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Racism in America

from Peter Radford

I don’t often comment on politics here, but I want to record my thoughts as I watch the extraordinary convulsions running through America at the moment.

First: racism is a basic fact of American life.  It has been apparent to me since I moved here.  White America simply doesn’t want to be forced to engage with it, so it ignores all the plentiful evidence that it exists.  It is too painful and too difficult to deal with, no matter how sympathetic people are, so they want to avoid the topic.  They prefer, instead, to pretend that it is an historic artifact and not a current one.  Worse, when outrage hits the streets, as it has recently, a good proportion of the white population gets upset: they believe that there has been sufficient effort made to heal the breach, and that any current anger is a sign of disrespect for that effort.  They then accuse the black population of being ungrateful for, or of squandering, that effort.

Second: American politics is massively shaped by race. The entire shift to a more heavily polarized politics in America came about after the deliberate pursuit by the Republican Party under Nixon and Reagan to exploit Southern white racism.  Within years the entire political map was altered: the South became a Republican redoubt built on white anger at the civil rights movement, sentimental recall of the Civil war, and persistent repression of its black population and, especially, its right to vote.  These all exist and flourish today.  Most people point to Nixon as the villain in this, but Reagan was just as bad.  Why else would a Californian governor announce his run for the presidency in the Deep South?

Third: speaking of Reagan.  In the late 1960s a group or armed black men walked into the Californian legislative buildings.  There was no violence, but they were making a point.  They had learned that Californian law allowed someone to carry a gun in public.  They were asserting that right and using it as a way to be equal to their white fellow citizens.  Horrified at the thought of armed black men walking the streets, Reagan who was governor of California at the time, rushed through gun control legislation to eliminate that right.  So his Republican allies were all for gun control when it limited black access to arms.  Compare that with the Republican support of the recent invasion of the Michigan State House by a group of armed white people.  They were, we are told, expressing their constitutional right to bear arms.  Reagan was racist and so, courtesy of the Nixon/Reagan southern strategy, is most of the Republican Party.

Fourth: as a consequence of this, the Republicans are now stuck, mostly willingly, as a party of white people.  Any effort it makes to become more diverse sinks under the weight of the Nixon/Reagan bargain with the South.  This explains the complete silence in the face of Trump’s clear racism, and his appeal to far right extremists.  The modern Republican party is incapable of solving any issue that might mean it has to part company with the far right or the disgruntled white underclass that has been taught to see the black community as a leech on its meager livelihood.

Fifth: a truly sad part of this is that, subsequent to the passing of the civil rights laws in the 1960s, a government commission warned about the reverberation of racism likely to echo in the aftermath of the new laws.  It warned of America falling into two parts.  One white and one black, apart and unequal.  Not just unequal in economic terms, although that is brutally obvious, but apart in terms of opportunity and justice.  If anything the neoliberal era of Reaganism and corporate excess has exacerbated the divide.  America has been falling apart for decades.

Sixth:  it is specious to refer to the constitution in the context of racism and its resolution.  It is a piece of paper of no worth if it is ignored or perverted by Supreme Court opinion.  A good case in point is the 14th amendment meant to protect anyone from bias or infringement on their rights based upon discrimination.  That amendment has a long history of use and application in the Supreme Court.  But that use and application is weighted ten to one or more in order to protect the rights of corporations.  It is rarely used to protect the rights of the black population.

Lastly:  the symbols of racism exist everywhere, but mostly are manifested in the proliferation of reminders of the Civil War in the South.  Every single such reminder, mostly statues of Civil War soldiers or the Confederate flag, are symbols of the struggle to preserve the institutions of racism.  Not only are all those people, and that flag, emblems of traitor hood to the U.S. itself, they are a constant symbol of what that struggle was about: the continuation of slavery.  The current population of the South might wish this were not the case, and they might prefer that the trope of “states rights” was the real issue being fought over, but the reality is that it was slavery their ancestors wanted to defend.  It is hateful ti maintain any illusion otherwise.  These symbols must all go if there is to be any hope of a non-racist future.

I am, sure that others could compile a better of more comprehensive list than this, but tases are the most salient things that come to my mind this morning.

As you all know I am a democrat [with a small”d”] through and through.  It is painful to realize the reality that America is not truly democratic, and that what attachment it has to democracy is under such threat.  To me the fight to end racism is a fight to strengthen democracy.  Americans obsess over their “freedoms”, they tell themselves that they are “exceptional”, and that they live in the land of the free [not realizing that this is an insult to the rest of the free world], but they are not free in any significant way until they face and come to terms with the past.

Don’t brush history under the rug.  Deal with it.   Learn from it.

  1. June 6, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    Good column but some typos.

  2. Robert Locke
    June 6, 2020 at 7:37 pm

    Benoist d’Azy died in 1884. For the earliers period see

    “Un fidèle ami de Lamennais, le comte Benoît d’Azy. Lettres inédites de Benoît d’Azy à Lamennais (1825- 1833) [article]
    Louis Le Guillou
    Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l’Ouest Année 1966 73-3 pp. 363-444 .

