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.

Advertisements

The Buford Expedition, Part Ten: A Letter to the Wyandotte

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Fleming’s paper is available here (PDF) or in Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume IV (huge PDF).

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

We left Jefferson Buford’s men in Mobile, where they got the Bibles that Montgomery proved too impious to have on hand in sufficient numbers. Armed with books, if possibly not guns, Buford’s men embarked on the Florida for New Orleans. They picked up a few more men there and divided themselves between the America and Oceana to steam up the Mississippi for St. Louis. They arrived on April 23, 1856. According to Fleming,

The people of St. Louis rated Buford’s enterprise very highly, and regarded him as the best friend of Kansas in the whole South.

St. Louis leaned slightly antislavery, but that didn’t make them abolitionists. They stuck by Thomas Hart Benton through his preaching silence and compromise on slavery, combined with quite a bit of carping at antislavery agitators. St. Louis could very well understand Buford as a legitimate counter to antislavery radicals who had set up their own government in Kansas.

While in St. Louis, Buford wrote ahead to a Colonel William Walker, who Fleming describes as the governor of “Nebraska Territory”, a Wyandotte Indian establishment predating white settlement. He doesn’t use the word, but this sounds like a reservation. Buford refers to it as “the Wyandotte reserve.” Eufaula, Alabama’s favorite son wanted to settle on Wyandotte land “provided that the tribe will freely consent to my doing so, but not otherwise.” That sounds terribly broad-minded of Buford. He promised to place

only orderly, good citizens, -among them blacksmiths, carpenters, brick and stone masons, physicians, school teachers, agricultural laborers, etc., etc., and any who becomes obnoxious to the Indians I wold have removed.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Previously whites could not settle on Indian country at all unless they had a license as an Indian agent or worked as missionaries. I don’t know that the organization of a territorial government ended those restrictions; Andrew Reeder got in hot water, officially, in part for speculating in Indian lands. In advance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the United States negotiated cessions from Indian reservations but some continued in Kansas at least up through statehood in 1861. If Indians could not sell to Reeder, then I don’t know how they could grant Buford’s men permission to settle. The law may have changed or settlement might matter less than sale to it. Buford could also have just not done his homework, as he found that land preemption didn’t work quite like he thought previously. Or he might have expected that once his men had occupation of the land, their very whiteness would extinguish Wyandotte rights.

Regardless, Buford predicted

both parties would be benefited, and especially would it aid your views in building up your city of Wyandotte, which, by the way, seems the place endowed by nature for the great town of the Territory.

He closed with his hope that they would soon meet in person.

Jefferson Buford’s stay in St. Louis featured more than warm welcomes and letters to Indian chiefs. Someone broke into one of his trunks and made off with $5000. Buford never saw it again.

 

The Buford Expedition, Part Nine: A Bible Shortage

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Walter Lynwood Fleming

Fleming’s paper is available here (PDF) or in Transactions of the Alabama Historical Society, Volume IV (huge PDF).

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The public meeting at Montgomery honoring Jefferson Buford’s company of filibusters included the usual sets of speeches from dignitaries and resolutions. A self-proclaimed “Union man” proclaimed himself badly in error and declared in the future for southern radicalism. The resolutions promised that Buford’s fans hoped no violence would come, but if it did Buford’s men ought

to consider themselves as but the vanguard of the mighty host of their brethren of the South, who are ready to march to their relief and stand with them in struggle.

They might well have meant it. Manly posturing seems as common as white supremacy in period sources, but at the time it must have seemed likely that Buford’s men would soon have others taking their example to heart. If the first one worked out fairly enough, why wouldn’t more come?

The next day, Buford’s men attended church, where the pastor floated the notion that

since some ministers at the North had been raising money to equip emigrants with Sharpe’s rifles, they present each man of Buford’s battalion with a more powerful weapon-the Bible.

The wallets came out at once for such a worthy cause, but it transpired that Montgomery did not have enough Bibles to go around. In lieu of securing the Good Book then and there, the organizers handed their money over to Buford in the hopes that he would buy them on the road. The only Bible that appears to have changed hands on the occasion came from the organizer of the fund drive. The Reverend I.T. Tichenor presented “a large Bible” to Buford himself and asked the company to comport themselves according to Scripture, or at least the proslavery passages. Buford in turn expected that right would make might. Songs followed and then everyone got together for a march off to the Messenger, which would steam the strapping lads away to their glory.

