How to be a white supremacist

Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.

Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.

We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.

By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:

The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.

Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.

We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.

Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.

Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.

I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.

It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.

David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I felt quite unwell during my normal writing time.

Ever since Donald Trump became the nominee-presumptive of the Republican Party, the media have treated us to a stream of pieces on how we must understand his supporters. They may have picked a narcissist and clown straight out of interwar Italian politics, but we need to look on them with empathy. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. I deal regularly with people who have done worse still, though they do have the good decency to have put themselves out of our misery. Future historians will probably feel much the same about the Trump movement.

You can’t get around it. To actually understand what drives people, especially people with politics you loath, you need to treat them as rational and sensible as anybody else. Calling them dupes or fools as much removes their agency and reduces them to a stereotype one may loathe with ease but comprehend not at all. You end up like Samuel Cartwright, explaining slave resistance as a form of mental illness. What holds true for slaves also holds true for slaveholders, though historians have traditionally had far less trouble emphasizing with them than their victims. Aside from a few black historians and radicals, the academy didn’t get on board with understanding black Americans as thinking beings capable of understanding, holding values, and acting accordingly until better than halfway through the twentieth century.

My obvious political inclinations aside, I ought to be the target audience for pieces on understanding Trump Country. I have largely avoided them, except one shared with me by a friend. There are multiple reasons for that, including my general contempt for media industry multi-millionaires who tell us they understand “real America,” the compulsory ignorance of the subject one finds in reporters parachuted in without context to pretend-report on something for thirty seconds, and skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to show how devotedly they live up to my expectations. But I did read the one. Let’s pick it apart.

A few things going in, Gentle Readers. As the numerous ads and whatever lives in the sidebar when you load up the page will show, Cracked doesn’t aim for serious journalism. (Its history pieces don’t withstand casual scrutiny either.) But now and then someone writes a piece meant for serious consideration, as David Wong has. I intend to take it as such, humor site pedigree aside.

We must begin with the title. Wong suggests that half of America lost its mind. It grabs the reader’s attention, but Wong frames his article just the opposite. He does not portray Trump supporters as insane or demented. They have real grievances, which he reduces down to a rural vs. urban divide. To prove it, he hauls out one of those red vs. blue county maps. It turns out the diverse cities, shockingly, tend to support candidates who less devoted to white supremacy. The much whiter rural counties vote the other way.

I could stop right here, but Wong digs himself deeper. He paints a picture of neglect and negative stereotyping. Urban America doesn’t care about rural America. All the television and movies have to do with cities. When disaster strikes, you’d best have a major media operation nearby or don’t expect to make CNN. We all know the stereotypes of rural life, that bonanza of inbred hicks who only take their hands off the cross they’re using to beat a LGBT person to death in order to light it on fire. I don’t know about the inbreeding -none of my business- but that sounds like my neighbors. They do not like the idea of living with people of different color, sexuality, or non-Christian religion. Wong puts those up as stereotypes, but he admits to their truth:

But what I can say, from personal experience, is that the racism of my youth was always one step removed. I never saw a family member, friend, or classmate be mean to the actual black people we had in town. We worked with them, played video games with them, waved to them when they passed. What I did hear was several million comments about how if you ever ventured into the city, winding up in the “wrong neighborhood” meant you’d get dragged from your car, raped, and burned alive. Looking back, I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us.

Wong had a more charmed childhood than I did. Casual dismissal of non-whites happened every day. I can’t count the times I’ve heard family members start a sentence, stop and visibly struggle, then finally blurt out “coloreds!” with extra emphasis just so you know what they really mean. Fairness demands that I recognize the ecumenical nature of their hatreds; they had nothing nicer to say about other people who dared come in the wrong colors or religions. But of course you’d be polite to someone’s face. Small communities can’t afford a full-on white power operation, aside local government, so we content ourselves with more petty species of viciousness. Say nothing in front of your victim, but be sure it gets out behind their backs. Plain, honest folk in real America don’t need that explained to them.

Maybe that racism seemed one step removed to Wong -who is white like me; he writes under a pseudonym- but you can’t honestly put it at arm’s length. We both learned to associate minorities with dangerous, criminal behavior and took those who didn’t rape and murder people every day for fun as deviations from the norm. I can’t imagine the victims agree.

It goes on in this vein. The white racial resentment or, to use a word more familiar to its practitioners, entitlement, just boils off the screen. Wong knows as much and acknowledges it. He doesn’t pretend that rural America has somehow, double-secret, turned into a bastion of tolerance. His quest to highlight Trump Country agency has brought him that far. But he thinks it wrong and dehumanizing to ascribe white voters’ motives to either the driving force of American history, white supremacy, or to the central institution of their communities, which he considers to be conservative Christianity. What they say doesn’t actually matter. They just hurt and lash out.

I shall not sit here and tell you that white people never suffer or rural poverty doesn’t matter. But Wong refutes himself twice over by focusing on poverty as the driving force explanation. Firstly, rural America hasn’t done well, economically, in decades. Nor has it had much cultural focus in the same period of time. If neglect drives rural voters, then we would have seen a Trump-style candidacy decades back. Indeed, we did. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both ran white grievance campaigns. On the other side, so did Bill Clinton. Whether we look at structural factors all the way back to the Constitution or individual campaigns, nobody gets more attention. Even in the most conservative interpretation, white America has at least the whole of one political party devoted to preserving its prerogatives over the rest of the nation. These people do not lack a voice. Their politics do not constitute a wild divergence from the American norm; they are the norm. The past few decades have simply seen a shift from nigh-absolute control to a more qualified but still nearly overwhelming dominance.

Since Trump came out of normal politics, his voters don’t require a unique explanation. The same things drive them that drove the American right in 1968, 1980, 1996, or 1860. They see the United States as a white man’s country, period. Any diminution of their power counts as the most agonizing species of persecution.

But let’s turn that back around. Wong would have us believe that poverty made Trump. He admits that Trump runs on racism, which he also considers a decidedly negative personality trait. He must think the same of poverty as he casts the rural poor as a people lashing out. They can’t have acted in their actual interests, but rather poverty has driven them to it. Poverty, in other words, makes you immoral and destructive. This loops us right back to the stereotypes that Wong and I grew up believing about black people: they earned their poverty through sloth, through dependence, through crime. White people got poor for reasons beyond their control. Trust us; we have the white skin to know. For Wong to argue this, hasn’t he dehumanized the poor just as he complains that others have?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

Bringing this back to history, I consider taking what people say and granting them their agency bottom-line stuff. If you can’t do that, then you fundamentally do not believe your subjects full human beings. They must occupy some inferior order, to which one silently applies Taney’s corollary:

altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

I cannot think of a more thorough way to dehumanize someone than to ignore both their words and deeds in favor of inventing some deterministic explanation that excuses them from both. To do this, you reduce them to unthinking automatons, for all the protests to the contrary. You declare that they do not know what’s best for themselves, that they cannot know. Wong’s rural poor, intended or not, are infantilized subjects. He wants us to not blame them for what they do, for the powerful hatreds they bear, because they just can’t help themselves. You don’t blame a baby for soiling a diaper, so you should not blame Trump voters for Trump.

