Monday, March 14, 2016

Historians Should Try to Talk to People Who Aren't Historians

People tell me I need to stop using such academic language in my writing. I need to write in a way that people will understand. Sounds like a good idea! My wife tells me this. So does my sister. Pretty sure my mother-in-law has made this suggestion too. And they're right! And believe it or not, I'm trying! I'd like to think the difference between what I'm getting in and what I'm putting out is significant. For example, here are a couple sentences from a book I just sat down to read:
I argue that the settler colonial situation establishes a system of relationships comprising three different agencies: the settler coloniser, the indigenous colonised, and a variety of differently categorised exogenous alterities. In this context, indigenous and subaltern exogenous Others appeal to the European sovereign to articulate grievances emanating from settler abuse, the metropolitan agency interposes its sovereignty between settler and indigenous or subaltern exogenous communities (establishing “protectorates” of Aborigines, for example), and settlers insist on their autonomous capacity to control indigenous policy.
Great! Glad we got that cleared up. And here's the main point from another book today:
Bringing a postcolonial perspective to urbanizing colonial environments, this book explores the racialized politics of these two settler-colonial landscapes at the spatial, imaginative, social, and legal levels and in a comparative context. More importantly, it examines the racialized transformations of these developing cities and proposes that these urbanizing colonial precincts can be viewed as formative sites on the Pacific Rim, where bodies and spaces were rapidly transformed and mutually imbricated in sometimes violent ways, reflecting the making of plural settler-colonial modernities. 
Great! So good to know about that mutual imbrication. So you see, I'm trying. And I will get better at it, I hope.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Could an Anti-Racist Win the Republican Nomination?

In recent years I've stopped publicly critiquing the Republican Party's racism. I stopped for several reasons. Most important, I've come to believe that White supremacy in the United States is not primarily a partisan problem. It takes two to tango. And our politics are a reflection of deeper power-relations and social structures. Pointing out the racist foundations of the modern GOP is like shooting fish in a barrel. I think many scholars are bored of it at this point, and they have increasingly turned their attention to the racism of the Democratic Party. Historians have uncovered the contradictions and failures of postwar American liberalism and have shown how liberalism has helped to construct and maintain colorblindness and White supremacy. For example:

Naomi Murakawa. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America

Leah Gordon. From Power to Prejudice: The Rise of Racial Individualism in Midcentury America

Reuel Schiller.  Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism

Daniel Martinez HoSang.  Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California

Daryl Michael Scott. Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996

Yet it would be naive to suggest that racism is an equal problem in all political parties at all times. Even though no major American political party has ever been willing to stand unequivocally against White supremacy, at various times one or the other party tends to be the lesser of two evils. The Democratic Party circa 1864, for example, was a worthless and execrable institution, while the Republican Party, despite its inability to imagine real equality, at least wanted to end slavery. 

Even if scholars are a bit bored of the fact that the contemporary Republican Party is racist in a way that the Democratic Party is not, the reaction to Donald Trump's rise is a reminder that what is common to knowledge to us is not necessarily well-known to the public. So perhaps we do need to speak up. First, let's just establish the point that the GOP has a severe problem with racism:
There are dozens of data points we might offer as evidence, but I think this is one of the best. It's a simple statement, easy to understand, and because you have to  deny reality in order to agree with it, it's an effective proxy for measuring racial ignorance and racism. Notice, again, that this is a bipartisan problem. Nearly a third of Democrats agree with the statement. But you can see that Republicans have a much more severe problem. Nearly two-thirds embrace a view of American society that is intellectually and morally unsupportable.

You can see this by many other measures too. For example, even attitudes toward interracial marriage have a partisan gap. I'll just note one more. The racial resentment scale that many political scientists use shows how white resentment has become less bipartisan in recent decades and has become increasingly concentrated in the Republican Party.
My intention is not to beat up on the Republican Party. These partisan differences have ebbed and flowed over time. But we do need to grapple with where the problem predominantly exists right now.