Five thousand waited to see Buford’s party off, accompanied by “a band of negro musicians”. They marched to the docks carrying banners emblazoned “THE SUPREMACY OF THE WHITE RACE”. Henry W. Hilliard had a few parting words, delivered whilst standing on a bale of cotton, finishing up with

Providence may change our relations to the inferior race, but the principle is eternal-the supremacy of the white race.

I imagine most people got the message from all that, literate or not. When the Messenger reached Mobile, they also got their promised Bibles.

 

The Two Triumphs of Simone Manuel

Gentle Readers, I live by Lake Huron; my whole town does. I can be at the lake in five minutes by car or half an hour as the podcast-listening blogger in no particular hurry walks. Back in my mother’s day, to graduate high school here you had to be able to swim and prove it. By the time I graduated, that requirement had long gone. Now you know how I got out of high school; as a child I enjoyed being in the water but never quite learned how to swim. I did not know until today that I shared that with 68.9% of black children in the United States.

I don’t know from sports, but I found out that Simone Manuel won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. No other black woman from the United states had done so. This makes her another first black American for us to celebrate come February and forget promptly, as we usually do. The firsts matter, but our conventional focus on them risks two costly mistakes. We can take a first person as the end of a story, the victory lap in a story of progress. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Barack Obama broke through the color line, so we have triumphed over white power. Everyone applauds as the curtain falls. Pay no attention to the rabid white supremacy still raging almost undisturbed behind it. It would not do to demean the achievements of talented individuals in breaking down social barriers, but I think it makes far more sense to consider them as beginnings of stories than ends.

I did not see Manuel win her gold. I have seen other events where the reporter comes immediately to the American who wins second place for an interview. You expect that when you watch an American network. Maybe the person from Tuvalu or Belarus actually won, but the home country’s network will focus on the home country athletes even if language barriers didn’t very often argue for it. Not so for Manuel, who had to make do with a still photo on Twitter while the American news discussed an Australian swimmer. Priorities, you know? Maybe the law made her an American, but white Americans have never quite made our peace with that.

The other peril of focusing on first arises from that. In taking a first achievement as a kind of trivia point, we easily miss just why it mattered. Maybe it would have taken until Manuel hit the water for a black American woman to win a swimming gold, but we can’t know because white Americans have long insisted that black people have no place in our swimming pools. We have dumped acid into them to keep our waters white. We have drained the pools and filled them with dirt or concrete. More often, we’ve abandoned public pools that must accept swimmers of all colors in favor of private pools we can keep whites-only. We don’t much care for black people getting their blackness into our pools. Take it from Strom Thurmond himself:

Thurmond had a seat in the United States Senate into the twenty-first century. South Carolina kept voting for him and he ended his career as a revered and exceptionally elder statesman. Why wouldn’t he? His name made for a good trivia question and everybody knew his checkered past, but that kind of thing rarely disqualifies any white man from much of anything in the United States.

All the black children who don’t learn how to swim, and so die from drowning at five times the rate of white children. But if we poison them to cut costs then you can’t expect white America to care much about mere accidental deaths. I say accidental because so far as I can tell the statistics omit suicides; the people who drowned did not mean to do so. But in another sense, they don’t qualify at all. You can’t learn to swim without some dependable water nearby and for a great many people, particularly in cities, that means a pool. White Americans left those behind to die from lack of funds, where we didn’t destroy them, rather than let black Americans enjoy the water with us. We chose that policy and we have kept right on choosing it. We know the consequences and we, as we almost always do, took the deaths of black Americans as at least an acceptable loss. Some of us surely go so far as to prefer it.

I can’t know what went through the minds of the directors, film crew, and reporters who ignored Manuel’s achievement, but flag-waving enthusiasm didn’t enter into it or she would have gotten far more coverage than she did. We are all trained to believe black Americans just don’t count, even beyond how we’re trained to think women don’t count. But meaner things lurk in the national consciousness. She didn’t win her races for an America that we’ve been trained all our lives to see as our own: the white male land playground build on stolen land and lives. She represented an America that that country has fought for centuries. For her to win, it had to lose. We do not celebrate our losses.

Simone Manuel beat her opponents in the pool. She beat Strom Thurmond and all his modern doppelgangers too.

