Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"What's Wrong with Black People?" Is Still the Wrong Question

From Pew's latest survey:

During the middle of the last century, at a time when American democracy was a farce and White supremacy the law and practice of the nation, American elites were fond of talking about "the Negro problem." At the time it seemed like a commonplace and benign phrase. It's now obvious that it shaped the terms of the debate in ways that scapegoated Blacks for the nation's problems. There was, of course, considerable disagreement over exactly what "the Negro problem" was. For example, on October 19, 1942, columnist Paul Mallon wrote:
In the natural course of events, if the Negro is allowed the advantages of education to improve himself, there will soon be a Negro on the Supreme Court of the United States and in all positions of prominence and power.

But, you cannot legislate him into that position. Politicians cannot fawn or pamper him into it. Free housing and WPA will not put him there. He can only earn it for himself.

The Negro problem then is to raise the average Negro civilization of the country to the white average, not by fiat or other artificial means, but by providing the Negro with the opportunities to advance himself into it. Amazing strides have been made. ["Negro Problem Mishandled by Politicians," Syracuse Herald Journal, 12].
Keep in mind that this was in 1942. There is no Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act, no Fair Housing law. The White primary is still legal; segregation is still legal; Blacks are still systematically kept down by law and custom. The United States is a White democracy at this point. It is not yet what we now think of as a democracy. Yet to Mallon, "The Negro problem" is one of Black backwardness that can only be solved by allowing space for self-improvement. Thus his phrasing reflects deep-seated beliefs. "The Negro problem" was often seen as literally a Black problem rather than a fault in American institutions or values. Black writers readily saw the hypocrisy and scapegoating here, but even some White commentators noticed it as well. On October 6, 1944, the Iola Register editorialized:
All I know about it is that it should be called the "White Problem," not the "Negro Problem." The whites created it in the first place when they imported Negro slaves for callously selfish purposes. It exists today because of the irrational prejudices and attitudes of the whites, not because of anything the Negroes have done. ["Negro Problem," 4].
But the scapegoating continued. Consider how even sympathetic speakers and ostensibly neutral reporting dealt with the subject. On August 13, 1960, the Colorado Post Gazette reported the remarks of a guest lecturer at the local college:
Most Americans still do not realize that Negro problem is a problem for the whole country, a speaker at Colorado College said Wednesday.

The speaker was Dr. Chase C. Mooney, professor of history at Indiana University...

One of the reasons that the Negro problem is not recognized for what it is across the land is because of the uneven distribution of Negroes in the country, Mooney said.

Until the 20th century, the Negro had no place in the north, but did have a definite place in the south, he said, explaining that it was the south that had worked out a way of life with the Negro and not the north. The north is only now facing that problem, he said...

He pointed out that few people know how many Negroes the country has and where those Negroes live...He said, "How vastly different it is to have the solution to a problem which involved only 3 per cent of the population and to find the solution when the problem involves more than 20 per cent of the population." ["Negro Problem National in Scope, Speaker Says," 21].
Mooney went on to decry the "extremists" of both sides and predicted that the "solution" to the "Negro Problem" would look different in each part of the country. Notice how his argument casts the problem as an essentially demographic issue. Wherever large numbers of Blacks go, trouble ensues. Rather than implicating American institutions and the entire American population, Mooney insists that problem in some areas involved "only 3 per cent" of the population and "more than 20 per cent" in others. In other words, Blacks are the problem. Similarly, but with a little more insight, on January 13, 1946, the Wichita Daily Times editorialized:
If the negroes were dispersed throughout the country, the negro problem would likewise be spread. It would become quite as troublesome a matter in Connecticut and California as it is in Alabama. The states whose negro population were thus increased would discover, to their dismay, that they faced a problem not to be solved merely by letting the negro vote, by calling him mister, or permitting him to sit in the front seats on buses. ["If Negroes Leave the South," 10].
There is a hint here that perhaps Black migration exposes American faults rather than Black failings, but it's still only a hint. The continued use of the "negro problem" phrasing encourages the reader to think that Blacks must accommodate America as it is rather than the nation fundamentally reording itself into a place of justice for all. This, in the end, is why talk of the "Negro problem" was always so high stakes. The Black experience in the United States demanded of Whites either an openness to wholesale changes in their country and in their own minds, or else a doubling down on the scapegoating and racism. It still does. And that brings us back to Pew's recent polling.

