Wednesday, May 9, 2018

three books on race in America

For all of the discussion about race, it is rarely informed by novel ideas, knowledge of the intricacies of the historical research, or careful analysis. I recently read three books on the topic that have much to offer those who are trying to understand race in America—past, present and future.

Slavery by Another Name

Douglas Blackmon's 2008 book starts with the story of an African-American man, Green Cottenham, who is charged with "vagrancy" and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor in 1908. Unable to pay the fines, the sentence was extended to nearly a year (1). This anecdote is one among many—where there was trade between governments and industry, farms, and coal mines. Chain gangs are the most well-known aspects of this time period. But as Blackmon notes, the pop culture references—e.g., the movie Cool Hand Luke—usually portray an overstated racial diversity (372).

They were "slaves in all but name" (2)—a reality for more than 100,000 men and perhaps twice that number (7). "It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South...But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion." (4)

Why is this not well-known? Of course, this pales in comparison to pre-Civil War slavery. Beyond that: "Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction." (9) Blackmon hopes to remedy this historical oversight. (He has two WSJ articles on the general topic: in 2001 directly from the book and then applying the same material to Atlanta in 2008.)

Blackmon also argues that the history is quashed because it violates a key American myth we use “to explain our past and to embroider our present. At the same time, it grieves and shames the descendants of victims. They recoil from the implication that emancipated black Americans could not exercise freedom, and [often] remained under the cruel thumb of white America, despite the explicit guarantees of the Constitution...and the moral resolve of the Civil War." (384)

In particular, Blackmon focuses on key players and largely-fruitless efforts by the federal government to end "peonage" in Alabama in the first decade of the 20th century. (See: Robert Franklin in Montgomery [156]; Warren Reese's investigation from 1903 [239] through 1906 when he ended "his quixotic war on slavery" [277].) In 1905, SCOTUS overturned Judge Speer's ruling vs. Georgia.

The SCOTUS wording was so forceful and detailed that "The implication was clear. There would be no risk of another energetic U.S. attorney arresting white farmers for peonage so long as they, and local judges, were sufficiently hygienic in the records they maintained." (355-356) Likewise, state government made apparent efforts at reform (351), but those were largely ineffective or an evolving sham (352)."Instead of ending the new regimes of...became guideposts for a reorganization of the contemporary traffic in black men." (284-285)

Presidents weren’t much help. One perpetrator, John Pace, was pardoned by Teddy Roosevelt. Blackmon is appropriately rough on President Wilson—“an openly white supremacist...[who] precipitated a dramatic expansion of Jim Crow restrictions" (357). As a result, "another half-century would pass before the civil rights movement could crack the anti-black legal regime consolidated during Wilson's tenure." (358)

Blackmon also details the role of Darwinism, evolution, and race (similar to what I've read elsewhere). He contrasts the science of the day with earlier Christian efforts to promote "the essential humanity" and dignity of slaves (235-236). He cites the exhibits on primitive people in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—"a scientific temple to the inevitability of white dominion over nonwhite races" (240). He also describes the 1904's St. Louis World Fair and the display of African pygmies. Included among those was the brutal story of Ota Benga; the promotion of eugenics; and the Carnegie Institution's "Station for Experimental Evolution" / "Eugenics Records Office". (I've written about Indiana's leading role in American eugenics; reviewed Bergman's book on eugenics, economics and political economy—and Thomas Leonard on eugenics, economics and the "Progressive Era".) In a word, the new science encouraged people to form "crude explanations for why blacks should be returned to a 'mild form of slavery'." (239)

So, things worsened again for a time. But science eventually became an ally to racial equality. And the market tried to remedy matters to some extent—the way it often goes when there’s a lot of money on the line. For example, Blackmon cites B. Mifflin Hood who advertised "non-convict bricks". But such racist practices were not eliminated until World War II (380-382).  "It was a strange irony that after 74 years of hollow emancipation, the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude was precipitated only in response to the horrors perpetrated by an enemy country against its own despised minorities." (382)

Bind Us Apart

Nicholas Guyatt’s 2016 book details the strategies for trying to solve the anticipated problems with the end of (formal) American slavery: 1.) intermarriage (“amalgamation”) and acculturation; and 2.) various forms of separation—segregation (nearby), "colonization" (usually further to the West), and repatriation (to other countries). In a word, should African-Americans be removed from or absorbed into a multi-cultural society?

Efforts at "civilization" were ineffective. Intermarriage was mostly squashed. So, the most common approaches were some form of keeping "them" away from "us": segregation near us but not alongside us; colonization in our territory away from us; and repatriation in a country far away from us.

All of these were ideas promoted by people who were relatively liberal. Guyatt argues that they were aiming at a true and earnest version of "separate but equal" (10-11)—even if we would find their methods troubling today. He argues that most people understood the tension in the American experiment—between the lofty rhetoric of equality and the realities of slavery and post-slavery struggles. But only a few took action: "This is the story of how 'liberal' whites—men and women who thought themselves enlightened and benevolent—struggle to realize this multiracial society in the formative decades of the United States." (9)

On one hand, Guyatt is not all that impressed by the modest impact of their efforts. On the other hand, he notes that they faced a far more difficult task than, say, William Wilberforce in England. America had so many more non-whites—and they were in America; in England, there were fewer and most of them were in English colonies (8-9). Europe had more experience with cultural experimentation, but the implications were minimal since there was little potential for radical change in English society.

