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.

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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.

What did ordinary Confederate soldiers fight for?

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

When speaking of the Confederacy, laypeople and those with a cripplingly narrow focus on matters military often make two related claims. First they will say that the Confederacy cared only incidentally about slavery, but really got worked up over states rights. This mangling of history remains far too common, but I think that most increasingly see it more as a declaration of the speaker’s sympathy with the Confederacy’s actual aims than a judgment earned under the sometimes cruel tutelage of facts. Furthermore, I doubt one would have to go far in any part of the country to find plenty of laypeople and military history enthusiasts who would contest it fiercely.

The second claim has more life in it, coming in at least two variations. The first insists that the Confederacy used slavery as a kind of manufactured issue, a hot button to marshal popular support for more esoteric policies that nobody would have gone to war over. Usually the speaker claims the tariff. I’ve even seen renditions that specify it down to a few cents on the tariff. While cents counted for a great deal more in the nineteenth century, this still seems to cut very close to the bone. The second variant holds that the Confederate political leadership absolutely fought for slavery, the common soldier never. He had no stake in the institution but the smooth operators in the state capitals convinced him that he did. In either case, the speaker usually trots out Robert E. Lee as proof positive that antislavery Confederates existed.

Whatever version of the argument one makes, it holds that essentially the common Confederate soldier lacked the intelligence, education, or sophistication to make sound political judgments in his own interest. In doing so on the part of the vast majority of Confederate soldiery and a large portion of the slave states’ male population of military age, the speaker condemns a large part of the South’s white population. If this takes a form slightly more polite than calling the lot of them a bunch of lack-wit fools, than it does not differ meaningfully in substance. As one would expect, many of the same people take great offense to the very unfair stereotypes which depict the South as a land of backwards, lack-wit fools.

The foolish and unsophisticated exist in every time and place, of course. One could make an argument that Southern indifference to Yankee innovations like public education played a part in giving the South more than its share, but this rarely comes up. Instead we must take it as given, even obvious, that a poor white farmer could not possibly have any interest in saving slavery and would not have allowed racism to irrationally dictate his actions. This requires that his racism, from his perspective, actually entail irrationality. Usually that works the other way around. From the perspective of the racist, racism seems entirely rational and sensible.

Leaving the question of rationality aside we do have some facts to consider. On first blush, these may seem to support the proposition that ordinary Confederate soldiers, and other pro-confederacy whites, had little personal interest in preserving slavery. Further consideration will reveal otherwise.

One must grant that a vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not themselves own slaves. Slaves cost a great deal and the average soldier hardly counted as a man of wealth and property. However, a vast majority of American soldiers who enlisted after 9/11 neither owned property threatened in New York, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, nor had loved ones injured or imperiled in the attacks that day. Did the American government manufacture a grievance for them, which they in their innocence could not see through? Must we believe that they forgot that none of their loved ones died that day? I suspect that any questioned on the point would find the argument risible. Just as they could have an interest in and commitment to the United States and its nebulously defined “way of life” independent of the immediate details of their personal lives, so could white Southerners have a commitment to the South and its own distinctive way of life. This way of life, to the degree it differed from that of other sections, largely revolved around the prosecution and maintenance of slavery.

In this light, a soldier could hope to own slaves in the future as his share of the Dixie-flavored American Dream. He might have slaveholding relatives. He probably, except in the most rugged and remote sections of the South, at least knew one slaveholder by sight. He might have, either personally or through close family, more substantial connections still. Eugene Genovese sketches out a web of such connections, a “conjecture of […] economic, political and cultural forces, incuding intense racism” between poor whites and planters which “made secession and sustained warfare possible” in his 1975 article Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholder’s Democracy (JSTOR paywall, article accessible through a free account)taking Joshua Venable “dirt farmer of of Hinds County, Mississippi” as a case study:

Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make.  […]

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to the dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair-a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Here we have personal ties to planters. Joshua and Jefferson hardly seem like the best of friends, but Jefferson still had him over and treated him well on the occasion. This sort of behavior naturally creates a kind of sentimental alignment, even among the unrelated.

Josh resented his cousin-so much that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success-some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans.

New Orleans served as the antebellum South’s Las Vegas, for those who want to read between the lines.

