The Coming Purge

Gentle Readers, it appears likely that Donald Trump will announce the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals today. He may have done so by the time you read this. The president of the Electoral College has done many deeply disturbing things in his few months in office, enough to last a reasonable country for at least a few decades. He has applauded Klansmen and Nazis. He has tried to ban an entire religion from entering the country. He has tried to ensure more than ten thousand people die every year for lack of access to affordable health care. Now he has higher ambitions.

Let me explain. Barack Obama established DACA in 2012 to help people who came to the United States as children. They arrived and remained illegally, always unsure of their safety and security, because their parents fled with them from horrors back home. They risked traveling vast distances and placed themselves and their families in the hands of criminal syndicates known for torture, murder, and rape in order to come to the US without our leave. One does not do this lightly; economic opportunity doesn’t draw people to such extremes. They deemed what they faced in their prior homes so terrible for themselves and their children that they took those risks. If we believed our national creeds, we would call them heroes.

DACA permits children who came to the US this way to legally remain, work, and study here. To get that right, they had to report themselves and risk deportation to horrors unknown to them for most of their lives. It took a breathtaking act of faith for almost eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants, Americans in everything but name, to come forward that way. The government vetted them for criminal history and national security before approving their status. That bought them two years safe from deportation, with a renewal option thereafter if they paid a fee. It gave these people a security they hadn’t had before and, by making their status legal, protected them from the exploitation inherent in not having recourse to the police.

Undocumented immigrants to the United States don’t usually come from rich countries full of white people. Rich countries, by pillaging poor countries, have usually bought themselves plenty of stability. Most DACA recipients hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to our racial theories, they don’t get to claim whiteness. It doesn’t matter that they’re ordinary people just like the rest of us and the United States is their only home. They have the wrong color written all over them, so they must go.

I don’t know how this will all transpire, but ending DACA puts eight hundred thousand people on notice that they may be thrown out of their homes. In many cases, they will be forced back into the dangers that their parents tried to spare them from. Some will muddle through, but people will suffer and die from this. When other countries do forced population transfers with reckless disregard for life, we call it crimes against humanity. Consistency demands we do the same here. Americans have had pogroms and genocides before, but until recently we seem to have been dragging ourselves kicking and screaming away from them. We can’t say that anymore. Forcing DACA recipients into these dire situations isn’t an accident of the policy or an unforeseen outcome; it’s the goal.

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Thoughts on Charlottesville

Gentle Readers, you all know the news by now. Over the past weekend, a group of Nazis (and to whatever degree it makes sense to separate them anymore, Klansmen) carrying tiki torches marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. They chanted their usual slogans, “blood and soil,” “the Jews will not replace us,”  you can get the full list from any documentary. They came armed for war. The police now believe they had weapons cached around the city; the governor of the state believes they packed more heat than the local department did. They came, as fascist groups usually do, hoping for a fight. When the counter marchers, including remarkably brave students from the University of Virginia who faced an armed mob who literally believe their lives expendable, did not offer a fight, the fascists invented one.

One of those Nazis, James Fields, drove a car into the counter protesters, injured several, and murdered Heather Heyer. You know her story. Others may yet share her fate. I’m sure the thought of it makes many of them happy indeed. They win for showing up, win for seeing each other in numbers, and win again for the murder. We must remember them. I offer also this story I saw reported less in the media over these awful days:

Deandre Harris, works at a local high school. He has the hard, draining job of an instructional assistant in a special education program. If you know nothing else about special education, understand that the people who work in those classrooms with those kids are heroes. Harris marched; the Nazis found him. He explains what happened next:

“Me and about five of my friends were out protesting. We thought [the racists] left, but at one point they came back. Everyone was exchanging words with the group, but then the KKK and white supremacists just rushed us,” Harris told The Root in an interview.

“They were beating me with poles. I have eight staples in my head, a broken wrist and a chipped tooth,” Harris said.

Harris had friends who saw him beneath their pile of limbs, poles, and hatred. They stepped in, so he lived to tell his story. This all took place in a building adjacent to the Charlottesville police department. Harris’ case might not fit technical definitions built on nineteenth and early twentieth century crimes, but white supremacists tried to murder him for political activism. Deandre Harris was lynched last weekend. This happened in the United States of America in 2017, decades after the civil rights movement and not one year after our first black president left office.

