism, Ann discovered in CP something more profound: a recognition of our shared humanity.

The fact that not everyone is willing to dig deep enough to find that core is hardly evidence that it doesn’t exist. It’s difficult and painful work and most whites don’t want to expose the layer of racism, even to themselves, and certainly not to others. Some, no doubt unconsciously fear that Ann was right in her earlier belief, that there’s nothing below the racism – except more racism. And if that’s true, isn’t it better to leave those poisonous thoughts alone? At least they’re covered by a veneer of civility.

On the other hand, if what Ann learned from CP is true for all of us, then by not digging, we condemn ourselves to lives of ignorance and alienation, not just of others, but of our selves.

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Who Said It: Adolf Hitler or Confederate Vice President?

Adolf Hitler (left) and  Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America (right).

Adolf Hitler (left) and Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America (right).

Most people accept that the notion of racial purity (and Aryan superiority) provided the philosophical underpinnings of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal “Final Solution.” But 150 years after the end of the Civil War, many white Americans still insist that the essential conflict was over states’ rights, Northern aggression, or economic liberty. Sure, slavery played a role, but they insist, the “peculiar institution” was just one of many competing causes of the bloodiest conflict in our history.

The recent massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, by an avowed white supremacist, has raised the old debate about the role of racism in America, past and present. Is Dylann Roof a mentally ill loner, an isolated matrix of madness and violence? Or did he grow from a familiar and troubling terrain, a modern son of the Confederacy, part of America’s unfinished business?

It may help to examine just how much the worldview that spawned the Confederacy had in common with the one that led to the Third Reich. Toward that end, I’ve put together a short quiz. It should take five minutes, tops.

Below are six statements; three from Adolf Hitler and three from Alexander Stephen, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America at its founding in 1861. I’ve grouped them into three somewhat arbitrary categories. All of them speak  specifically to their foundational values. If you believe that the Confederacy was based on something other than white supremacy, and if you misidentify the author of any of the statements below, you may want to reexamine your beliefs about America’s past and our present.

Statement 1: The Role of Nature

(Note: In a few instances, I’ve removed a noun that would identify the author of the statement given, and, in brackets, substituted two alternatives, only one of which was actually used.)

A. As a race, the [Jew/African] is inferior to the [Aryan/White man]. Subordination to the [Aryan/White man] is his normal condition. He is not his equal by nature, and cannot be made so by human laws or human institutions. Our system, therefore, so far as regards this inferior race, rests upon this great immutable law of nature. It is founded not upon wrong or injustice, but upon the eternal fitness of things.

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

B. The consequence of this racial purity, universally valid in nature, is not only the sharp outward delimitation of the various races, but their uniform character in themselves…. you will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might, for example, show humanitarian tendencies toward geese, as similarly there is no cat with a friendly inclination toward mice. No more than nature desires the mating of weaker with stronger individuals, even less does she desire the blending of a higher with a lower race, since, if she did, her whole work of higher breeding, over perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, night be ruined with one blow.

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

Statement 2: The Fate of Civilization

A. To bring about such a development [race mixing] is, then, nothing else but to sin against the will of the eternal creator. And as a sin this act is rewarded. When man attempts to rebel against the iron logic of nature, he comes into struggle with the principles to which he himself owes his existence as a man. And this attack must lead to his own doom. Everything we admire on this earth today, science and art, is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps of one race. On them depends the existence of this whole culture. If they perish, the beauty of this earth will sink into the grave with them.

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

B. Those ideas …rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.” Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the [Negro/Jew] is not equal to the [White man/Aryan]; that subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

Statement 3: Culture and Progress

A. The last visible trace of the former master people is often seen in the lighter skin color which its blood left behind in the subjugated race, and in a petrified culture which it had originally created. For, once the actual and spiritual conqueror lost himself in the blood of the subjected people, the fuel for the torch of human progress was lost!