Wong’s piece has a larger problem, though. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe Trump’s supporters:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

If those statistics reflect poverty, then I imagine plenty of us would like to sign up for some. Wong says that poor people from his home town support Trump; I believe him. But his poor voters resemble the general constituency no more than the neighbors that media personalities talk to at wealthy resort communities represent ordinary Americans.

What does it take to be racist in America?

Political discourse always has its strange aspects, whether one finds it in the United States or elsewhere. Europeans will insist they have nothing like American racism, but then employ all the same arguments as American racists do against immigrants. Americans will declare they don’t have a racist bone in their body in the same breath as they recite theories of racial inferiority. You don’t need an education in the academic understanding of white supremacy to see through that one, but if we take people at their word then large numbers of Americans look downright slow. In this case, slowness pays. So long as we can tell ourselves that reasonable people disagree, no matter how contrived a disagreement we must construct, we need not consider what responsibility we might have for things that happen to real people in the real world.

For today’s specifics, I refer you to Hillary Clinton. I will not pretend to lacking a partisan interest here. Nobody who reads this blog for long would have any trouble figuring out my politics. Regardless of that, Clinton said this:

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.

The political press termed this a gaffe, which they sometimes say happens when a politician accidentally tells the truth. They haven’t taken much interest in whether or not Clinton did tell the truth, though. Let’s unpack the claims, focusing on the racial ones. I don’t know if I have the stomach just now to go into the sexism or homophobia too.

What do Trump supporters think of other races?

Nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African Americans as more “violent” than whites. The same proportion described African Americans as more “criminal” than whites, while 40 percent described them as more “lazy” than whites.

African Americans, distinguished from others only by their ascribed race, appear more violent, more criminal, and more lazy to at least a large contingent of Trump supporters. Racism, we all agree, means something like harboring the believe that human races have morally meaningful distinctions. We have real races, not just social categories, and they matter. Membership in one group makes you better than membership in another. Unless these same people think that greater propensities for violence, criminality, and laziness make for positive character traits, we have racism here.

Honestly demands we also admit that other Americans feel the same way:

In smaller, but still significant, numbers, Clinton backers also viewed blacks more critically than whites with regard to certain personality traits. Nearly one-third of Clinton supporters described blacks as more “violent” and “criminal” than whites, and one-quarter described them as more “lazy” than whites.

Any more than zero ought to trouble us, but the United States has never managed such a decent populace as that. If we had, the course of our history would have run on radically different tracks. But the difference between a quarter to a third and a third to forty or fifty percent does say something. So does the overwhelming unpopularity of candidate Trump with the non-white electorate. If these people, whoever they support, don’t count as racists then nobody can.

Islamophobic? Islamophobia generally means harboring negative opinions about both the religion of Islam and the behavior of Muslim adherents. Trump has that all wrapped up. Almost 60% hold “unfavorable” views of Islam, making it less popular than atheism. Almost 80% believe Islam more likely to encourage violence toward women than other religions, and nearly the same think that for homosexuals like your author too. I’d say that counts as pretty negative.

Both the Islamophobia and the racism count toward xenophobia, but let’s also note that Trump’s supporters favor a man who proclaimed immigrants from Latin America murderers and rapists. He wants a full ban on Muslims entering the country too. What more does it take?

I ask in earnest, Gentle Readers. How much does it take for white America to look in the mirror and realize that by our own most convenient definitions, those most alienated from the lived experience of minority Americans with injustice, we have a real, serious problem? If we believe in the things that we say we do, that we deplore racism, that people of all creeds, colors, and backgrounds deserve at the absolute least an even shake in life, then why do we tell pollsters otherwise? Even our cherished premise that overt racism has no place in our discourse looks like nothing so much as a self-serving lie in the face of all of this. If we really believe that, then why do so many of us seem bent on voting for a white nationalist candidate?

I do not think my fellow white Americans fools or dupes. I believe they, just like anybody else, understand their interests and values. They choose their candidates accordingly. The most recent polling I could find with a racial breakdown showed people who look like me preferring for Donald Trump 51-42. Most of us still believe, as we always have, that we live in a white man’s country. Others might exist in it with us, but do so at our sufferance and subject to whatever indignities we care to heap upon them. It’s not all of us, and not all of us to the same degree even among those counted, but it’s enough.

This held true in 1790, 1860, 1876, 1980, and keeps on holding true in 2016. The conviction has withstood a civil war, vast social movements, waves of immigration, and all that two centuries could throw at it. I don’t know what revolution it will take to undo something so foundational to who we are. The next time we care to pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery after only two hundred fifty years and Jim Crow after a century, we ought to look at what we left virtually untouched through all that. That, more than anything, is what we truly believe in. We lie to ourselves about the rest. That’s what it really takes to be a racist in America.

The Long Reach of American Fascism

I’ve written before that Donald Trump has a past. He has brought back to the forefront of American politics essentially open advocacy for white supremacy, after decades of white Americans pretending they didn’t have any real problem with black Americans. He has undone, at least for this moment, the work of Lee Atwater and his generation of PR men:

That distinction, and some others, do make the Trump campaign unique. We’ve known for decades that when fascism came to the United States it would come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. They didn’t tell us it would come in orange with a dodgy comb-over, but then fascists have a history of not living up to their own aesthetic standards; the rules apply to other people. Saying fascism would come also implies that we didn’t have it already. It appears, in fact, that Americans invented the ideology, attitude, aesthetic, or whatever thing one considers fascism best called. Before Mussolini’s train ran on time, the Ku Klux Klan crossed the finish line so early we didn’t have a name for it.

Just as we risk missing the forest for the tree in taking Trump as entirely sui generis, so we do the same in taking fascism in isolation. Fascist movements have never, so far as I know, come to power without cooperation from the mainstream right of their countries. That cooperation came come eagerly or with a general sense of disdain, but it does come. Never Trump never came to much. Nor will the ritual denunciations. We can’t know what goes on between an individual and their ballot, but even if all the famous people declaring they’ve changed parties follow through, they have shifted perhaps hundreds of votes. Had enough of them existed to stop Donald Trump from winning the nomination of the mainstream American conservative party, we would have seen it by now.

