Cold War, Culture Wars, and the Cultural Politics of Violence

Endorsed by the OAH–Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Crime and Violence; Politics; Social and Cultural


America is violent. From the degradation of black and brown bodies through chattel slavery to the exterminationist logics of westward expansion to the seemingly endless “war on terror,” violence has proven a central and enduring feature of the American experience. Yet scholars of recent United States history, in the main, have not employed violence as a category of analysis. Building on exciting new work by Kathleen Belew, Christina Hanhardt, and others, this session will illuminate the role of violence—and its cultural representations—in shaping the recent American past.

In so doing, our panel will engage some of the key dynamics at play in the Organization of American Historians’ 2020 conference theme, “(In)Equalities.” Violence, the threat of violence, and cultures of violence work to produce and perpetuate inequality. As Max Weber famously argued, power lives within the institutions and bodies that can enact violence “legitimately”—with impunity and in the name of ensuring order. Weber’s insight informs each of the session’s papers, which explore (in discrete yet imbricated ways) the interplay between violence, power, and politics in the US—and in transnational perspective—since the 1970s.

The session’s papers move in rough chronological order from the late 1970s to the immediate post-Cold War period, beginning with Desiree Abu-Odeh’s work. Abu-Odeh assesses the “feminist sex wars” and its cultural politics of violence from the vantage of the college campus. She reveals how campus activists in the 1970s and 1980s drew on, and intervened in, feminist debates concerning pornography and sexual violence. Their efforts, Abu-Odeh shows, led to the creation of new policies and practices designed to serve the needs of sexual assault survivors on college campuses. Many of these policies and practices remain firmly entrenched today.

Next, Paul Renfro focuses on competing conceptions of race, class, and violence within the 1979–81 Atlanta youth abductions and murders. Various constituencies understood the Atlanta saga on vastly different terms. Renfro explores the rhetorical and policy responses of the poor black communities most acutely affected by the kidnappings and slayings; Atlanta’s neoliberal, biracial political and economic establishment; and observers (both in the US and internationally) who called the murders a “genocide.” Such divergent responses, Renfro reveals, reflected and reinforced some of the key fault lines in late twentieth-century US political culture.

Finally, Andrew McKevitt examines the 1992 shooting death of Yoshi Hattori, a sixteen-year-old Japanese exchange student, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the transnational gun-control movement it generated as a way of understanding the global impact of local American violence. Local activists attuned to the connections between gun violence and socioeconomic inequality in Baton Rouge attempted to connect Yoshi’s death to the easy availability of guns and the consequent impact of gun violence across racial and class boundaries. They stalled in the face of powerful interests, however, invested in a post-1960s rhetoric of “law and order” and the growing political power of pro-gun organizations like the National Rifle Association.

Considered together, these papers take violence as an animating force—and an engine of inequality—in recent American history.

Papers Presented

America’s Worst Disease: The Death of Yoshi Hattori and the Movement against Gun Violence

Louisiana became the center of national and international attention in October 1992 when a sixteen-year-old Japanese exchange student, Yoshi Hattori, went out looking for a friend’s Halloween party, knocked on the wrong door, and was shot to death by a white man, Rodney Peairs. This paper approaches Yoshi’s killing and the subsequent gun-control movement it inspired as a microhistory for examining trends in American understandings of and approaches to guns and gun violence since the 1960s. Yoshi’s death demonstrates how American ideas, attitudes, and policies toward guns and gun violence have developed not in a vacuum but in transnational and international contexts. While Yoshi’s killing and the subsequent trial attracted national and international attention, it is the aftermath of both that offers historians an opportunity to consider the global impact of U.S. gun violence. After Yoshi’s death, his parents in Japan joined with his host parents in the United States—Holly Haymaker and Richard Haymaker, two professors at Louisiana State University—to start a gun-control movement. They organized letter-writing campaigns, protests, marches, and memorials. They built a transnational network aimed at not only changing laws in the United States but also shifting the way Americans thought about their relationships to guns. For this project I rely on the archival records of the Haymakers to reconstruct their efforts. Through their work the Haymakers discovered that what was most unique about American gun culture and politics was not found in its traditional mythologies but instead its entrenched refusal to learn from the rest of the world’s experiences.

Presented By
Andrew C. McKevitt, Louisianna Tech University

“The Capital of Fear": The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Transnational Politics of Racial Violence

From 1979 through 1981, Atlanta faced a crisis of catastrophic proportions. Across these two years, dozens of the city’s poor and working-class black youth were kidnapped and slain. As an unknown killer stalked some of Atlanta’s most vulnerable young people, tensions ran high—stoked by a news media infrastructure increasingly adherent to a twenty-four-hour news cycle. Many black Atlantans suspected that one or more white supremacists were responsible for the abductions and murders. They also expressed frustration with the city’s African American political establishment (led by Mayor Maynard Jackson) for its inability to address head on the obvious racial and class dimensions of the slayings. Indeed, critics in Atlanta, nationwide, and globally believed the kidnappings and murders represented “a merciless and savage genocide of Black youths,” according to one activist. Because the Atlanta tragedies coincided with the triumph of a revanchist Reaganism, the Reverend Jesse Jackson called Atlanta “a laboratory for national danger.” Other observers from around the world compared developments in Atlanta to those seen in “the lynching era of the 1920s” and the classical phase of the black freedom struggle. “‘The Capital of Fear’”—which takes its title from a term used in France to describe Atlanta during this period—explores conceptions of violence within the context of the Atlanta youth slayings. It situates the Atlanta kidnappings and killings within the immediate historical context—the late 1970s and early 1980s, a moment of intensifying white power organizing and violence—and within a longer lineage of antiblack violence and terrorism, both nationally and globally.