How to Steal An Election

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Gentle Readers, you don’t have to poke around the internet for long to find people very concerned about vote fraud. They believe that it taints our elections, undermines the legitimacy of our democracy, and just coincidentally results in their preferred candidates losing. As a person who studies Bleeding Kansas, where vote fraud absolutely took place, I know a bit about it. So let me tell you how to steal an election, nineteenth century style.

It does no good to only steal an election a little bit. You have to go large if you want to purloin the polls. Contrary to what they might tell you in Government class, one vote almost never decides any election of consequence. Just how many people you need depends on the size of the local electorate, but you can’t know the actual number until the time comes. A prudent thief will plan for that. You want the difference between the votes necessary to win and the votes you expect to get from people who would side with you fair and square, plus a buffer. Almost anywhere this side of small town local government posts, this will kick the number into the thousands.

There are no photo IDs or standardized forms of identification in the middle nineteenth century. They had poll books with lists of qualified voters. You would go up to the window on election day and tell your name. They would check the list, find you, and accept your ballot. But people do get missed by the census, more into the jurisdiction after it, and so forth. If you wanted to vote anyway, they would let you if you could convince them that you had a right to. That could mean just having an election worker vouch for you from personal knowledge or that you swore an oath that you had a legal right to vote there. Either way you get to cast your ballot. If you’ve voted recently, some of this probably sounds familiar. When I started, my precinct had printouts on computer paper with the perforated edges still on. Now it’s on a laptop.

So you, my dear enemy of democracy, must get together at minimum hundreds and ideally a few thousand people. They need to go to the polls. As they could vote legally if they lived in the area, they’ve got to cover some distance. Moving that many people in for election day doesn’t go unnoticed. When they appear, they will all have to swear oaths or carry off pretty good lies to convince election workers to take their illegal votes. This makes them more conspicuous still. Even in Kansas, just having its very first elections, everybody, their kids, their household pets, the local wildlife, and probably the more perceptive trees spotted that a mile off. You just can’t hide it at all. You might get away with a few votes, or even a few dozen, but not enough to make the whole effort worthwhile. All that work also requires coordination and communication that put up further signs still. You could see this all from space. The Howard Committee found it all out from numerous sources in the summer of 1856.

Today we have somewhat more robust identification systems, but the essentials haven’t changed that much. Though we might miss the coordination of a fraud operation thanks to the privacy of email and phone calls, many someones still have to show up and cast all those votes. Privacy goes right out the window then and, by the act’s inherent nature, everyone gets to see.

This happens near to never. However often Americans might think someone swipes an election, confessions of the deed happen with roughly the same frequency as claims of alien abduction. A conspiracy skilled enough to manage a fraud on the necessary scale without anybody noticing would already have the skills necessary to seize the government by far more subtle means.

With the exception of the Kansas-specific details, I can’t have told anybody anything they didn’t already know. If you understand what the words mean, and how to count, you have it down. As a practical matter, most everybody of voting age gets it.

But there’s another way to steal an election: make it hard to vote. Study up on what your opponent’s constituencies can do. If they must work long hours, ensure that not enough polling stations exist to serve the likely demand. If they have trouble getting around, locate the polls somewhere far from anywhere they’d normally go. Or just go full-on Jim Crow with it. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, states have fallen over themselves to do just that. Unsurprisingly, not all have gotten on board. In one of the most predictable developments in American history, the states looking to steal elections by way of denying legal voters their right have focused on non-white voters.

Everybody knows that too, but often enough courts have played dumb to the fact in just the same way they did when Jim Crow got off the ground in the first place. Restrictions that place an uneven burden on the poor and minorities but appear ostensibly neutral or dedicated to an acceptable end, like preventing voter fraud, go up. It becomes instantly, these days, gauche to point out just how they operate or what their architects intended.

But sometimes the real election thieves leave their burglar’s tools out where anybody with a subpoena could find them. North Carolina did that (PDF):

the State argued before the district court that the General Assembly enacted changes to early voting laws to avoid “political gamesmanship” with respect to the hours and locations of early voting centers. As “evidence of justifications” for the changes to early voting, the State offered purported inconsistencies in voting hours across counties, including the fact that only some counties had decided to offer Sunday voting. The State then elaborated on its justification, explaining that “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.” In response, SL 2013-381 did away with one of the two days of Sunday voting.  Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.