The horrors continued. Nazis marching openly in numbers should chill us all to the bone and conjure memories of absent grandparents and great-grandparents who fought what we have long called the Good War. We decided as a nation that we would have Nazis as our ultimate villain. The ultimate in American virtue these past eight years fit into a red glove colliding with Hitler’s face. Everything the Nazis were, we were not. The United States existed to destroy Nazism. We kill Nazis in video games. We watch them die in movies. We cheer their failures in comic books. We have no more efficient shorthand for evil.

That was then. The choice to focus on someone else’s sins relieves us of our own burdens. Doing that doesn’t make Americans uniquely evil; everyone would rather talk about the faults of others than their own. But we do have a unique and horrifying history that doesn’t go away for our ignoring it. Rather, by ignoring it we continue that history. According to fascism scholar Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan might count as the first proto-fascist movement in world history. As in developing proslavery theory to its fullest flower, Americans got ahead of the curve. A nation built on genocide and slavery had advantages in these things. A nation that pretends to a different founding has still more.

The potential for authoritarianism of every stripe exists in every culture. In the United States, it has found its fullest flower through white supremacy. That has been with us from the seventeenth century onward. We have declared victory over it many times and always it has returned. Here we go again.

You have doubtless heard the many denunciations. Politicians must say that this is not us and we have no room in America for it. We all know otherwise, but to we say these things in aspiration; the America we want does not permit such horrors. We are not, we know, better than this. We want to be. When our leaders give the ritual condemnations they remind us of our aspirations and, at least rhetorically, declare that they will not have the American state endorse such actions on their watch. The actual follow-through on such things rarely, with the notable exception of a brief period in the 1960s, inspires confidence but the statements have meaning all the same. They articulate a national creed which disassociates us from the perpetrators and does not work to encourage further acts of white supremacist terror.

If speaking the ritual phrases asks almost nothing of politicians, it at least does that. The occasion warrants at least a briefly lifted finger, sincere or otherwise. The perpetrators know that as well as anyone and watch these responses with care. They also note when attention dies down and the more sophisticated tools of white supremacy march on. That sends a message: We disagree with your methods but share your goals. I wish it said more, but neither the nation’s history nor its current events admit any other conclusion that I can see.

Then the loser of the 2016 election got to become president. Said white supremacist opted to fill our White House and head our Justice Department with more of his kind. They know Donald Trump as one of their own, more so than the usually extensive cast of friends that the white power movement has in Washington. Unlike the polished hands at double talk and dog whistles, the strategy the Republican party embarked upon in earnest in 1968 and hasn’t wavered from since, he says the quiet parts out loud. The immediate response of a man with no filter and a remarkable ability to remember the names of people who displease him for Twitter rants, involved blaming both sides. The Nazis and the Klan knew they had a big green light from Trump and a wave of violence spread immediately after his election. Via Twitter, he gave them a much bigger and more explicit one. The president, at least of the Electoral College, essentially told people he knew capable of murder that they should get right to it.

In the months since November, this has become a cliche. It remains true all the same: If you ever wondered what you would do during slavery or the rise of the Nazi party, you are doing it right now. I don’t know where this is going any more than you do; historians have no particular gift for seeing the future. But I do not believe and we cannot believe that this will all just work out. More likely that not, we will see more assaults and more victims, faster and faster. Maybe we can stop it, maybe not. I can’t tell you what will or will not work. I don’t expect the tactics of the past to necessarily work again. The Civil Rights Movement required a degree of acceptance and support from the federal government that anti-Trump and anti-racist groups obviously now lack. It also cut across partisan lines by undermining white Democratic hegemony in the South in a way that made it appealing to some members of both parties rather than a strictly partisan issue. That is likewise no longer true. If you don’t believe me, consider that states controlled by the Republican party have introduced bills to essentially legalize running over protesters in the street. Consider also this photograph of the majority leader of the United States Senate:

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

This is the nation Americans live in, more than we have in a long time. It has taken decades of work to bring us to this point. The movement did not need a Trump to get this far, though he may have accelerated their timeline. It will survive him. It stands poised to radically transform the country. We may not survive it. Or it may not survive us.