It is very difficult to see how the majority opinion on the question above is not an echo of the old scapegoating. This conclusion is supported by looking at Pew's earlier and broader question about poverty in general:

Thus most Americans believe that poverty, as a general part of the human condition, is explained by external circumstances. At the same time, a much larger majority of Americans believe that Black poverty is individualized. Let's restate that. In the general poverty question, external factors are favored by +11. In the specific Black poverty question, individual factors are favored by +36. That's a 47 point swing. There is not good reason for it. That 47 point difference exists because we still believe in the "Negro problem."

And that's not the worst of it. Pew's question is itself a capitulation to our old assumptions about Black inferiority. Pew informs respondents that many Blacks have trouble getting ahead, and invites them to explain that fact by either external racism or internal failure. The conceit and racism in this question is the false belief that the lack of Black success is a problem in need of explanation. Where have we derived our magical standard by which we can judge the level of success a group of people ought to have in the midst of systemically unequal opportunity? Pew ought to ask a much more simple question that is at once less speculative and amply factual: "Why do Blacks have fewer opportunities than other groups in the United States?" This question would encourage the respondent to think about the world as it actually is rather than jumping to a blame game that completely elides causation.

I chuckle as I write that, though. Even now, I'm sure there are readers who think something about that question is unfair or less than true. Giving up the attachments to our race and to our country so that we can become comfortable with truth and justice is extremely difficult, especially when we are in denial about the very existence or power of these attachments. It is nothing less than a process of spiritual conversion. To speak in Christian terms, it is a matter of sanctification and moving on from "milk" fit for babies to the "meat of the word."

In its most basic and unvarnished form, White Americans have always been asking the question, "What's wrong with Black people?" If you phrase it appropriately, it is still socially acceptable to ask that question. And millions of us would still rather have that discussion than call our society, and our own sinful habits of mind, to account. There is no quick or easy solution, but everyone of goodwill must consider how we can build empathy and moral imagination in a culture that is atomizing. We must tie ourselves to others in a culture that increasingly says we are individuals with responsibility only to ourselves. And there I go again, preaching what I can't seem to practice.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Gettysburg in Film vs. Reality

My favorite movie as a kid was the 1993 four hour civil war epic, Gettysburg, starring Martin Sheen as General Lee and Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain. (Yes, I was that kind of kid.) I'd like to revisit it now that I've read Allen C. Guelzo's new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo is a serious historian, and it shows. He demolishes nearly every myth yours truly took in as a I watched and re-watched the Hollywood version of the story as a child.

We learn, for example, that Chamberlain owes his reputation as much to his long life and gift for self-promotion as for the objective importance of his heroics on Little Round Top. Several other low-level commanders who offered equally vital service in holding the tenuous Union line on that second day paid for it with their lives. Guelzo also shows an astute political sense, revealing the cleavages between abolitionists and Democrats among the Army's top generals. As late as the Gettysburg campaign, the upper crust of the Army of the Potomac remained a largely McClellanite faction. Talented abolitionist commanders repeatedly found themselves stuck in low-level command. In Guelzo's account, abolitionist O.O. Howard is praised, and his 150-year old bad reputation is at least partly ascribed to his political beliefs. More provocatively, the possibility that commanding general Meade's moderate politics informed his failure to aggressively pursue Lee after the battle cannot be discounted.

The military narrative is handled deftly, but Guelzo's key contributions lay elsewhere. He does not shy away from the true nature of the invading army or the purpose for which it fought. As Confederate divisions spread across south central Pennsylvania, they had little compunction about "sweeping up any black people they could lay their hands upon," including those born free in the North (73). Put simply, kidnapping was the official policy of Confederate armies. Guelzo puts this policy in its appropriate context:
This might, in the larger scheme of the campaign, have seemed a waste of military time, but slaves were a valuable commodity. As one farmer was told by Confederates who were escorting "four wagon loads of women & children between Chambersburg & the Maryland line," even the children "will bring something." This was, after all, an army whose cause was inextricably bound up with the defense of black enslavement. To have left Pennsylvania's blacks in undisturbed freedom would have been tantamount to denying the validity of the whole Confederate enterprise. (73-74).
Of even more interest is Guelzo's description of what the Confederacy's premier army in the field actually looked like. A British military observer of the Gettysburg campaign noted, "in rear of each regiment were from twenty to thirty negro slaves." Guelzo writes:
From the beginning of the war, Confederate armies had annexed large contingents of slaves--between 12,000 and 20,000 at Manassas Junction in 1861, and "fifteen or twenty thousand" on the Peninsula in 1862. By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, Thomas Caffey, an English-born Confederate artilleryman, estimated that "in our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash." (160-161).
The very appearance of the opposing armies reflected the differing social and economic visions for which they fought. While Confederate armies took advantage of thousands of forced laborers to perform the menial tasks of camp life, Union armies had to rely on their own soldiers. The fact that as many as 30,000 enslaved Blacks marched into Pennsylvania with Lee's 80,000 White soldiers is not reflected in popular narratives of Gettysburg or the war. I certainly don't recall seeing many slaves in the movie I loved so much. Their absence fosters a false portrait of a conflict between two honorable and equally sympathetic sides.