I raise this point because I'm concerned that though most Republicans desperately want to stop Trump, they don't appear to have a plan to build their party anew on a less racist foundation. Even now, amid all the denunciations of Trump, the other candidates continue to play to the racism of the base. To understand this, we need to pay attention to what they're not saying.

A few weeks ago, when Marco Rubio finally decided to attack Donald Trump, he got down in the gutter with him, making jokes and personal attacks. He justified this on the grounds that policy attacks didn't seem to stick, and it was the only way to get the media to pay attention. He didn't want to do it, but it was the only option he had, right?

In fact, there has been another attack available to Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich all along, and they could make it without descending to Trump's level or engaging in crude insults or name-calling. This particular attack would also have the virtue of being true. Most important, if made forcefully and unequivocally, this attack would have dominated the news and made headlines for Rubio's campaign. It would go something like this:
"Donald Trump is using racism and bigotry to win votes. It doesn't matter to me whether Donald Trump is a racist in his heart, or is merely playing one on TV. His words are a disgrace to our party and our country, and it is an embarrassment to share a stage with him. I denounce his racism and will campaign against him if he were to be the Republican nominee." 
This would have been the appropriate response from the beginning of Trump's campaign. Remember, he was the most famous provocateur of the birther movement. Then he launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. The other candidates should have pursued this line of attack at the first Republican debate. The point is, if the GOP was as innocent as its leaders claim, this would not have been a hard attack to make! There wouldn't be any downside. But the other candidates can't make this attack because, in the end, they need Trump's voters! And they know that most Republicans, including a substantial number of their own supporters, believe Whites are the primary victims of racism. They know that speaking bluntly against racism will not be received positively by most Republican voters.

The problem is deeper than Trump. And though the Democrats are not as egregious, they have their own problems. The front-runner has expressed her utmost confidence in Rahm Emmanual. She and Bernie have to be pressured and cajoled to support basic justice for people of color. Because so many people of color are in the Democratic coalition, there is a moderating effect. Even though Democrats don't dare to run on an explicit platform of tearing down White supremacy, they do have to be somewhat attentive to minority concerns. In the nearly all-White GOP, the moderating effect is almost non-existent. What Trump shows is that it may be possible to win the Republican nomination while running as a racist. Is it possible to win the Republican nomination while running unequivocally as an anti-racist? None of the other candidates have dared to test that proposition.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What's Next In A World Where Donald Trump Can Win?

A few preliminary thoughts on the state of our country:

There are at least three important stories here, and it's hard to sort out how they interact with each other.

1) Donald Trump is a distraction from the real sources of contemporary racial injustice and inequality. The flap over the Ku Klux Klan is a classic case of denouncing the villains of the old order so as to establish one's innocence in the new order. Denouncing the Ku Klux Klan (which we should do of course!) has very little meaning because the Klan is not a key force constituting the contemporary racial order. When we denounce the Klan, we're actually not saying much of anything about our stance toward current racial injustice, any more than early twentieth segregationists who denounced slavery were implying opposition to Jim Crow. On the contrary, shutting the door on the old order helped to consolidate the new. In the same way, the question for Donald Trump and all American politicians is not whether they denounce the Klan--a group that had significant social power in the old racial order but does not have such power now--but whether they denounce the contemporary forces that undergird present-day power relations. The Klan plays a negligible role in contemporary racial injustice, but colorblind ideology is a vital support for present-day White supremacy. In American political life, we denounce the former so as to bolster the latter.

Do you denounce the forces that create and sustain racial injustice now? Do you even know what they are? By that standard, nearly all politicians of both parties fail. 

Denouncing colorblindness, exclusionary zoning, and supreme court school desegregation precedents is much more meaningful and important than denouncing the Klan. Politicians across the spectrum are failing to do this. While we beat up on Trump for being a racist (and he is), there is a danger that we lose sight of the bipartisan investment in racial injustice that shows little sign of abating.

