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.