Trumpism, for all its thuggish bullying, open white supremacy, and admiration of street violence, has precious little but style to distinguish it from past runs for the presidency. I don’t need to dig back into the nineteenth century or root about in the dustbin of history for fringe candidates everybody has agreed, safely after the fact, to hate. If you want bellicose white supremacy in the vein of the murder victim getting what he had coming, take these remarks on the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

King, you must understand, brought this on himself. By breaking the law to protest segregation, he produced the violent backlash that claimed his life. He ought to have known his place. The author of that statement then occupied no more exalted an office than that of governor, but he would go on to greater things.

Philadelphia, Mississippi has two claims to national fame. In 1964, the Klan, with help from the county sheriff and local police, murdered three civil rights activists there. I imagine that one doesn’t go on the tourist brochures, but it happened all the same. The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, and Michael Schwermer helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. These laws abridged the power of state governments, particularly in the South, to behave abominably toward African-Americans.

Sixteen years later, a presidential campaign rolled into town. The candidate came fresh off his convention win, inaugurating his general election campaign in Philadelphia. I have no doubt that the people of Philadelphia, then and now, run the gamut just like people everywhere else. They deserve a presidential visit as much as anybody. But towns that even today boast only seven thousand or so people don’t have for national office candidates just drop by; I live in a town of ten thousand and we don’t get that. The campaign chose Philadelphia for a reason, and the man behind the podium made it clear just what they had in mind:

I believe in state’s rights.

I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.

And if I do get the job I’m looking for… (Cheers and applause)

I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

You don’t give a speech like this in a place like Philadelphia by accident. You do it because you want everyone to know that state’s rights means white power. The speaker didn’t wear a white hood and chant about the Klan getting bigger, but he didn’t need to. When you go to Philadephia, Mississippi and tell the town that murdered civil rights workers and so convinced the nation to pass laws curbing state power to abridge civil rights that you believe in state’s rights, you tell them that you’ve taken their side. You are no partisan for the victims, nor their cause, but the declared ally of their murderers. If elected, you will do all in your power to roll back civil rights and restore white supremacy’s untrammeled rule to its most murderous extent.

The speaker in question? Revered conservative statesman Ronald Reagan. I don’t see many conservatives, or many white Americans in general, willing to denounce him.

Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

A sorority at a university in Alabama passed out some t-shirts. They had a party and wanted keepsakes, as one does. I don’t know from sorority life, but I imagine that happens often enough. Since the shirts would commemorate their special day rather than any old thing off the rack, they ordered up a custom printing. It appears that they submitted the design to the university for approval. On getting a firm no, they ordered the shirts anyway. Ordinarily, you might smile a bit at college kids sticking it to the establishment. You’d smile less on learning that the shirts bear a map of Alabama decorated with images of slaves picking cotton and a black caricature eating a watermelon. You can view the shirt at here.

The image of the black person inordinately fond of watermelons, and fried chicken for that matter, has a depressing history:

the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

The Jim Crow Museum has more information on that explosion:

It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country’s history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called “Coon cards” show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. The Jim Crow Museum houses a 1930s parlor game called, “72 Picture Party Stunts.” One of the game’s cards instructs players to “Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon. The card shows a dark Black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon almost as large as he is. This is racial stereotyping as family entertainment. The museum has dozens of three dimensional objects showing African Americans eating watermelons, including banks, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys, and novelty objects. These objects not only show Blacks lustily eating watermelons but often portray African Americans in physically caricatured ways: hideous faces, over-sized bright red lips, darting eyes, and ragged clothing. The problem is not that African Americans are shown eating watermelons. Rather, the problem is that Blacks are portrayed as contented Coons, Toms, Mammies, and Picaninnies, with all their hopes, dreams, and fears sated by eating watermelons under the shade of great trees.

In the course of learning about this today, I came on the claim that one must either study white supremacy or have more than the usual number of decades under one’s belt to recognize the watermelon trope. Given we still see frequent recurrences, I have my doubts about that. But the argument raises an interesting question. Suppose that someone did come on the image innocently. To this person, it only shows a man eating a watermelon. It lacks the punch of a person engaged in violence, theft, or some obvious sin.

We must not have had a particularly observant innocent either, as one needn’t know the entire history of a trope in order to recognize a racial stereotype from context. But we have the hypothetical person we have. If this person buys the shirt, does the image remain racist? Does the person?

One wants to deny it. Most of us, I hope, try to extend some charity to others. We have all made honest mistakes. Nobody knows everything and muddling through with imperfect, incomplete understanding leaves everybody on the wrong foot now and then. We didn’t set out to mistreat anybody, but it happened anyway. We feel terrible, apologize, berate ourselves a bit, and move on.

We shouldn’t. Our intentions matter, but so do our actions. Even if we made an honest mistake, we still made it. What we may take as a small thing, and what we know or pretend we did without malice, can still hurt. Furthermore, Americans live in a deeply white supremacist culture. You don’t have to study up in some hilltop castle, with lightning striking the parapets, cackling like a Disney villain, to imbibe racist tropes. Just living in the culture will do the job, filling our minds with concepts about how “those” people behave and acceptable conduct toward them that can take a great deal of work to remedy. We naturally know that the same rules don’t apply to people like us, as we find it far easier to understand ourselves as individuals than people we learn to see as other. Undoing all that, if one can do it at all, takes more than a bland assertion that one had no idea. It took centuries to build the edifice of white power out of stolen land and lives. Why would we expect it to vanish with no more than a whim?

More goes into human interactions than one party’s intent. We understand that as a matter of course in almost every other situation. We may get caught up in our own feelings. Our anger, excitement, and all the rest can drown our our consideration for others. But when they do and we upset someone, say something we didn’t mean, or phrase something poorly, we own up and apologize. It may take us a while to work it out, but when we realize the situation we do our best to make amends. When others don’t do the same for us, we naturally think less of them. At the very least, we don’t pretend that they just meant well. We understand that they either meant whatever they did precisely as we received it or simply don’t care either way.

The sorority chose the shirt they did, presumably putting a fair bit of thought into it. One doesn’t order custom keepsake items at random. In doing so they acted out whatever intentions they genuinely had, but those intentions exist in a larger cultural space just the same as everything else we do. Though more Americans than we’d like to believe probably still skew closer to malice than innocence in such matters, meaning well would not excuse them. Whether they wanted it or not, they acted out the white part of a frequently violent drama centuries in the making. White skin means you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You get to define the terms by which others must understand you, rather than have them dictated. You even get to decide how and when others should take offense at your actions. In an entirely unanticipated turn of events, we cast ourselves as the innocents every chance we get.

We all get on the wrong side of these things now and then, unless we live very fortunate or very segregated lives. We can say we meant no harm, but words come easy. Actually meaning no harm asks more of us. I don’t get it right all the time; I don’t know anybody who does. But pretending that we only do harm when we act with depraved hearts accuses rather than excuses. By doing so we don’t aim for improvement. Instead we dismiss the experiences of others and the painful histories we share as trifling impediments to our self-esteem.