Josh’s resentment shades into aspiration. He doesn’t loathe Jeff for his success. He wants to become like Jeff, but better, and valuable to him. Ambition can account for plenty of that desire, but more went into it. Josh wanted to help Jeff out with money, just as Jeff helped out others:

Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, lack or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinatti? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was already ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and the two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food and supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how many of the poorer farmers could make it?

Jefferson and others like him would even hire on the sons of neighbors, giving them odd jobs that might lead to more. One could become an overseer, often a stepping stone to one’s own plantation. If a yeoman had a good year or two and found a deal, he might buy a slave. Should that slave not have immediate work, then the planter would “rent him for a year.” If a farmer ended up with a bumper crop and needed extra labor at a cash-poor time, one of the Jefferson Venables of the area would send a slave over to rent.

And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to get them started.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Joshua Venable. The area’s Jeffersons might not make you feel like quite an equal, but they’ve gone out of their way to help you out and support you. Why would you see them as enemies? Furthermore, since so much of what they did involved using slave labor directly, or indirectly, on your behalf wouldn’t you associate their patronage closely with their slavery?

Even without the planters to serve as patrons, protectors, and role models, it made perfect sense to tie one’s aspirations to future slaveholding. White hands might decide to try somewhere else in a year. They could hare off to Texas or Arkansas. They would demand treatment that slaves could not. Should one find white labor that would not go off to greener pastures and would work as hard as a slave, then even after winning the labor lottery you still needed more hands than the local white population could supply. One would inevitably look to slavery, a fixed fact of life for as long as anyone could remember, as the way to get ahead. Thus one would stand ready, if perhaps not always eager

to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime-in short, to think and act life slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

It doesn’t take false consciousness or foolishness to arrive at that conclusion and consequently stand ready to fight to save slavery. It would even, necessarily, require ubiquitous racism. The advantages of the system in itself would make converts and produce the racism to order. A poor farmer did not have precisely the same stake in the system as a great enslaver did, but their social, cultural, political, and economic interests all closely aligned.

Genovese’s example concerned poor farmers in the plantation belt. They could hold in the upcountry with fewer slaves. Raw racism may play a larger role, as the undeveloped upcountry with its mostly white populations often understood that the presence of planters meant also the presence of slaves. They’d rather have neither than both, a position not that far from that of some Kansas free state men. If the upcountry men disliked having planters, a species of outsider, dictate to them then they disliked Yankee dictation all the more and might understand further integration with the nation by internal improvements and the resulting commercial intercourse. That could bring the slaves in, and had helped bring them to former upcountry tracts in the past.

But the upcountry white belts did, ultimately, have weaker ties to the Confederate cause because of their smaller investment in and immersion with slavery. The more upcountry-style Border States did not secede. West Virginia bolted Virginia to come back. Sometimes fierce resistance erupted in Eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and elsewhere beyond slavery’s easy reach. If the South had men with little investment in the slave system, then they lived in those places. If such men fought routinely for the Confederacy, we would expect them to exhibit a high degree of loyalty to it. Yet instead we observe districts ranging from divided to actively rebellious just where we would expect the slavery-indifferent, easily fooled Confederate soldiers to appear most often.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I understand the desire to see one’s ancestors, personal or figurative, in only the best light, but it doesn’t make for good history. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, it seems far more reasonable to operate under the assumption that people of a time and place act within the general norms rather than against them. This holds true even before we consider the clear fact that the Confederacy made no secret of its purpose, but rather trumpeted it loudly. That alone ought to make it clear that men who signed on knew they fought for slavery and accepted the fact, but even if the Confederate leadership managed a remarkable conspiracy of silence and dissembling, as apologists imagine, the social, economic, and political patterns one sees in Genovese and elsewhere would make a powerful, if somewhat less quotable, case that most Confederates both knew they would and chose to fight and die for slavery.

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part Five

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Parts 12, 3, 4Squatter Sovereign article

Patrick Laughlin published the constitution and rituals of the Kansas Legion, but his article included more information still. It appears that when the Grand Encampment had their first session, on February 8, 1855, they passed a resolution that offers a useful reminder that their movement did not consist entirely of twenty-first century egalitarians, but rather nineteenth century white Americans. In April, the legion’s founders wrote their constitution. In February, they had this to say:

Whereas, while we regard the Freedom of Kansas Territory as the highest of all political considerations which may now or hereafter engage our attention as a free and intelligent people, we at the same time regard it as impolitic and wrong to adopt any line of policy that may in any manner interfere with the domestic relations of our neighboring States or Territories–therefore,

Resolved, that we hold it to be just and proper in our relations with our sister States as a fundamental principle of action, and most promotive of the public good of the Territory, that laws preventing the emigration of either Slaves or Free negroes be enacted by our coming General Assembly and eventually engrafted in the constitution of the State.