E Pluribus Unum for White Supremacists

Americans teach our children to admire the country as a place where people of diverse origins can come together. By diverse, we have usually meant the right parts of Europe and believing in the right religion. Just how large a circle that draws varies over time. My surname ends in a vowel, which a few decades back put me into the wrong group. My grandfather grew up in an ethnic ghetto, which they had even in small towns. The Polish people lived on this side of the river, while everyone else lived on the other. They spoke Polish at home and learned English elsewhere. In school two generations later, we always knew the teachers not from the area by how they stumbled over our surnames. By then, everyone else could get at least close to however we chose to render the weird piles of consonants that made sense to our grandparents but we added to the difficulty with inconsistently modifying the pronunciations to fit English spelling conventions. Many Americans have similar stories. Make the number of generations removed from immigration into a variable and you can take in most of us. We become Americans, Americans become us, and the national myth rolls along.

We make exceptions, of course. Native Americans and African-Americans can live in the country for centuries longer than any of our ancestors and remain outsiders, at best contingently human. Part of becoming American, for the rest of us, usually means we join in afflicting them with special zeal. At some point, the unstated logic goes, one has to get on board with the national creed. Irish Americans learned it in the nineteenth century, understanding free black Americans in the North as an existential threat to their jobs. In those days, immigrants worried that the native-born would steal their work. But we muddle through, injustice by injustice, atrocity by atrocity, smiling and linking arms as we go about the national project of making North America a white person’s paradise. To do otherwise would mark us as foreign, like those adults who refuse, in their perfidy, to make the trifling effort to pick up English as a second language. E pluribus unum or else.

For decades now, Americans have understood Nazis as the antithesis of all things American. We have made them into our ultimate symbol of evil. Anything we dislike, we consider something the Nazis did or would have done. Any leader we loathe, we compare with Hitler. We may use other comparisons too, but when only the big guns will do we go with the Third Reich. Some malevolent fools might try it, but no real American could go Nazi. We have no place for such vile individuals.

E pluribus unum, America has worked its magic again.

Charlottesville, Virginia, has a statue of Robert E. Lee. For some time now, many have thought it past time to get rid of the thing because honoring a traitor who fought a nation built on white supremacy and slavery in order to make a new nation still more thoroughly built upon them should not continue. The proposed removal drew protests and, quelle suprise, the Nazis showed up. They came bearing torches, in the hallowed tradition of their German and American heroes. It seems they took a pass on wearing their sheets or brown shirts, but other than that they marched straight out of central casting. They had things to say too, which showed that they had done their homework:

The protesters chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and soil.”

Richard Spencer, the Trump-heiling unwitting star of this reenactment of Captain America’s first appearance, couldn’t stay away from the fun. All his friends turned out., after all.

Back in the day, American white supremacists thought little of Nazis. The United States had its own ways to hate and for the most part didn’t need tips from foreigners who copied off our paper when it came to racial laws. No one likes a cheater. So we should put this one down on our calendars. Americans who hate like the Klan and the Confederacy come together with Americans who hate like the Nazis, all basking in their magnificent whiteness. When the Klan, our homegrown fascist movement, rode around with torches everyone knew the purpose. Men in sheets didn’t scare anyone much past the age of ten, but men in sheets who would murder you for the color of your skin made an impression. Here too the protesters did their homework.

Other Americans condemned them, as we do. The men who want to serve as Virginia’s next governor joined in, even from the more eagerly white supremacist of the two parties. Spencer and the others probably expected as much. They understand Donald Trump as one of their own even if he makes feeble gestures otherwise now and then to maintain plausible deniability. One candidate, Democrat Tom Perriello asked them to get their hate out of his hometown. Spencer answered back on that they won and he lost. Perriello responded:

I’ll not argue otherwise, though the Richard Spencers of the world have won often enough since 1865. They know their history well enough to know that. I bet Perriello does too, but it doesn’t do for a candidate to admit such things. They also both know that most of the Virginia governor hopefuls condemned Spencer, but one did not. Corey Stewart, former head of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign, seeks the Republican nomination and has made the Lee statue a large part of his campaign. He wants it to stay. Yesterday, he managed to tweet out a Mother’s Day message but not to comment on Spencer or the protest. I have no doubt Spencer and company will cherish the memory of that fact. The rest of us must simply live with the fact that a man who expects to run for statewide office in the America of 2017 doesn’t see a need to distance himself from a Nazi torch mob. Some of us will probably die from it too.

