The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

Anderson tells of various efforts by black Americans to improve their prospects, often with support of important segments of the broader American political culture. But, time after time and with unrelenting commitment, the forces arising from the toxic sludge resisted those advances with a great deal of success, in general turning back the efforts toward justice. It is a grim story, extraordinarily depressing. The power of Anderson’s account, I think, is enhanced by her matter of fact tone. She simply tells the stories without a lot of editorializing. The writing is clear and compact; the main body of the book covers only 178 pages (with a lengthy section of endnotes). So, the account is accessible and to the point.

My problem with the book’s title is that the book does not really focus on white rage so much as the implacable kind of matter-of-fact opposition of many white people to efforts to improve the lives of those whose vulnerability and destitution were a consequence of the legacy of their ancestors’ enslavement. In the background as well is the failure of the political system to sustain the changes that advocates for liberty and justice for all have from time to time achieved. It’s as if the current against justice has been constant and relentless. At times the current is effectively resisted, but the overview that Anderson provides makes it clear that that resistance has only been sporadic, narrowly focused, and in time relatively easily (to a large degree) overcome.

Reconstruction

Following the Civil War, the first major steps to counter the devastating oppression of slavery finally came—after over two centuries of extraordinary violence. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address spoke of the war as God’s just retribution for the 250 years of “unrequited toil.” We’ll never know how Lincoln would have overseen efforts at just recompense for that immeasurable injustice. His political colleagues did take some important steps in the process known as Reconstruction: three constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, provided citizenship for the formerly enslaved, and provided them (the males, that is) with the right to vote. Other national legislation also followed as did the establishment of an agency, known as the Freedman’s Bureau, to oversee possible land acquisition and education.

As Anderson summarizes, this recompense “would require not just the end of slavery but also the recognition of full citizenship for African Americans, the right to vote, an economic basis to ensure freedom, and high-quality schools to break the generational chains of enforced ignorance and subjugation” (p.7). When measured against the unfathomable injustices visited upon the millions of enslaved that played such a key role in the economic enrichment of many in the South, such initiatives seem quite minimal.

However, as Anderson sketches in her first chapter, even these minimal efforts to enable the formerly enslaved and their descendants the genuine opportunity to flourish were decisively and violently repudiated in the decades following the Civil War. From our vantage point today, it seems shocking to learn just how ineffective even the constitutional amendments were in creating the conditions for healing and justice. Formal chattel slavery was abolished and did not return in widespread ways, but slave-like conditions remained, and in some senses, worsened.

Lincoln’s presidential successor Andrew Johnson, an unrepentant white supremacist and former slaveholder, tried to create a “presidential reconstruction.” This first governmental response let those Southern whites who had rebelled and initiated a devastating war return to power and pass “black laws” that sought to keep the formerly enslaved impoverished and powerless. Because Congress was out of session for about half a year after Lincoln’s death, Johnson was pretty successful. However, once Congress returned, Republican leaders such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner successfully defeated Johnson’s initiatives and set in place a genuine reconstruction process that did bring some positive changes.

However, rather than find a way to work together with the federal government, the political elite in the South, with the support of many ex-Confederate rank and file soldiers and others of like mind, fought viciously to resist the efforts to integrate the formerly enslaved as full participants in southern society. In just a few years, most of the initiatives were turned back, to the point that by the end of the 19th century virtually no black southerners were allowed to vote. The US Supreme Court took every opportunity to turn back efforts to empower the formerly enslaved and their descendants. A kind of neo-slavery was established characterized by Jim Crow segregation and constant violence, including widespread lynching executed with impunity.

Anderson concludes, “So, while the United States may have won the Civil War, and blacks may have tasted freedom, the white opposition that ruled from the White House and the Supreme Court all the way down through every statehouse in the South meant that real change was infinitesimal at best. To quote one historian…: ‘The slave law of the South may have been dead, but it ruled us from the grave’” (pp. 37-38).

The “Great Migration”

For blacks, life in the South continued to be deeply oppressive. Historian Rayford Logan, in his history of these years, The Betrayal of the Negro, even suggested that in the early years of the 20th century, black life in the United States was at its nadir—that is, even worse than the slavery years. A break in the downward spiral of oppression finally occurred about a half century after the end of the Civil War. In desperation, hundreds of thousands of Black southerners braved “a series of traps, sinkholes, and barriers both legal and extralegal” (Anderson, p. 41) that had arisen to keep the exploited workers trapped in the former Confederacy and moved north.