Andrew Francis wanted to join the free state movement because he understood its goal as largely the same as his free white state party: no black Americans in Kansas. Missouri need not worry, as Kansas would let Missourians come and take back their absconded slaves. Kansan whites need not worry, as they would not let any black person free or slave remain long in their territory. Every black person would lose if they had their way, and therefore every white person would win.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Not every antislavery Kansan went along with that, as recurrent debates over Jim Lane’s black law demonstrate, but they could not carry the state on their own. For every Charles Robinson, who would make black men and women of all races into voters, the United States had at least dozens of David Wilmots bent on constraining slavery only as a way to make the continent whites only. The egalitarians could grumble about it and write protests, but without the numbers they could accomplish little else. Worse, if they insisted too forcefully they might break the tide of resentment that repeated theft of elections had engendered in white Kansans and send some of the black law men back over to the proslavery side. I don’t know that we could say which course would have led to a better outcome any easier than they could have.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Laughlin concluded his exposure of the Legion with suitable fireworks:

Now that I have shown the foul, treasonable and murderous plottings of a party in which preachers of the Gospel stand pre-eminent-it is my duty to give also to the world, in order to make my statements more perfect, the Grip, Signs, and Passwords of this modern army, made up of the chivalrous sons of darkness.

Thus Laughlin told Kansas, and anybody in Missouri who cared to read it as well, not just what he knew or the contents of documents. He also provided the means to infiltrate a meeting. They need not take his word for it, but could go see for themselves. While present they could note the faces, then return home and tell their friends.

The article concludes with a statement of Laughlin’s character. Seven men swore to having known Laughlin since he came to Kansas and

take pleasure in saying that his demeanor has been that of a gentleman, and that they consider his statements perfectly reliable in every respect.

The seven worthies included James Forman and James Lynch, both of whom took part in the Laughlin-Collins clash. I suspect we know now just how Collins came to see Lynch as his enemy. Two other Formans, John and A.P. signed as well, likely relatives of James.

 

Jim Crow Restored in Florida

The Warren Court in 1953

The Warren Court in 1953

If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.

I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.

Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.

The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

[…]

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.

The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:

“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”

“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”

It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:

All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.

This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:

“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC

She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:

Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.

Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:

In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.

The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.

Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.

At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.

In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.

[…]

There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:

“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”

In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.

This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.

As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.

I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.

We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.

A deeper understanding of white supremacy

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

I suspect that if one asked most white Americans what the word “racism” meant, they would say that racism entails hatred. People fear and loathe a racial other. From this, it follows that they both personally mistreat the objects of their scorn and accept and support similar mistreatment practiced by others. From the hatred, all else flows. However deeply one understands the vacuity of racial categories, people clearly built up identities around fitting in one and hating people in the other. We learn in school, from the media, and well-meaning people in our lives that we should condemn such hatreds because, at least in part, no one has any control over what category they end up in. We have the parents we do who had the parents they did, all the way back. Hating someone for their choice of biological parents seems perverse and absurd, as no one has any such choice.

A few years ago, I would have told you the same. I think what I sketch out here describes the general, well-intentioned white moderate-to-liberal understanding of racism. It casts racism as an attitude and feeling, with attendant theories, about something called race. Consequently, a generous application of tolerance and empathy could cure it all. Bring a white racist into a black community. Talk to the people. Look at their kids. They have all the same hopes and dreams anybody else does. They have struggles, but so do the rest of us. The scales fall away from the racist’s eyes. The Grinch hears the Whos singing and his heart grows ten sizes, breaking the x-ray machine.

It works in fiction. Maybe sometimes it works in real life too, but I think that this narrative relies on the idea that the notion that people adopt the hatreds they do out of some irrational reason. They have real empathy for people different from themselves, but have found ways to redirect or suppress it. Fundamentally fragile, those rationalizations collapse at once on contact with the facts. Compassion prevails because ultimately we understand that people hate for bad reasons and good thoughts can chase out the bad.

