Saturday, December 14, 2013

Political Violence and Double Standards

Ta-Nehisi Coates had a brilliant post a few days ago about Mandela's use of violence to achieve his aims, and how we interpret that in light of our country's history:
Offered the chance to be free by the avowed white supremacist P.W. Botha if he would renounce violence, Mandela replied“Let him renounce violence.” Americans should understand this. Violent resistance to tyranny, violent defense of one's body, is not simply a political strategy in our country, it is taken as a basic human right. Our own revolution was purchased with the blood of 22,000 nascent American dead. Dissenters were tarred and feathered. American independence and American power has never rested on nonviolence, but on the willingness to do great—at times existential—violence...
In the shadow of our conversation, one sees a constant, indefatigable specter which has dogged us from birth. For the most of American history, very few of our institutions believed that black people were entitled to the rights of other Americans. Included in this is the right of self-defense. Nonviolence [in the civil rights movement] worked because it conceded that right in the pursuit of other rights. But one should never lose sight of the precise reasons why America preaches nonviolence to some people while urging other people to arms.
This is a nuanced and important point that I think modern Americans would benefit from understanding. The use of nonviolence during the civil rights movement was the only strategically viable option. Moreover, from a Christian perspective, it was the right choice. While affirming these two basic points, we must add a third, equally true: by the standards of American patriotism and by most people's understanding of basic human rights, had Black Americans chosen an armed struggle in the 1950s and 1960s it would have been an appropriate and moral action.

This straightforward idea is hard to argue against, but if carried through it really alters perceptions of the second half of the twentieth century, especially dynamics such as the Black Power movement.  

We should all be glad that Black Americans did not choose the route of armed struggle -- not, importantly, because it would have been wrong, but because it would have been hopeless. The disparities of power and population size would have quickly told, especially when the millions of Americans who wrapped themselves in the flag and extolled the Revolution of 1776 were exposed as lovers of their own freedom in particular rather freedom itself.

It is hard to imagine any tactic other than nonviolence producing results as positive as those the civil rights movement achieved. But that should not blind us to its shortcomings. In particular, it let White Americans off the hook, allowing them to tacitly accede to some moderate changes in the social order without ever truly grappling with its White supremacist foundations. Fundamental double-standards remain in American life, and they are revealed in stark form when we're forced to question when political violence is appropriate.

As a Christian, I do not believe violence would have been a legitimate moral means of obtaining Black Americans' freedom in the twentieth century. But we ought to be consistent. The American Revolution was even more unjustified and illegitimate from a Christian perspective.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Restoring a Sense of Contingency to the Civil Rights Movement

Contingency is just a fancy way of saying that things could have ended differently from how they did. This sounds simple enough, but it's actually contrary to the way we usually think about historical events. We read backward in time and assign to historical actors knowledge that they did not have. We don't do this consciously, of course, but it's really pervasive in the way we see the past. It seems to me it would be particularly useful to restore a sense of contingency to the civil rights movement. I say "useful" because this restoration of contingency would have real-world consequences for the way Americans see ourselves today.

The standard civil rights movement narrative, at least on the popular level, is always looking forward to the milestones of 1963-1965, at which point the country witnessed the inevitable culmination of America's truest and best ideals. It is nearly deterministic in its certainty,  embedded as it is in a two-fold assumption: first, that America's moral exceptionalism guaranteed an eventual positive outcome and, second, that such an outcome was virtually the final say in the matter, putting an end to a tragic era and opening a new and glorious one. On this second dimension of the assumption there is a particularly wide gap between academic and popular opinion, but it would be a stretch to say that academic scholarship has entirely escaped the gravitational orbit of this assumption.

Against this fundamentally optimistic view of the civil rights movement, which Gunnar Myrdal put forth in advance in the early 1940s, Black intellectuals raised a different narrative. Before the height of the civil rights movement, writers like Baldwin and Du Bois argued that a comprehensive civil rights revolution would produce an American identity crisis rather than the fulfillment of American ideals. The challenge is deceptively simple: step back from our assumptions just long enough to ask, "Were they right?"

The notion of a potential national identity crisis was born of a reading of American history that is utterly unfamiliar to most of us. It was a reading that saw principles of racial equality not as the culmination of American ideals we now assume, but as principles so potent and far-reaching they could more accurately be described as anti-American. It was a reading that recognized the pervasive hypocrisy in an America whose sense of itself made room for Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin while consigning Jefferson Davis and Ben Tillman to something other.