    He and his sons were also involved with Frederic Le Play, reference Frederic Le Play and Benoist d’Azy. all of this in the 1840s and 1850s

    • Robert Locke
      June 6, 2020 at 8:19 pm

      Peter my comment is a mistake; it was meant for Dave on another posting. But I would like to say something personal about the democracy. In 1943, when I was 11, my mother, originally from east Texas, took me and my sister on a train from Los to Galveston to visit her sisters. The train was full of soldiers and the trip difficult, but I noticed when we crossed the New Mexico border, that the black people left the car. I asked my mother why, she answered that thet were niggers and couldn’t sit with white people. On a bus in Galveston, I went to the back like I did in california, but my aunt made me sit up front. I was upset with this. When I joined the air force in 1949, I was trained with blacks; Truman had integrated the services through executive order in 1948. But the battle has gone on. I moved to Germany in 2002 in rretrement. Germany to live in freedom, get that.

  3. Patrick J Fowler
    June 6, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    Peter old lad. A nice statement of our affairs here in the colonies but leaves out a bit of history prior to the days of Nixon etc. In the early 17th century the British began planting northern Ireland and north (British) America. They “controlled” the savage populations of both places and in America imported slaves whose production greatly contributed to the rise of capitalism in England itself. When the British Americans became overly revolting the British took over India and continued to use the work of exploited people to benefit the English economy. During our civil war the British were unsure which side to take until the result was predictable.

    We learned from the master, especially the denial and hypocrisy part. Does Victoria still stand Imperially over the street in front of city hall in Belfast?

    On addition to your narrative. If we don’t find a way to change the political economic system that undergirds inequality in our country (and most of the world) we will never reach justice and peace.

    • June 8, 2020 at 11:45 am

      “Does Victoria still stand Imperially over the street in front of city hall in Belfast?”

      After last night’s news I’m glad to say “No”. With its imperial past I’ve long been ashamed of being British. Understanding how Parliament used Ponzi money to pension off William of Orange and subsequent British monarchs, however, the sad fact is that her statue was not much more of a figurehead than Victoria herself, and the present queen’s contribution to the Gough Whitlam scandal in Australia may have been no more than signing the letters or believing the story she was presented with. It is the Ponzi finance that really needs looking at more closely.

  4. Craig
    June 6, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    End poverty with the new monetary paradigm of Gifting and you eliminate the major factor keeping the anger, frustration and stupidity of racism and other twisted “intellectual issues” in suspension.

  5. Bill
    June 6, 2020 at 9:52 pm

    Peter you have provided a nice partial description of how the Republican Party in its present iteration has brought disgrace upon itself. They have made their future even dimmer by embracing white supremacy full bore. Left out is their distain of Latins (except for Cubans of the senior generation), Asians and those of mixed race as well as embracing a religious crusade against Moslems and other non-Christians. Their path to the future is now so narrow that they are becoming a minority party which must “pack the courts” which have been abusing traditional legal norms by finding constitutional claims wherever it advances their partisan purposes and finding them non-existent where that aids their partisan agenda. The once duly proud Party of Lincoln is fast becoming a party of shame.

  6. Ikonoclast
    June 6, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    In Australia, we have avoided a full COVID-19 outbreak and now we only have a handful of cases each day in a nation of 25 million people. In that context, a set of BLM demonstrations, which we have just had, has a different pandemic potential from the BLM demonstrations in the USA. In th USA, the pandemic genie is already out of the bottle. In Australia, we have managed thus far to keep it in the bottle. Now, that situation might change.

    The BLM protests in Australia were morally justified from the perspective of hundreds of years of white oppression, exploitation and police brutality all backed up by conservative and capitalist greed and callousness. However, the BLM protest was not morally justified in that it possibly has put many vulnerable lives at risk; meaning all those groups seriously at a risk from a full COVID-19 outbreak. In some ways, it was and is a classical moral dilemma. I know those protesting injustice are tired of being told “now is not the time to protest.” However, this was one of those rare times, at least in Australia, when the statement might actually have been true.

    Notwithstanding that, the protests have occurred and that fact cannot be changed now. The Australian authorities made the correct call in not opposing the marches with legal bans and physical force (except some physical force was used in a railway station in Sydney I believe). The authorities attempted persuasion and it failed. So be it. Once it was clear that the protests were going ahead, permission or not, the least worst option was to permit them and that is what happened. We needed neither close confrontations, nor arrests, nor people in holding areas awaiting bail. That would have only increased our pandemic risk.

