Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

One way to illustrate the fundamental tension between these two views is in terms that Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, used in an 1860 lecture: America is “descended from two distinct societies, one born among the Bible-inspired believers in the Magna Charta [who landed in Massachusetts] aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and the other aboard a ‘Dutch galley’ slave ship landing in Virginia in 1619. One society led to ‘light’ and the other ‘darkness’” (summary from David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, p. 316). The US story may be seen as a perennial tension between these two images—the big differences have to do with how we understand the dynamics of that tension. Which image has been dominant? Or has it always been a pendulum swinging between the two options?

Thinking about the Civil War

As I have been studying the Civil War era in recent months, I can see how these two views of the US story shape how one would think of the Civil War and its legacy. The most well known and widely read of American historians of that era—such as Eric Foner, James McPherson, and James Oakes, all good liberals who clearly hate slavery and white supremacy—are quite positive about the legacy of the Civil War. Foner even wrote a book called The Story of American Freedom (Norton, 1998) that celebrates the Civil War as part of the admittedly difficult and costly struggle to widen the scope of freedom in the US—a struggle that has inexorably moved in a positive direction (we could say, in Douglass’s terms, it moved toward “Massachusetts” and away from “Virginia”).

I have yet to encounter a major historian who is very negative about the Civil War, but DuBois, in his great 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, hints at a more negative interpretation—and certainly does not affirm the positive view of US history represented by Foner’s work. Regardless of what one thinks of the Civil War itself, if one sees the US story as a story of a society that is foundationally racist, one would have to accept that the Civil War did not succeed in changing that reality.

My critique of the canonical historians is that I don’t think they take seriously enough the persistence of the “Virginia” version of the US story. Of course, they don’t deny the regression toward segregation and Jim Crow that followed the failure of Reconstruction in the decades after the Civil War. But I don’t think they take seriously enough the idea that the Civil War was actually a failure in overcoming the evils of white supremacy regarding which slavery was only the tip of the iceberg. Is the Civil War part of a heroic narrative about freedom and justice that characterizes the US project—or is it rather just another element in the long trajectory of systemic injustice (or, at best, a brief and failed attempt to resist that trajectory)?

Problems with the “heroic narrative”

Gessen seems to think we are currently at an important moment in US history. The idea of the US as, all things considered, a force for freedom and justice is being publicly challenged in perhaps unprecedented ways. “Donald Trump has already dislodged the story of this country as a nation of immigrants on an inexorable path toward justice and equality, guaranteed by a commitment to individual liberties…. The reason we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a new political consensus is that the old consensus had already withered. The new story, being shaped right now, is neither dogmatic nor simplistic. It is, however, based on a different set of assumptions than the old story—and this is a good thing, and a necessary thing.”

In our moment of disruption, those such as Andrew Sullivan who hold stubbornly to what Gessen calls a “heroic narrative of America” actually contribute to the problem that makes “structural racism … so immovable…. Sullivan and others don’t appear to see two competing historical narratives; rather they see a challenge not to a story but to the truth, an eternal certainty, a natural state of things that [our current] protests are threatening to destroy.”

Thinking of the primacy of the “Massachusetts” vision for the US as a fact actually makes it impossible to recognize the persistence of white supremacy as a fundamental reality of the US project at its core. That failure makes it impossible to get to the roots of our problems. As we have seen at least since the 1860s, it appears that no amount of surface reform (even including the ending of most versions of legal slavery [remember, though, that the 13th Amendment at the end of the Civil War abolished most forms of slavery but allowed for convicted criminals to continue to be treated as slaves]) actually can succeed at turning the tide in relation to our systemic, foundational racism.

Getting to the roots

My own disillusionment with the “heroic narrative of America” goes back about 45 years to my learning about what actually had happened in the US war on Vietnam. The more I learned about the practices of the American Empire (an important early source for me was William Appelman Williams’s Empire as a Way of Life), the more I realized that the US is not a force for freedom and justice in the world.