If you want to really steal an election, and make sure it sticks, you steal it before the polls open. White Americans have known this for a very long time. The Klan operated on the theory, true enough, that a dead man would cast no vote. The North Carolina Republican Party, fallen as far as it can from the days of Lincoln, chose different methods than the Klan. We might count that as progress, but the lynchers wearing sheets only ever constituted the paramilitary and terrorist arm of the movement.

Don’t take my word for it:

Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.

The North Carolina General Assembly didn’t accidentally work to disenfranchise the black Americans it purports to represent. They did their homework and made damned sure to do just what they meant, leaving a copious paper trail along the way:

prior to and during the limited debate on the expanded omnibus bill, members of the General Assembly requested and received a breakdown by race of DMV-issued ID ownership, absentee voting, early voting, same-day registration, and provisional voting (which includes out-of precinct voting). This data revealed that African Americans disproportionately used early voting, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting, and disproportionately lacked DMV-issued ID. Not only that, it also revealed that African Americans did not disproportionately use absentee voting; whites did. SL 2013-381 drastically restricted all of these other forms of access to the franchise, but exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.

freedmen votesThe legislators knew what kinds of identification African-Americans held in greater numbers than whites did and systematically removed those from the list of things you could use to prove your bona fides for voting. It doesn’t say, in so many words, that the polling place would operate as a whites-only establishment. Maybe, as we live in a fallen world, come black people would still cast votes. But they clearly intended to do all they could:

In sum, relying on this racial data, the General Assembly enacted legislation restricting all — and only — practices disproportionately used by African Americans.

The appeals court caught North Carolina out and struck down the laws, just as courts have done similar for in other states. But courts need not always do so; they have played dumb before in defense of white power. They surely shall again. What does one call a political organization which, as a matter deliberate policy, seeks out and enacts methods to ensure as few black Americans vote as it can possibly manage? It cannot be any less than white supremacist.

We all knew that already too. We pretend otherwise often enough, but I have told no deep secrets today. Every politically aware American knows that black Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats and against the Republicans. To explain that we either need to pretend they can’t make their own political decisions and so are fooled by the Democratic party, in itself a claim solidly on the side of white power through its embrace of racial theories of intelligence, or we need to admit the truth. If we do the latter, we have to confront what that says about us.

“Kill the Yankee!” Politics and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

William Clark could have gotten away with the crime of being antislavery on a steamboat full of Missourians. He had a close call when he stood up to defend his interpretation of the Bible against a man who insisted that the races must have had separate creations to make people so inferior as Native- and African-Americans, but it seems that once he gave his defense of Scripture things settled down. The polygenists constituted only a minority of Americans, so his audience likely understood Reverend Clark’s position as well within the bounds of acceptable discourse even if some of them disagreed strongly with it. Believing in a common ancestry for all humans didn’t require anything near so radical as thinking them equals, after all.

Discussion then turned to politics. The steamboat passengers conversed “apparently with the best humor.” The circle broke up and Clark

learned that some of them were members of that body of Solons which had been in session at the Shawnee Mission, re-enacting Draco’s bloody code for the benefit of the people of Kansas.

Clark hadn’t talked to just a random set of proslavery men; he’d hit the jackpot. Considering that even by September, the Kansas and Missouri proslavery party had built up a record of abusing antislavery Kansans he had cause to worry. He worried more when he saw people who had talked to him point him out to other passengers. Clark holed up in his room and hoped to ride things out. Come evening, he risked departing to write a letter.

While writing, three men seated themselves by me, referred in very flattering terms to the discussion of the afternoon, and gave me an invitation to lecture that evening before the passengers, on the same subjects, viz: the probable origin of the Indians, the capacity of the negro mind for improvement, and my religious and political views of slavery.

You’ve got some interesting ideas, Reverend. Why don’t you share them with the whole ship? Really, we all want to hear.

Clark didn’t buy it. He “positively refused” repeated encouragement, expecting that if he obliged he would end up in jail for inciting slave revolt on the grounds that the Polar Star had enslaved stewards. Later on, Clark heard one of the passengers say that if he’d done as asked, “they would have fixed him.”

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The proslavery men didn’t give up there. Come morning, they held forth on the various perfidies of Andrew Reeder. Clark suggested that they take a wait and see attitude toward Kansas first governor.