    This event illustrates one of the grave hidden costs of oppression. There is pent-up demand for equity and justice in the system and this pent-up demand can be released almost spontaneously and certainly somewhat uncontrollably from the civic perspective, at any historical juncture, even one which is in other ways the wrong time for civil disobedience. If we hadn’t had this rightful pent-up demand for equity and justice, this event would have been a non-risk and we here in Australia need not have faced it. I must note that the COVID-19 risks are not academic for me and my family. We have COVID-19 vulnerable members in our extended family due to age and medical pre-conditions.

    The BLM organizers in Australia should now attempt to negotiate from a position of strength. They should attempt to wring, not concessions, but rights and programs from the system which oppresses them. The elephant in the negotiating room will be the potential for more and even larger protests and the concomitant COVID-19 pandemic risks. I would prefer the BLM movement in Australia, to use the threat of action rather than actual action at this juncture if possible. Of course, if no just concessions, rights and programs are “granted” then the moral opprobrium and the next round of outcomes will rest on the conservative capitalists’ heads.

  7. yok
    June 6, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    Racism springs from the lust for wealth and power. The wealthy and the powerful know, that the fastest way to great wealth and power is to steal it. The wealthy and the powerful brought slavery to this country because ethnic, cultural, national identity prevented the ruthless exploitation of others like themselves. The wealthy and the powerful taught racism to the general population. They knew that they must alienate the general population to those exploited, intimidated them into not opposing their criminal activities, and needed their help in subjugating so large a portion of the population. Jim Crow was a continuation in the form of debt servitude and criminalization of black llfe. The exploitation of an underclass continues to this day. Many in the dominant class feel they get to enjoy, in some small way, the efforts and productivity of others who are unjustly compensated.

  8. June 7, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    As Chris Dillow argues: a society may be deeply racist without people living there being racists. Racism is a matter of emergence: https://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2020/06/racism-as-emergence.html

  9. Ken Zimmerman
    June 26, 2020 at 3:41 pm

    Peter, all correct. But some context is necessary to understand fully why this situation exists today and why we find it so difficult to face up to it. By 1786 it was clear the Articles of Confederation had failed. Not surprising when you consider they provided no unity of purpose and culture. They left the “nation” in chaos. Many of the new states at war with one another. When the Constitutional Convention convened in May of 1787 men like Washington, Franklin, and Hamilton were set on a unifying document that created a strong central government. But the nation was still filled with those who equated a strong central government to slavery for residents of many states. As had occurred with the British Crown and the colonies before the War of Independence. The Constitution eventually written solved none of these problems. In fact, it both amplified the problems and created new rifts. The “three-fifths” compromise, for example gave southern states more political power than their size warranted. The failure to extend voting beyond “white men of property” set the nation up for populist’s revolts. The Civil War began with the signing of the Constitution. In theory the Constitution applied to every person in America. Clearly, historically that has not been the case. Battle, legal and military over the purposes, scope, and reasons for the Constitution is American history since 1787.

    And part of those battles is about race and slavery. Slavery has existed in North America since Europeans first arrived. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp writes that by the 19th century slavery had become the South’s “Peculiar Institution.” First, while slavery existed both in the north and in the South, at times in equal measure, the industrialization of the north and the expansion of demand for cotton in the south shifted the balance so that it became a regional issue, as the Southern economy grew increasingly reliant on cheap labor. As is always true in history, cultures grow and thrive in all conditions. Two interdependent cultures emerged in the American south before the Civil War — the world the SLAVEHOLDERS created for themselves and the world of their SLAVES. Even though slaves were not permitted to express themselves freely, they were able to fight back even though bound. But slavery was more than an economic necessity in the South. It was an integral part of Southern culture. It is difficult to create let alone sustain a land (the South) of Knights and their ladies, of cavaliers without someone to do the necessary work. Without slaves. Plus, Christianity, a central part of Southern culture requires Christians to help and protect inferiors. In the eyes of many white Southerners African slaves were inferior to whites and therefore could not care for themselves. Finally, in practical terms with slaves outnumbering whites by at least 2 to 1 (4 to 1 in some places) in the South, allowing slaves their freedom would be, at least in the minds of many whites dangerous for white Southerners.

    With the establishment of the Constitution the South turned the federal government into an instrument for promoting their own peculiar interests, including slavery. This is still the case in 2020. That includes using the laws, police, and governments of non-Southern states to achieve these ends. For example, the Fugitive Slave Law. The most famous defender of slavery as positive good was John C. Calhoun, the 7th Vice-President of the US. His words are still in use today by the defenders of racism and discrimination (segregation).

    “I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. . .Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually… It came to us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions.” (John C. Calhoun, A Positive Good – Teaching American History, “Slavery a Positive Good” (February 6, 1837))

    Hopefully, this quick summary provides at least some small glimpse into why anti-African American racism is endemic and difficult to end in the US today. Anti-Latino racism is similar but, in some ways, quite distinct. Then there is anti-Asianism, anti-eastern Europeism, etc. Lots of racisms to go round in the US.

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