How to be a white supremacist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Donald Trump’s America

A couple of weeks ago, criminal and authoritarian Donald Trump lost the presidential election and so spared us four to eight years of looting the treasury and rule by open, unrepentant white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and other assorted menaces to human rights, decency, and lives. His loss probably saved the tattered remains of American democracy for that same span. But white Americans don’t like that sort of outcome. We have had quite enough of this noise about non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and non-men deserving rights we feel bound to respect. So we made him president-elect anyway. We didn’t all sign on for that, but I suspect most of reading this can remember the last time the loser got to have the presidency anyway. If the American people all counted equally, we would live in a different world. We have a system that insists otherwise, granting tremendous power to mostly white, sparsely-populated states which they use from time to time to tell the rest of us that their dirt and trees count for more than our lives. Should you have heard the term “structural racism” and wondered how that worked, now you know.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Trump ran an openly racist campaign. At least one person vying for any office in the United States runs a racist, but we had norms about that. You chose policies that just happened to disproportionately harm minorities. You signaled your allegiance to white power with a code: law and order, welfare queens, entitlement cuts, small government, tough on drugs. I could go on. We all know what these things mean, but we pretend otherwise and then scratch our heads at how everyone else votes so differently from white America. They just can’t have reasons; only white people can afford those.

Those norms worked to facilitate racist outcomes, just as everything else in our discourse about “race” does. We imagine race as a thing out in the world, like the weather. What can we do about race or the rain? If we talked about racism instead, then we would have to admit that we choose it. We white Americans struck a deal with ourselves. We agreed to put some of the most egregious expressions of white supremacy beyond the pale, in exchange for keeping the rest. We agreed that the Dylann Roofs of the world had no place in our society, except for letting us denounce them and shrug off the far greater number of lives we waste at the stroke of a presidential pen or by carefully filling out the dot on our ballots. That norm didn’t count for much, but we assented to it away only after a great struggle still in living memory. We do not permit open racist intentions in our politics.

So much for that. He lost the election, but because we have a fundamentally broken system which structurally privileges whites above everyone else, the high-rent version of Dylann Roof moves into the White House in January. Scholars of authoritarianism, both the twentieth century German version and more modern, less famous brands have come forward to warn us; they do not do so lightly. They did not turn out for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or Ronald Reagan. He has named a segregationist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard, a man so racist that the Republican party of the 1980s rejected him for a the federal bench, to run the executive department founded to preserve the rights of the freedpeople. He has an anti-semite as his chief advisor. He stands poised to use the American government to enrich his personal businesses, just as the masters of stereotypical banana republics do.

I believe we will have elections in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2024; I do not expect the forms of American government to vanish. Putin’s Russia has elections too. They have done nothing to prevent authoritarianism there. We have stronger institutions, but they have endured a decades-long assault. Political parties have the job of keeping out the wildly unqualified and dangerous. They failed. The media ought to serve as watchdogs for our liberties. Instead of speaking of racists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and all the rest, they deem Trump’s friends merely “controversial”. They wonder endlessly how they lost touch with the white working class, as though no other voters existed. In a nation where billionaires can destroy media outlets through the legal system, you don’t need censors. They’ll do the job themselves.

We imagine that democracy ends with a great crash. The world turns gray, the clouds roll in, and everyone forgets how to smile. The real world doesn’t support Mordor or any reasonable approximation. We will not wake up one day and discover that we have moved to in our sleep North Korea. Life goes on. You will probably still have friends and family. Good days and bad will come and go. Most of us will probably not have a mob rush up and clap us in literal chains. Real world oppression doesn’t work like that. It comes on little by little, small adjustments that don’t seem to mean anything. They happen to people far away, on the margins, to the hated. You get used to one and then the next comes. Things once unthinkable become ordinary, even welcome. Maybe something upsets you, but you learn to stay quiet. The rules become clear and we stick to them. We still have something to lose, after all.

You may choose not to believe me, Gentle Readers. I would gain no satisfaction from getting this right. But let me tell you something: back when I went to school, we reserved torture for the heights of villainy. Nazis tortured, not the United States. Under George W. Bush, the United States adopted torture as a matter of policy. When news of that broke, we did not unite in horror against it. Instead the administration and its defenders insisted we had done no wrong, redefining the word ‘torture’ to hide its substance and making a matter of human rights into one of simple partisanship. Trump has told us he will resume torture, and then some.

Trump’s surrogates now cite the internment of Japanese-Americans as precedent for their proposed national registry for Muslims. They expect us to take that not as a warning, but as a grounding in history they believe we should happily emulate. Come January, we have an administration which promised these things to us. If they come, they will owe their arrival not to surprise or shock, but planning.