What if they don’t? The enslaver could walk around the plantation every single day and see the enslaved at work. At a whipping, the enslaver could hear the screams of pain and pleas for mercy. An enslaver might hear the same screams in his bedroom, or see the terror in the eyes of his victim. It would take no effort at all to likewise see the meager joys that slaves struggled for at the margins of the system, that they loved and hated, dreamed and feared the same as any person. These mysteries require no initiation to learn, but rather would pour in through every sense the human body possesses. Enslavers could tell themselves lies; they might even believe them. But they could not miss the essential humanity of their prey.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

On the contrary, understanding that humanity and exploiting it put slave “wenches” into white beds and more and more bales of cotton in the barn. Because slaves could think ahead and understand cause and effect as well as any free person, their fear and pain could be turned on them in ways that would never have worked for non-human livestock. You cannot threaten a horse with being sold down the river. It has no language to understand the threat. If you beat a cow it will not produce more milk. But you can terrorize people. You can wage a war against them. They can understand the threats and connect the pain to specific behaviors. They can read the cotton scale and know if they came in light and what beating would come if they did. An enslaver profits not despite his lack of empathy, but because of it. The mistreatment comes not from a lack of understanding, but arises out of a deep understanding of the slave’s humanity. One who could not effectively terrorize would not profit as one who did have such talents.

From the perspective of the enslaver, most everything done to the slave makes good sense. Every whipping serves a rational purpose. A whipped slave will learn to mind and not abscond, fearing whipping more than remaining. The more terrible the punishment, the more deeply one learns the lesson. Each drop of blood becomes a drop of profit. Mistreatment can arise out of hatred; hatred will sustain it. But the interest in profits and advantage, financial or otherwise, remains. As long as they exist, someone will seek them. We all feel our own pain rather more keenly than that of others, after all. Things we would never accept become the smallest levies upon others. Rationalizations will follow, but rationalization must always come after the decision. We do not seek to justify what we have rejected, but only things we have done and imagine ourselves doing.

Looking at it this way, the conventional narrative has cause and effect reversed. We did not hate and thus forced black Americans to the bottom of the national totem pole. We hated because we set them there and forbade their advancement. All of this, I imagine, sounds like so much theory. It comports well with political preferences I have expressed before. One could easily sketch an alternative theory of racism. Against the alternative, I offer this account from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. 

Taylor discusses the Chesapeake in the middle to late 1600s. The colony had no slave code until 1670 and consequently no established baseline as to how one must treat the few African slaves on the ground. Some enslavers saw them as indentured servants, due their freedom after so many years. “More commonly, masters permitted slaves to acquire and manage their own property.” Thus “dozens of early slaves purchased their freedom and obtained the tools, clothing, and land to become common planters.” The state did not forbid or confiscate black gains, so

black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote. Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.

These people had names and some of them have survived:

The most successful and conspicuous black freedman, Anthony Johnson, acquired a 250-acre tobacco plantation and at least one slave. With apparent impunity, Johnson boldly spoke his own mind to his white neighbors, telling one meddler: “I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please.” When white neighbors lured away his slave, Johnson went to court, winning damages and the return of his property. That the authorities supported an African against whites and upheld his right to own slaves reveals that slavery and racism had not yet become inseparably intertwined in the Chesapeake. That a black man would own a slave also indicates that getting ahead in planter society was more important to Johnson than any sense of racial solidarity with his fellow Africans in Virginia.

Anthony Johnson may have had more freedom in the Virginia of the 1650s than most black Americans did in the Virginia of the 1950s. He not only escaped slavery, but lived in a society that defended his freedom and rights against the aggression of whites. His grandchildren, living in a rather different cultural milieu with more and more distinctly African slaves, quit Virginia for safer lands.

Studying the history I do rarely fills one with hope. My research interests would not delight dinner parties. Friends have asked me to tell them less, not more. One can get the feeling that white supremacy not only persists, but will and must always prevail. The logic of the system demands it. White self-interest, well aware of the numerous advantages that our skin bestows upon us, will never materially surrender a single one. We have, after all, a proven road to racial equality: school integration. We celebrate its de jure end have rejected its de facto termination at all hazards. Confronted with the stolen property in our hands, we imagine ourselves as hard-working, self-made individuals. Someone else, as we saw in the news reports on post-Katrina New Orleans, does the looting.