I have been aware of the racist component to US warism. We have almost always warred against non-white people. I learned about this while writing my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. Even though in our nation’s memory that war was mostly against the Nazis, it was the racism-fueled hatred toward the Japanese that drove the American war effort (soldiers were actually reluctant to fight against white Germans)—culminating, of course, with the celebration of nuclear devastation of two Japanese cities, inhabited by non-white people.

Only when I started studying the Civil War era did I think more seriously about the persistence of the “Virginia” vision of the US project—the definitive character of white supremacy at the core of the project. What Kendi calls “anti-Black racism” has been present throughout and across the board—and has not been displaced by various attempts at reform.

The key issue moving forward, I believe, is better to understand what it means to say that this racism is systemic. I think we may differentiate between two levels of racism—for now, let’s call them (1) direct, self-conscious, white supremacist, “overt racism” and (2) systemic, insidious, “covert racism.” Obviously, these two bleed into each other. It’s hard to know precisely where one stops and the other starts. But I think making this kind of distinction could be helpful.

I do tend to think that overt racism is probably more prevalent than many would like to admit. Our society has gotten pretty good at wishfully convincing itself that we are “color blind” (after all, we elected a black president), and it sustains that wishfulness by ignoring how overt racism can be disguised. There are all kinds of terms and images that don’t seem overtly racist on the surface but actually do signal a bigoted sensibility.

At the same time, I also think it is the case that many people in this society don’t want to be anti-Black racists (or racists in any way). Yet, clearly, the systems of our society are highly discriminatory—devastatingly so. Our current pandemic is making this painfully clear.

Some recent numbers cited by Sergio Peçanha in the Washington Post illustrate this reality. Infant mortality for Black Americans is 2.5 times higher than that for White Americans, as is maternal mortality. “The percentage of black children living below the poverty line is three times that of whites.” The unemployment rate for Black Americans over the past 40 years has regularly been about twice that for White Americans. Probably the most dramatic statistic is that the average wealth per family is about ten times higher for White Americans ($171,000) than Black Americans ($17,150).

Right now we are becoming especially aware of the terrible toll our systemic racism is taking in relation to policing and criminal justice. There has been some progress in recent years in relation to incarceration rates, but still “incarceration rates for African Americans in general remain 5.6 times greater than for white Americans.” The rate of police killings for Black Americans is about 2.5 times higher than for White Americans. Peçanha doesn’t mention this in his article, but research has shown that the actual crime rate between blacks and whites in the US is about the same—even though the punishment rate of blacks is so much higher (see Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

So, this covert racism is our big problem. And it’s difficult to know how to address it. It will take more than individuals deciding they want to be anti-racists—as important as that is. It will take understanding how systemic evil works. We are born into environments that shape us to be discriminatory, to be greedy, to be nationalistic. We need to understand the biases inherent in the American way of life. And we need to understand how those biases act on us in ways we don’t choose from very early in our lives.

I have found James Gilligan’s work on violence to be quite helpful (see his book, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic). He takes what he calls a “public health” approach that views violence as a disease rather than a moralistic approach that seeks to assess guilt and to punish offenders. I suspect this applies to how we might approach covert racism as well. It’s a disease. A public health approach would be to seek to identify the pathogen and to work at prevention and at healing for offenders along with survivors. And we may be better situated right now to do this work than ever before.

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10 thoughts on “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

  1. One valuable source for the racist roots of the American project is Unsettling Truths by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah –

    This covers the Doctrine of Discovery established by papal bulls in the early days of European exploration of the Americas and then enshrined into U.S. common law by the Supreme Court, the invention of the concept of whiteness in the 17th century, and much more.

  2. America actually has two original sins. Slavery and the genocide of the native peoples. The Indian genocide raged on long after the end of the Civil War. The Wounded Knee massacre happened in 1890 and government bounties on Indian scalps in the southwest were being paid as late as the 1880s. Treaty violations and seizures of Indian lands were still occurring up into the 1920s in the southwest.

