Monday, April 20, 2015

The Folly of Transcending Race In A Society of Racial Inequality

The historian David Roediger wrote a book back in 2008 called How Race Survived US History. At the end he discussed the excitement, confusion, and varied reactions elicited by Barack Obama's 2008 candidacy for president. (That seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it?) On the one hand, the possibilities of a post-racial America were everywhere bandied about. On the other hand, the media endlessly reported on and speculated about how this or that racial group responded to Obama. Surveying the scene, Roediger offered this gem of a sentence:
Such careening representations of the Obama campaign reflect an overwhelming desire to transcend race without transcending racial inequality, as well as the impossibility of doing so.
This might fairly be said not only of the Obama campaign, but of the entire ideological project of colorblindness. It promises to put an end to race without any sacrifice or broader change required. But the promise it seems to hold is ultimately illusory. How can we be colorblind when the inequities that reproduce race remain with us? This is too troubling for American society to face, so we get people performing their racial progressivism by voting for a Black man rather than supporting more substantial changes. Barack Obama may be a two-term president, but something as obvious, moral, and practical as reparations is still not to be mentioned in most polite company. As much as we may want to move beyond race, we're quite attached to racial inequality.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why Black Southerners Fought

Nearly two hundred thousand African Americans served in Union forces during the Civil War. Most of them had formerly been enslaved; others were free Blacks from the North. Nearly all of these 200,000 served in the last two years of the war, after the Lincoln administration finally yielded both to military necessity and Black demands, allowing the formation of Black regiments. In 1863 there were horrific draft riots in the North and for much of 1864 Lincoln assumed he would lose the presidency, and with it the Union. It's not at all clear the North could have won the war without the mobilization of Black troops. As Lincoln put it in 1864:
Abandon all the posts now garrisoned by black men, take one hundred and fifty thousand men from our side and put them in the battle-field or corn-field against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.
The addition of Black troops proved not only to be a decisive military advantage, it also wreaked havoc on White southern ideology. African Americans were said to be docile and content in their natural condition of slavery. When enslaved people violently resisted, White southern ideology tried to drain the violence of any political content, chalking it up to innate savagery. White southerners assumed that African Americans did not have a capacity for organized violence. As Howell Cobb wrote:
The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.
The trouble was, by the summer of 1863 Black troops in the blue uniforms of the federal government were marching into the South carrying deadly weapons, and were manifestly making good soldiers. The first significant engagement with large numbers of Black troops occurred at Port Hudson, Louisiana in May, 1863. It was a disastrous attack in a winning campaign (Vicksburg fell on July 4, cutting the confederacy in two), but the discipline of the Black troops under fire surprised Union officers. Charles Dana wrote,
The sentiment in regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle...prominent officers, who used in private sneer at the idea, are now heartily in favor of it.
Not only that, the northern public began to see images of Black troops on the attack. In our visual age, the images may look stale or even silly, but this was how the northern public saw the war. For a White northern public that took Black inferiority for granted, images of Black soldiers heroically dying for the Union were revelatory and substantially changed northern attitudes.
Image published in the North after the battle of Port Hudson
Why did these Black soldiers fight? There are, of course, as many reasons as soldiers, but there are at least three that stand out. They fought to prove their manhood, to gain citizenship rights, and to free enslaved people. As Frederick Douglass wrote,
Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US...a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.
As Black troops continued to serve with distinction, Colonel Thomas Higginson of the 33rd USCT (reflecting the racism of the moment, Black regiments had White officers) wrote:
No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops...Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives.
It is important, after all, to avoid an essentialist reading of Black performance in the Civil War, as if they had an innate capacity to be good soldiers that others did not possess. Rather, as Col. Higginson observed, they had more to fight for. For one thing, Black troops who tried to surrender on the battlefield risked being murdered or reenslaved by irate Confederate forces. And if the ideas of manhood and citizenship could dissolve into abstractions, the people for which Black soldiers fought were all too real. In many cases, African American troops had friends and family who were still enslaved. One such soldier was Spotswood Rice. In September 1864, Rice wrote to his former enslaver, Kittey Diggs,  to warn her that he was coming for his enslaved children. The letter is worth chewing over for a long time. I present it here with spelling and grammar uncorrected.
The Original Letter of Spotswood Rice
I received a letter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own an you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root near branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your vertues the day that we enter Glasgow I want you to understand Kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each othere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I cam down hear did you give Children anything not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs now you call my children your property not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away an to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary our of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self.
The Confederate Capital. Richmond, VA, May 1865
Short version: he is coming at the head of 1,000 Black soldiers to execute vengeance and restore his children to himself, and Kittey Diggs will burn in hell for what she has done.This is why Black soldiers fought. This is the revolution White southerners feared and desperately tried to forestall. At war's end, their docile contented slaves were a federal army, armed to the teeth to execute vengeance as they marched into the Confederacy's destroyed capital. Sometimes, at least if you stop the narrative at the place of your choosing, history really does have happy endings.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why White Southerners Fought