The true appearance of a Confederate Army is little known today, and it's easy to see why. The basic apparatus of the Confederate war machine rebukes all the attempts to recast the war as a battle between White brothers with merely differing views of the Constitution. When we take in the logistical realities of the how the opposing armies operated, we're reminded that the war was fought on the same grounds on which it was provoked: whether a slave society or a free labor society ought to have supremacy on the North American continent.

This also confronts the myth of the Black Confederate soldier. Rooted in the remembrance activities of White Confederate veterans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern-day apologists for the South have attempted to recast the enslaved forced laborers as "soldiers" who gladly fought for the South. The persistence of the Black Confederate soldier myth shows that we are not blind to the ideological and moral importance of what the respective armies looked like. Just as the reality of tens of thousands of enslaved menial laborers presents a microcosm of the South's anti-democratic cause, the myth of the Black soldier implies an egalitarian cause fought for states' rights and limited government.

Black soldiers did, of course, play a decisive role in the final years of the war, as 200,000 served in the Union Army and Navy. But at Gettysburg that was still in the future, as was the Confederacy's last-gasp and half-hearted effort in the final months of the war to organize a Black regiment. Allen Guelzo has subtitled his book, "The Last Invasion." Unlike so many popular treatments of the battle, we can begin to see what this invasion represented: an expansive White slaveholder's republic, designed to persist indefinitely. The invasion was a moral as well as a physical drama, constituting the high-water mark of tyranny in the United States. We can only be grateful that it failed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How To Tell If You Care About History

David Frum has written perhaps the most robust critique I've yet seen of Ta-Nehisi Coates' call for reparations. His bottom line:
In this month’s Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an eloquent case for restitution to black Americans, not only for wrongs done before 1865, but as much or more for wrongs done in the century of segregation that followed. Yet this powerful essay explicitly disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work? ...
Coates dismisses all these questions and so many others. He suggests the country first enact Rep. John Conyers’ Reparations Bill and then open a discussion about how reparations would work. But committing yourself to a solution before you have any idea whether such a solution is workable—or, rather, in defiance of pretty strong reasons that your solution is utterly unworkable—is not a responsible reaction to America’s racial dilemmas.
Coates offers a devastating rebuttal here.  I'd like to pile on. Frum's argument sidesteps the main point of Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece -- that we must reckon with our history. Frum insists that we must jump straight ahead to figuring out precisely what the end result of that reckoning might be. He is usually a careful writer, but here he badly misrepresents what Coates wants and what Conyers' bill would do. He calls it the "Reparations Bill" and claims that only after its passage would a discussion begin about how reparations ought to work. In fact, the bill in question would itself be the discussion. That's all it is. It is not a reparations bill of any kind, nor would it commit the country to any course of action. Proceeding from his misconception, he says that committing to a solution before determining if it is workable is irresponsible. But Conyers' bill and Coates' advocacy involve no commitment to a predetermined solution. Unwittingly it appears, Frum has placed himself in opposition to the very examination of plausibility that he demands. He says we must ask, "How would it work?" but then a few paragraphs later ridicules the only proposed bill that seeks to study his own question.

The meat of Frum's piece is in his comparison of reparations to affirmative action. He contends that, like affirmative action, any potential reparations regime would be racially divisive, unfair and impractical in its implementation, ever-widening in scope, and uncertain in its effects.  In short, it would be all the worst consequences of affirmative action times 1000. Parts of Frum's argument are just flatly false. While arguing that reparations for African Americans would inevitably lead to calls for payments to other groups, Frum embarrassingly asks, "What about...Japanese Americans, interned during World War II?" The answer is, they got their reparations a quarter century ago. Oops.