A labor shortage during World War I provided the opportunity. Orders from Europe for manufactured goods had skyrocketed at the same time that the numbers of immigrants from outside North America dropped sharply. It was difficult, but so many blacks moved North in 1917-8 that the southern power elite feared that their entire social structure was being threatened, dependent as it was on cheap labor and the benefits for the elite of having a despised class of people making up the “base” of the economic pyramid (p. 46).

One response was to criminalize the work of labor agents from the North who recruited workers and helped them migrate. What emerged, Anderson writes, was “a barely contained fury at the dawning realization that blacks believed they could leave the South … for decent wages, functioning schools, and more freedom” (p. 48). A black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, played a major role in encouraging the migration—and was banned throughout the South (much like abolitionist literature in the several decades before the Civil War). Many of those who sought to migrate were actually arrested and forced to stay.

Tragically, those who did make it to the North often faced harsh conditions. “African Americans who went to the North simply stepped into a new articulation of the seething, corrosive hatred underlying so much of the nation’s social compact. Beginning in 1917 and going into the 1920s, so-called race riots, which were essentially lynchings on a grander scale, erupted in East St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, DC, and numerous other cities” (p. 54). Surely, for some of the migrants, life in the North proved to be a marked improvement, but overall the United States remained starkly inhospitable for the descendants of the slaves.

An ambiguous “victory” with the Supreme Court

At the beginning of the 20th century, some wealthy white liberals and black allies joined together to create an organization—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—that devoted itself to countering the deeply oppressive dynamics of Jim Crow America. In time, the NAACP focused on bringing legal challenges to the racist system, especially in education. The need for this may be seen in how in the 1940s in the Deep South more than half of all black adults had fewer than five years of formal education (p. 71).

The efforts met with success in time, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled that the “separate but equal” system of public education that provided for deeply segregated schools had to change. The decision finally confirmed legally the reality that a system that so disenfranchised black people in the South was anything but equal—and hence needed to change. Anderson summarizes: “At that moment, it appeared that citizenship—true citizenship—might finally be at hand for African Americans. It was ‘the greatest victory for the Negro people since the Emancipation Proclamation,’ wrote the New York Amsterdam News. Robert Jackson, a black professor in Virginia, exclaimed that ‘a heavy burden has been lifted from black students’ shoulders. They see a new world opening up for them and those that follow” (p. 75).

However, as Anderson goes on to describe, the hopes that Brown would transform the fortunes of black people in the South were mostly unfulfilled. “To [white] Southern leaders who had already been readying their political arsenal [in anticipation of such a Supreme Court ruling], the decision in Brown was but a declaration of war” (p. 75). Time would make clear that from the time of the Brown decision on, “the respected elements in white society—governors, legislators, US senators, congressmen, and even, more tepidly, the president of the US—condoned complete defiance of and contempt for the Supreme Court and the constitutional provision that its decisions are the law of the land” (pp. 75-76).

Immediately following the Brown decision, numerous southern states made voting even more difficult for blacks. Direct resistance to equalizing educational opportunity took the form of new laws that southern states expected eventually to be stricken down by the courts, with the expectation that those legal processes would take a long time and in the meantime segregation could continue. “Those extended legal battles allowed year after year to drizzle by while the continued existence of separate and decidedly unequal schools consigned black children to some of the worst education that America had to offer” (p. 80).

Anderson uses the example of Prince Edward County, Virginia, to show how the dynamics of resisting equalizing educational opportunities down into the 1970s had a devastating effect that ripples down to the present. The emergence of the US “knowledge-based economy” severely disadvantaged young people whose inferior schools left them unprepared from the changes. “An entire generation of black children … was now forced to face this cold, hard new economy with neither the necessary education nor work skills.” As she points out, such effects inflicted severe harm on the American economy as a whole due to millions of its young people being ill-prepared, leaving “the US lagging far behind other developed countries” (pp. 86-7).