When I read Johnson’s story a few years ago, it brought tears to my eyes. I mean that literally; I sat with book in hand and teared up. I don’t admire Johnson’s slaveholding any more than I would a white man’s, but I saw in him proof that we did not have to always do as we have done. We could have done otherwise. We could still do otherwise. Forty years of fighting integration need not continue. No law of nature requires them. The sky does not rain down injustice; we do. It follows that we can stop. If white America really wanted to end the fruitless “discussions on race” and fix whatever problems we imagine exist within “the black community” that we also imagine, we could do it.

But the plunder of lives enriches all those of the right color. We do not all benefit equally, but we all do benefit. Our ancestors arranged the system that we and we, their faithful stewards, maintain it. We accept it as the default, automatic as breathing and so natural we have made it simultaneously invisible enough to take for granted and visible enough for us all to feel it. I have felt it when pulled over, late at night, on suspicion of drunk driving. I actually knew I had a police car behind me and paid too much attention to it in my mirror rather than the white line at the road’s shoulder. It never crossed my mind that the officer would do me harm. He didn’t even ask to see my registration before he let me go. I feel it now and then when my father and I walk into a restaurant near the State Police post and see the uniformed men with guns in abundance. The presence of so many armed men doesn’t thrill me, I have the luxury of fearing a fatal misunderstanding only in the abstract. The police rarely do so much as look twice at us.

Taylor concludes

A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness. In the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies almost all blacks were slaves and almost every slave was black (with the exception of occasional captive Indians). A Virginian remarked, “These two words Negro and Slave had, by custom, grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”

[…]

Newly obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite. By increasing the capital requirements for tobacco cultivation, slavery gave competitive advantage to the already wealthy planters, discouraging the smaller planters, who had to rely on the labor of their own families. The more restless and ambitious young commoners moved westward or southward in search of the frontier opportunity to build farms out of the forest.

So went the South and, ultimately, the nation. As long as we imagine an identifiable group that has it much worse, distinctions between those we imagine within our own group seem far more trifling. White Americans rarely received whippings. No one sold our children or forced those children into separate and inferior schools. No one excluded them from the suburbs. On the contrary, the American state helped us and did all in its power to ensure we would have every advantage if not over one another, than over those we imagine not worthy of consideration. Their lack of freedom, then and now, liberates us. We have not had it any other way.

The Economist Strikes Again #Economistbookreviews

BaptistweetLast fall, The Economist published a review of Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told which one could fairly summarize as, in its own words, as follows:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

The publication, under what must have been a bewildering assault from the foreign forces of sound historical practice, intractable facts, and basic human decency, later withdrew that review and published a begrudging apology. Slavery, the anonymous author told us with his feet to the fire, did not amount to a good time had by all. The magazine’s review sparked an interest in its record on such matters. Greg Grandin, the victim of a very similar review earlier on 2014, dug all the way back to 1860. The long dead writers of the time deemed a high tariff a greater evil than slavery. The Economist could have used the occasion of fifteen decades’ remove to reflect upon its history and consider how it had come to publish such a blinkered, blatantly racist piece. I harbored a small hope that it might.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a book coming out, its publication moved up to this month for, I imagine, the obvious reasons. His book takes the form of a series of letters to his son offering advise and insight on the struggle inherent in living in America while black. Given the content, it would provide a wonderful opportunity for The Economist to show that it had learned something, even if only that the one anonymous reviewer who laid into Grandin and Baptist ought not receive further assignments. I don’t know who wrote the review of Between the World and Me. Given its different content, it might have gone to another staff writer. Whoever wrote it chose instead to follow the magazine’s hallowed tradition of white supremacy. One supposes the same person as last time signs the checks, but what one does for pay often comports well enough with what one thinks right in these things.

Thus The Economist informs its readers that the fear that pervades Coates’ inner life

is the product of 250 years of whipping, burning, shooting and locking up black people. “In America,” writes Mr Coates, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This is all necessary, he says, to maintain “the Dream”, which is capitalised throughout the book and, along with “the body” (usually Mr Coates’s own), appears on every other page. The Dream is not defined so much as described: it smells of peppermint and tastes of strawberry shortcake; it lives in suburban streets with tree houses in the gardens. This all makes some poetic sense but, shorn of ornament, its implication is that in order to have dreamy Greenwich, Connecticut, Chicago’s housing projects must also exist. Racial mixing in the suburbs over the past two decades suggests otherwise: real life is not so Manichean.