Speaking of planning, a national registry of Muslims would serve as an ideal precursor for rounding them up into internment camps. Once we have them there, we might put them to work. If they don’t work, or prove difficult, we have the tools to deal with that too. They have already rolled out informally, as all the Klansmen and neo-Nazis, uniformed or otherwise, understand that Trump’s America has their backs. I don’t know if we will go that far, but we have already crossed more Rubicons than I care to count. The Nazis did not begin with Auschwitz, but with street thugs. They proceeded through roving bands of armed men in uniform, something Americans have plenty of experience with in the form of white sheets. The gas chambers and crematoria came late and killed fewer than those bands.

Don’t believe it can never happen here. This country enslaved four million people and only stopped after four years of bloody war. After it ended, we got almost all the way back to slavery again within twenty years and it took the better part of a century to claw our way back to measures that Reconstruction-era Republicans would have found broadly familiar. We have spent the decades since slowly rolling them back again; we just had our first election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans did not kindly die of disease to free up a continent for us. We white Americans murdered our way across it and now pretend the survivors’ descendants don’t exist. Past Americans can only show us theoretical ceilings: we know that we can go this far, but we may do them one better. We should not succumb to the temptation of the barrel’s bottom; it has none. The horrors of our past and present have far more often burned themselves out in a frenzy of self-destruction or yielded to overwhelming external force than they have discovered some long-neglected scruple on their own.

None of us knows what will come, but we should open our eyes to what looks likely. We should take seriously the warnings we have received from survivors and scholars alike. I start with this one:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.

I hope I am alarmed for nothing; being right would give me no satisfaction at all. But here I must remind you what Dylann Roof said before he went on his murder spree:

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

Those words put Roof one paycheck away from giving an official campaign speech. The day before he walked into that church in Charleston, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president with these words:

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

Roof had only ordinary firearms, themselves all too deadly, at his command. Come January, President-Elect Trump inherits a massive national security apparatus armed with nuclear weapons. We do not have the luxury, for the sake of our lives and those of countless human beings here and abroad, of taking him lightly.

David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debunking a White Power Meme: An Extension of the Black, Muslim Slave Trade? No.

Gentle Readers, I have come this far so I may as well finish with the white power meme I found a few weeks ago. To recap, neither Anthony Johnson nor any other black person holds the distinction of first slaveholder in the Americas, nor in North America, nor British North America, nor even in Virginia. Free blacks in the South did own slaves at a greater rate than whites, but they chiefly owned their loved ones who circumstance, funds, and law prohibited them from freeing. In neither case would these claims, even if true, change the fact that New World slaver overwhelmingly involved whites enslaving blacks. Thinking that might make people with a skin color like mine feel better about our past. We have the long habit of carving our self-esteem, along with our wealth, from the lives of those we make into others and declare inferior. Should we neglect that, as we often prefer, then we still have a past disinclined to changing itself to suit our whims.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

This leaves us with one last choice morsel of hatred:

the New World slave trade was an expansion of the slave trade in Africa run by black Muslims

Like the other claims, this has so much wrong packed into a single line that it requires significant unpacking. For the sake of argument, let’s say our meme author got something right. Black Muslims ran a slave trade in Africa, from which white Europeans bought people to take to the New World. Sub-saharan Africans did sell people to European traders. As the New World trade ramped up, they provided to it more people to cross the Atlantic from Africa than would from Europe up into the nineteenth century. The New World demand for slaves proved so great that African polities developed around serving it. They extended their networks deep into the African interior to enslave more and more people. You can read about this in any decent history of American slavery; I recommend David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage and Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone.

By the conventional typologies of race, we consider those Africans black. Some of them may have subscribed to Islam. In all of this, we have ignored who bought the slaves. White Europeans came to Africa and bought people. They carried those people across the ocean in foul-smelling, deadly ships to distant ports. There Europeans enslaved them and turned their toil and misery into profits for those same Europeans. Our meme’s author would have us believe that it took the great arts of black Muslims to convince Europeans to do all that. Otherwise, why would it matter who conducted the first sale or two? The involvement of a black person and a Muslim wipe any guilt away.