Immediately a man, who had been looking intently at me, to whom I had not spoken during the passage, asked me what I said. As a matter of courtesy, I repeated my words, on which he gave me a blow on my face with his fist. Almost at the same instant, a person behind me gave me a blow in my side with a slung shot, almost depriving me of the power of breathing or self-defence, and during this time of my helplessness my assailant improved the opportunity of beating my face in the most brutal manner. A host of demons, let forth from Milton’s hell, could hardly equal in spirit the language, those choice spirits which were present, as they yelled -“Kill the —— Yankee! the —— abolition son of a —–!”

The Bible and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

As he explained in his letter to George Brown, the Reverend William C. Clark visited Kansas in the fall of 1855. He left in September, aiming to go back and spread the good word about the territory in New England. On the way out, he boarded the Polar Star in Kansas City. He found himself in the company of many vocal proslavery passengers and seems to have lived through a steamboat version of Thanksgiving with one’s more deplorable relations. Like most of us, he largely suffered in silence. But just like us, Clark had his limit. He hit it when a fellow passenger laid into the Bible. Said passenger, in words unwittingly echoed by Representative Steve King at the Republican National Convention, that the black race could not share any ancestry with the white because what had they ever accomplished?

Clark, a minister of the Gospel, would not let that one stand. The Bible didn’t tell any stories of parallel or separation creations of man. In standing up there, Clark positioned himself well within the theological mainstream of nineteenth century America. Even diehard proslavery theorists usually, though not always, shrank from the notion of separate creations. To defend Holy Scripture, Clark took recourse to history:

I called his attention to Hannibal the Great, who for years was the terror of Rome and the admiration of the world, he having been of Negro descent, and not of Phenician as most of the Carthaginians were; also to Hamilcar, the great mechanic-to Euclid, the father of mathematics-with some other illustrious minds that belonged to that oppressed race.

In all this, Clark did very much as most of us would probably think to. We live in a culture saturated by race talk scarcely less than Clark’s. The argument, that race as a category is incoherent for any purpose save mistreating people, runs against the grain of nearly our entire discourse. Thus one wants to build up a racial scoreboard, accepting the premise that races exist in a more than social sense and might have morally meaningful distinctions.

Clark and his audience lived in a different time. Racial theory did not fall into disrepute even in the academy until the twentieth century. He and the other people on the Polar Star lived in the heyday of racial science, which frequently involved recourse to the Bible to demonstrate its points. When Clark disputed separate creations, polygenesis, as bad theology he made himself some enemies. To his fellow passengers, he sounded like an abolitionist. They asked him just what he thought about slavery. He confessed:

When questioned upon this point (I have too much frankness in my nature, as well as respect for the honest views I hold, to dissemble on a plain point,) I frankly admitted that I was opposed to the extension of slavery, and in favor of Kansas becoming a Free State.

Since the previous conversation had involved the Bible, the natural response came at once. Didn’t Clark, a man of God, think the Bible approved of slavery? Abraham had slaves, for which “God never rebuked him”.

Yes, Clark said, but God also neglected to rebuke Abraham for having a son with his wife’s maid. David’s numerous vices barely earned a condemnation. But

when the light of Christianity shone more brightly upon the world, wherever it went, servitude, polygamy, &c. were swept away, being suited only to the dark ages.

The Latter-Day Saints of the time would have had something to say to Clark about polygamy and the entire American South could point out how the light of Christianity had not impeded slavery. But likely no one there at the time considered Mormons Christians of any species and antebellum Southerners had heard plenty of Yankees denounce them for living in the dark ages.

Steve King and the Maltreatment of Reverend William C. Clark

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

In looking over the officers at the meeting which established the Kansas Pioneer Association, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom found names he recognized from the Wakarusa War. Among them he spotted a Colonel Chiles, who had more recent adventures. He had somehow “maltreated” a Reverend William C. Clark.

Who did what now? I make a special effort to highlight occasions of actual and credibly threatened violence as signposts for how far things have gone in Kansas. Doing otherwise would make the whole affair sound like no more than the overexcited outbursts of politicians arguing over constitutional arcana, very much detached from the experience of people living at the time. They had real fears based on real events; what happened to others could very well happen to them. But I missed Clark’s travail. Let’s back up to the twentieth of September, 1855, and see what happened.