We can fall into racism by accident or inheritance. We choose to stay there.

Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Fleming’s Evidence, by the Numbers

Yesterday, I looked into Thomas Fleming’s theory that white Americans embraced slavery not out of white supremacy or greed, but rather fear of slave revolts and to spite abolitionists. He argues that therefore the nation might have avoided a civil war and the ensuing decades of racial hatred by a plan of compensated emancipation or by spreading slavery across the continent. If only those wicked abolitionists had not forced white southerners to keep pillaging the lives of black Americans to fill their own pockets, we might have avoided racism. To add to the already lengthy catalog of absurdities we must believe in order to take Fleming seriously, he asks us to believe white supremacy developed not in the 1600s, but rather circa 1865. The reasons to reject Fleming’s theory only constitute the entire history and historiography of American slavery, which one cannot ask him to sully his eyes with before opining on the subject. What reasonable person would expect him to behave like a historian?

But Fleming does present two pieces of evidence for his proposition:

Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.

Fleming still asks us to ignore how black skin made one a presumed slave who must prove otherwise, while white skin made one inherently free. This alone would make the system clearly one of white supremacy even if the rest holds true. One the point of slaves performing skilled labor, Fleming found a stopped clock moment. Enslavers did have many slaves trained in skilled trades, which reduced their slave labor camps’ reliance on the cash-driven commercial market in the perpetually cash-poor South. By doing so, they made their plantations more efficient and profitable than they would be if the enslavers had to instead pay for the skill and labor of white craftsmen. Furthermore, a slave so trained could fetch a significantly higher price in resale than an ordinary field hand. Thus we cannot understand the presence of skilled enslaved people, always a minority of enslaved labor regardless, as a challenge to slavery or a departure from racist norms. Rather the enslavers reinforced and improved their pillage of black lives by seeing some of their human property trained. Even in Nazi Germany, where the regime literally planned the extermination of people deemed subhuman, the typical concentration camp had attached factories where the state would enslave laborers for its own purposes before murdering them. Yet nobody argues that the Nazis had no particular animus against their victims except cranks and the regime’s admirers. I don’t think even Fleming would do that.

If skilled slaves gave Fleming a point of fact, albeit one he can only have misunderstood by never cracking a book on the subject, then his count of black overseers raises further questions. Fleming seems almost perfectly innocent of any Civil War or slavery historiography produced later than the 1920s. He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or chooses to mislead his readers. Yet suddenly we have a number: two-thirds. He doesn’t cite his source on it, but the comments over at HNN suggest that he got his count from Time on the Cross. That seems very likely. Here, at last, Fleming clearly read something written after he turned four. That he chose a book full of questionable methodology and generally discredited a mere forty-six years ago constitutes remarkable progress. I don’t have Time on the Cross on hand to check directly, but I acquired its book-length refutation, Herbert G. Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, last year for its own merits. A quick trip to the index brought me to Gutman’s section on the number of black overseers.

There I learned that Fogel and Engerman, ToC’s authors, did find a healthy majority of plantations where “the top nonownership management was black.” In slave labor camps where sixteen to fifty slaves labored, they found only one in six used a white overseer. In large camps, only a quarter of plantations used a white overseer. Very large camps, with over a hundred enslaved, white overseers came to just thirty percent. If they didn’t use white overseers, then they must have used black overseers and it certainly looks like a majority did so.

However, Gutman looked at the methodology and found a few problems:

this statistic is just an inference. No empirical data exist to support it. David and Temin properly point out: “[Q]uite obviously, there are two unstated premises underlying the inference that the authors draw form these census observations: (1) they assume a large plantation could not be properly run without an overseer in addition to the resident owner, and (2) they suppose the large plantations must have been well run – because they were so efficient. Once the latter presumption is withdrawn, however, this piece of inference unravels along with the rest of the fabric of Fogel and Engerman’s argument.”

In other words ToC sees the absence of a white overseer as proof of a black overseer. By this same method, my ignorance of the winner of the lottery last week proves I won it. Can I have my billion dollars now? I promise to do ridiculous amounts of history with it.

It gets worse. ToC complains that scholars have overestimated the number of white overseers because they treat everyone who put that job down on the census as an overseer of slaves when the term also applied to supervisors in other sectors of the economy. That might make linguistic sense, and it pays to stay mindful of the shifting meaning of words in historical sources, but the very census figures that ToC relies upon prove them wrong:

How many white overseers were listed in the 1860 federal census? No fewer than 37,883. If their residence patterns had not changed greatly since 1850, about 10 percent lived outside the South. That leaves about 34,000 free white southern overseers in 1860. If we assume (and this surely is greatly exaggerated) that one in three managed free southern farms, free southern factories, and slave southern factories, that still leaves about 22,000 white overseers available to supervise southern plantations. Is that a large or small number? Once more, it depends. Scarborough’s study helps answer this question. In the sugar, rice, and cotton regions, “most planters employed an overseer when the total number of working field hands approached thirty.”

Scarborough’s study goes on to distinguish between field hands, who the overseer would directly manage, and various household slaves who he probably did not. About fifty slaves would work out to thirty field hands, who would likely have an overseer.

How many slave-owners in 1860 owned fifty or more slaves? About ten thousand. After making the above generous allowances, about twenty-two thousand free white plantation overseers lived in the South in 1860, more than twice the number needed to manage these large plantations. So far, no allowance has been made for slave overseers. It is now assumed that F+E are correct, but that two thousand […] slaves labored as overseers. That would mean that eight thousand white overseers labored for the owners of fifty or more slaves. And what of the other fourteen thousand? Did they labor for owners of fewer than fifty slaves, and, therefore, fewer than thirty field hands? Were many unemployed in 1860? Or had large numbers of whites misrepresented their occupations to the census enumerators.  The inference that 0.5 percent of adult male slaves labored as overseers rests on F+E’s assumption that “most” planters did not employ white overseers and, therefore, had to employ slave overseers. If that was so, what did most white overseers in the South do for a living in 1860? Rather than answer that question, we also need to put the 0.5 percent aside. The antebellum South had slave overseers, but their number was insignificant. They deserve study, but their place in the southern slave occupational structure and plantation managerial system needs to be measured more carefully first. It is not possible that “within the agricultural sector, about 7.0 percent of the [slave] men held managerial posts.” That percentage is much closer to 3.0 percent, and nearly all were drivers.

A slave driver did occupy a sort of managerial position, but had a different job from overseers. Rather they reported to the overseer or the enslaver himself and could hope for better treatment, but remained enslaved. They tried to appease the overseer by enforcing some discipline in the fields and so moderate his treatment of the enslaved. This makes them neither angels nor demons. A good driver could serve for years, in large part due to his own ability rather than the color of his skin. He might manage the labor camp better than a white overseer. But driver and overseer remained separate roles, the first by definition black and enslaved, the second almost always white and free.