We've just passed the 150th Anniversary of Appomattox, where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in April, 1865, bringing the Civil War's denouement to the point of formality. In times like these, I like to remember why the White South fought. The Vice-President of the Confederacy explained it quite clearly in the spring of 1861:
Alexander Stephens, Vice President, CSA
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of the equality of all human beings]; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery 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...it is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice.
Let's break this down a little bit. The context here is Stephens talking about how wrong the founding fathers had been. He framed them as either anti-slavery or at least uncomfortable with the institution. In his view, they had imbibed harmful enlightenment ideas about the equality of all human beings. And though their Constitution had protected racial slavery well enough for three generations, it was now time for the South to break away and establish itself firmly on the foundation of racial slavery, in perpetuity. Rather than seeing slavery as a necessary evil, it was now a positive good. The southern system was not only practical as a means of creating prosperity and White social solidarity, it was a divine order aligned with natural and moral law.

Christians will immediately recognize that Stephens' speech is not only explicitly racist, but blasphemous. Using language the New Testament uses repeatedly to describe Jesus Christ, Stephens calls slavery "the stone" which was rejected by the first "builders" (the founding fathers). White southerners have now made slavery the "corner-stone," building their whole society upon it. In the New Testament, Christ is the cornerstone of the household of God, the cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 2 and elsewhere). For Stephens, slavery is to the Confederacy as Jesus Christ is to the Christian church. You comfortable with that?

Where, then, did all this states' rights stuff come from? It has a variety of roots, but one of the funniest is Stephens himself. By 1868, three years after losing the war, he was already singing a different tune. He wrote that the war had merely been a battle between contrasting views of government; one national, one federal. It wasn't about slavery after all! Unfortunately for Stephens, he was unable to expunge his 1861 speech from the historical record.

The reason the "cornerstone" speech is important is not because it is a "gotcha" document to use as a cudgel in a historical debate. After all, you can find people saying all sorts of things in the historical record, much of it contradictory. Rather, the speech is useful precisely because it exemplifies, in a particularly clear and entertaining fashion, what you'll find to actually be true of the antebellum South if you look into it a little bit. The South really was a slave society on an intense scale, one of the few in global history. It was a slave society in that not only did it have enslaved people (as many societies all over the world have) but one's identity, one's social place, was based primarily on one's relationship to the institution. There were three primary kinds of people: enslavers, enslaved, and those hoping to become enslavers. (How free Blacks in the South fit into this picture is an interesting discussion.)

Last I looked, some polling indicated that nearly half of Americans think the Civil War was about states' rights. If they're really attached to the term, they can keep it I suppose, as long as they correctly answer the follow up question: a state's right to do what?

All of this often feels rather trivial or even silly, but in fact these false beliefs are a mark of the moral degradation of our public culture. Good and decent people harbor these assumptions, which indicates a systemic problem. It is not a question of personal evil. This kind of systemically enforced ignorance is similar, I imagine, to the genocide and atrocity denial that is mainstream in places like Turkey and Japan. I firmly believe public memory matters. If we can't be honest about the White supremacist state our founders established, and the myriad ways it survived civil war and Reconstruction, we certainly are not equipped to repair it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Spectacle, the Ordinary, and the Stubborn Persistence of White Supremacy

From the 1940s to the 1970s, during the Black freedom movement, Americans grappled with what it meant to live in a White supremacist state. More than at any time before or since, people wrestled with what it meant to live amid a set of laws, institutions, customs, and systems that systematically advantaged Whiteness while systematically disadvantaging Blackness. People responded to it in thousands of different ways. Some among the Black middle class felt they had something invested in this system. Many African Americans joined the protests of these years; others just kept their heads down and pressed on as best they could. A minority of Whites violently resisted the movement. On the other end of the spectrum, a small number of Whites became allies and activists themselves. In the vast middle, millions of Whites went on with their lives much as they had done before. They were no more likely to examine the foundations of their society than we are ours.

So they put a down payment on that first house, not realizing they were getting the subsidized White price for it. They held down that good job, not realizing their Whiteness was one of their key qualifications. They sent their kids to school, not realizing that their Whiteness was, in part, paying for their children's education. They were utterly ordinary. They were not monsters. They lived in a system in which doing right by your kids and being a good neighbor usually meant embracing the wages of Whiteness rather than spurning them. Embracing what society said was your due wreaked existential violence on other human beings. But they didn't know that. They were normal people.