When the US federal government decided to greatly increase the nation’s investments in education following the shock of Soviet scientific advancements, powerful southern Senators insured that the on-going de facto segregated educational system would not change, and few funds would go to black students. As a result, Anderson points out, by 2004, fifty years after the Brown decision, “of the 2,100 Ph.D.s awarded in 43 different fields in the natural sciences, not one of these doctoral degrees went to an African American” (pp. 94-5).

Civil Rights and the New Jim Crow

Various factors, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision, coalesced in the mid-1950s to fuel a broad based social movement for civil rights that made tremendous advances, culminating legislatively in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that promised finally to operationalize many of the assurances for full citizenship promised by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution following the Civil War. Some genuine progress was made with a lessening of inequality, growth in economic opportunity, and an expansion in educational opportunities.

However, as Anderson states, “just as with Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and the Brown decision, this latest round of African American advances set the gears of white opposition in motion. Once again, the United States moved from the threshold of democracy to the betrayal of it” (p. 99). The most obvious and devastating development that seems directly related to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement has been the enormous expansion of the imprisonment of black Americans, what has recently come to be known as “the new Jim Crow.”

Anderson cites two key moves made by the Nixon administration around 1970 with backing from the Supreme Court that greatly limited the potential impact of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. The first was to redefine what civil rights had to do with. They were not to reverse centuries of oppression and brutality with genuinely transformative opportunities but more to focus mainly on symbolic but relatively inconsequential changes such as integrating public facilities and taking away reminders of Jim Crow practices such as removing “Colored Only” signs (p. 99).

The second move was to “redefine racism itself.” The damning images of KKK rallies became “the sole definition of racism…. The whittling down of racism to sheet-wearing goons allowed a cloud of racial innocence to cover many whites who, although ‘resentful of black progress’ and determined to ensure that racial inequality remained untouched, could see and project themselves as the ‘kind of upstanding white citizens’ who were ‘positively outraged at the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan.’ The focus on the Klan also helped to designate racism as an individual aberration rather than something systemic, institutional, and pervasive” (p. 100).

The policies of the Nixon/Ford administration (1969-77) and the decisions of Nixon-appointed Supreme Court justices profoundly slowed the momentum of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. Then the Reagan administration actually implemented changes that in key ways turned the clock back to pre-Civil Rights Movement days with devastating impact. For example, by the mid-1980s the overall black unemployment rate was higher than since the Great Depression and the black youth unemployment rate reached nearly 50% (p. 121).

Most hurtfully, beginning with Nixon and then greatly expanding with Reagan and also Bill Clinton, the “war on drugs” focused on imprisoning black men. Supreme Court decisions “beginning in 1968 but escalating dramatically in the Burger and Rehnquist eras [1970s, 1980s, 1990s], legalized racial discrimination in the criminal justice system” (pp. 132-3). The numbers bear this out. “According to [a] Human Rights Watch [report early in the 21st century], the proportion of blacks in prison populations exceeds the proportion among state residents in every single state. In Missouri, for example, African Americans make up 11.2% of the state’s residents but 41.2% of those incarcerated. In fact, ‘in 20 states, the percentage of blacks incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population’” (pp. 136-7).

These disproportionate rates of incarceration are not due to greater proportional use of drugs among black people. In fact, Anderson asserts, research indicates that blacks “are among the least likely drug users of all racial and ethnic groups in the US” and also “among the least likely to sell drugs” (p. 137). In the generation from the early 1970s to the early 2010s, the overall rate of imprisonment in the US grew from around 100 per 100,000 to over 700 per 100,000. This sevenfold increase included a disproportionate number of black people. Probably no factor has crushed the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement as much as mass incarceration, appropriately labeled “the new Jim Crow” (see especially Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow).

Turning back Obama

The subtlety of the pushback against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement under the guise of “colorblindness” combined with the visibility of successful black people helped sustain an illusion of racial progress in the US. So, the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 seemed to many an indication that the US “seemed to be crossing the racial Rubicon” (p. 138). The years that followed, however, mainly saw a repeat of the pattern Anderson traces in her book where movement toward social justice was followed by strong reactions.