By Fleming’s standards, I have no doubt that Time on the Cross constitutes cutting-edge scholarship. He doesn’t seem to have availed himself of much else written in the past century, if he bothered at all. He has the training to know better. (Please see the correction below.) His readers have every right to expect better of someone who presents himself as a historian. Yet he still wrote what he did. I can’t explain errors of this magnitude and consistency as a simple matter of differing interpretation or inattention to detail. Fleming did not make mistakes, but rather knew full well what he wrote. He either set out to deceive or doesn’t care. I don’t know which reflects worse upon him.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Fleming closes with a homily that tells rather more than he probably thinks:

If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.

Everybody knows why white Americans should want forgiveness, even though few of us consider how we might earn it. Rather we usually seem most concerned with not earning it as studiously as possible. But what have black Americans done to white Americans that requires our forgiveness? What similar sin adheres to black skin, prosecuted with violence and cruelty down four centuries? Does Fleming mean that they dared darken the white man’s continent with their presence and so disturbed the peace of white minds? That they produced the true villain of his piece, the abolitionists? That those miscreants through their ceaseless, fanatical agitation turned the reaping of lives from a thing done by white Americans to black Americans into a thing done by white Americans to one another? Is that where the tragedy begins, not at Jamestown but Sumter? Nineteenth century white Americans might agree with all that. I don’t know why we should.

Update: I previously wrote here that Fleming had a historian’s training, but down in the comments Jimmy Dick told me otherwise. I rechecked Fleming’s biography and found that I misread his Fordham degree as a doctorate. Sorry that I messed up, Gentle Readers. While one doesn’t necessarily need a terminal degree, or even graduate work, to do good history it does provide training in the task. By presenting himself as a historian, as Fleming has done for decades, he asks his audience to assume that he either has the training or has worked out something equivalent on his own. With regard to slavery and the Civil War, Fleming has instead demonstrated what one can accomplish without the benefit of such training.

Thomas Fleming’s Theory of Slavery

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Thomas Fleming offered two ways to avoid the Civil War and still end slavery: compensated emancipation and the dramatic expansion and consequent dilution of slavery across the continent. We tried both experiments and neither worked. As a matter of fact, probably neither could work. The South, whether in the 1820s or 1860s, would not accept the nation buying up and freeing it slaves even if such a tremendous sum of money fell from the sky. Nor would the proliferation of slave states have meaningfully attenuated slavery elsewhere within the South. The section, barring a few less enslaved regions of various states, had tied its fortunes to human bondage and the cruel alchemy that turned blood into profit. Though Fleming doesn’t go into detail with his solutions, he admits that Americans rejected both. Southerners rejected compensated emancipation and abolitionists rejected the absolute capitulation of their movement that the dream of diffusion required.

Fleming could follow past historians and declare a pox on both houses at this point. He his solutions excel in absurdity and impracticality, but he had found essentially one rejected by each section. The South would not sell its slaves to freedom. The North, or rather the antislavery North, would not permit the perpetual expansion of slavery. He needn’t even argue we should weigh these refusals identically in understanding the coming of the Civil War. Both sections can play a part without contributing equally. Fleming knows as much. Considering the relative positions of the South and the antislavery movement, he apportions the blame:

Alas, by the time Madison reached this conclusion [for diffusion], the abolitionists were in full cry, demanding immediate emancipation for every slave in the South, and smearing the reputations of slave owners and anyone who defended them. Immediate emancipation was never going to happen because the idea triggered the South’s primary fear – a race war. This fear became a full-blown dread when Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to reconquer the country we now call Haiti, to regain its enormous sugar profits for the French treasury. When the dictator’s army collapsed from yellow fever, a black army marched across Haiti and killed every white man, woman and child.

In other words, those damned abolitionists who demanded slavery end and cursed slaves who sought to end it themselves brought about “the holocaust we call the Civil War and its aftermath of hate-laden racism.” They damaged the self-esteem of the white South and kindled its fears, driving it into an ever-deepening embrace of slavery. One can’t argue with the fact that antislavery Americans employed the language of moral castigation. Nor can one deny that the white South, for all they declared the slaves content, lived in terror of a slave revolt. These points deserve consideration.

It doesn’t take a Southern upbringing, then or now, to understand that people called sinners, degenerates, perverts, despots, and criminals rarely appreciate the candor. Unless they already believe they have done wrong, such arguments rarely persuade. They may go further and alienate those who otherwise harbor doubts about the whole business, driving them into the arms of radicals. The more accurate the description, the more we might expect it to alienate. However, such a maneuver doesn’t necessarily reveal a moderate turned radical under attack. One who silences doubts and doubles down on an issue obviously can’t have had the strongest of doubts. We all have our share of pride and confidence in our supreme moral rectitude, but one who genuinely isn’t sure that one’s conduct comports with one’s self-image seems unlikely to choose pride over principle. Hostile language may drive some moderates into radicalism, but it can hardly drive one to an extreme with which one doesn’t already harbor some sympathy. As such, we might do better to understand it as revealing the radicalism that already, as a practical matter, exists.

The fear of a slave revolt certainly drove Southern politics, much as the fear of nuclear annihilation once drove American politics. They had edifying examples of what a slave revolt could do, both abroad in Haiti and at home with Nat Turner, Gabriel, and Denmark Vesey. Fear has convinced no shortage of people to adopt policies they otherwise understood as abhorrent. However, this only goes so far. As with pride, fear might drive people to extremes but it rarely motivates them to abandon all the ends they once had in favor of opposing ends. The most consistently and vocally anti-communist Americans did not decide they must adopt Marxism lest Soviet nuclear weapons fly. Quite the opposite, they proscribed a kind of far-right politics obsessed with purging the United States of suspected communist sympathizers and cheerfully mutilated civil liberties, legally and otherwise, to achieve it. In other words, they found their solution in pursuing the ends they had already adopted. The American experience in two consecutive centuries argues that fear, as a response to a real or perceived attack, behaves much like pride does in revealing rather than reversing convictions.

Even leaving this aside, Fleming’s argument assumes that the white South genuinely and generally wanted rid of slavery. In fact, he casts the section as almost desperate to emancipate and only driven into a corner by abolitionists and the slave revolts that they imagined abolitionists inciting. In so doing, he makes a claim of ignorance so staggering that he can only have adopted it by choice:

The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority.

