Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jeb Bush, Black Politics, and Respectable White Supremacy

We're going to get to a recent news headline soon, but let's begin a little earlier in the story. It's useful that we do so, because Black politics have confounded White assumptions for centuries.

A stylized rendering of an escape attempt
During slavery African Americans carved out systems of reciprocity and mutual obligation between enslaved and enslaver that defied their status as chattel. The demands they made--from time off on Sunday to space for a measure of familial autonomy--though often breached by White enslavers, nonetheless exposed the gulf between the White ideological construct of "slave" and the lived reality of human beings. This was a form of politics that, in the White imagination, could not exist. Yet it did. During the 1850s a steady stream of enslaved people escaped to the North. Meanwhile, free Blacks in the North launched repeated salvos of antislavery propaganda. These actions were so politically explosive that they did much to provoke the Civil War. [1]

Lady Columbia asks, "And not this man?" Harper's, 1865
The service of Black troops during the Civil War caused some racist Whites to reluctantly conclude that enslaved people had not only earned their freedom, but could perhaps become members of the polity. Before he died, President Lincoln began to imagine the possibility of Black voters. But the idea of Black citizens remained deeply radical for White Americans. This was a society in which respectable White opinion about African Americans traditionally ranged between the goals of perpetual enslavement or total deportation. Either case assumed White supremacy.

In this context, most Whites viewed Black politics as a grasping and illegitimate imposition. Black politics demanded of the nation the same rights and privileges afforded to Whites. But in a society in which White supremacy was normative, such claims were controversial. For most White Americans, the very meaning of words like freedom and equality assumed a racial hierarchy with Whites on top. To "give" Black Americans citizenship, then, was not to grant them their due. It was a special concession, an unearned privilege. It was, in short, the ultimate handout.

Anti-Freedman's Bureau Campaign ad. Pennsylvania, 1866.
In the first year after the war, southern states passed "Black Codes" in an effort to reassert White control over Black labor and reestablish the social order on something as close to slavery as possible. The ongoing efforts to steal Black labor and gain unearned advantage defined the politics of White southerners. Such double-standards loomed large in the imagination of White northerners too. In the 1866 campaign for Pennsylvania Governor, the Democrats ran a race-baiting campaign warning Whites that a vote for the Republican candidate was a vote to give handouts to Blacks at the expense of Whites.

The Freedman's Bureau, a federal agency established to assist African Americans in the South, was the target for much of this criticism. What was the Freedman's Bureau actually doing? It provided limited food assistance to a countryside devastated by war, and it offered freedpeople the possibility of justice that could not be obtained in southern courts. But most of all, the Freedman's Bureau arbitrated labor disputes and tried to compel African Americans to sign unfavorable labor contracts, often with their former owners.

In the White American imagination, restoring land to wealthy White property owners represented nothing more than the protection of property rights. They had been killing U.S. soldiers a few months before but their property in land (if not in people) remained sacrosanct. Meanwhile, Black squatters eagerly working the land for themselves had to be either evicted or compelled to sign an onerous labor contract. The unearned advantages of Whites could not be seen as such, for the ability to control the labor of racialized others and the assumption that the government should facilitate that control defined the very meaning of freedom.

Perhaps what's most striking to the modern reader about the Freedman's Bureau officials' reports is their abject fear that any measure of help for freedpeople would create dependency. Though practical freedom for freedpeople was hard to imagine without land redistribution, the Freedman's Bureau was reluctant to even distribute food to prevent starvation. Assistant Commissioner Rufus Saxton of the Georgia Freedman's Bureau ordered his agents to "bestow as little charity as possible" even during the desparate first summer after the war. [2]

While Freedman's Bureau agents fretted about the dangers of creating Black dependency and took unearned White advantage (and thus, White dependency) for granted, Democrats in the North ran the kind of racist campaigns reflected in that poster above. The political discourse of Black dependency existed independently of any facts on the ground. By the time a Black cry for freedom made it to White ears, it had been disfigured into a demand for a handout. 

Northern Whites strongly believed in a free labor ideology. Everyone should have the right to keep the fruits of their labor earned by the sweat of their own brow. Those who worked hard would rise by virtue of their industry and frugality. Surely African Americans in the South would embrace this ideology and would emerge as a sturdy class of independent laborers. Yet with unexamined assumptions of White supremacy still at the root of White politics, many northerners failed to see that  conditions on the ground in the South foreclosed the promise of upward mobility. Black politics demanded the destruction of systems of oppression that many Whites insisted did not exist. Thus White northerners reinterpreted Black demands for basic rights as a dangerous form of politics that was unamerican and socialistic. [3]

Let's zoom ahead 80 years. During the civil rights movement as Black Americans demanded equal rights, a common White rejoinder was, "Whites have rights too." This made no sense in context, but it did make sense if one assumed that among those White rights was the top status in a racial hiearchy that distributed social and economic benefits. On the Senate floor, southern senators warned that the Civil Rights Act would "take away rights from one group...and would give them as privileges to members of another group." [4] In such rhetoric, Whites were invariably endowed with legitimate rights, while Black attempts to secure those same rights were grasps for special privileges.

HOLC map of Philadelphia. Part of the system of White subsidies.
This played out not only on the field of high politics. Ordinary White Americans during the civil rights era had little sense of how their society was structured. They put a down payment on their 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. However confused they may have been about the nature and source of these subsidies, they knew they did not want to lose them.

In short, for centuries Black politics has demanded equal citizenship while mainstream White politics has naturalized the denial of it. The result is that most White Americans can't understand Black demands, for Black Americans are demanding something that, in the White imagination, they already possess. "This is America! Everyone is equal! There are no second class citizens!" This is the essence of the respectable politics of White supremacy. It is a politics of denial. It is the politics of good and ordinary people.

And it's popular! This week at a campaign event a man asked Jeb Bush what he and the GOP could do to woo Black voters. Bush responded mostly by talking about school choice, but not before saying this:
Our message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn’t one of division and get in line and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting — that says you can achieve earned success.
I want to emphasize that this is wrongheaded regardless of what you think about the efficacy of government programs. It is wrong not because "free stuff" may or may not be good for people, but because it is represents a comprehensive misreading of Black politics and the normalizing of White supremacy. African American voting patterns are rooted in the effective denial of equal citizenship in twenty-first century America. Black politics has nothing to do with the pursuit of "free stuff." Nor do African Americans embrace a politics of "division." The idea that success ought to be "earned" is on the one hand uncontroversial. On the other hand, White Americans' very concept of freedom intertwined for centuries with expectations of unearned success. Building the country on stolen land and labor and then calling it a heroic pioneering project was a massive delusion that grips us still. It may be that someone needs to hear Bush's message of earned success, but Black Americans are probably the last people who need to hear it. 

Jeb Bush sounds like someone who doesn't understand the United States. He sounds like someone who can't hear Black demands for equal citizenship for what they are, so they must be reinterpreted as something more sinister. He sounds like a proponent of the respectable White supremacy that has defined America for centuries.

[1] See Steven Hahn, Eugene Genovese, and Walter Johnson
[2] See Paul Cimbala
[3] See Heather Cox Richardson
[4] Congressional Record, 88th Cong., 2nd sess., April 17, 1964, 8292.

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