The victory by Obama meant a loss of power for conservatives. A key factor for Obama was that the voter turnout rate of blacks was nearly as high as that of whites. In response, new strategies for reducing that rate emerged. A key one was creating new legislation focusing on voter IDs in states such as Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. “These laws require particular types of identification that—properly and mercilessly applied—make it difficult for African Americans and others to vote” (pp. 140-1).

As had happened in most of the other “rollbacks” of progress for black Americans that Anderson describes, once again the US Supreme Court weighed in to make things worse. In this case, it was the 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of the majority of the justices treating “the rationale for the Voting Rights Act as now obsolete” (p. 148), immediate changes happened. Nine states quickly passed voter suppression laws. Within a year, 13 more states followed suite.

Republican leaders vowed to undercut Obama’s presidency as much as possible. They worked hard to gum up the work of Congress and blamed Obama for the problems. “The vitriol heaped on Obama was simply unprecedented” (p. 155). Even so, with a brief window of Democratic majorities in both houses, Obama managed to guide legislation that helped recovery from the 2008 stock market crisis and that provided healthcare for millions of vulnerable Americans. Anderson argues, “Obama’s centrist solutions and utter lack of radicalism in the face of a recalcitrant and obstructionist Congress should have made him a hero to traditional Republicans. But just the opposite happened; by the end of his first term, the president had an 85.7% disapproval rating among the GOP” (pp. 155-6).

Anderson suggests that Obama’s election as a black man did not turn out to signify progress. “Instead, it led to a situation, not so unlike the era of Jim Crow, where a sense of physical vulnerability is shared across classes in the black community” (p. 158). She continues, “black respectability or ‘appropriate’ behavior doesn’t seem to matter. If anything, black achievement, black aspirations, and black success are construed as direct threats. Obama’s presidency made that clear. Aspirations and the achievement of those aspirations provide no protection” (p. 159).

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump did little to attract black votes. Rather, the voter suppression efforts paid dividends as Trump narrowly prevailed in various Republican-led states that had passed legislation to make voting more difficult.

Conclusion

There is something about the US that seems to make the nation impervious to genuine and sustained progress toward equality. I wonder if the intransigent support for Trump in some ways reflects that imperviousness. The various, consistent, and devastating hostilities toward such progress might mainly reflect a reality of incredibly deep-seated and seemingly unchangeable white supremacy. I am inclined to call this hostility “the toxic sludge in America’s soul.”

Anderson does not directly address this, but I am left with the question of what can be done. What might it mean if indeed our society does contain this deep-seated toxic sludge? What must we do to dissipate the sludge? I want to think more about this question in the days to come.

More posts on the Civil War and its legacy

2 thoughts on “The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

  1. As always, Ted, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and analysis. Your writing both in this post and your previous post, Interim reflections on the 2020 election [American politics #7], strikes me as very dark, and much darker than I feel your writing usually is. I agree that the problem of racism in America is indeed a dark subject.

    A frustrating aspect of what you call the toxic sludge is the failure of many white folks, who long have benefited from white privilege, to acknowledge that whatever their own hard work to get to where they are, they had a tremendous leg up on people of color simply by being born white. Basically, 400+ years and 20+ generations of a white head start, as you have outlined from Carol Anderson’s book.

    I suspect that many Trump voters were able to rationalize overlooking his character flaws and to justify holding their nose to support Trump because of one or more particular issues: abortion, Clinton-hatred, conservative Supreme Court justices, lower taxes, 2nd Amendment gun rights, always vote Republican, the economy pre-Covid, supporting police. I also suspect that many other Trump voters genuinely believe that Trump has improved black lives and employment, created peace in the Middle East, appreciate his strongman image and behavior, and believe what they hear from Fox News. I suspect that many white Americans feel left behind, and their resulting anger and frustration only increases if they believe they won’t have people of color to feel superior to.

    I don’t know the answer to ridding America of this toxic sludge. The Courts seem poised to roll back the progress made over the last several years, including gay marriage and Obamacare. What will white privileged folks have to give up to allow people of color an equal opportunity to education and wealth? Will white folks be willing to make those sacrifices?

    Kurt

    1. Thanks, Kurt. I may feel a little less dark today! The main (small) thing I can imagine with ridding us of the toxic sludge is simply greater awareness of its existence. That’s why Anderson’s book seems so helpful.

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