Fleming asks us to believe that southerners did not pursue slavery for the tremendous profits enslaved labor put in their hands. We must expect this, as he clearly didn’t have any interest in looking at those profits. But this immediately poses the question of why white southerners would embrace slavery if not for the greed? They could have contented themselves with slower development and smaller margins and used free white labor to grow tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar. No abolitionist terrified southerners into doing otherwise. No government twisted their arms, wet blood, or begged on hands and knees that they employ slave labor. Rather the enslavers made a straightforward calculation that they could more rapidly develop the Chesapeake and exploit its soil for larger profits by instead relying upon the enslaved. They made a business decision to minimize costs and maximize profits. They might have made do with less, but greed dictated otherwise. Their choice and that of each subsequent generation made the South, by 1860, the nation’s richest section. To argue otherwise, Fleming must have relied upon the work of the first historian of the South, Ulrich Bonnel Phillips. He argued that enslavers didn’t much care for profit, but rather took on slaves as a kind of obscure charity project with lots of whipping. Few historians have agreed with him since the early 1950s. They happened to notice just where most of the nation’s millionaires lived.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

In denying the influence of white supremacy in proslavery thought, Fleming goes well beyond missing the differences in slavery in the Upper and Lower South. For him to know about compensated emancipation and the diffusion theory, he needs to have read material which would have nearly bludgeoned him with evidence to the contrary. Even if he went all the way back t0 Phillips’ ancient and discredited work on slavery, he would find white supremacy at the heart of Southern identity (PDF). A more modern scholar would tell him that Phillips ought to have said “American” where he said “Southern”. To make this claim, Fleming has to ignore not just repeated statements from Confederate leaders and their antebellum antecedents, but also almost every fact of any significance relating to American slavery beginning with just whom Americans enslaved. He asks us to ignore the fact that Southern law made every person black person a presumed slave, but likewise presumed whites free. He has to ignore mountains of writing on the inferiority of black Americans, not just from obscure racial theorists like Josiah Nott and Samuel Cartwright, but even the words of people he himself names and which any American past the age of six or seven would recognize.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson admitted that black Americans had ample reason to revolt, and white Americans to fear that revolt:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

That sounds like an angst-ridden Jefferson who fits smoothly into Fleming’s milieu of white Southerners desperate to rid themselves of slaves, though even here Jefferson makes it clear that the construction of race distinguishes black and white Virginians, the first necessarily enslaved lest racial Armageddon ensue and the last free by right of skin. The angst-ridden Jefferson then proceeds to tell us what he really thinks of black people as people, not as products of circumstance:

To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

The man on the nickel, who past generations believed could equal in intellect an assemblage of Nobel laureates in the White House by dining alone, argues that black people cannot live together in an equal society with whites because black skin makes them hideous. One might pass this off as a regrettable fact of the aesthetic sense of the time, which did prefer pallor even among whites, but Jefferson goes rather beyond holding black people responsible for their choice of skin and insisting they ought never darken his Virginia:

Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

People at the time really did believe that chimpanzees (as orangutan meant in Jefferson’s time) copulated with black women. Through all the genteel phrasing the Sage of Monticello also repeats the vile calumny that black men have a special lust for white women. The special lust of the white author goes, as always, unacknowledged. Jefferson didn’t know, as we do, that all humans trace their descent to Africa and call the apes of the continent our cousins, but by his own terms he seems to have had more than the usual share of chimpanzee in him.

Then Jefferson proceeds to matters that he would like his readers to think dearer to his heart:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.


They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

If these together do not constitute a theory of racial inferiority, then I do not know what could. Jefferson clearly intended it as exactly that. He wrote all the aforementioned not just to observe the faculties of black Virginians, but rather to explain to his readers why they could only live in Virginia as slaves, never as equals. White southerners from Thomas Jefferson’s time to Jefferson Davis’ time, and well beyond, concurred. A list of them all would read like the census rolls, and run nearly as long. One would struggle to find many white advocates of racial equality anywhere in the nation, but only in the slave states did white supremacy so consistently necessitate slavery.

We might grant Fleming a fraction of a point, had he done better. It seems clear from the example of Anthony Johnson and others, that the white South did not adopt white supremacy as its organizing creed until it adopted slavery as its dominant labor system. As a strict point of chronology, slavery precedes and produces racism rather than the other way around. But Fleming doesn’t care to admit even that much, instead denying voluminous evidence compiled not just by recent scholars, or even a half century of scholarship, but indeed rejects the entire corpus of slavery historiography in order to claim that white supremacy and slavery had little to do with one another. At this point one must wonder more seriously not what books Fleming read, but rather if he read any.

One Day in July with White Supremacist Jack Kelly

Seven score and ten years ago, almost the entire white South fought a war to save slavery. Only four slave states declined the crusade in the end, for the most part with significant internal divisions and a number of their white residents taking up the cause anyway. For generations thereafter, many of those white southerners mourned their dead and bitterly resented their loss. They might admire the tragic sacrifices of their friends, family, and hallowed ancestors. They might celebrate the valor of those men. They did both with the full knowledge that those same men fought to win rather than courageously lose. Like people the world over, they could cast themselves in the same place as those hallowed ancestors. Surely if they could help, then things would have gone differently.

Shelby Foote almost says it in Ken Burns documentary, in the course of quoting Faulkner:

William Faulkner, in Intruder in the Dust, says that for every Southern boy, it’s always in his reach to imagine it being 1:00 on an early July day in 1863. The guns are laid. The troops are lined up. The flags are already out of their cases and ready to be unfurled. But it hasn’t happened yet. And he can go back to the time before the war was going to be lost. And he can always have that moment for himself.

One must understand that Foote means every white Southern boy. In that moment, with all things in the balance, all things seem possible. Maybe a single time traveling boy couldn’t change the outcome. Maybe legions of them would fare no better. To put oneself there makes one part of something grand, a participant in the noble struggle. He imagines a world that could have been. If his struggle fails, then he falls as a hero. He proves his manhood, his pride, and writes his own elegy in dreamed blood -his own, someone else’s, but never a slave’s- to the tragic passing of a noble age. At least by the twentieth century, and probably before, that white Southern boy would have had some white Yankee boys for company.

Foote doesn’t say all that goes into the dream. He knew, of course, but one no longer says such things openly. Now more of us imagine ourselves in blue. We have the luxury of pretending that if we lived then we would have the same values we do now and so of course we would fight to free the slaves. If we have traded one form of cheap virtue for another, then at least we traded up.

Or we hope we have. Some of us refuse to. Probably more of us lie about it, to others and to ourselves. Take, for example, Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He declares himself, in the customary ritual of those about to prove otherwise, a proud Union partisan happy to hop in the time machine and go back to destroy slavery:

if I had to live in an earlier period, I’d want to be a soldier in the Union Army. I can think of no greater cause than to fight to eradicate America’s original sin.

Good for him. But as these things do, he goes downhill from here.

Slavery isn’t America’s original sin because it was unique, or uniquely horrible here. If prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession,” slave trading is second. Since the dawn of recorded history, slavery has been practiced in nearly every society known to man.