Presented By
Paul Renfro, Florida State University

“Pleasure and Danger": The Feminist Sex Wars and Responses to Sexual Violence on American College Campuses

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women’s liberation practices led many to develop an antirape consciousness and new theories of sexual violence. Feminists began organizing self-defense training sessions, establishing rape crisis centers, and advocating for reforms in rape crisis care and rape law throughout the United States. By the mid-1970s, women’s liberation feminists and their allies in academic, legal, and medical professions began addressing the problem of sexual violence on American college campuses, developing programs to serve students and people who lived near campus. Simultaneously, a particularly divisive movement emerged from women’s liberation feminism. Antipornography feminists understood pornography and sadomasochism to promote violence against women, believing pornography should be strictly regulated or eliminated altogether by the state. Other feminists pushed back. They accused the antipornography movement of having myopic and dated views of sexuality, stripping women of their sexual agency, and encouraging censorship. While feminists on both sides of the debate agreed on the importance of antiviolence projects, their disagreements over danger and pleasure in sex provoked the “feminist sex wars” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. What role did these distinct cultural politics of violence play in antiviolence work on American college campuses? This paper discusses how activism and theorizing on either side of the “sex wars” were intermeshed with campus anti-violence organizing. Focusing on the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Catharine MacKinnon, I show how divergent understandings of sexual violence shaped the development of policies and programs to address sexual misconduct on American college campuses.

Presented By
Desiree Abu-Odeh, Columbia University

Session Participants

Chair: Clayton Charles Howard, The Ohio State University
Clayton Howard is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the Ohio State University. His book, "The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California," will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in March 2019. He is also the author of “Building a ‘Family Friendly’ Metropolis: Sexuality, the State, and Postwar Housing Policy” in the Journal of Urban History and “Gay and Conservative: An Early History of the Log Cabin Republicans” in the forthcoming book "Beyond the Politics of the Closet in the Age of Reagan: Gay Rights and the American State Since the 1970s." He is currently working on a new project about the history of the gun control movement in the late twentieth century.

Presenter: Desiree Abu-Odeh, Columbia University
Desiree Abu-Odeh is a history-track PhD candidate in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. There she studies the history of public health in the United States and public health ethics. Her research interests include histories of gender, race, sexuality, and social movements in the United States. Before beginning work on her PhD, Desiree earned an MA in Bioethics from the University of Minnesota and an MPH in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University. Her work in bioethics and public health has been published in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, Public Health Reports, and the American Journal of Public Health. Desiree’s dissertation examines the sexual violence problem and anti-violence work on American college campuses from 1950 to 2000. Her dissertation proposal won the Department of Sociomedical Science’s Eugene Litwak Award for excellence in the preparation of a dissertation research proposal. She has received funding for her dissertation research from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Barnard Library, and Smith College Libraries.

Commentator: Darius Bost, University of Utah
Darius Bost is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah. His first book, "Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence" (University of Chicago Press, 2018), is an interdisciplinary study of black gay arts movements in Washington, D.C., and New York City during the early era of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. This research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation; the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Social Sciences at Duke University; the President's Office and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at San Francisco State University; the Martin Duberman Visiting Scholars Program at the New York Public Library; and the Provost’s Office at the University of Pennsylvania. Related research has been published or is forthcoming in Journal of American History, Criticism, Souls, The Black Scholar, Palimpsest, Journal of West Indian Literature, Occasion, and several edited collections.

Presenter: Andrew C. McKevitt, Louisianna Tech University
Andrew C. McKevitt is an associate professor of history at Louisiana Tech University, where he has taught since 2012. His first book, "Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America," was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017. His 2010 Diplomatic History article, “‘You Are Not Alone!’: Anime and the Globalizing of America,” was awarded the Stuart L. Bernath Scholarly Article Prize by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. His other publications include “‘Watching War Made Us Immune’: The Popular Cultures of the Wars,” in Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Beth Bailey and Richard H. Immerman (NYU Press, 2015), and “From ‘the Chosen’ to the Precariat: Southern Workers in Foreign-owned Factories since the 1980s,” in "Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power," edited by Matthew Hild and Keri Leigh Merritt (University Press of Florida, 2018). His current book project explores the global context and impact of U.S. gun violence since the 1960s.

Presenter: Paul Renfro, Florida State University
Paul Renfro is a Dean’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of History at Florida State University. His book, "Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State," is under contract with Oxford University Press and is slated for publication in 2020. Before arriving at FSU, Renfro was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Renfro is the coeditor (with Susan Eckelmann Berghel and Sara Fieldston) of "Growing Up America: Youth and Politics since 1945," which is in production with the University of Georgia Press. Renfro’s scholarship has appeared in Enterprise & Society, Southern Cultures, and American Quarterly, and his article, “‘Hunting These Predators’: The Gender Politics of Child Protection in the Post-9/11 Era,” was published in Feminist Studies in Fall 2018. Another article, titled "This is Not Normal: Ability, Gender, and Age in the Resistance to Trumpism" and coauthored with Byrd McDaniel, will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Disability Studies Quarterly (39, no. 2).