Our tainted history and complicated present

Our big, wonderful, powerful country rests on a very tainted history – it wealth is based on the theft of land from the continent’s indigenous inhabitants and labor from enslaved Africans. It has, as a result, a complicated present that includes the continued marginalization and oppression of these two “minority” groups: Native- and African-Americans. “The Price of Union” an article by Nicholas Lemann in the 11-2-15 issue of The New Yorker magazine, brings out some of the key issues in the African-American part this history bleeding into the present.

Lemann, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, writes that “when the Confederate States of America seceded, the response of the United States of America was firm: dissolving the Union was impermissible. By contrast, it took a few more years for the US to resolve the question of whether it would permit slavery within its borders, and more than a century for it to enforce civil and voting rights for all its citizens. This was mainly because of the South’s political power. In order to become the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States had to include the South, and its inclusion has always come at a price. The Constitution (with its three-fifths compromise and others) awkwardly registered the contradiction between its democratic rhetoric and the foundational presence of slavery in the thirteen original states. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase – by which the US acquired more slaveholding territory in the name of national expansion – set off the dynamic that led to the Civil War. The United States has declined every opportunity to let the South go its own way; in return, the South has effectively awarded itself a big say in the nation’s affairs.

The South was the country’s aberrant region – wayward, backward, benighted – but it was at last going to join properly in the national project: that was the liberal rhetoric that accompanied the civil rights movement. It was also the rhetoric that accompanied Reconstruction, premised on full citizenship for the former slaves. Within a decade, the South had raised the price of enforcement so high that the country threw in the towel and allowed the region to maintain a separate system of racial segregation and subjugation. For almost a century, the country wound up granting the conquered South very generous terms.

The civil-rights revolution, too, can be thought of as a bargain, not simply a victory: the nation’s become as Southernized as the South’s become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics. During the past half century, the country’s had more presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union, and racial prejudice and conflict have been understood as American, rather than strictly Southern problems.

Even before the Civil War, the slave South and the free North weren’t unconnected. A recent run of important historical studies show that the South was essential to the development of global capitalism, with the rest of the country – along with much of the world – deeply implicated in Southern slavery. Slavery was what made the United States an economic power [italics mine]. It also served as a malign innovation lab for influential new techniques in finance, management, and technology. England abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, but then became the biggest purchaser of the slave South’s main crop, cotton. The mills of Manchester and Liverpool were built to turn Southern cotton into clothing, which meant that slavery was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Sven Beckert demonstrates this in Empire of Cotton, and argues that the Civil War, by interrupting the flow of cotton from the South, also fueled global colonialism, because Europe need to find other places to supply its cotton.

After slavery had ended and Reconstruction gave way to the Jim Crow system, the Democratic Party was for decades an unlikely marriage of the white South (the black South couldn’t vote) and blue-collar workers in the North. This meant that American liberalism had a lot of the South in it. Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself, adeptly identifies the deep Southern influence on the New Deal Era, the country’s liberal heyday, including not just its failure to challenge segregation the strong pro-military disposition that helped shape the Cold War. The great black migration to the North and the West, which peaked in the 1940s and ‘50s, partly nationalized at least one race’s version of Southern culture, and by converting non-voters to voters through relocation, helped generate the political will that led to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Once those laws had passed, the South became for the Republican Party what it had previously been for the Democratic Party, the essential core of a national coalition.

The slave states developed an elaborate and distinctively American binary racial system in which everyone across a wide range of European origins was put in one category (white) and everyone across a wide range of African origins, including those with more white forebears than black, was put in another (black). These Southern-originated categories have been nationalized for so long that they seem natural to most Americans. They powerfully determine where we live, how we speak, how we think of ourselves, and whom we choose to marry, and they’re deeply embedded in law and politics, through the census, police records, electoral polling, and many other means. A frequent companion of this idea of a simple distinction between white and black is the idea of a simple distinction between racists and non-racists. There can’t be anybody left who believes that racists exist only in the South, but there are plenty of people who believe that racism is another simple binary, and that they dwell on the better side of it.”

Because of the heroic participation of Southern blacks and some rights in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Lemann says, “the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was a North-South partnership, not an imposition of the North’s will on the South. And it would be a big mistake to think of the act as a great, enduring civil-rights milestone, representing the country’s belated decision to comply fully and everywhere with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. As Ari Berman demonstrates in Give Us the Ballot, the act has been, instead, the subject of half a century of ceaseless contention, leaving its meaning permanently undetermined. Like most of the consequential fights about civil rights, it’s been over the federal role in enforcement. The Voting Rights Act gives Washington the power to review local voter registration practices, and to change the boundaries of election districts in areas that have a history of discrimination or that appear to be drawing district lines so as to minimize the number of black elected officials. The act invites conflict, because, as written, its enforcement provisions come up for periodic congressional review.

Every few years, there’s been a serious attempt to discontinue these enforcement practices provisions. Berman makes a persuasive case that the ongoing battles over these reviews of the Voting Rights Act, beginning with the first one in 1970, have had a major impact on who’s held political power. Periods of aggressive enforcement have produced more black voters and more liberal (especially black) elected officials – including, Berman suggests, Barack Obama – as well as the potential for conservative politicians to take advantage of white resentment of the Voting Rights Act.

In August of 1980, Ronald Reagan chose to kick off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, not far from where civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered in 1964 [their killers weren’t convicted till 2007]. There Reagan declared, ‘I believe in states’ rights.’ Once he was in office, there was a battle over the terms of one of the Voting Rights Act’s periodic extensions in which a significant actor was John Roberts, then a young lawyer at the Justice Department and now the Chief Justice. Berman has found a set of memos in the National Archives that Roberts wrote in 1981 and 1982, demonstrating a passionate opposition to aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three decades later, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Roberts led a Supreme Court majority that struck down the major enforcement provision of the act, arguing that the problem the act was passed to correct has long since been solved. This will help Republicans in subsequent elections, including the 2016 presidential election.

The South and the rest of the nation have one of those hot-blooded relationships – the major one in American history – that never settle into either trustful intimacy or polite distance. The South is too big and powerful to be vestigial; too married to the rest of the country to stand truly apart; too distinctive in its history to be fully united with the other states. Colin Powell, back in the days when, as Secretary of State, he was beginning to voice skepticism about the Iraq War, used to say, ‘If you break it, you own it.’ That seemed true for a while in Iraq, but, being halfway around the world, it wasn’t so hard to leave. The Union’s defeat of the Confederacy,” Lemann believes, “makes for a better example.”

I’ll be putting my notes on Empire of Cotton into the books section of “Resources” on this website, as well as notes on two other books on the subject not mentioned by Lemann (The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014) by Edward E. Baptist and Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008) by Douglas Blackmon. I’ll also be posting notes on Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West (2014) by Judith Nies, which details continued theft of natural resources from Native Americans, as well as the despoliation of their land. Along the way, I’ll be reminding you that all of these evils (for I can think of no other name for them) developed from the economic/political system we know as capitalism, the same system that’s also destroying the planet via fossil-fuel-induced global warming.


About (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers

I'm an artist and student of history, living in Eugene, OR. On the upside of 70 and retired from a jack-of-all-trades "career," I walk, do yoga, and hang out with my teenage grandkids. I believe we can make this world better for them and the young and innocent everywhere, if we connect with each other and create peaceful, cooperative communities as independent of big corporations and corporate-dominated governments as possible.

Posted on November 18, 2015, in Capitalism, Civil and human rights, Climate change, Economics, History, The current system and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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