    Both of these projects: Slavery and Indian genocide were explicitly wrapped up a package of white supremacy and Christianity. I don’t think one can disentangle the two. White and Christian were treated as synonymous, especially with respect to the Indian genocide. When conservative evangelical Christians like to claim that the US was founded as a Christian nation my response is “Well yes, and you are finally taking responsibility for it?” And white supremacy and racism are two sides of the same coin. Essentially they are the same thing.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this thought except to say that let’s not forget that America’s heritage of white supremacy is far more than simply a black/white issue. And that Christianity is explicitly tied at the hip to this legacy of white supremacy, especially when we explore the Indian genocide. And it is useful to remember this when in our time of Covid-19 when we consider that is isn’t just the Black and Hispanic communities that are being hit hardest by the pandemic. Some of the highest rates of infections and deaths are found in places like the Navajo reservation and were initially spread by Church of the Nazarene revival meetings led by visiting white pastors.

    As for the Civil War? I think the more accurate assessment is that the destruction of slavery was ultimately necessary to preserve and establish the United States as a modern industrialized nation, which it was well on the road to becoming by 1860, especially in the north. Slavery was what led the south out of the union, and destruction of slavery was necessary to bring the south back into the union. It was never a war to create some sort of race free society. It was a civil war not a revolution.

    1. Thanks for the perceptive thoughts, Kent.

      I agree that the “genocide of native peoples” and its continuing effects are at the heart of the American white supremacy legacy along with slavery and other expressions of anti-Black racism. Your comment is challenging me to find ways to acknowledge that more.

      I like your phrase, “it was a civil war not a revolution.” Partly, I think that means we should separate “smashing slavery” from ending white supremacy. I think it is a big issue still today how the Civil War is remembered. The historians I mention in my post, I think, do tend to present that Civil War and its immediate aftermath as a “revolution.” McPherson in a book title calls it “the second revolution” and Foner calls it “the second founding.”

      And, certainly, the Civil War was huge in intensely accelerating the process of the US becoming “a modern industrialized nation”–with very complicated consequences.

      1. Well I ‘m not an historian and would certainly defer to McPherson and Foner. Certainly the war would have had more revolutionary outcomes had the Union stuck with reconstruction. But the election of Andrew Johnson ended all of that. Maybe “failed revolution” is the proper context. Or incomplete revolution that did not reach fruition until the civil rights movement and present day. When I think of revolutions, I think of events like the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution that completely turned society upside down. Nothing like that happened in the north. And even in the south the social structures and hierarchies remained little changed once reconstruction was left to wither away. Slaves became sharecroppers. Poor whites remained poor whites. And the white aristocracy regained most of its lands and monopoly on power. I expect the families that ruled most southern towns before the war in 1850 were still the same families ruling them in 1900. Even the American revolution wasn’t really a revolution so much as a war of independence.

        The civil war and destruction of slavery was necessary to create the modern industrial state that produced Standard Oil, US Steel, General Motors, Ford, and the century of US dominance in military and economic affairs was the 20th Century. And that made the US the most wealthy and powerful nation in history. So one can draw a straight line between the civil war and the US standing astride the world as the sole superpower in 1945. None of that could have happened in an alternative history with the country muddling along divided north and south into separate economic systems with a weak federal government struggling to hold things together. If you want to build a 20th Century superpower you need centralized industrial capitalism not a decentralized feudal agrarian aristocracy. Civil rights were really not all that necessary to accomplish that outcome.

  3. Ted, thanks for the stimulating thoughts, summary of scholarship.

    In a pacifist approach, in the case as it developed with the secession of Southern states, what would an optimal governmental and citizenry response have been?