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

B. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the [White race/Aryan race], however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the [Negro/Jew]. Subordination is his place.

Hitler or Stephens? (Click here for the correct answer.)

 Sources of quotes:

1. Adolf Hitler

2. Alexander Stephens

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Want a Powerwall? Consider this expert advice first

Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, a Pasadena-based company that installs rooftop solar PV systems. Jim also blogs about developments in solar power – with a gimlet eye for truth-telling. And while he’s a fan of Elon Musk, when the Tesla magnate unveiled the Powerwall battery system last week, Jim noticed some “whoppers,” and promptly wrote about them.

Before signing-up to buy a Powerwall, you’d do well to consider Jim’s expert analysis (which he allowed us to re-post below).

Elon Musk’s 3-Biggest Powerwall Whoppers

By Jim Jenal

Jim Jenal, CEO of Run on Sun.

Jim Jenal, CEO of Run on Sun.

Elon Musk is a visionary and a showman, but occasionally his enthusiasm for his vision gets way out ahead of reality.  Nowhere was that disconnect more on display than this past week when he made his much talked about announcement of the Tesla Powerwall battery storage system.  While we share the vision for the potential of battery systems (such as the one Enphase Energy is set to release later this year, albeit in a far more understated fashion), when 38,000 people go online to order a product that doesn’t yet exist, it is time to debunk some of the more exorbitant claims made by Musk.

Here are the three biggest whoppers that Musk made during his Powerwall presentation (video below).

Whopper #3 – Power for an ice storm or other significant grid failure event

Musk touted the “peace of mind” that would come from having the Powerwall, and said, “if there’s a cut in the utilities you’re always gonna have power, particularly if you’re in a place that’s very cold, now you don’t have to worry about being out of power if there’s an ice storm.” (See video at 8:35.)

The Powerwall unit that Musk was talking about that was designed for “daily cycling” was a 7 kWh unit that is priced at $3,000.  The average home in the Run on Sun service area uses 25 kWh/day.  So a single Powerwall unit provides roughly one quarter of the energy demand of an average home.  If your desire for “peace of mind” means running your home for a full day in normal fashion, you will need to purchase 4 Powerwall units (assuming you have the wall space to mount them) and that will cost you $12,000.

Of course, many outages last longer than a day.  The longer you want to stay powered, the more units you will need.

Whopper #2 – Powerwall will work with existing solar systems

Musk insisted that Powerwall has been designed to work with solar systems, “right out of the box.”  (See video at 8:25.)

Except… that the Powerwall is designed to fit between existing solar panels and the DC-AC inverter(s) in the system (i.e., on the DC side of the system).  But here’s the thing – the vast majority of inverters are what are known as “grid-tied,” which means if the grid goes down, the inverter shuts off, and stays off until the grid comes back.  If the Powerwall is on the DC side, there is no way for it to “mimic” the grid (which, of course, is on the AC side), and so the inverter will shut off.  While the inverter could certainly be replaced with a hybrid inverter (that can work both independently and tied to the grid) such a replacement is a pricey undertaking and certainly not a plug-and-play installation.

But Musk, like the true showman that he is, saved his biggest Whopper for the end…

Whopper #1 – You can go off grid… for $3,500!

Warming to his subject, Musk really brought down the house with his most outrageous claim of all:

You could actually go, if you want, completely off-grid.  You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs and that’s all you use.  So it gives you safety, security, and it gives you a complete and affordable solution.  And the cost of this is $3,500.”  [Gasps and applause from audience.] (Video at 8:55.)

No.  No you cannot.

Let’s unpack his statement.  There’s two major claims here, neither of which is true.  The first is that you could go completely off-grid, and the second is that it would cost you $3,500.  So let’s start with the easy one to disprove, indeed, we already did above: this won’t cost $3,500.  The Powerwall provides 7 kWh of storage.  The average house uses 25 kWh/day.  If the battery has to run your house for just one day, you would need 4 Powerwall units at a cost of $12,000.  (The 7 kWh unit is the one designed for daily cycling – what you need to go off-grid, and it costs $3,000 – if you could actually purchase one, which you can’t.)