But we must pull back further. It transpires that a slave trade did operate in Africa prior to the Atlantic trade. Slavers did capture large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans and take them to distant fields for exploitation. The buyers in this case often professed Islam. The distant fields where their slaves toiled existed in North Africa and the Middle East. It did not expand into European hands, with wily Muslims hoodwinking innocent white Christians into buying slaves. Nor did those same racist stereotypes cross the Atlantic with the slaves and whisper in the ears of Caribbean, Chesapeake, or Carolina planters that they must -they simply must!- keep the people they bought as slaves for life and exploit them to the utmost. White people didn’t require any such instruction, but rather proved entirely capable of figuring it out on their own. That does not excuse those Africans who chose to sell to Europeans, but no one compelled Europeans to join in.

Leave that aside, if you wish. Grade school geography refutes the notion that the Atlantic slave trade constituted an expansion of the Muslim slave trade. Muslims wanted slaves to take to North Africa and the Middle East. Europeans wanted slaves to take to islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Iberia, and ultimately the Americas. We cannot reasonably call the Atlantic slave trade an expansion of the Muslim trade based on personnel; Europeans did most of the buying and transporting. We likewise cannot call it an expansion geographically, as Europeans want to take slaves in, literally, another direction entirely.

Slaving is slaving. Taking the slaves to a different distant land doesn’t make it better. Nor do the colors or religions of the practitioners mitigate it at all. To argue otherwise, we must presume that the misdeeds of adherents to unfamiliar faiths or with different skin colors have sins more weighty than our own. Unless we think that, we would not introduce them into evidence. White supremacists never think their imagined inferiors suitable role models, except when they become handy to pass off some blame. Then we must study those unfortunates with great vigor, as their doing something excuses our doing it. So we transmigrate sins to where they belong: a hated minority we wish to continue exploiting. We cannot be asked to feel even a few pangs of conscience, but they must bear the burden of any sins they committed on top of those we did. They must feel guilty for the things we did to them.

 

Debunking a White Power Meme: Was the first slaveholder in America a Black Man?

Gentle Readers, last week I dug into the question of whether African-Americans held more slaves, proportionately, than white Americans did. A white power meme I found circulating made that claim, which has the unusual benefit of factual accuracy. The percentage of slaveholders among free black Americans is greater than that of their white counterparts. The meme declines to inform the reader that the vast majority of these people held as slaves relatives whom they could not easily free. In other words, most occasions of black slaveholding in the antebellum United States happen in the context of resisting the slave system imposed upon them by whites, rather than direct continuance of it. They owned loved ones to protect them from ownership and exploitation by whites.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

Which brings me to the second of the meme’s noxious claims, which lacks the warm factual coating for the first:

What about the fact the first slave owner in America was a black man?

Let’s take this from the top. Say, for the sake of argument, that no one owned a slave in the Americas until some black man came over and taught white people how to do it. Bending over backwards to the point of falsehood still leaves us with an irrelevant, if illustrative, point. However slavery originated in the New World, it became the system we remember. In that system, whites owned blacks. White skin meant freedom and black skin meant stolen labor, loved ones, and lives.

We have here a despicable case of white power projection. Whites must do nothing wrong. If white people did do something wrong, then it could only be because some black person corrupted them. This remarkable person, an alleged member of an alleged inferior race, had such power that his example seduced and corrupted thousands of whites for centuries on end. From him, and him alone, they learned the arts of slavery. If not for that example, they would have had no labor shortage, nor decided to meet it by buying the lives of “heathens” and “savages” from Africa who could turn sweat, blood, tears, and screams into money.

Maybe all of that makes sense if you believe white skin betokens moral virtue and black skin singular perfidy. Millions of white Americans still believe just that, but we don’t have to count ourselves among them. Like the fantasy of inferior races, the first slaveholder’s blackness doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, American Indians practiced slavery on a small scale in the Americas long before any people from Europe arrived. Indian vs. Indian slavery didn’t set the pattern for whites any more than black vs. black slavery did. By the time whites came to the New World, our white ancestors already had long experience with slavery. In the later half of the fifteenth century, with the traditional supply of slaves from Eastern Europe cut off by the fall of Constantinople, the Mediterranean basin turned from using Slavs -we got our name from the practice- to grow their sugar and cotton to the use of sub-Saharan Africans.