I suspect Coates would say that Greenwich Connecticut was built on the back of the nearer housing projects. This claim comes burdened with facts of how advantages compound themselves down the generations, to say nothing of how housing policy precisely did just that on racial lines. I presume that such proletarian accoutrements clash far too badly with a business suit for The Economist to tolerate. Nor have the writers sullied themselves with knowledge of the workings of comparative advantage. But I am unfair to so indict them, as one cannot expect the writers or editors of The Economist to be familiar with work done on the subject by a discipline so foreign to their experience and interests as economics.

The anonymous author, his answer to the white sheet hanging in his closet, would have us know that the fact of small increases of diversity in the suburbs prove the injustice has ended. It also, I imagine, ended with the election of a black president. It ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, or the Fourteenth. It ended with the Voting Rights Act. It doesn’t matter when any more than facts matter, it simply must have ended so we need not discomfit ourselves. We can only mention past injustice in order to declare ourselves perfected.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The disdain drips off the screen. I can’t read this and not see this subtext: Upper-middle class whites tolerate miscegenation, so what more can Coates possibly ask? Have they not sacrificed enough for his people? Nineteenth century authors would have included reference to how blacks learned the arts of civilization and Christianity from their kindly white tutors. If The Economist doesn’t care to include those claims, though it did in its review of The Half Has Never Been Told, then it doubles down with irony:

Mr Coates does not spare well-intentioned individuals for their part in maiming black bodies, however indirect that may be. In a passage that is sure to bring him some notoriety, he describes how he looked on the plumes of smoke over Manhattan on 9/11, shortly after an unarmed college acquaintance had been murdered by an undercover policeman. “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [him] and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature…which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” The honesty deserves some praise, but what it reveals does not.

Mr Coates urges his son to remember that slavery was not an indefinable mass of flesh but “a particular, specific enslaved woman…who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favourite cousin.” The same can be said of those who did the enslaving. By spreading blame so widely, Mr Coates eases the consciences of those who fastened the chains, tightened the noose, wielded the billy club and the people who told them to do it.

We must now believe that a realistic fear of white authority figures charged with the use of violence by the state, who often execute that charge with pride and to great celebration within white America, comes back around and justifies the brutality. Eric Garner feared the police, so when they strangled him to death he had it coming. He could have also smiled at a white woman. Do we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not? The Economist would have us believe that he helps create the problem and, indeed, the magazine can’t be asked to recognize any present problem except to blame black Americans.

The Economist concludes:

When talking about race, Barack Obama often says that anyone who doubts that there has been progress in America should put the question to a black man who lived in the south under Jim Crow. Then he adds that, despite this, the country is still struggling with racial troubles that did not vanish with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. This is right. Mr Coates has written a powerful book that reveals how being the parent of a black teenage boy in America is to be visited by night terrors about his survival. He is also correct to point out that there are echoes of slavery in America today. But they are echoes, rather than the thing itself, and that means there is also hope that the recent violence that spurred the book’s publication may one day be abolished too.

Ultimately I can think of no better answer to The Economist than Coates’ own. He anticipated it:

That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.

[…]

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.

We are still burning churches

Confederate flags came down, or will soon come down, from above state buildings. The Supreme Court upheld human rights thrice over. Saturday, Bree Newsome climbed up a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds and so beat those working within to the chase.

We have some cause to celebrate, even if some of our late victories came at dreadful cost. But every silver lining comes equipped with clouds. In the past week, at least six primarily-black churches have burned at the hands of persons unknown.

In Charlotte, N.C., authorities say a June 24 fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was the result of arson and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. NBC News reported that more than 75 firefighters were needed to extinguish the three-alarm fire, and an hour passed before the blaze was under control. Two firefighters received medical treatment for heat-related injuries. The church sustained $250,000 in damage, including a collapsed ceiling and significant damage to a space used for a children’s summer camp. The sanctuary was spared, sustaining smoke damage along with the gymnasium.

A June 23 fire at God’s Power Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Macon, Ga., has been ruled as arson, although there is no indication it was a hate crime. As was reported in theMacon Telegraph, the front doors of the church were locked and wired shut when authorities arrived, but a side door was unlocked. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives was called, as is the case with church fires, and authorities also noted that electronics and other air conditioning equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries. A $10,000 reward is available through the Georgia Arson Hotline for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

We don’t have all the information yet to count each of the six as an act of white terrorism against one of the few institutions that white Americans have permitted to black Americans. With numbers so small, almost anything could come down to a coincidental combination of fires. The investigations have not yet ruled every burning an arson. People do burn buildings out of simple youthful stupidity. I would like for it to work out that way and for none of these arsons to come as responses to the late move against celebration of the Confederacy. I hope we all would.