    If 2 distinct nations resulted, with no war, would that necessarily have been a terrible result? (We can’t presume to know the various consequences, but it seems at least worth thinking about… toward even possibly BETTER outcomes re. slavery and white supremacy, ultimately. But don’t ask me to explain how it might have… not contemplated it deeply.)

    1. Supposing the peaceful co-existence of two American nations side by side and no civil war presupposes that the men leading these nations would be men of good will and peace. We know they were very much the opposite. They told us so. In their speeches and writings and the constitution they created for the Confederacy.

      The Confederate Constitution granted only white men the vote and explicitly forbade ever repealing slavery, even through future constitutional amendment. How do you imagine slavery ever would have vanished from the Confederacy short of bloody internal revolution or military defeat from the outside? The explicitly forbade any other outcome through legal means. Imagining the peaceful abolition of slavery in the Confederacy is simply wishful revisionist thinking.

      The Confederacy also dreamed of an expanding slave empire and anticipated adding new slave territories through military conquest in Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. They didn’t anticipate just a rump southern US nation. They anticipated a Roman style expanding empire covering the Gulf and Caribbean and stretching to South America. Article IV Section 3(3) of their constitution provide that:

      The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.

      They were very public about their plans:

      Do you imagine a powerful war-like and expansionist slave-holding empire stretching from Virginia to Venezuela as suggested by this map would have been a better outcome than the civil war that happened? How many Latin Americans from Mexico to Cuba to Venezuela would have suffered and/or died to realize this dream?

  4. My main interest in the Civil War is in how it has been misremembered and valorized with the effect, among other things, of making it much easier to justify later wars and preparation for war. I also think people have not and do not take nearly seriously enough the devastating costs of that war.

    When historians and others glibly assert that the cost was worth it in order to free the slaves, I think (1) they aren’t attentive enough to what the actual costs were and (2) they are too sanguine about all the elements of our white supremacist culture that the Civil War and even the abolition of slavery didn’t change.

    At the same time, it is interesting to imagine other paths that might have been taken. One very real possibility was that the South did not attack Ft. Sumter and initiate the war. A few in the Confederate leadership realized that initiating war was likely to be suicidal—as it proved to be. The North was far from unified in its initial response to secession. Lincoln may well have wanted to go to war to get the South back, but he would have had a very hard time initiating and sustaining such a war.

    I think it’s impossible to imagine with much likelihood of accuracy how things would have played out had the South not started the war. I does seem possible, as you suggest, Kent, that the former United States would have “muddled along” as two separate and disparate nations and that the 20th century’s Superpower would not have emerged. I think that would have been good.

    Given that slavery ended at so many other places, it’s hard to imagine it continuing to thrive in the Confederacy. It’s especially hard to imagine the Confederacy actually managing to create “a powerful war-like and expansionist empire” as suggested by Robert May. But I grant that the leaders were certainly not people of “good will.” But, at least Jefferson Davis was also scarcely a particularly competent leader.

    Another very realistic scenario is that quite early in the war, the Union army was poised to defeat the Confederacy when General McClellan neared Richmond. He blew the opportunity and the long slog settled in that was finally determined by Lincoln’s resolve to gain total victory. But had the war ended in that initial moment, chances are that slavery would have survived.

    I suspect that the best opportunity for genuine change in relation to white supremacy came in the actual events, with the initiative of the Radical Reconstruction. And it probably was doomed from the start.

    1. Historical hypotheticals are difficult. The US was not operating in a vacuum during the 1860s. Expansionist European powers also had their eye on the Western hemisphere. Often forgotten by Americans because it happened during our Civil War but France invaded and conquered Mexico in 1861 in part as a geopolitical play to contain the growing US and set up the emperor Maximilian as their Mexican puppet monarch in league with conservative Mexican aristocrats.