2) On the other hand, sitting quite uncomfortably next to what I have said thus far, there is a real danger that Donald Trump will bring back into the American mainstream a kind of classical racism that we haven't seen in decades. He has already brought an explicit racist populism into the national political sphere in a way we haven't seen since George Wallace. And even Wallace was never this close to winning the Democratic Party nomination. It is hard to quantify the costs of reopening the door to 1960s-style racism, but they surely include these possibilities: an uptick in hate crimes and racial violence, a degrading of our civic fabric, and a heightened sense of fear and alienation among people of color. Indeed, this last possibility is especially concerning. Imagine how it must feel to see a figure like Trump winning state after state in a major party nomination, knowing that there is no room for people who look like you in his vision of national greatness, and discerning, especially, the undercurrent of violence he threatens to unleash. This is very serious.

I'm not sure how to make sense of these two threads together--Trump as distraction from contemporary systemic racism vs Trump as resurrector of classical racism--but I think they're both happening at once and it will take a while to figure out how they relate to one another.

3) The third story is the decline and fall of the Republican Party. I can't escape the conviction that if the GOP had made a sincere effort during the Obama years to be more than a White party, it could have inoculated itself against Trump. As Adam Serwer wrote in an excellent piece months ago, Republicans have been unable to neutralize Trump because all the groups he insults are already outside the party anyway. Republican elites may deplore Trump's demagoguery, but they built a political coalition ready-made for it. Those of us who have been sounding the alarm for years can claim some sort of vindication here, but it's not particularly satisfying, especially since it's not at all clear anti-Trump Republicans will learn the lesson of the last few decades.

The roots of this go deep. At the presidential level, the GOP won the 1960s-1970s battle for southern Whites. People forget now that Democrats went hard for southern Whites too in the 1970s, and Jimmy Carter campaigned with White supremacists while feigning ignorance about it. But the GOP won that battle with the Reagan Revolution and have solidified their hold ever since, extending their reach down to every state legislature, with the key breakthrough coming in 1994 and culminating in 2010-2014. They captured southern White conservatives, but were in the process captured by them. Along the way, party elites have embraced absurd ideas about the nature of the respective partisan coalitions. There was Mitt Romney in 2012, both before and after the election, claiming that Obama won by giving "gifts" to various groups, as if Obama's strategy was different in kind from Mitt's pitch to White retirees. Last year there was the great establishment hope, Jeb Bush, proclaiming that he would not offer "free stuff" to Black voters, while refusing to say the same to the people who most need to hear it. The GOP has constructed an entire mythology of racial innocence that is unmoored from any facts or reason. Will the GOP use the occasion of Trump's rise to seriously grapple with what they've built? Or will they persist in portraying Trump as an inexplicable cancer?

More than that, will the country, will both parties, use Trump's rise to reflect on the kind of injustice we now tolerate or celebrate all around us? I'm returning now to my first point. It is well to remember that the 1890 Mississippi constitution--the crowning edifice of White supremacy after the turmoil of Reconstruction, the document that set the legal foundation for Black disfranchisement and three generations of Jim Crow oppression--was colorblind! Think of that for a moment. I bet you didn't know that Jim Crow in Mississippi, the prototypical American example of old-time racism, was established on a foundation of colorblindness. And in the decades since the civil rights movement, we have returned to colorblindness with a vengeance. We condemn the segregationists of the 1960s even as we happily live in the world they did so much to create. As the historian Joe Crespino wrote in his book on Mississippi:
In looking back over the half century since the civil rights movement, white Americans have hardly repudiated the vision of social organization advocated by Mississippi segregationists, at least if the measurement is not words but rather the actual composition of American neighborhoods and schools. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that since the 1960s, white Americans--from rural Mississippi to the most cosmopolitan communities in America--have practiced their own form of 'practical segregation.' They have rejected the ugly white supremacy of the Citizens' Council, but implicitly and explicitly they have embraced the quiet protectionism that preserved the racial and class privilege of suburban America. The closed society may have been defeated, but most American suburbs today are a world that hard-line segregationists would have little problem with.