The world rarely bends to our hopes. The arc of history only bends toward justice if we bend it. However much I would love to have it all wrong, I expect we will soon learn that at least some set these fires as acts of terror. If we do, I have no doubt that the usual suspects will ascribe each to mental illness and lone wolves. That we just had a calamitous attack launched in defense of white supremacy will fall out of memory as such things usually do. We might even have a rendition of one of the classics of that genre.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan left at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, and a timer, under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . They did this on a Sunday and put the dynamite beneath the front steps. Four girls died. Twenty-two others came away wounded. We can only guess their motives, just as we can only guess what drove Dylann Roof to his own isolated incident indicative of mental illness. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, which fancied itself a journal of respectable conservative opinion as much then as now, had this to say:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.

Damn the bombers; they harmed the cause of white power. But since no decent, conservative white person would do something so horrifying as that, the guilty parties must come in the color of skin we most associate with criminality. By linking the bombing with communism, the Review further implied that its “crazed Negro” worked on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. The American Right had long understood it as a communist outfit, after all. But failing all of those, Buckley fell back on the tried and true insistence that the victims had it coming. Whether they themselves stood against the white-imposed, white-dominated status quo or took their cues as past generations imagined rebellious slaves had from the perfidious white reformers, they had brought the violence down on their own heads. Everything worked just fine until Earl Warren integrated the schools.

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Five years earlier, Buckley penned this editorial, parts of which could have come from Calhoun’s own pen:

In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail-that is all. It means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.

[…]

The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro : but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

Confronted on the subject in 1989, Buckley affirmed that he believed it as much right then as in the 1950s. His publication continues on in that proud tradition even without him:

Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article’s flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.

Mona Charen had it in her to write this in 2015. In 2015, a white man can walk into a black church and murder the people gathered there. In 2015, we still burn churches. None of these deeds requires a white hood to complete, though men in hoods have done their share of burning, shooting, and lynching. All speak to the persistence of the ancient faith of the men who once wore them or who come to work in expensive suits, as well as the men with whips and chains before them. It remains one of the chief issues in our politics. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.

Dylann Roof, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Rest of Us

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Roof’s victims, via the BBC

Gentle Readers, this post includes selections from the work of modern-day hate groups and the Charleston shooter. I don’t post many warnings for historical horrors, but I both understand and share the sentiment that dealing in more contemporary racism makes for harder reading.

Last week, Dylann Roof acted alone. He walked into a historically black church in Charleston and took nine lives. He had no accomplices in the legal sense, so far as we know. He had many in the moral sense. Supporters of his cause, if not his methods, took to the media to call him mentally ill, a lone wolf, and the architect of an isolated incident. They declared his motives a mystery. With every utterance they breathed another cloud of fog to hide the truth from themselves and the rest of us who have the luxury of not knowing. Another day goes by. Another handful of lives end. The machine of white power grinds along. If it more often consumes lives in less dramatic ways, then that serves to quiet our sleepy consciences.

The system that white American built eased Roof toward his murders by taking the subjugation of black Americans as normal and the supremacy of white Americans as the default. We declare black Americans a them, not an us. We proclaim their blackness inherent, fixed, and of paramount import. The white norm constructs and reinforces itself by declaring blackness deviant and deficient, as if these categories descended from the heavens rather than slavery. For some of us, that pedigree proves their ordaining from on high. But the latest white power hero also had more enthusiastic accomplices. We all partake of the system of passively imbibed hatred. Some of us go a step farther.

Very likely by his own admission, Roof grew up in the system. Like the rest of us, he learned his prejudices:

Living in the South, almost every White person has a small amount of racial awareness, simply beause of the numbers of negroes in this part of the country. But it is a superficial awareness.

[…]

The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right.

As a resident of a town well over 90% white, let me assure you that the development of racism does not require the immediate presence of diversity.