Clark had come to Lawrence, but gone back East for New England in September. Since then, he had tried four times to get in touch with George Brown about his travail

with the Algerines of America on the Polar Star. I [Clark] wrote and sent you [Brown] a long and full account the first thing I did after I was able to sit up. I should write more, but the hope of this ever reaching you seems so small that I am almost discouraged in trying.

Clark means the Barbary pirates when he says Algerines, who would abduct and enslave Europeans. They constituted a menace to maritime travel in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean for centuries, their exploits generating a whole genre of captivity narrative which he readers would have known well.

The Reverend knew that the papers had hold of his story, but travel and illness prevented him at first from setting the record straight. Clark told the reader that he traveled seven weeks in Kansas, finding its soil rich, its water pure, its scenery beautiful, and generally the best place in America. He then went home. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Clark went specifically to learn about and then promote Kansas to emigrants. On September 18, he took passage at Kansas City. The Polar Star would take him down to St. Louis.

In short order, Clark found that the other passengers had much to say about the Kansas question. Generally from the slave states, they had precisely the opinions one would expect. Clark let several untrue statements about the Free State party pass unremarked, “not wishing to have a controversy.”

On the second day of the Polar Star’s voyage, the topic of conversation turned to theology. I imagine Clark’s eyes lit up at the opportunity, much as mine do when someone wants to talk history. The discussion covered “modes of baptism, next the perseverance of the saints, &c.” People had murdered each other over such questions, but that happened long ago and far away. Nearer to home

one gentleman present objected to the divine authenticity of the Bible, on the ground that the five races of men never could have had one common parentage, objecting especially to the Indian and Negro races.

This made Clark’s objector quite the radical. Few antebellum Americans believed in separate origins for the races of humanity they imagined existing. The occasional proslavery theorist, particularly Josiah Nott, would make the argument but most thought the idea solidly unBiblical and consequently false.

Clark wouldn’t sit down and let that one pass:

Feeling an interest when I hear the Scriptures assailed, I took the liberty to reply to him, giving my views of the origin of the Indians found on this continent by Columbus, which seemed to be satisfactory to those present. His objection to the common origin of the Negro race was, that their minds had not a capacity for cultivation, and by nature were almost destitute of intelligence; and hence he thought they must have had another and inferior origin.

You can’t go very far in the United States today without hearing that theory of blackness. We don’t often phrase it in quite that way, but express the same meaning in more careful words. In noting that the Republican Party today has racial demographics not far out of line with the Ku Klux Klan, Representative Steve King asked

I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked, clearly amazed.

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King replied. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

In other words, non-whites don’t deserve a place in a political party. Inferior by nature, their lacks proven by history, they could jolly well bugger off. Only whites count.

With the exception of Monday posts, and not all of those, I don’t try too orient this blog around contemporary America. But sometimes contemporary America comes on its own.

The Long Reach of American Fascism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe in state’s rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, and Dallas

I don’t know what to tell you, Gentle Readers. The people among us who think black Americans inherently death worthy, deserving of nothing more than the faintest pretense to justify their execution by anybody who happens by, had a great weekend. Police officers previously investigated for excessive use of force executed Alton Sterling. They had him on the ground, freshly tasered, and decided that he’d gone for his gun. Other officers, who don’t appear to have had problematic records, stopped Philandro Castile on the road. He told them that he had a legal firearm in his possession. One opened fire and Castile died of his wounds. We will probably never know everything that happened in either exchange, but selling CDs and broken tail lights don’t make for capital crimes in any sane system except one looking for excuses to kill.

Not that long ago, these incidents would have gone unmarked outside the communities involved. The internet, smartphones, and a markedly less white America have done much to change that. To some degree, we could argue that the fact that the police don’t murder black Americans, or other minorities, as cavalierly as they have in the past makes the exceptions more notable. That these things now generate nationwide protests speaks to the progress, however tenuous, we have made in the past few decades. We still suffer no dearth of people happy to admire the murders, more who will justify and excuse them, and still more who stand by and watch. None of them pulled the trigger, but each in a small way acted as a co-conspirator.