And so the Black freedom movement ran up against an insuperable obstacle. This obstacle was not the dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs that you have in your mind's eye. Sure, the Bull Connor's and Jim Clark's of the world were real enough, but they were not the true problem. In fact, their cartoonish violence played right into the movement's hands, generating sympathy from the nation. But the movement became reliant upon the spectacle, the violence, the iconic images coming out of places like Birmingham and Selma. In the process, many White Americans lost what little chance they might have had of understanding what White supremacy looked like. The Black freedom movement ran headlong into the sheer banality of White supremacy. The mundane ordinariness of it. The challenge the movement faced, and never figured out how to overcome, was simple: how could they get people who cared about this....
White supremacy defended, Birmingham Alabama, 1963.
To also care about this....
White supremacy practiced, Philadelphia, PA.
This is a Home Owner's Loan Corporation community rating map. The HOLC, like the Federal Housing Authority, was a new federal agency created in the 1930s by the New Deal. It made maps like this for every major city in the country. The federal government rated communities on a scale from A to D. Some of the factors considered made apparent sense: age of the housing stock, community infrastructure, etc. But the racial composition of neighborhoods was usually the determinative factor. African American communities, or communities perceived to be at risk of racial transition, invariably received bad ratings. Residents of a community with a D rating had extraordinary difficulty accessing mortgage financing.  Cut off from mainstream financing, African Americans and other minorities faced widespread predatory credit schemes. It was not unusual for Whites of similar status just blocks away to receive FHA mortgages. Through the FHA, the federal government created a new, subsidized, national mortgage market for White Americans that brought cheap mortgages to a broad working and middle class for the first time.

This boring and rather technical story was all but invisible to most White Americans (it still is) and besides, it didn't make for nearly as sexy headlines as dogs attacking peaceful protestors in Birmingham. Millions of Whites were genuinely upset about what they saw on their TV screens emanating from Birmingham, but it only seemed to reinforce their sense that White supremacy was a distant problem, the province of epithet-spewing southern sheriffs and the backward towns they led. White Americans didn't realize that the boring story of how they bought their house was far more damaging to African Americans than a few southern sheriffs and their petty tyranny.

The Black freedom movement could not overcome this disconnect. At the height of the movement in 1963, while Americans reeled in revulsion over the deaths of four little girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Gallup continued to report that the overwhelming majority of White Americans said they "might" or would "probably" move if significant numbers of African Americans moved into their neighborhood. Most Whites failed to realize that this quiet, unassuming sense of what their neighborhood should be was more murderous, in the aggregate, than a hundred church bombings could be.

And now I worry that we're doing it again. We can keep up a steady drumbeat of news about police shootings. Every day, or few, if we're granted a reprieve, comes another story of people being killed in circumstances that are questionable at best. But isn't that our generation's version of the spectacle? Isn't that our generation's way of avoiding the more intractable ordinariness of White supremacy? Communities all over the country, including many that pride themselves on their supposed progressivism, deliberately zone themselves to exclude the poor and people of color. In schools all over the country, we make a mockery of the plain text of Brown v. Board, and we brazenly honor the decision as if we still mean it. Black children routinely grow up in concentrated poverty, an experience that is exceptionally rare for any White children.

Don't get me wrong. I want the shootings to end. But they are embedded in a web of institutions and laws and customs that go deep. So we need to imagine more. I imagine a society where my Whiteness is no longer an advantage, and Blackness is no longer suspect. I imagine a society where the image of God is honored in every human being. If that's too utopian for your taste, I will settle for seeing it in the church first. Let's go.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Black Lives Matter

On St. Patrick's Day, Martese Johnson, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested for public intoxication. This is what he looked like after the police took him to the ground:

martese johnson
 Last night, hundreds of UVA students rallied and marched in protest.








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They're just not going to take it any more. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope. I don't believe any of that "millenials are less racist" hype. But there is something more substantial going on. My generation does not remember the civil rights movement. We don't even remember Black Power and the controversies of the 1970s. We honor the achievements of the civil rights generation. They transformed the country for the better. But a critical mass of this generation is done living in their shadow. We're done comparing America to the White supremacist state it was and saying that because it's not that anymore everything is ok. We're ready to compare America to basic standards of justice, decency, and humanity. And when we do that, we find it wanting. We're not going to take it anymore.

It's still a small number of people who feel this way. But (people don't realize this) it was a relatively small number of people who made the civil rights movement happen. Most people did not march. Most people did not protest. We don't need most people. We just need a motivated and mobilized minority to achieve the change we seek.