You may remember from grade school that these explorers sought a way to the Spice Islands and China. If you learned it like I did, they left out what happened along the way. Iberian explorers bought and brought back people from their voyages. Initially, the Portuguese just landed and stole what and who they liked. The discovery of more organized and powerful states nearer the equator changed plans. Further out to sea, Iberians found Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. The last had native inhabitants, the Guanche. They had olive skin, if one wishes to keep score of such things. Lacking metallurgy and isolated for centuries, the Guanche had difficulty resisting conquest. That conquest did not go smoothly, all the same. It required decades of fighting for the Spanish to seize Grand Canary. A combination of violence and disease finished off the Guanche, to the point where only nine sentences of their tongue survive.

That left the Spanish in possession of a islands in subtropics better suited to sugar cultivation than their plantations back home. They went right to work, enslaving the Guanche and putting them to work. The Guanche didn’t last long, thanks to the violence and disease, but Europeans didn’t want to just give up making money off sugar. Soon the Portuguese brought the first black slaves to the first of the sugar islands. On these and other islands down the African coast, Europeans perfected the arts they would also practice on the other side of the ocean.

One might object here that islands in the Eastern Hemisphere don’t constitute any part of the Americas. Geography agrees, but the Spaniards took the lessons learned with the Guanche and others with them to the West Indies. They had established colonies and plantations worked by black slaves there well in advance of settlement on the mainland. A few Slavic slaves also appear in sixteenth century Havana, remnants of the old Mediterranean trade.

A person deeply wedded to white supremacy might object that Iberians hardly count as white, but even if we unwisely grant such a concession it helps them not at all. In fact, let’s take this one all the way and declare only Anglo-Saxon Protestants white. This means we must confine our inquiry to British colonies. Roanoke did not practice slavery that we know of which brings us to Virginia. (A similar process happens at about the same time in Barbados, but as both your author and you Gentle Readers know more about Virginia I shall focus on it.) The first slaves to arrive in Virginia came courtesy of the Dutch:

About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.

We should take care, however, to bear in mind that the Englishmen of 1619 did not have an elaborate concept of racial hierarchy such as we have so often prosecuted. The Dutch probably intended to sell their cargo as slaves, or just didn’t care, but it seems that except for the circumstances of their arrival these twenty people faced no worse treatment than white indentured servants. One can count them as slaves, but doing so projects back a system still decades in the future.

In Virginia, we now have black indentured servants owned for a term of years by whites. Up in New England we have something else. White Englishmen arrive there not long after those twenty Africans arrive unwillingly in the Chesapeake. Samuel Maverick arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, bringing with him black slaves. If you want a first slaveholder in British North America, he makes for a good candidate. After the Pequot War, the Puritans enslaved many Indians. They sold most of the men to the West Indies but kept the women and children for themselves. The Pequot, by no common racial theory, count as black but they got very similar treatment. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties includes possibly the first formal slave law in British North America:

91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

Incidentally, the seventeenth century’s spelling practices constitute one of the more prosaic reasons this blog doesn’t have a great deal of colonial America content.

One can argue that Yankees don’t count on the same grounds that we could object that even if the first enslaver in North America had black skin it doesn’t matter. The system whites imposed made black people slaves to whites. It also, from a fairly early period, saw prosecution far more aggressively in the Chesapeake and points south than it did in New England. The Middle Colonies offer an exception in the middle eighteenth century, where they appear well into a transition from societies with slaves to slave societies, but the American Revolution put paid to that and it takes us well beyond any consideration of firsts.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

This brings us back to Virginia again, and the man that many people claim as the first slaveholder in the colony: Anthony Johnson. Johnson came to Virginia as a slave, found himself an indentured servant, and became free at the end of his term. He did well for himself, able to gain property and sponsor the transport of indentured servants from England. He sued a neighbor to secure the return of a black man he held as a slave, John Casor. The court sided with Johnson, indicating that by 1655 the idea of lifetime slavery had established some purchase in Virginian culture.

The court did not, however, make Casor the first slave as we would understand the term. Even within Virginia’s jurisdiction, and bearing in mind that Massachusetts has already crossed the finish line with a white enslaver, the first known case of lifetime slavery appears to come in the person of John Punch. Punch and some other indentured servants absconded with themselves. They got caught. All three received some lashes for their trouble. Punch’s companions, both white, received a year added to their time under indenture, then a further three serving the colony. Punch, a black man, got slavery for life on July 9, 1640.

Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

What does it take to be racist in America?

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

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

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

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

What do Trump supporters think of other races?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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