Those people, like the shooters, come from somewhere. We produce them and encourage them to continue on. We feed them on myths of black criminality stretching all the way back to slavery. James Jackson believed in the 1790s that freedpeople would inevitably turn to crime. His and subsequent generations of enslavers believed that every slave, however declared happy, plotted to overthrow slavery and murder all the white people from newborn children to doddering senior citizens. A black person managed the remarkable feat, through some strange property of skin color, of simultaneous complete incapacity and peerless destructive power. If we have put slavery behind us, for the most part, then we have not put away the enslavers’ stories.

A nation that defined itself on violent opposition to tyranny could find many heroes in how the enslaved resisted their enslavement. We could put up a Nat Turner monument between Lincoln’s and Washington’s. We could put up a statue of Gabriel in Richmond. If we truly believe that the cause of freedom sometimes justifies great violence, Nat and Gabriel deserve monuments more than George Washington. He won his nation’s everlasting gratitude by killing a large number of British people, as well as some German mercenaries and American loyalists who we like to pretend didn’t exist. If we insist on keeping famous monuments strictly a whites only affair, then we could do better by John Brown than the impressive mural in Kansas. Washington’s example shows that we don’t take intramural violence between whites as cause to disqualify someone. Should we decide that watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants makes for the best sort of American, how can we exclude them?

As a nation, we don’t take the slave’s cause as just. We don’t see ourselves in them or their history as part of our own. We traditionally reserve that privilege to white men. As such, we take our side with the tyrants and despots. If we did otherwise, we might have to take a harder look at how we’ve arranged our society.

Which brings me to Dallas, where the end of a peaceful protest of Sterling’s and Castile’s murders ended with a black man murdering five, and injuring still more, the police officers then protecting the protesters. The news reports tell me that he did it in response to the killings. Should we mourn him as a martyr for freedom’s cause?

I have spent some time thinking about that. I don’t know if I have the right answer, or even a marginally good one, but I don’t think so. While a pacifist, I don’t see it as remotely my place to play the part of white man telling someone from a marginalized group how he should or should not behave. White men do that quite enough without my help. Murdering police will prove decidedly counterproductive, feeding into the very fears of the whites already already sympathetic to the idea that black people just need killing. But having heard often enough as a gay man that I ought to keep quiet and not do anything to arouse the hatreds of people who already wish me ill, I don’t think that makes for a good argument either. Hatred will always find a way, requiring mere existence alone to justify it. I do believe that we simply ought not to kill each other, period, but I know that argument will only persuade fellow pacifists.

What then distinguishes a slave uprising from violence directed at white supremacy today? Police officers represent all of us. We grant to them vast powers, in all likelihood more than we ought to, and defer to them much more than we should about how those powers get used. But they are the agents of a democratic state and free society. A violent attack upon the police as a class is thus an attack on free government itself, seeking to replace it with the rule of brute force. As countless examples attest, everyone but the especially brutal and malicious loses out in that scenario. We ought not do things which will empower the worst among us.

One can argue, rightly, that this government has a human rights record nearly sui generis in its horrors. It may not deserve all the respect we grant it. Its agents, police included, have very often served to frustrate and destroy the ends to which they have notionally pledged themselves. Many of these abuses continue today and fall disproportionately on people who I do not know and who do not look like me. In dismissing them, I have the privilege that white skin grants.

But the same government that stole lives and land, which protected slavery until the last possible instant, which stood by and cheered as white lynched blacks and white terror took back from the freedpeople almost all the gains they achieved, then did much of it all over again a century thereafter, is also the government that ended slavery and struck back against Jim Crow, against lynching, and now has a black man at its head. We congratulate ourselves far too easily about the progress we have made, often with the clear purpose of reversing it. I am no patriot; patriots and I get on poorly. I will not say that enough has been done to right past or present wrongs, or even that we have exerted ourselves consistently or in good faith toward those ends. But we no longer have a state which declares white power its ultimate objective and defends it to the point of absolute omnipotence over black lives and bodies. Its peaceable means of redress are often feeble, always slow, and frequently fail. But they do exist and have been used successfully. We have gotten better before; we can keep getting better. If we accept violence only as a last resort then we fall far short of requiring it now.

I write this from one of the most staggeringly privileged positions in all human history. My life is not at stake. I hope in writing this, in thinking these things, I haven’t simply turned a mirror on myself and found in it the glorious permission to dictate to the rest of humanity. I don’t think I have, but we always fool ourselves the best.