There was a time not long ago when what happened to Martese Johnson would have gone unnoticed. Not anymore. Many people have woken up, and many people have been radicalized by what they have seen. It matters little that Michael Brown has been a less than perfect exemplar for the movement, any more than the deliberate misrepresentations of Rosa Parks in the 1950s delegitimized the civil rights movement. The movement, and the righteousness of its demands, was bigger than any one individual and story.

Last week, someone shot two police officers in Ferguson. Within four days, officials made an arrest and brought charges (amid allegations that they beat the individual). There are still questions about whether he event meant to shoot at the police. Meanwhile, we have killers on video, whose identities have been known for months, and no arrests have been made.

Tamir Rice's killer has not been arrested or charged.
Jason Harrison's killers have not been arrested or charged, and they are back on duty.
Eric Garner's killers are likewise free.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes' killers are free. 

In contrast to the Michael Brown case, these instances are on video. They show inexcusable and reckless violence. We're not going to take it anymore. The police have felt unfairly accused and criticized of late. That's understandable. But it could hardly be otherwise when the state tasks police with the job of enforcing an unjust status quo. From education to housing to employment, the racist structures of our society wrongfully harm millions of people. Sometimes, when police pull the trigger, they are only the final actors in a long process of the state denying the equal humanity of certain classes of its citizens. We had become accustomed to a situation in which the state exercised its monopoly on violence with relative impunity. But we're not going to take it any more. Now we demand accountability. Now we say that manslaughter and murder should be prosecuted regardless of who commits it.

Those who oppose the rule of law for all citizens don't seem to understand this: our view of the police has become more negative not so much because of specific incidents of bad behavior, but because those behaviors have been defended by police officials. In a country of 320 million people, you can find people abusing authority every day. What has been shocking is that police at the highest levels have publicly defended the indefensible all over the country. By doing so in cases like Tamir's and Eric's, they fail in their responsibility to exercise the state's power with restraint and fairness. By defending their own no matter what, they approach the issue with all the moral sophistication of a common street gang. We refuse to accept that this heavily armed group that has been given the power of violence should not be held to a higher standard.

I shouldn't let this go without saying that surely most police officers are good and decent people. But I can't emphasize enough that this misses the point entirely. Most educators are good and decent people. Yet our education system is racially segregated. Most homeowners are good and decent people. Yet our communities are segregated. Most Christians are good and decent people. Yet our churches are racially segregated. We are not attacking individual police officers. We are attacking a system of racism.

Here's another thing, the biggest thing, that gives me hope. Even though the majority of the White evangelical church still slumbers in its sin, a minority has woken up. Christians all over the country are quietly living and working in the neighborhoods that most Americans shun. People of color are taking leadership roles. And a growing number of evangelicals are discovering that passionate concern for things like Black Lives Matter is not less than orthodoxy; it is orthodoxy. A growing number are rejecting the syncretisms of our age: the materialist, feel-good faith, the nationalist faith, and most of all, the attempted union between Whiteness and Christianity. Growing numbers recognize that while the Gospel is more than the Old Testament prophetic tradition, it is certainly not less than that. Growing numbers are willing to reclaim biblical language of shalom, peace,  and mishpat, justice, and insist on their relevance today.

I mentioned to an elder from whom I am receiving spiritual instruction that I did not even recognize the Old Testament prophetic tradition of God's care for the weak and wrath toward oppressors until I was an adult. He, an utterly orthodox, conservative, elderly White man, simply said, "Well that's because oppression is our pet sin. Oppressors don't talk about oppression. And White folks have done a lot of evil things in this country." There was no trace of guilt or angst in his response, just simple Christian honesty and humility. A growing number of evangelicals are embracing this honesty.

At my alma mater, Moody Bible Institute, a bastion of historic fundamentalism, the president has unequivocally spoken about the unjust advantages White people have in the United States. For those who know a little of the history of Moody and of White fundamentalism more broadly, this is an astonishing change. The Gospel Coalition, an influential network of evangelical leaders, hosts honest discussion of racism on its website and is holding a big conference on the subject later this year.

It's too early to say that any of this is yet mainstream in White evangelicalism. But the ground is shifting beneath our feet. As a historian, I admit that I am not at all sure the Black Lives Matter Movement will amount to much. As a Christian, however, I have great hope. We need to pray more fervently, act more diligently, and call the church to rise up. What group or organization is better positioned to act locally in thousands of communities across the country? What group is better positioned to know its community's needs and the reforms that are needed? What group is better able to encourage spiritual depth and responsibility, and bring good news to the poor that is more than the empty, soulless materialism of the American Dream?

In the last movement, the White evangelical church reluctantly accepted the changes that had taken place. It followed. Now it is time to lead.