What does all this have to do with contingency? Before the height of the civil rights movement it was possible to imagine innumerable outcomes of apparently equal plausibility. While many imagined an eventual winning out of what they believed to be American ideals, others questioned whether those ideals could ever produce a society shorn of racism. And, perhaps, no one got it entirely right. From our vantage point, we see that even slightly different contexts might have produced strikingly different outcomes. Imagine a world not immersed in a Cold War, and a world in which the vagaries of movement tactics, economic growth, and political alignments combine to produce the urban uprisings so characteristic of the latter part of the 1960s before the passage of decisive civil rights legislation. It is easy to imagine the movement being snuffed out in renewed nationwide oppression. Alternatively, under a more favorable set of conditions, perhaps the movement would have achieved the comprehensive gains for which it hoped.

The point is as simple as it is little understood: the society we inhabit is a negotiated outcome, the result of both the victories and the defeats of the civil rights movement. It is time we take account of both sides of that ledger. And it is time we name the opposition, granting to White resistance a more serious reckoning than that implied by terms like "Massive Resistance" and "White Backlash." These terms imply an emotional and violent reaction, almost as if the White response to the civil rights movement came out of nowhere as an inchoate force of nature. In reality, we live in the society we do because a White countermovement--as strategic and purposeful as the civil rights movement itself--won significant victories.

The damage in talking about the civil rights movement as a culmination--and an inevitable one at that--is that it leaves us unable to grapple with the actual social conditions we see around us. With a wealth gap at 10 or 20 to 1, segregation deeply entrenched in schools, housing segregation receding at a glacial pace, and discrimination persistent in criminal justice and employment, we can't hope to make sense of our society if we think the civil rights movement "won." It didn't. It achieved some of its aims and then it was defeated.

We should not be afraid to ask ourselves a simple question: what defeated it? Was it, perhaps, American ideals? Three weeks from now we will ring in a new year, 2014. Americans will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we do so, we would do well to return to a basic question: would a comprehensive civil rights revolution be the inevitable culmination of American ideals, or produce a national identity crisis? It remains an untested proposition.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

George Zimmerman, Rorschach Test

A lot of stuff has happened during my most recent blogging hiatus. In case you missed it, I want to reach back before Thanksgiving, when it was reported that George Zimmerman posted bond for yet another domestic violence incident. If you're trying to keep track, this one is separate from the incident that occurred with his wife earlier this year. The latest one is with a girlfriend. These two domestic violence cases since the trial verdict are on top of the various instances of documented or alleged violence Zimmerman was implicated in years ago.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has the appropriate response:
It may well be true that, against all his strivings, trouble stalks George Zimmerman. It may be true that George Zimmerman never pointed a shotgun at his girlfriend's face. That Ms. Scheibe smashed a table, took his stuff, started throwing it and then called 911 on herself. That she was simply being poetic when she said "you pointed your gun in my freaking face and told me get the fuck out" and then added "he knows how to do this. He knows how to play this game." 
And it may be true that in September when Zimmerman's estranged wife, Shelly Zimmerman, claimed that he had punched her father and threatened them with a gun she was embellishing*. That when she called 911 and said "I'm really afraid. I don't know what he's capable of. I'm really scared," she was suffering some form of hallucination. That Zimmerman had not smashed his wife's iPad. That it was his wife that assaulted him with it. That Shelly's father had challenged Zimmerman to a fight.
And it may well be true that Trayvon Martin was empowered by a heretofore unknown strain of marijuana which confers super strength. That in a fit of Negroid rage, a boy with no criminal history decided to ambush a hapless neighborhood watchman. That the boy told Zimmerman, "You gonna die tonight, motherfucker," punched him, banged his head against the concrete repeatedly and then reached for his gun. That in killing the boy, Zimmerman rid the world of a gun-runner and drug dealer
This case produced a lot of emotional reactions and jumping to conclusions, including from yours truly. There were some people who encouraged us not to jump to conclusions. That was wise. But I would argue that few took such a disinterested stance. Many were actively sympathizing with Zimmerman, or jumping to their own conclusions about why Zimmerman's actions might have been justified. And that sympathy was always bizarre. Zimmerman's story, as subsequent events have born out, never seemed plausible. 

Yet millions of people found Zimmerman to be a plausible or sympathetic figure. I could never escape the conviction that this plausibility/sympathy came down to two factors: lots of people like guns, and lots of people are suspicious of Black men. We knew all along that the plausibility of Zimmerman's story was vitally dependent upon the nature of his victim. Had his victim been a White upper-class high schooler on the honor roll, that sense of plausibility would have vanished. That is what made the defense of Zimmerman so hard for us to take. 

If anyone who has defended Zimmerman at the time has admitted that they were probably wrong, I would like to hear about it.