The largest part of Frum's argument dwells on the fact that, as with affirmative action, "the legitimacy of the project will rapidly fade," especially among White Americans. On this he is surely right, if nothing substantial changes in the interval. But can't he see that this gets to the crux of Coates' point? Our failure to reckon with our history is actively precluding the search for meaningful solutions in the present. It is not just that a reparations program would lack legitimacy among White Americans. It is that any attempt to specifically confront ongoing racial inequities in American life is generally unpopular. I am sure that there are many issues of bedrock concern to Frum that do not rely upon mass "legitimacy" from the public. Yet when it comes to trying to eradicate White supremacy from our national life, Frum's essential argument is, "Yes, but people don't want to do that, so it would be impractical."

Frum's sloppy argument is intriguing because it is hard to find a more incisive right of center political commentator, and he is empathetic and lacking in prejudice. Yet racial justice, in particular, exposes the limits of our imaginations. It does so in two dimensions. First, most Americans cannot conceive of a United States in which White people are not on top. It is not so much a matter of supporting or not supporting it; it is at bottom an inability to even imagine what that would look like. We cannot achieve that which we cannot dream. This is intimately tied to the second failure of imagination, the historical. Like most Americans, Frum fails to see how an honest reckoning with our history, en masse, would inevitably transform our politics and social contract. We might not call the result reparations, but the systemic assault on Black Americans would finally be brought to a close. Frum talks about Coates' admirable opening up of history on the one hand and the inevitable unpopularity of reparations on the other as if they are distinct from each other. He doesn't appear to take seriously the idea that our present politics of White supremacy absolutely depends on stifling basic historical and sociological knowledge. Frum writes,
If “reparations” means remembrance and repentance for the wrongs of the past, then let’s have reparations. Americans tell a too-flattering version of their national story. They treat slavery as ancillary rather than essential. They forget that the work of slaves paid this country’s import bill from the 17th century until 1860. They do not acknowledge that the “freedom” championed by slaveholding Founding Fathers, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, included the freedom to own other human beings as property. They can no longer notice how slavery is stitched into every line of the Constitution and was supported by every single early national institution. The self-reckoning we see in Germany and other European countries does not come easily to Americans—and is still outright rejected by many.
If Frum really thought that history was important, he would understand that this kind of "reparations" would inevitably produce more tangible changes in public policy as well. He goes on to talk about a program of improvement for all Americans, completely eliding the radically different worlds Black and White Americans inhabit, as well as the intense political opposition even his meager program would encounter. Historical myths concerned with national greatness and innocence are unsteady foundations for just public policy. In other contexts, Frum and all of us understand this so much that it need not be stated. Does it matter to our world, after all, that the rampant affection for Hitler and blaming of Jews in post-World War II Germany was defeated in a deliberate effort among certain segments of German society to dredge up their past and recall it well? Of course it matters. Yet here in the United States it is often the most outwardly patriotic among us who are most insistent on the irrelevance of our history.

Frum's denigration of history is further revealed in his extensive and seemingly random discursion about the appalling amount of time Black youth spend in front of electronic screens. This is a problem that does not seem amenable to reparations:
No plausible government program can shut down their devices for them. That decision—like almost every decision that leads to self- and collective improvement—must come from within families and within individuals.
"Racism may have turned the TV set on," Frum writes, but "Anti-racism won’t turn the TV set off." This is cute, but Frum again fails to account for the "tangled simultaneity" of human experience in which the past shapes the present in confounding ways (Berber Bevernage). Due to the past and present discrimination that Coates spent so much of his essay addressing, Black and White children grow up in what might as well be different countries. Again, look at the graph! Frum controls for income and education but fails to control for neighborhood as Patrick Sharkey does in his recent book. I wonder how many conversations Frum has had with African American parents about their children's screen time. I will never forget the Black mom who told me her goal for the summer was to keep her two young boys off the streets and safely back in school the following year. Planting your kids in front of the TV is infinitely better than letting them play outside when you're worried they might get shot. Notice how history and racism is infused into every debate: untold numbers of Americans read that prior sentence as "shot in neighborhoods they're too violent or lazy or immoral to take care of." History and common decency reads that sentence as, "shot in neighborhoods our governments and society created." 

In one respect, Frum is right about the relationship between affirmative action and a reparations program. Opposition to affirmative action has often revealed more about the prejudices of its opponents than the flaws of the program. I am still looking for that mythical White man who is as viscerally upset about legacy admissions, employment discrimination against minorities, and stop-and-frisk as he is about affirmative action. In the same way, opposition to reparations is a legitimate and appropriate view to hold. But the frequent tendency to hold it in isolation, with no apparent concern for justice, and no viable alternative program to eradicate White supremacy, is a reflection of the callous ignorance Coates is fighting against.