Kelly can only acknowledge the evil of slavery if he can share the blame around. On the heels of admission, he reaches for exculpation. We all know the horrors of slavery, or so we imagine. Few receive much education on the subject, fewer still inquire on our own. We know we will find nothing pleasing there, but decline to test the proposition. Jack Kelly certainly didn’t. He wants to acknowledge slavery, but immediately move past it as though Americans enslaved in a brief, transient, incidental way rather than building a continental order centered on the deprivation of people they declared black for the exaltation of those deemed white.

He has some superficial facts. Other cultures did practice slavery, though race-based slavery seems to have developed specifically in the context of the Early Modern Atlantic. This at least distinguishes New World slavery from ancient slavery or Arabian slavery. Slavery in the United States has other distinguishing traits. Less involved with the dangerous processing of sugar and operating largely north of the favored habitats of tropical diseases, the United States developed a self-sustaining slave population. We usually did not kill slaves faster than births could replace them. Does that make white Americans virtuous, or should recognize that this achievement only appears ostensibly benign as it renders bondage all the more durable? Enslavers would reap lives for profit either way. The source of the harvest does matter and we should acknowledge how it differently shaped the Caribbean and the United states, but I don’t know that we should pat ourselves on the backs for coming out one way or the other on it.

Even if we might make such a decision, we would praise not the determination of people but geography. If one could turn a profit growing sugarcane in Virginia, Americans would have done it just as much as the British did in the West Indies. We know from the example of the Carolina lowcountry that American enslavers had no qualms about forcing slaves to toil in areas they understood as replete with lethal diseases.

Kelly will have none of that. He spreads the blame to everyone, parceling it out so finely that not enough adheres to any particular group for us to really notice.

The words “slavery” and “benign” ought never to appear in the same sentence, but slaves in the American South and the British Caribbean (usually) were treated less harshly than in most other places where slavery has been practiced — especially in ancient times.

He says it in so many words: slaves in the United States and the United Kingdom’s Caribbean colonies had it comparably good. This might or might not withstand careful examination, but he clearly implies that we should take the mote of blame he has left we virtuous whites with and place it elsewhere. Kelly has suggestions:

Our word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” the peoples most frequently enslaved during Roman times. Throughout history, only a relatively few slaves have been black. And for every African brought to North America on (mostly British) slave ships, dozens and possibly hundreds more were taken east by Arab slave traders.

This makes for a nice distraction: those bastard Romans might have enslaved my own ancestors. I don’t know that they did. The Italians and Spaniards in particular who enslaved Slavs generally collected them from the north shore of the Black Sea, while my Polish antecedents run closer to the Baltic. I lose track of them in the 1820s, so some remote relative might have lived further south and ended up in the belly of a slave ship. Kelly thinks this deeply significant, even though his column addresses American slavery. He still has blame to spread around, so as a good American he places it on the British. They must have somehow, by dark arts known only in the perfidious heart of Albion, forced innocent white Americans to buy the slaves off the ships to grow the tobacco and cotton and thereby reap profits from reaping lives.

By the way, Arabs also traded slaves. Those slaves even often had white skin, just as the Slavs did, which renders them especially significant. They constitute, we decided, an us rather than a them. We should consequently feel their suffering most keenly in our natural solipsism. We should remember it in our discussion of slavery in the United States. We should not draw any inferences from an American abandoning our customary parochialism to discuss the misdeeds of others in a piece that concerns itself, allegedly, with our own.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Once Kelly declares for the Union and abolition and shines the spotlight on any slaves save those the United States military emancipated, he comes at last to a unique trait of American slavery which makes it especially egregious. Even he cannot deny that

What made slavery America’s original sin was its violent conflict with our founding principles. If “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” what gives some men the right to own others?

Kelly can only acknowledge white America’s great sin to highlight white America’s great nobility. Our white skin and our American residence made us so virtuous as to transmute slavery from lives stolen and children bought and sold, into a kind of heroic flaw. He would do to read how eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans squared the circle between whites-only freedom and slavery, but then he would have to learn how the latter shaped the former. Some Americans acknowledged the conflict, including the slave-owning, slave raping author of that famous line. Others, like the slave-owning Vice-President of the Confederacy, saw it and rejected Jefferson. Still more understood what many of the founding generation actually practiced, when not speaking idle words about universal rights: freedom flowed from slavery. By making the black man (women rarely entered into it, unless the slaveholder felt like coerced company that night) permanently and nigh-infinitely inferior to the white, the very contrast made whites feel freer. White skin established a floor on which one could sit and never sink, at least in pride. It put whites, no matter how poor, in solidarity together against blacks. We see the conflict now, with slavery gone, but the two merge easily enough again when one starts talking about the continued plunder of black America.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Jack Kelly gives us a perfect illustration of just that in himself. Lest one think that I unfairly dredge up the past to damn him, consider this:

Slavery was horrible, but no black American living today has suffered from it. Most are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.

Kelly wrote these words just a few days ago, in a 2015 with the internet and Civil Rights legislation, Black History Month and obscure blogs. Robert E. Lee wrote these in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, though hardly as famous as the then-obscure Virginian, made much the same argument two years prior. Where Lee adhered to a mix of Positive Good and Necessary Evil ideas to defend slavery, reaching the same end either way, Stringfellow had no time for such solipsistic fretting:

Slavery is no evil to the negro. If we look at the condition of the negro in Africa, the land of his nativity, we find the most pitiable victim of a cruel master, the most wretched slave in America, when contrasted with a prince of his tribe in the deserts of Africa, is as a man contrasted with a beast! The mightiest of the negro race, in his native land, not only sacrifices his human victims to his Gods of stone, but is so loathsome in his filth and nakedness, that Giddings, or Gerrit Smith, would fly from his presence

Kelly doesn’t say that slavery did no wrong to black Americans, but he made the argument that they came out better for it. Break a few lives, sell some children, rape some women, but it all works out in the end. After all, slavery brought Africans to America where they could bask in the glory of white virtue and have whatever scraps we in our magnanimity deigned to concede to them.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Don’t take my word for it. Have the argument straight from John C. Calhoun:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.

We give and we give, our white nobility so staggering that it blinds even us to the fact:

It says something good about today’s white Americans that so many feel guilty for a sin neither they nor most of their ancestors ever committed. But white guilt has a pernicious effect on our politics.

We must, in fact, admit that we have become too noble for our own good. We must harden our hearts and take a good, long look at black America. There we see not the results of our plunder, but only the inherent vice of black skin:

The black community is uniquely troubled, in large part because white racism is blamed for social dysfunction that has other causes. To address those causes, white Americans must abandon an undeserved guilt, and black racists who blame all their problems on white racism must stop preying upon it.