      After the US Civil War the US allied with and supported Mexican republican forces against the French who were ultimately defeated in 1867. A Confederate nation on the Mexican border would likely have done the opposite and jumped at the chance to ally with the French in a geopolitical alliance against the northern US. Swap American support for the anti-French republican forces in Mexico for Confederate support for the French occupation and Mexican history could have played out very differently. A Confederate army invading Mexico from the north in alliance with the French could have changed Mexican history. This was the age of Imperialism. The French were expanding into Indochina and North Africa. This was the era of the Second French Empire, the conservative proto-fascist and imperialist state that replaced the French Republic. Once can easily imagine a growing militarist Confederate slave empire allied with imperial France. The Monroe Doctrine abandoned. Especially remembering that militarism and glorification of war is a much stronger social force in the south. To this day Southern states continue to provide a disproportionate percentage of US armed forces.

      The result might have been something that would have looked similar to the expanding Japanese Pacific empire in the 1930s. Confederate forces allying with local pro-slavery conservative oligarchs to set up a chain of puppet states across the region. Slavery was abolished in Central America in 1823 when that region obtained independence from Spain. It was abolished in 1848 in French Caribbean colonies under pressure from the British but lingered in Spanish colonies like Cuba until the 1880s. It is not hard to imagine an expanding Confederate empire allied with local oligarch and planters rolling back those gains to create a pro-slavery alliance from the cotton plantations in the south to the sugar plantations in Cuba to the banana plantations in Honduras and Guatemala.

      The Confederacy was a force for evil. The told us as much in their speeches, writings, and founding documents. They were very much expansionist in their aims and glorified war and racial supremacy in a manner very similar to the Imperial Japanese of the 1930s. I can easily imagine an alternate history where an 1860s peaceful dissolution of the union could have wound up being as ephemeral as the 1938 Munich agreement that was supposed to have brought peace to Europe. Leading perhaps to an even more disastrous and industrialized war between the states years or decades later. Something more similar to WW1 in Europe with machine guns, trench warfare, poison gas and millions dead instead of hundreds of thousands. Or do you think a border between a white supremacist slave empire and a multi-ethnic democracy could have remained permanently peaceful?

      The civil war was a monstrous and devastating war. But it is hard to imagine how letting the Confederacy take root and expand unobstructed across the region would have led to any less bloody eventual outcome. To say nothing of the fates of the millions of slaves.

      My black friends would most likely say that the sin was not fighting the Confederacy in the first place. The sin was not defeating it more completely.

  5. Also, Howard, while I can imagine a post-secession USA (the North) that would have been committed to ending slavery while at the same time seeking peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy, by 1861 there simply was not a constituency for such an approach. By then, most of the abolitionists were ready to go to war (the opposition to war in the North came almost exclusively from those who were supportive of the Confederacy and were fine with slavery in the South).

    1. Thanks for the additional remarks, Ted. This summary is particularly helpful:

      “My main interest in the Civil War is in how it has been misremembered and valorized with the effect, among other things, of making it much easier to justify later wars and preparation for war. I also think people have not and do not take nearly seriously enough the devastating costs of that war.”

      I also appreciate the further-down comment that the US North, by 1861, was at least emotionally prepared/committed to war for the cause of Abolition. It was perhaps akin to the dilemma Bonhoeffer (and others, similarly) faced with Hitler: Justifying (or not) killing — maybe just Hitler himself in that case… historically I’m not very up on that — in order to potentially save many others (or liberate them).

      The ability of people “in power” or holding vital financial positions of power to create and/or justify reasons to go to war is amazing! I think your point can be extended to say that we’ve had a continuous chain of such “justifications” from before the Civil War to the present.

      And we shouldn’t forget that the most horrendous and blatant (i.e., quite clear to any curious, open person) recent case of very violent concoction of a “reason” for war and expanding the military-industrial-“intelligence” complex is 9-11. For anyone not yet familiar with the extensive, highly scientific (not “conspiracy theory”-oriented) work of the Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth, they should go to their site for a massive amount of evidence, in detail, and numerous legal and other angles to still call people to account:

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