So that’s easy to debunk.  But what about the second, more fundamental question.  Can I use this Powerwall system to go off-grid without changing my middle-class, suburban lifestyle?  For most folks the answer is simply, no.  Here’s why.  When you go off-grid you need to be able to meet all of your energy needs all the time without assistance from your local utility.  To do that, you need a battery system large enough to last you during the longest typical shortfall of available energy (i.e., how many stormy/cloudy days in a row will you see), plus a solar array large enough to charge that battery on sunny days while meeting the household needs.  Turns out, that is quite a lot of both.

Folks who design off-grid systems (very few of which are found in areas like Pasadena), typically design for three (or more) days of self-sufficiency (or autonomy, as they put it).  For our typical, 25 kWh/day home, that would require storage of a minimum of 75 kWh.  But according to Tesla, you can only stack a maximum of nine Powerwall units, which limits you to 63 kWh.  Sometime around noon on that third day without sun, your house will shut down.  Oh, and that much storage will cost you $27,000.

What about the solar array side of the equation?  Let’s start by asking how big an array can you fit on an average house?  House sizes have trended bigger in the past couple of decades, so more recently built houses are an overstatement of the average house out there.  Still, to have a starting point (and to give Musk the benefit of the doubt), let’s assume that our average house is 2,400 square feet (a fair estimate based on US Census data), and that it is optimally designed to maximize solar production: a near perfect square with a true south face, pitched at latitude (34° here in Pasadena), with no shading.  Of course, we still have to give the Fire Marshall the desired setoffs so that gets us to 1,115 square feet of roof space (math available upon request), enough for 62 LG 305 solar modules, but because we need to use a hybrid inverter with fixed string sizes, we will drop that down to 60 solar modules. That yields an 18.3 kW system which at $3.50/Watt would cost a cool $64,000 – and be bigger than our biggest ever residential installation.

So the Sixty-four Thousand Dollar question becomes: How well will that do on meeting our needs?  Per the CSI calculator, this maximal system will produce roughly 29,000 kWh in Year 1, or an average daily output of 79.5 kWh.  (Less in the winter, of course, when you are most likely to see those cloudy days.)  After providing for my daily needs of 25 kWh, I have 54.5 kWh to spare, not quite enough to fully charge my batteries (which require 63 kWh).  A scenario where I have two cloudy days, followed by one partly sunny day, followed by two more cloudy days could easily leave you in the lurch.  And for this you paid a total of $91,000!  If you live somewhere with poorer weather than what we find in the Run on Sun service area (i.e., pretty much the entire rest of the country!) your performance will be even more dismal.

The true value of storage

The sad part of this whole thing is that battery storage combined with solar is going to be huge, but not for the reasons Musk alluded to in his speech.  The future of utility rates is the shift to time-of-use rate structures – a fact already well and painfully known by our clients in SCE territory, and soon to be seen by everyone.  Time-of-use rates, where utility customers pay more for energy during the peak part of the day, are the only way to match utility costs with customer charges.  (It is the head of the Duck in the famous Duck Curve below.)

The famous duck curve

That “overgeneration” that drives down demand at noon is presently fed back to the grid, where the grid operator has to modify the power mix to accommodate it – in essence, it is wasted.  (Although presently, net metering customers get full retail credit for it – something, that in all likelihood, will soon go away.)

But add storage to the mix, and you shift that overgeneration from the middle of the day, to the evening peak hours, benefiting the time-of-use customer as well as the utility.  It is the way to bring about a peaceful end to the utility-solar wars, and it is the true benefit of storage to solar customers – without oversizing either your solar array or your storage system.

So let’s all get excited over solar with storage, but for the right, and much more cost-effective reasons – and not the nonsensical hype being spewed by that super showman, Elon Musk.