So how can you tell if you care about history? Can you see the White supremacy right in front of your nose, and can you imagine a future without it? If not, you could do worse than picking up a history book you wouldn't normally read and giving it a try. Especially for the Christians among us, it is chastening to find that the atheist Ta-Nehisi Coates has a more humble and Christian view of the limits of the individual human being than we often do. We are all constrained by the sin within us, around us, and -- importantly to this discussion -- before us. We carry the past with us whether we want to or not. We might as well learn, and endeavor to carry it responsibly.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thoughts for Sunday

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
          --2 Corinthians 5:16-19

Christ's act of reconciliation was done in history, tangibly, at a specific place and time. In receiving it, we find history vitally present and the myth that the past is separate from our experience is broken. The work of the Christian historian is reconciliation. The things that divide us here and now are older than ourselves. We cannot seek justice in the present apart from reckoning with our tangled pasts.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Atlantic's Reparations Cover Story Is A Revelation. Whose Fault Is That?

As the reaction to Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay begins to build, I can't help but feel that historians have failed dramatically. Few of us could ever hope to write with the lyrical quality and emotional punch of Coates, but the basic facts and ideas he's working with are old and well-established. Historians and sociologists uncovered these things--sometimes decades ago--and now they get repackaged in an Atlantic cover story and people find them revelatory.

Don't get me wrong. I am thrilled about this piece. I am deeply pleased that the Atlantic chose to publish it, and as a faithful reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I hope one day to write even a quarter as well as he does. But we can't rely on a few superhuman essayists like Coates to get the word out about the basic contours of American history. Shouldn't we be able to do that ourselves? It is unfair and unrealistic to expect brilliant writers like Coates to do all the heavy lifting of translating the best academic work into popularly accessible forms. The gap is just so large. Finding sustainable ways to bridge it is a perennial challenge. One sympathetic reviewer of Coates's article remarked that it is so long because the ideas are too important to be summarized--not realizing that the piece is itself, all 15,000 words of it, a summary. As I wrote yesterday, this is one of its great virtues. In the course of reading it, people are getting snippets of about two dozen key books without even realizing it.

Why can't we do this more often? From the blogosphere to the nightly news, there are routinely stories and discussions that cry out for the perspective that history provides, but its often nowhere to be found except in its most presentist and vulgar forms. (Presentist history is so focused on the present that it distorts the past, using it for contemporary purposes rather than first understanding it). The absence of good history from our public debates stems from a variety of factors. From the outside looking in, many Americans, including professional journalists and politicians, simply don't understand what historians do and don't really understand what knowledge of the past looks like or what it accomplishes. People tend either to be uninterested in history, or to use it for cheap validation of their opinions.

On the other side, historians are often their own worst enemies. As a historian in training, I know the pressure to tailor everything toward academia, leaving precious little energy or thought for more popular settings. Publishing in a major magazine won't help me get tenure. Publishing in an obscure academic journal with a few hundred readers will help me. This is understandable and fairly appropriate, but has perverse effects. Historians begin to talk to each other instead of to the public. It is compounded by the pompous attitudes we adopt, acting as though accessible and popular forms of history are automatically vulgar and beneath us. I believe that this is often a defense mechanism. When your academic book sells 500 copies while the latest drivel from Bill O-Reilly sells millions, you comfort yourself with the knowledge that your book is too serious and important to be enjoyed by most people. To a certain extent, this is basically true, but it is also an indictment of our work. Can't the important also be made compelling? Even if we don't change our academic books and articles, we ought to spend more time after academic publication trying to rework those texts into shorter and more accessible forms that could be published in a magazine or blogging platform.

But in the end I'm not sure what the solution is. Is it simply a matter of taking the time to strip down our work? Or do we need to work to establish more institutional connections between academic departments and popular media forms? I could envision a future where the kind of piece Ta-Nehisi Coates just published in the Atlantic is a capstone, a hook to draw people in, timed with the release of the author's academic book. There are complicating factors though. The more popular the form, the more politicized the subject. Most historians are justly wary of becoming politicized figures. For that reason, perhaps historians do need to rely on others to popularize their work. In the end, perhaps all I'm really saying is this: One of the reasons the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates feels so different from what you normally read is that he is drawing so heavily on academic historians. More people should do this!