On intermarriage and "amalgamation", Guyatt notes that Patrick Henry proposed a law to subsidize inter-racial marriage with half of an average year's wage! (Olasky covers other examples in his review of the book.) In chapter 7, Guyatt focuses on the fascinating character of Richard Mentor Johnson—a man who claimed to kill Tecumseh but emerged as an unlikely candidate to become "the practical amalgamator". 

Still, Johnson’s experience was the exception; intermarriage was a topic of theory (117) far more than practice (118-120). (I was surprised to learn that Native-Americans married and enslaved some blacks [133-134].) Moreover, the legality of inter-racial sexual relations was "messy and inconsistent" (120). Eventually, the whole question was marginalized since it was practically difficult—in social terms, but also how it played out in extended kin networks (139). 

The intermarriage approach to culture and assimilation is similar to strategy of the Assyrian Empire as depicted in the Old Testament. Assyria sacked Samaria and northern Israel, intermarrying to water down Israelite distinctives, resulting in the mixed-race Samaritans at the time of Jesus. In contrast, Babylon pursued a "separation" approach, living together but keeping family and culture separate—represented by Nebuchadnezzar's treatment of Daniel and his three friends. Babylon didn't worry as much about ethnicity, but focused on harnessing excellence—no matter where it came from in their kingdom.

In the U.S., colonization was a more palatable strategy for whites (chapters 8 and 10). It was easier to do, at least in theory—and it could hide various racist views under the guise of wanting the best for blacks. That said, blacks often led the charge for repatriation—from the United Kingdom to Sierra Leone in 1786-1787 (202-205); from France to Cayenne/French Guiana (207-210); and from America to Liberia (210ff, 313; ch. 10).

Since Native Americans faced similar strategies from the government, Guyatt describes their treatment as well—particularly in chapters 9 and 11—as “recolonization” was aggressively employed against them. (See also: Amy Sturgis' article in Reason about the government screwed the Osage Indians to get access to their oil-rick lands in the 1920s.)

Two other particularly interesting characters with respect to the Native Americans (p. #'s in parentheses; the link will take you to their Wikipedia page): Benjamin Hawkins (90-94) and the 9th President of the U.S., William Henry Harrison (94-108)

Reckoning with Race

In his 2017 book, Gene Dattel argues that the key for blacks is the "entrance of most black Americans into the economic mainstream". To promote this entrance, he forcefully advocates cultural assimilation vs. separation. 

Part 1 of the book covers the pre-Civil War North. Part 2 underlines the modest impact of Reconstruction. Part 3 details the time period from WWI to the 1960s with a focus on the labor economics of the Great Migration north. Part 4 describes the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement. And in Part 5, he talks about “the enduring dilemma" and how the struggles are playing out today.

One of Dattel’s goals is to address an important myth. As he details throughout Part 1, racism was not a South-only problem; it was a national scourge. Under-rating the North’s struggle with racism is convenient to a naïve North/South moral dichotomy. But it also leads one to underestimate the prevalence of post-Civil-War racism in both the North and the South. In Part 2, Dattel blames the failure of Reconstruction on the South and the North, arguing that it couldn't possibly be successful with the North's attitudes toward race and its limited efforts to monitor the effort (42-45, 51-53). In Part 4, he returns to this theme, describing the North's struggle with integration (174ff) and inner city violence and rioting (197). Later, he notes the irony that all civil rights museums are in the South (261).

In Part 5, Dattel turns to contemporary times and the implications of flawed approaches to these concepts. He details the misapplication of the Marshall Plan as an analogy to the War on Poverty (218-220). He talks about the problems with government's K-12 schools (230-244, 249-250). He describes the inherent problems with "reverse racism" (244-248)—e.g., through Affirmative Action in colleges (250-257). He criticizes the recent attacks on memorials as wrong-headed (258ff). (Included in this, he notes some nasty things that Gandhi said—words that should eliminate him from the modern liberal pantheon [259].) He discusses "Black Lives Matter" and the police (270-281).

In particular, Datell is rightly concerned about increased crime, the decline of the African-American family, and the woeful implications of these trends (xii). The far-larger issues are connected to class—which then overlap with disproportionate impact on race. To note, if you don't deal with family structure/stability and the subsequent problems with K-12 education, how can there be improvement?

Dattel seems most troubled by what he sees as a contemporary proclivity in the African-American community and its leaders to mostly avoid "individual and group self-examination" (xv). He cites the failures of black political leadership—although he notes that success/failure here would not likely be a primary cause anyway (282-286). It's often easier to promote facile solutions and blame others. (See also: the unwarranted liberal optimism about government and pessimism about society, as illustrated in the Kerner Report.) 

Dattel cites the famous and remarkable Jesse Jackson comments from the mid-1990s, where he implicitly takes responsibility for dysfunction in the African-American community (215): "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then (I) look around and see someone white and feel relieved....This killing is not based upon poverty; it is based upon greed and violence and guns..." Similarly, Dattel tells the anecdote of Mike Wallace’s interview with Morgan Freeman on 60 Minutes, where he insists on being seen and described as a man, rather than as a black man (290-293). Implicit in this view is a passion to take responsibility for one's choices, rather than to play off unfortunate outcomes as the fault of someone else or the color of one’s skin.

At the end of the day, personal responsibility—by leaders and citizens—and assimilation into the economic mainstream through education hold out the best long-term hope for economic progress and social harmony.


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