We ended slavery and that instant everything magically became equal. It’s all done now and has been done for so long we might as well forget it, just as we forget our possibly-enslaved Slavic ancestors. No amount of difference can come down to white malice, as white skin makes you innocent. Only our great nobility leads us to think otherwise. Kelly asks us to believe that white and black Americans live on different planets, entirely devoid of interaction, so therefore any pathology exhibited by the latter cannot have come from the depredations of the former, or reasonable reaction to the same.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Kelly would have us direct our attention not at white racism, which he seems to understand as nothing more than a kind of personal dislike rather than a vast system of theft, rape, and murder, but to the fact that black Americans in their perfidy hate white Americans. They prey upon us, like the cunning slaves of old preyed on the consciences of their enslavers to escape whippings. I don’t know a word of Kelly’s piece that could not have easily come from the pen of a nineteenth century proslavery theorist, save only those that an enslaver would not know and the endorsement of the United States war effort alone. By implication, Kelly at least opposes new efforts to reduce the effects of structural racism upon black America. In referring to this predation upon the white conscience in continuous terms, Kelly further indicts not just new efforts or recent efforts at redress, but also those which white Americans have after agonizing struggle accepted with hesitance, halfheartedly and full of what he must construe as noble resentment.

I can only think of Samuel Cartwright:

When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.

Freedmen's Bureau cartoonKelly paints black Americans as sulky and dissatisfied. If they have a cause, it cannot come from white America. Therefore we must embark upon a new plan of discipline. They have taken advantage and we apparently show them what for. Black Americans have only themselves to blame, enriched in idleness by our too-keen consciences. If black American cannot feel the natural gratitude it owes to white America for the tremendous services rendered unto it, good and hard, then we can give them reminders. We can imagine they will learn no other way. Flesh, blood, and screams torn away by the lash only prove they never stop trying to turn our consciences in their favor.

I don’t know any way to say this except to say it outright: Jack Kelly is a white supremacist. If he doesn’t agree entirely with their methods of securing the power of the white race over then black, then he agrees wholeheartedly with their goals and endorses the chief thrust of their arguments. He sees African-Americans as fundamentally shiftless and conniving. Such faults somehow do not afflict white Americans, even though we speak the same language and have shared the same nation for centuries. What immunizes us, if not the same thing that afflicts them? We find virtue in whiteness by finding vice in blackness. White skin frees us because black skin enslaves them.

Jack Kelly has an editor at the Post-Gazette. He writes for them regularly, so I imagine he received pay for this column. His editor read the piece and signed off on its contents, deeming it fit to print and worthy of his readers’ attention. So have multitudes of other white Americans down the centuries. Their number has declined only through great struggle accompanied by numerous reverses as one means of plunder gives way to another, slightly more sophisticated means. We should take no pride in the fact that some people born with the same hue of skin as our own helped achieve the gains, unless we place great moral stock in our whiteness. We should remember that more took part in fighting, sabotaging, and ultimately rolling them back.

Whatever parts they cast themselves in, whatever uniforms they imagine wearing, Jack Kelly and the multitude like him put themselves into something far different from the armies of abolition. By word and deed they cloaked themselves in what passes for gray and imagine still that hot July day, a bit before one in the afternoon, when it all held in the balance. They know if they can get there, as they keep trying to do, they can make it all turn out differently this time. We make excuses, avoid the uncomfortable arguments, and let the old proslavery line go unchallenged. I’ve done it myself. But the path of least resistance does not lead to a blue uniform on top of Cemetery Ridge with Jeff Daniels for company. We have carefully arranged it so that white Americans find it easier to march across the field under fire. If our past deeds say something about us, then that one speaks most eloquently.

The Kickapoo Pioneer Calls for Help, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Part One

The Kickapoo Pioneer sounded desperate. Faced with a rising antislavery movement that had a provisional government for Kansas already in operation, a constitution written and soon up for ratification, a secret military order revealed, and well-heeled Yankees footing their bills, its pages called the situation a crisis. The abolitionists threatened to undo all the proslavery good that Kansans and Missourians had managed. The South had the men and boldness to step up and save things, but proslavery Kansas could not do it alone.

George Brown reported all of this in the November 17 Herald of Freedom, adding in his own commentary:

the editor brays piteously for help. Power is departing. The handwriting is seen upon the wall. Pro-slavery men, do come immediately to Kansas, and rally around the black flag, else all your hope will perish, and all your money will be lost which you have expended in sending enemies into Kansas to wrest from the “abolitionists” their liberties. The fertile plains of Kansas are literally black with opponents of slavery. They come in wagons, they come by steamboats, they throng our public thoroughfares, they are seen in every department of life, and something must be done to stay the tide-this avalanche of Freedom, else all, all is lost.

Brown knew how to gloat, even if all the antislavery party had done in Kansas rested on the weakest legal foundations. No Congress authorized the free state movement. So far as the law cared, Wilson Shannon and the legislature stolen fair and square back in March governed the territory. But he could turn the Pioneer’s distress to his own purposes. Antislavery whites beyond Kansas’ borders could read from his piece that whatever they had heard, Kansas had a clear future as a free state. Thus the more cautious might hazard it instead of Nebraska.

Twice Brown invokes blackness and both times he does it on multiple levels. To nineteenth century Americans, the black flag meant no quarter and war to extinction. Pirates, the enemies of all mankind, flew the black flag. So did guerrilla bands. By tying the flag to proslavery men, Brown named them as similarly enemies to all and asserted that they would not have any scruples about any atrocity that would secure their goals.

The black flag bore the imagined color of the slave and Brown painted Kansas that hue with antislavery people as well. In the nineteenth century, you called your opponents black to associate them with evil. They used negro as a neutral term for African-Americans. Calling opponents of slavery black thus constituted a kind of double slur, first tying them to evil and then proclaiming them like unto both in a way inferior to enslaved people. Therefore, proslavery Americans could twice damn the emerging antislavery party as “Black Republicans”. By turning the insult back on them, Brown essentially said that not only did freedom prevail but also imply that it lived up to all the fears that it augured to the proslavery mind. The white South could rush to Kansas if they liked, but they would find a territory already lost to them.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

This confidence opens Brown to the charge that he, like the Pioneer, wrote to solicit for aid from abroad. Brown’s piece accompanies a profile, with a picture, of Ely Thayer. It carries with it a confidence that Brown probably did not feel as fully as he let on, given the late exposure of the Kansas Legion. If the free state movement had made progress, then it remained an illegal group that had essentially declared itself legal and asked Kansas to agree. That Kansans did agree in large numbers did not erase those Kansans who did not, nor their allies in Missouri. If Brown did not nightly expect that a proslavery posse would ride to his doorstep and arrest him for his antislavery publications, then he had to know that it could happen. Should it come to pass, then he would either go quietly or unpredictable violence might ensue. Maybe he had ice water for veins, or sufficient confidence to laugh off the real threats, but his gloating carries at least a hint of trying too hard.