Roof insists that he did not grow up racist. But in linking his prior “racial awareness” from before his awakening to hatred with that after, he suggests otherwise. Rather it sounds like he grew up a little bit racist and then did it one better. He did not change sides, but rather seems to have moved from the passive, enabling white supremacy of indifference to injustice through to the active version of defending it. The language Roof uses to describe himself in his superficial phase speaks volumes. “It was obvious” that George Zimmerman rightly murdered Trayvon Martin. He could claim self-defense just from seeing a black boy walking down the street. Such an act seemed so ordinary to Roof that he could not understand any objection to it. Black lives did not matter.

The furor over Zimmerman’s shooting drove Roof to the internet, where he began a more intensive education. Here he met the more active of his accomplices:

The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

The who? The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the CofCC (Their preferred initialism.) descends directly from the White Citizens’ Councils established as what Thurgood Marshall called an “uptown Klan”. They fought integration just as the Klan did, but put the white hoods in the closet as part of a rebranding. But don’t take the SPLC’s word for it. The CofCC has a website, where they admit in one paragraph that Root acted out of racial hatred, imply drugs fueled his murders, and then top it off with this:

It is unclear what caused Roof to go on the shooting spree. It seems that Roof’s interest in racial politics started only very recently.

The mystery remains. If only Roof had told us in numerous ways just what he intended, like posting a manifesto online. Perhaps there he could give us a genealogy of his beliefs, with concepts or even named organizations that we could follow through about. If he named a website, we could go there and see what it said.

Outside the fantasy world of the CofCC, he did and we can:

(2) We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.

The CofCC’s Statement of Principles, written and adopted by its leadership and posted on its website, must have no connection at all to these words of Roof’s manifesto:

Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them. And I mean that in multiple ways. Not only did it protect us from having to interact with them, and from being physically harmed by them, but it protected us from being brought down to their level. Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals. The best example of this is obviously our school system.

Nor could the CofCC’s obsession with exaggerated reports of black on white crime, cited by Roof here:

There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.

have any connection with his murders. These words, we must believe, just came about at random. They have no connection to any deeds performed, perhaps not even to policies preferred. People talk, you understand. That Roof told us at the end of his vile manifesto that he would turn thought into action must constitute another of those inexplicable mysteries:

I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

Council of Conservative CitizensWhat on earth could that possibly mean? The CofCC condemns Roof’s murders, as one would expect, but goes on to say that

In his manifesto, Roof outlines other grievances felt by many whites. Again, we utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed. *Ignoring legitimate grievances is dangerous*.

It wouldn’t do for the uptown Klan to admit to the consequences of its propaganda. It also wouldn’t do for them to miss the chance to hint that whatever they had to say for public consumption, those who ignored their “legitimate grievances” about such horrors as race mixing courted danger.

In recognizing all of this, we could easily yield to the temptation to quarantine Roof and the CofCC away. If he did not act alone, then he acted in concert with a paradoxical group lone wolves who have nothing to do with the rest of us. But groups like the CofCC and the Klan don’t just happen any more than mass murder just happens. People join them for a reason. Others make excuses for them for a reason. We do not come into the world as members, but rather learn to hate and learn to hide it from ourselves. In doing that, how many of us follow in Roof’s footsteps, taking our “small amount of racial awareness” and upgrading it as necessary?

Most of us will never shoot a person, but that doesn’t make us innocent. Most of us never join the Army either, but plenty of Americans will support most any war offered up. We might even speak ritual condemnations of structural injustice, but then vote for politicians of both parties who endorse, continue, and strengthen the policies that create the injustice. If we take these acts for granted, then we should accept our share of culpability for their outcomes. Enabling denials and indifference do not exist apart from or independent of more active and violent expressions of hate. Rather they go together hand in glove, an organic whole. Every person who fires a gun, hangs a noose, or wields a whip in the service of white domination has an uncounted multitude behind and to the side. These multitudes speak in myriad ways to the gunman and lyncher: You answer a true and great threat. You do our will, what we dare not. You do nobly and right. Each part of that chorus forms an indispensable element of the song. The performance only ends, for now, with a crescendo of blood and bullets.

The CofCC and others form part of that chorus. Others, who insist in more coded terms that each killing presents us with an inscrutable mystery, don’t sing quite so loudly. But they also have an audience that buys the tickets and fills the seats when the curtain rises. Without the audience, no part of the band would long endure. We come together in these places, as we do in churches and other gathering places, to make our communities. We could patronize other artists and form different communities. Taking the flags down at the cost of nine lives, a century and a half after slavery, makes for a miserably small step in that direction.